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James Gordon (c.1708-1780): “a most Knowing and Ingenous" gardener, nursery and seedsman

Trade card of 'James Gordon, Seeds Man', c.1770. Gordon’s shop was located at the Sign of the Thistle & Crown near Philpot Lane, Fenchurch Street in London. Courtesy British Museum


My post this month is about James Gordon (c.1708-1780), a gardener described by Peter Collinson as “a most Knowing and Ingenous Man", who became one of the most celebrated nurserymen and seed merchants in the country. Gordon became famous for his almost "magical" ability to germinate even the most difficult seeds, cultivated new and rare plants by cuttings, and was highly esteemed by his contemporaries for both his practical and botanical knowledge. Gordon specialised in exotics of the day such as camellias and rhododendrons, was frequently mentioned in the correspondence of important horticulturists of the day and in magazines and memoirs of the time.

My interest in Gordon stems from the fact that before he set up his own nursery c.1742, he was Head Gardener to one of my horticultural heroes, Lord Petre of Thorndon Hall in Essex, who created an English-style park containing a magnificent collection of thousands of exotic trees and shrubs, many fresh from the new world. Petre himself was an important figure in the story of the importation of such American plants together with Collinson (1694-1768), a successful Quaker textile merchant who combined his international trade with a passion of plants, and John Bartram (1699-1777), the Pennsylvanian farmer-cum-plant-hunter [see my post The ‘Curious and Noble’ Robert James, 8th Baron Petre of Thorndon Hall (1713-1742)].

Since researching Petre and his amazing gardens at Thorndon Hall, I've wanted to follow-up on Gordon's career after he left Essex and began his own business. But what finally prompted me into actually getting on and doing it, was coming across his trade card (as shown above) which featured in a recent @PlantingDiaries blog [see Note 1]. It's one of the more interesting garden history blogs I regularly read, and I'm grateful to it for highlighting the British Museum's collection of horticultural trade cards, which also includes some of Gordon's bills.

By the way, on Gordon's trade card note the greenhouse and gardening implements on the right, with an ornamental garden with arch on the left.

Draft bill dated November 7th, 1768 for vegetable seeds 'Bought of James Gordon Seed's-Man' ordered by 'The Rt. Hon’ble Lord Winterton' [an English aristocrat and MP]

However, before I begin, I thought it would be useful to include a paragraph or two about the nursery trade at this time – as it was such a period of change in the UK horticultural scene.

Background to the 18th Century nursery trade

By the 18th century, gardening had become a popular pursuit driven by an influx of new plants coming in from abroad and the UK’s colonies in the new world. As Andrea Wulf points out in her excellent book, The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession [the 'obsession' being with plants], the increasing network of nurseries during this period made England the "leading garden nation of the western world" – and the place to get plants. Where once English gardeners had to look to France, Italy or Holland to source plants, improve their skills, or copy the latest garden layouts and designs, the horticultural trade had shifted across the Channel and European collectors and garden-owners were ordering their trees and shrubs directly from English nurseries. Most of which [in this period before the advent of the Wardian case which allowed the consistent shipment of live plants around the world] were sold as seeds [see Note 2].

Draft bill for vegetable seeds, 'Bought of James Gordon Seed's-Man', 1770

In the 17th and early years of the 18th century, seeds were generally sold by greengrocers and street tradesmen, or swapped or sold between gardeners on grand estates. But as demand increased, shops specialising in seeds began to open and, by the late 18th century, most provincial towns would have at least one seed shop and a nursery or two, while cities such as London would have a number of both.

James Gordon c.1708-1780

Hailing for Scotland, little is known about Gordon's life before he came south to obtain work. His recorded life as a gardener only begins with his appointment to James Sherard (1666-1738), an English apothecary and botanist, in Eltham in Kent in 1730. I've not found anything about Gordon's time there, but according to the Dictionary of National Biography, Sherard amassed a collection of valuable and rare plants, and his garden became noted as "one of the finest in England". Following Sherard's death in 1738, Gordon moved to Essex to work for Lord Petre at Thorndon.

