Skip to content

Plant collectors and historic gardens

Written by
Image of Pam Smith
Pam SmithSenior National Consultant for Gardens and Parklands, National Trust
The south front and formal garden at Mount Stewart, County Down in Northern Ireland.
The south front and formal garden at Mount Stewart, County Down | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Many of the gardens cared for by the National Trust have historical connections with Victorian plant collectors. Learn more about their impact on UK plant species, the importance of responsible collecting and discover some of the gardens they shaped.

A worldwide garden

The UK’s gardens and parklands are created by the conservation and cultivation of thousands of plants which originate from across the world. Today, over 75 per cent of the plants in our gardens are not native to this country.

The UK plant palette of just some 1,500 plants has been expanded by the collection and introduction of some of the 391,000 plant species currently known to science. In addition, it is estimated there are over 420,000 cultivated plants with an additional 4,000 being brought to market each year.

This vast range of plants has influenced over 400 years of garden design history, evident in the gardens we care for. The cultivation and display of plants from different countries and climates has prompted innovation in glasshouses and garden building design and the continued increase in horticultural skills. In the UK the amazing plant world continues to shape gardens and our love of gardening.

A story of collecting

Many of the places we care for have historical connections with men and women passionate about plant collecting, cultivation and display. Some as patrons and investors, others as collectors, researchers and plant breeders.

The European plant collectors were highly skilled botanists whose work contributed greatly to our knowledge of plant diversity and provided many plants that were at the heart of plant breeding in the UK.

However, many plants were collected during the colonial period for commercial gain and to support the expansion of the British Empire. These plants had no traceable permission from or compensation to the countries of origin and their communities.

Gardener's cottage in the upper garden, surrounded by summer planting at Quarry Bank Mill, Cheshire
Gardener's cottage in the upper garden at Quarry Bank Mill, Cheshire | © National Trust Images/Derek Hatton

Working with a worldwide habitat

Through history gardeners and scientists have introduced plants to the UK, that have been able to adapt and flourish in our climate beyond our garden boundaries, competing with our native flora.

Over 60 per cent of invasive plants in the UK have escaped from our gardens. Perhaps one of the best known is Japanese Knotweed, originally introduced as a garden plant in Victorian times.

Plant collecting has also had an impact on the habitats of host countries where over collecting and damage to neighbouring plants has caused habitat loss and destruction. The practice of plant collecting has not always taken into account the impact on local habitats, people or wildlife. Today, it is very different.

Responsible collecting and fair and equitable trading

Plant collecting continues to enhance the plant collections looked after by the National Trust and strengthen genetic diversity.

As we consider the impacts of climate change on the landscapes and gardens in our care, the availability of plants from climates and growing conditions different to the UK will help inform species selection and future plant breeding. This will enable future generations to enjoy the gardens and parklands in our care.

Plant collecting today is guided by worldwide conservation legislation and licensing. This ensures fair and equitable trading and compensation to host countries for plants, plant products and plant knowledge.

Sharing stories

Through interpretation and communication, the National Trust is committed to fully exploring and sharing the histories of the places we care for. This includes understanding the historical context of gardens and their plants.

Blue agapanthus flowers in the sun in front of Killerton House
The Terrace Garden in summer at Killerton | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

Gardens shaped by Victorian plant collectors

From the giant redwoods at Killerton in Devon, to the plant collections of Mount Stewart in Northern Ireland, these are some of the best examples of gardens in our care, shaped by Victorian plant collectors.

Bodnant Garden, Colwyn Bay
Bodnant Garden was established in 1874 by the scientist and businessman Henry Pochin. He filled the garden with plants collected by famous global explorers, including Ernest Wilson, George Forrest, and Harold Comber. The garden is home to the earliest and grandest laburnum arch, Britain’s earliest magnolias and to some unique rhododendron hybrids.Learn more about Bodnant Garden
Gibside, Tyne & Wear
Mary Eleanor Bowes collected plant species from all over the world. The Orangery at Gibside was built around 1773 and, although now a ruin, once housed Mary Eleanor’s impressive collection of exotic plants, which she amassed in the late 18th century.Learn more about Gibside
Killerton, Devon
In the early 19th century, the nursery at Killerton expanded as owner James Veitch employed plant collectors to gather exotic species from abroad. The sheltered conditions in the garden allowed the growth of camellias, magnolias, rhododendrons, and trees from all continents except Antarctica. Some of the first giant redwoods to be planted in England were brought to Killerton from California in 1853 by William Lobb.Learn more about Killerton
Mount Stewart, County Down
The garden at Mount Stewart reflects the vision of Edith Vane-Tempest-Stewart, Marchioness of Londonderry. During the 1920s she took full advantage of the mild climate of Strangford Lough to experiment with plants from all over the world. She created a garden praised by UNESCO for the ‘extraordinary scope of its plant collections’.Learn more about Mount Stewart
Quarry Bank, Cheshire
The restored glasshouse in Quarry Bank’s Upper Garden includes an exhibition space that helps bring the history of the garden to life. Using archive records, it explores the stories of the Victorian plant collectors who brought back rare and exotic plants from around the world. Visitors can see these on display, just as the original owners, the Gregs and their guests would have done.Learn more about Quarry Bank
Sheringham Park, Norfolk
The landscape and wild garden here have been transformed by plant collectors. The earliest plantings date back to around 1850. For example, seeds of various types of rhododendron were obtained around the turn of the 20th century from the plant collector Ernest Wilson. He also brought the handkerchief tree here.Learn more about Sheringham Park
Trengwainton Garden, Cornwall
When Lt. Col. Edward Bolitho inherited the house and garden at Trengwainton in 1925, he set about transforming the garden with exotic species. He sponsored a plant-collecting expedition to Assam and the Mishmi Hills in Burma in 1927–8. Many of the specimens brought back had never been grown in the UK before. The rhododendrons at Trengwainton were grown from seeds gathered during this expedition.Learn more about Trengwainton Garden

You might also be interested in

Interior of a greenhouse with pelargoniums, succulents and other plants potted on a bench, and other larger houseplants on the floor

A potted history of houseplants 

Wander through our collections and gardens to learn the high-society origins of the ferns, orchids and pelargoniums in your home.

The Water Garden at Lyveden New Bield, Peterborough, Northamptonshire.

What is the picturesque? 

Find out more about the picturesque aesthetic style and how it became a fashionable choice for wealthy estates in the 18th century. Discover more about the people who influenced the movement.

The Palladian Bridge at Stowe, Buckinghamshire, spanning the Octagon Lake which is created to look like a river. The arches of the bridge are reflected in the water with a backdrop of green trees. It is one of only four Palladian Bridges in the world and the only one which allowed a carriage to be driven over.

How has the English landscape garden developed? 

The history of the English landscape garden is infused with political meaning. Learn the history and political stories behind this garden style characterised by structured informality.

Dahlias in bloom in the Dahlia Garden at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire, in September.

The history of dahlias 

Uncover the horticultural history of the dahlia, from its origins in Central America to becoming an inspiration for legendary crime writer Agatha Christie.

Multi-coloured tulips in the garden at Ormesby Hall

The history of tulips 

Tulips have been a popular flower for centuries. Find out where they came from, how they inspired the 'tulipmania' craze and learn about the different varieties you can still spot today.