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Victorian characters

The plant hunters

Records of plant hunting date back to 1495BC when Queen Hatshetsup sent botanists out to Somalia to collect incense trees. But the Victorian period was the golden era of plant collecting. There was a desire for exploration and discovery and Victorian plant hunters were botanical adventurers who risked life and limb to bring back exotic plants from around the world.

Many of them died on their travels, but their legacy lives on in the plants that many of us now consider to be part of the quintessential British landscape.

William and Thomas Lobb

Cornish brothers William and Thomas Lobb were two of the most prominent and prolific Victorian plant hunters, working alongside the famous British plant nursery Veitch & Sons.

William introduced many species from North and South America, including famous plants such as the monkey puzzle tree and wellingtonia. Thomas travelled East and collected plants from Indonesia, India and the Philippines.

George Forrest (1873 to 1932)

George Forrest travelled mainly to China, Tibet and Burma. He was responsible for introducing about 600 species of plants, 300 of which were rhododendrons. He also brought back camellias, magnolias, Himalayan poppies and primulas.

Joseph Hooker (1817 to 1911)

Joseph Hooker, William Hooker's son, brought back more than 28 new species of rhododendrons from his expeditions to the Himalaya in 1848 and 1851. The craze for rhododendrons soon swept the UK. Hooker was a close friend of Charles Darwin and eventually became director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Robert Fortune (1812 to 1880)

Robert Fortune began his botanical career at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh. He later became deputy superintendent of the Horticultural Society (later to become the Royal Horticultural Society) at Chiswick. In 1843 he was commissioned by the society to travel to China to collect plants. After travelling extensively through China and Japan, he introduced more than 120 species to English gardens.

Fortune's overseas adventures included investigations into the commercial opportunities in growing tea. Commissioned by the British East India Company, he disguised himself as a Chinese peasant as he smuggled out cuttings of the tea plant Camellia sinensis from China into India. These cuttings enabled India and Ceylon to become established as major growers and exporters of tea.

Plants Robert Fortune introduced include: Trachycarpus fortunei, Dicentra spectabilisMahonia japonica, Jasminum nudiflorum and Skimmia japonica

William Andrew Nesfield (1793 to 1881)

William Nesfield was born in 1793. He graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge and enlisted in the army in 1809, fighting in Spain and Canada. He retired on half pay in 1816 and dedicated himself to painting watercolours between 1823 and 1843.

In the later half of his life, Nesfield's passion changed to landscape gardening.

Drawing upon pre-18th-century garden styles, he gained a reputation for elaborate designs. His style often combined using elaborate parterres with modern plants.

He worked on Regent's Park, St James's Park, The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Grimston Park, Holkham Hall, Broughton Hall and Witley Court.

Sir Joseph Paxton (1803 to 1865)

Paxton was probably the most famous of the Victorian gardeners. The son of a farmer with only a very basic education, Paxton eventually became responsible for the gardens at Chatsworth House owned by the Duke of Devonshire.

Paxton designed the new conservatory at Chatsworth which was built to a distinctive ridge and furrow pattern and later the Crystal Palace in London, for which he was knighted by Queen Victoria. He eventually became a millionaire because of commercial investments, such as selling small greenhouses to amateur gardeners.

John Claudius Loudon (1783 to 1843)

John Loudon was a major influence on gardens and gardening during his lifetime. One of the key gardens he designed - Birmingham Botanic Gardens - became synonymous with the Gardenesque movement.

A prolific writer, it's estimated that Loudon wrote more than 66 million words in his lifetime. In The Gardener's Magazine he enthused and educated the newly prosperous middle classes with gardening tips and advice.

Loudon was a great campaigner and fought hard for better pay and conditions for gardeners. He also came up with the idea for a green belt around cities which he called 'breathing zones'. His efforts transformed middle class gardens around Britain.

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