During his years there, Gordon's name only pops up occasionally but one of the few details available relates to camellias.  Cultivated in China and Japan for centuries, this plant was not seen in Europe until the 18th century, and it's Lord Petre who is credited with having grown the first Camellia japonica to successfully flower in England. There's even a painting of one of Petre's camellias in flower in a book of birds published in 1745. Called a Chinese Rose in the book, the image was the first coloured engraving of a camellia drawn from a living specimen, the book's author writing that “the flower here figured… was raised by the late curious and noble Lord Petre in his Stoves at Thorndon Hall in Essex.”

A Chinese Rose in Lord Petre's Stove-House from 'A Natural History of Uncommon Birds', George Edwards, 1745 

At first, camellias were treated as 'exotics' and kept in hothouses as their hardiness was not yet appreciated. This overheating eventually killed Petre's plants, but Gordon saved the day – producing another plant [probably by cuttings], which he grew on in an unheated glasshouse. It's said it flourished for some 94 years, with many thousands of young plants raised from it.

Fortunately, not all of Petre’s famed botanical skills were lost, as Gordon continued his successful techniques for growing unusual and rare plants. And he would later be the first to introduce camellias to commerce from the nursery he established in The Essex Road, Mile End in East London after Petre’s death.

After establishing his business, Gordon quickly became renowned for his ability to get the most difficult seeds to grow – Collinson later describing him as “a more modern cultivator” who had “raised a vast variety of plants from all parts of the world”. Although it's known that Gordon began his nursery business not long after leaving Thorndon [c.1742], I've not found any source that can give a definite date, and the actual location and size of the nursery in Mile End is also somewhat unclear – although it was expanded over the years. The map below shows the general area.

Map showing Mile End and The Essex Road in east London from John Rocque’s map, 1746

However, according to many contemporary sources, in its heyday Gordon’s nursery was the most influential in the country, and instrumental in introducing many important exotics. As well as plants, Gordon is also recorded as having stocked “all other Utensils for the Use of Gardens”.

Such was Gordon's success with the nursery, that he was able to take the next important step in expanding his business by opening his own seed shop in London.

The Seed Shop at the sign of The Thistle & Crown, Fenchurch Street in the City of London

Established at the sign of the Thistle & Crown in Fenchurch Street, Gordon cemented his reputation as one of the foremost nurserymen of the day. Both Collinson and Philip Miller (1691-1771), botanist and Head Gardener at the Chelsea Physic Garden, often visiting him to discuss the latest introductions [see Important Contacts below].

A typical 18th century shop front in London

And here, just a word about the shop 'signs'. In an age of scant street numbering and widespread illiteracy, shop signs were used as advertising, as well as a means for allowing people to find their location. Like pub signs, they swung on wrought-iron brackets – with some painted on wooden boards, or even carved into stone niches. As one blog points out [see Note 3], these signs were huge by modern standards, often blocking out the light in narrow lanes. And accidents were not unknown, as signs occasionally crashed to the ground injuring or even killing people! However, at the time, they performed a crucial function and became, in a way, forerunners of the brand logos of later centuries.

The Thistle and Crown from Gordon’s trade card – the equivalent of a business ‘logo’

The 18th century prints below give an idea of what London's streets looked like – although Gordon's shop, unlike the narrow lane shown below right, was in the more upmarket Fenchurch Street, one of the City of London's wide thoroughfares. [Although his seed shop would have been in one of the smaller units, like those on the left.]

18th century print showing Fenchurch Street – titled 'Ironmongers Hall [on the right] with a View of Fenchurch Street', hand-coloured engraved etching by Thomas Bowles, c.1750. Note the signs outside shops on the left-hand side and, below, a raucous 18th century street scene of London at night showing large shop signs looming over pedestrians

By 1762, all hanging signs were ordered to be removed from the City of London [see Note 4], and this was reinforced a few years later by the provision for numbering houses (in The Paving Acts). The signs disappeared quite quickly, but the trade symbols lingered on – in both the business addresses and in depictions on trade cards such as Gordon’s.

