The Victorian Plant Hunters and Penrhyn Castle

The Bog Garden at Penrhyn Castle, North Wales

Do you know how so many exotic and amazing plants found their way into the gardens at Penrhyn Castle? Learn more about the brave souls who travelled the world in search of new species to satisfy the Victorian garden enthusiasts.

The gardens at Penrhyn Castle still provide visitors today with as much enjoyment as they did during the Victorian era when Walter Speed was Head Gardener.  During his long career, he was regarded as one of the top three gardeners in the whole of Britain.  It was his creativeness that allowed for many newly discovered varieties to be planted and trialled in the gardens here, making them the envy of many during that period.

Where did the 'new' discoveries come from?

Today we have a team of gardeners who work tirelessly to maintain and care for the collection on a daily basis throughout the year. However, some of these plants would never have been discovered had it not been for the intrepid men and women who travelled to unknown places in search of new and interesting varieties.

 It was during the 1800’s that one of the original plant hunters, William Lobb and his brother Thomas,  travelled the world in search of new and desirable plants to boost the catalogues of ‘Veith’s Nursery’ based in Devon and London.  The nursery was one of the most significant commercial growers of that time.   

Stunning colour and varieties

It was William that discovered the Crinodendron hookerianum, a wonderfully large shrub that can grow to around 8 metres in height.  It is easy to identify with its elegant cherry-coloured lanterns that bloom from late spring into summer.  A native plant to Chile, it was originally recommended as a ‘beautiful greenhouse shrub’ but it thrives in the shelter of the Walled Garden here at Penrhyn.  It is also one of the plants that has become quite a hit with photographers in the garden!

Crinodendron hookerianum in all its glory in the Walled Garden at Penrhyn Castle
A vibrant red bloom on the Crinodendron hookerianum at Penrhyn Castle
Crinodendron hookerianum in all its glory in the Walled Garden at Penrhyn Castle

We can also thank William for the widespread cultivation of two iconic conifers, the Monkey Puzzle and the Giant Redwood, both of which can be found here at Penrhyn. 

He collected 3000 seeds of the Monkey Puzzle tree by shooting cones from the branches and then collecting them.  A very productive but slightly dangerous way to achieve his aim, it provided him with more than enough seeds to ensure that it became a fashionable status symbol for wealthy Victorians.

John Gould Veitch was another very well regarded plant hunter during this era and was one of the first to visit Japan.  The family name is still honoured today by hundreds of plant names, including  the Sasa veitchii, a rather invasive bamboo that can be spotted growing next to the Bog Garden.

Walking into the Walled garden via the decorative gate, you can spot a tall palm tree growing just in front of you that takes its name from that given originally by the early New Zealand settlers.   Sir Joseph Banks first collected a specimen in 1769 when he was a naturalist on board the Endeavour during Captain James Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific.  The Cabbage Tree can grow up to 20 metres in height and was a source of food for the native Maori people.  Its fibres were also used for textiles, ropes, fishing lines and even early waterproof clothing, a fantastic find for the people during that time.  Today in the UK the cabbage tree is also known as the Torbay Palm.

Banks himself went on to become the President of the Royal Society for 41 years and as an advisor to the King on the development of the Royal Botanic Gardens, he sent botanists around the world to ensure that Kew became the leading botanical garden in the world at that time.

Top Terrace of the Walled Garden, Summer 2017
A view of the top terrace of the Walled Garden at Penrhyn Castle
Top Terrace of the Walled Garden, Summer 2017

There are several examples of weird and wonderful plants at Penrhyn that continue to delight visitors and the garden team who care for them.  Each visit to this special place enables us to make sure that these fantastic plants and shrubs brought back all those years ago are looked after for visitors to enjoy for years to come.

Visit the gardens at Penrhyn Castle, open every day 10.30 to 5pm until 5 November and 11am to 3pm from 6 November until 31 December (excludes Christmas day)