An expedition to restore historical gardens

Stephen Herrington

Earlier this year, two of the Trust's head gardeners set out on a hunt for exotic plants, hoping to reintroduce lost collections back into UK horticulture.

Stephen Herrington, head gardener at Nymans in West Sussex, is working to restore lost Tasmanian features from the garden. Joining him on the trip was Neil Porteous, who is continuing the tradition of plant exploration at Mount Stewart in County Down. 

Stephen's story

This January I went to Tasmania as part of the biggest plant exploration trip the Trust has ever been part of. It took two years to plan. Once out there, we worked with Hobart Botanic Gardens, giving talks and spending time with their staff out in the field.

It’s exciting going into the unknown. Plant exploration isn’t as dangerous as it was, but it’s not risk-free. On a trip to the Solomon Isles I got the sap of a plant on my hand that gave me third-degree burns – my hand swelled to three times its normal size. It was stressful, but it’s a good story to tell now.

Nymans’ garden was transformed by plant- hunting. Until the 1890s it was a traditional Victorian estate, but the Messels wanted to create a garden to rival others in the area. Leonard Messel sent out plant-hunters including Harold Comber, who was the son of Nymans’ first head gardener. Today Nymans has Chilean, Tasmanian and Chinese collections.

I retraced Comber’s footsteps from his 1930–31 trip. His daughter, Mary Miles-Comber, has gifted us his field book of Tasmanian plants, map and photos, and I’ve been piecing it together. Back then this would have been a tough trip, and Comber could only carry enough water to last him two weeks. It is still challenging terrain – mountainous and barren.

I’m aiming to restore Nymans’ Tasmanian Walk and Rock Garden. By travelling to the locations Comber visited to collect seeds and cuttings, I hope to re-establish Nymans’ 200m-long Tasmanian Walk, which was destroyed in the Great Storm of 1987.

Neil Porteous with colleagues Billy and Seamus
Plant hunters Billy, Neil and Seamus
Neil Porteous with colleagues Billy and Seamus

Neil's story

Mount Stewart is a ‘paradise’ garden, with plants from around the world. Edith, Lady Londonderry, funded many expeditions and grew avant-garde plants like soya beans, lychees and guava. She loved fragrance, and wanted flowers such as lilies that she could make into pot-pourri and essential oils.

I joined Stephen in Tasmania this January.Tasmanian species at Mount Stewart include eucalyptus, Tasmanian sweet sassafras and Tasmanian laurel. Some of the seeds we collected will go to the Trust’s Plant Conservation Centre, where they can then be used in gardens across the Trust.

Seeing plants grow in their natural habitats is key to understanding them. We take lots of notes and photographs on our expeditions, and we record co-ordinates, altitude and which species are growing next to each other. This helps us decide what to grow in the UK and how to care for these species better.

Mount Stewart is a garden that needs to evolve and adapt. The mild microclimate allows us to grow plants here that wouldn’t be possible in most of the UK. Plants come and go quickly as the warm, wet climate means they grow faster than in their natural habitats. You need to keep propagating and adding to the collection to ensure the garden thrives.

The story of Mount Stewart’s garden didn’t just end when Edith died. I’ve found out that the garden had twice as many kinds of plants in 1955 as it did when I joined the Trust in 2011. My plan is to restore the collection to the size and diversity it was in Edith’s time.

A version of this article was first published in the National Trust's spring magazine 2018.


Spring 2020 magazine composite covers image

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