Businesses were often reluctant to give up their signs and, although it's only known that Gordon opened his seed shop sometime before 1764, it may explain why his address is given as The Thistle and Crown, No. 25 Fenchurch Street – keeping the reference to his trade symbol, while using the new numbering system. [Interestingly, public houses were exempt from the ban on hanging signs which is why we still have them today.]

Nursery and seedsmen such as Gordon used innovative ways to advertise their wares. And as well as trade cards, printed seed catalogues began to be used, and these were often the main source of information for the public about the vast array of new plants available.

"A Catalogue of Seeds, Plants, Fruit-Trees, and Flower-Roots".

According to garden historian, John Harvey [see Note 5], in the early years of the 1770's Gordon was amongst the first to issue a printed trade catalogue [another being the famed Loddiges of Hackney].

Frontispiece from ‘A Catalogue of Seeds, Plants, Fruit-Trees, and Flower-Roots. Sold by James Gordon, Seedsman, c.1780

For the first 25 years of the 18th century, many nurserymen combined the sale of plants and trees with market gardening, or even farming. However, by the last quarter of the century, the growing trade in new and rare exotics, commanding extremely high prices and requiring special skill and attention, provided a new means of making a living for a growing class of sophisticated gardeners.  Some businesses failed but, for others, such as Gordon's, it was a path to success, renown, and even riches.

Gordon’s trade catalogue shown here has been dated to c.1780. Held by the RHS's Lindley Library, it runs to some 60 pages and lists an amazing array of plants and seeds for sale. It's also been described as probably the first nurseryman’s list in botanical form.

Some of the categories listed are: Kitchen Garden Seeds; Physical Herbs; Annual Flower Seeds; Biannual and Perennial Flower Seeds (“to be sowen in the Natural Ground the beginning of May”); Grass Seeds and Seeds to Improve the Land [includes different types of clover]; Seeds of Forest-Trees, Evergreens; American Shrubs, etc.; Green-House Plants; Hot-House Plants; Shrubs and Hardy Plants [17 pages of alphabetically listed plants]; Fruit Trees; Hyacinths [probably bulbs, 386 different types listed]; Crocus [only 8 types]; Fine Baguet, Bybloemen and Bizar Tulips; and Beautiful Double, Black, and Strip'd Perfian [Persian] Ranunculas [649 different types, most costing a few shillings with a few listed at £1,10s.]. [See link to online catalogue in References – and note that it's only the "Flower Roots" section of the catalogue, which includes the tulips, that gives prices.]

On reading through the catalogue, I was particularly taken with the vast number of tulips listed –506 in all, costing from one to just a few shillings, with a few costing over £10 [presumably per bulb]. The most expensive listed is the tulip shown below, Tulip Catafalque, at £15,15s. Gordon was not alone in stocking such a huge number of different tulips. For example, one of Gordon's contemporaries, nurseryman James Maddock, located in south-east London, is said to have grown 800 different varieties of tulip mainly to supply the floristry trade.

Page from Gordon's catalogue listing 'Baguet, Bybloemen and Bizar Tulips' and, right, 'De tulip Bizard Catafalque' [Tulip Catafalque] by Dutch painter, Cornelis van Noorde, 1765

Although the famous Dutch ‘tulip fever’ of the 16th century was long over, tulips remained fashionable and popular plants – often still commanding high prices. The Baguet tulips listed by Gordon were a Flemish speciality and, according to Anna Pavord in her book, The Tulip [see References], had wide-cupped, round-petalled flowers. These were amongst the most sought after tulips of the late 17th and early 18th centuries – their blooms famously described at the time as being able to “contain an English Pint of Wine…”.

Bybloemen and Bizar [bizarre] tulips were types of ‘broken’ tulips – the first marked with rich purple, mauve or black on a white background, while the bizars showed red or dark purplish-brown markings on a yellow background. Tulip ‘Semper Augustus’, shown below, listed under the Bizar category in Gordon’s catalogue at 15 shillings [again, presumably per bulb], is recorded as being the most expensive ever sold during the tulip fever period.

