How Victorian plant hunters shaped our gardens

Many of our place were transformed by plant hunters. These men and women travelled the world bringing back the beautiful plants that continue to make our gardens special to this day. Here are some of the best examples.

A close up white rhododendron at Bodnant Garden, Conwy

Bodnant Garden, Colwyn Bay 

Bodnant Garden was forged by the Victorian vision of one extraordinary man. It was established in 1874 by scientist, businessman and politician Henry Pochin. He and his family filled the garden with plants collected by famous global explorers, including Ernest Wilson, George Forrest and Harold Comber. It is home to the earliest and grandest laburnum arch, Britain’s earliest magnolias and to some unique rhododendron hybrids. It is also boasts Wales’ largest collection of UK Champion Trees.

Flowers in the Walled 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 magnificent collection of exotic plants, which she amassed in the late 18th century.

The garden terrace at Killerton in the summer

Killerton, Devon 

In the early 19th century the nursery at Killerton expanded as owner James Veitch began employing plant hunters to bring back exotic plants 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.

A view of the Italian Garden at Mount Stewart

Mount Stewart, County Down 

The garden at Mount Stewart reflects the art and vision of Edith Vane-Tempest-Stewart, Marchioness of Londonderry, who was an influential society hostess and garden enthusiast. During the 1920s she took full advantage of the mild climate of Strangford Lough to experiment with plants from all over the world to create a garden praised by UNESCO for the 'extraordinary scope of its plant collections and the originality of its features, which give it world-class status'.

Early photograph of the 1830s glasshouse at Quarry Bank

Quarry Bank, Cheshire  

The recently restored glasshouse in Quarry Banks Upper Garden opens in March 2017 and will include an exhibition space that will help bring the history of Quarry Bank’s garden to life. Using archive records it will explore the stories of the Victorian plant hunters who brought back rare and exotic plants from around the world. Visitors will be able to see them on display, just as the Gregs and their guests would have done.

Rhododendrons in flower at Sheringham Park

Sheringham Park, Norfolk 

The landscape and wild garden here has been transformed by plant hunters. The earliest plantings date back to around 1850. ‘Behind many of the plants are stories of intrepid and adventurous plant hunters who brought them back to our shores from distant lands,’ says Head Gardener, Graham Brennan. For example, seeds of various types of rhododendron were obtained around the turn of the 20th century from the plant collector Ernest ‘Chinese’ Wilson. He also brought the Handkerchief Tree here.

Plants for sale at Trengwainton garden

Trengwainton House, 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-hunting expedition to Assam and the Mishmi Hills in Burma in 1927-8. Many of the specimens brought back from that venture had never been grown in the UK before. The rhododendrons at Trengwainton today were grown from seeds brought back by that expedition.