Tulip ‘Semper Augustus’ by an unknown artist, 17th century.

Many plant collectors who heard about new exciting and rare plants, or came across them in catalogues like Gordon's would, of course, have probably never seen them.  Fortunately, images of some were available in books by the English naturalist and traveller, Mark Catesby (1682/83-1749), including The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands ['Natural History'] in which, as Collinson wrote to a friend in 1742, “you will See the Trees & Shrubbs Delineated in their Natural Colours”. Natural History, issued in 11 parts over an 18-year period from 1729 to 1747, included 220 plates and accompanying pages of text.  Subsequent updated volumes followed.

Catesby's 'Natural History', a later edition featuring 'Magnolia amplissima', The Umbrella Tree

Another Catesby publication, Hortus Europae Americanus or A Collection of 85 Curious Trees and Shrubs, the Produce of North America ['Hortus Europae Americanus'] from 1767, also provides illustrations of some of the North American plants listed in Gordon's catalogue.

Both books are available online, and I've used images from Catesby's books wherever possible.


Plate from Catesby's ’Hortus Europae Americanus’, 1767. Depicting: 14. The Cypress of America, 15. Liquid Amber, 16. The Tulip Tree and 19. The Water Tupelo

Important Contacts

Gordon's world consisted of an important network of gardeners, horticulturists, botanists, other nursery and seedsmen, as well as merchants, seas captains, plant-collectors, and those who had the money to finance overseas trips [such as owners of grand estates and the aristocracy]. All such "curious persons" being, at the time, the main conduit for the collection, transportation, distribution, and sale of new plants.

As none of Gordon's papers survive [with the exception of his trade card, a few bills, and letters to Linnaeus as discussed below], we have to rely on accounts from some of his contacts as to his reputation and business activities [many of whom are interesting enough to warrant posts of their own]. Gordon's most famous contact was undoubtedly Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), the Swedish biologist, who created the binomial naming system for plants and animals that we use today

Correspondence with Carl Linnaeus

Gordon was an admirer of Linnaeus, following his new system of classification and nomenclature which greatly simplified plant names by replacing many descriptive and long-winded names with a simple two-word designation.  The Linnean Society of London has a series of letters written by Gordon to Linneaus – usually detailing plants he has sent to him in Sweden. 

Contact between the two men appears to have begun in 1761, as the first letter held by the Linnean Society dates from August of that year. In his letter, Gordon mentions Linnaeus' pupil, Daniel Solander, having given him a letter from Linneaus (probably a letter of introduction), during a visit to London [see Daniel Solander below].  Gordon also praises Linnaeus’ work, writing that “All the world is much indebted to your most accurate and incomparable labours”, and sends him 3 plants “in a matted basket” via a sea captain. 

However, another contact, John Ellis [see John Ellis below] had written to Linnaeus earlier, in April 1758, recommending Gordon as a “correspondent” who is “a curious gardener… and knows systematically all the plants that he cultivates” – meaning that he had a level of botanical knowledge, understood, and used Linnaeus' new binomial system. 

Letter 16 August, 1761 from James Gordon to Carl Linnaeus in Stockholm.  Courtesy The Linnean Society of London

The Linnaean Society has 5 more letters from Gordon to Linnaeus: in June 1766, Gordon thanks Linnaeus for plants sent to him – including Linnaea borealis, a flowering plant from the honeysuckle family, named for him and said to be his favourite plant. In a later letter to Linneaus [sending him plants], of July 1772, Gordon signs off the letter, writing in Latin, that before he dies he wishes to see Linnaea borealis growing in his own garden. 

In October 1769, Gordon wrote to Linnaeus enclosing plants of "Ginko kaempferi [see Notable Plants below], Magnolia acuminata and andromeda mariana".

‘Magnolia acuminata’ from Catesby's ‘Natural History’, 1731. Known as the cucumber tree, and the hardiest of the magnolias

In further letters (May 1771, July 1772 and September 1772), Gordon continues to send Linnaeus “curious plants”, meaning rare or new. In May 1771, he sends 12 plants, including Kalmia angustifolia – another plant that features in Catesby's National History.

Daniel Solander (1773-1782), Swedish naturalist and a pupil of Linneaus. When Solander first came to London in 1760, his first stop was to Gordon’s nursery in Mile End – where, he was told, he would find many of the plants Linnaeus had desired for decades. Solander was duly impressed by the vast number of thriving American plants at the nursery, having never seen so many in flower, including the fragrant Carolina allspice, Calycanthus floridus, shown below. Brought from the US more than 3 decades previously, it had remained rare in England until Bartram sent it to England from Carolina [probably via Collinson]. 

This was, according to Andrea Wulf, Solander’s first encounter with “England’s obsession with American plants”, and he was also surprised by the prices the English were prepared to pay for them – writing to Linnaeus that Gordon had “become rich through his garden, since there are people here who pay well for rare plants”, adding that Gordon thought nothing of charging £10-15 for a Magnolia.

'Calycanthus floridus', the Carolina Allspice, from Catesby’s 'Natural History', 1754

The two men became friends, with Gordon offering Solander lodgings at a house attached to his nursery, with unrestricted access to the plants. Solander wrote about his time there, noting Gordon’s impressive cultivation methods. For example, most saplings at the nursery were grown “uncovered”, their only protection being a raised ring of soil filled with dung in order to provide nourishment, warmth, and to retain moisture.  

Wulf also points out that by living at Gordon’s, Solander was able to witness first-hand the transformation of the English horticultural world and its gardens – and Gordon's part in the increasingly important nursery trade that was feeding the new-found obsession with gardening. 

His talent for raising plants from seed meant that Gordon had the largest selection of American exotics in the country, selling them to both private garden-owners and other nurserymen.  Gordon was also the first nurseryman to order 'guinea' boxes [see my post about Lord Petre for more detail] from Bartram in Philadelphia. It's recorded that he ordered 3 via Collinson, each one usually containing 100 or more varieties of seed with occasional dried plant specimens.  Live plants, which were more difficult and expensive to send, were reserved for Collinson and a few other 'special' clients, which included Gordon.

Solander himself is probably most famous for accompanying Joseph Banks (1743-1820) on James Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific in 1768 aboard the Endeavour – both men inspiring Cook's naming of 'Botany Bay’ in Australia.  Interestingly, according to the Captain Cook Society, Banks bought many seeds from Gordon to take on the voyage, subsequently planting them in Tahiti and elsewhere.  The Society also quotes a later report in the Derby Mercury that Banks and Solander visited “the ingenious Botanist” [Gordon] in August 1771 and “gave him a Bag of some very valuable Seeds they had gathered from the most remote Parts of the Globe, from which a useful Produce is expected” [see Note 6]. Although what plants Gordon may have successfully grown from these seeds is not mentioned.

Peter Collinson's Letters

Collinson's correspondence with various friends and horticultural contacts [see Note 7], provides interesting snippets of information about Gordon's activities and, perhaps most importantly, his abilities and reputation.

In letters, Collinson often recommends both Philip Miller (1691-1771) at “the Physick Garden at Chelsea” and "James Gordon of Mile End". In one letter, for example, written in June 1742 to Samuel Brewer [a botanist, and later gardener to the Duke of Beaufort at Badminton], Collinson describes Gordon as having “great Experience being Gardner to Mr Sherrard & Ld Petre”, adding that “Who Ever wants Seed for plants may be Sure of being Honestly Served”.

That same year, Collinson also wrote that “Mr Gordon... is the only Gardener now left that has a good Stove” – referring no doubt to the recently deceased Lord Petre's famed huge "stoves" [hot houses with heated flues housing tropical fruits and flowers]. Just a few years later, in April 1746, Collinson paid a visit to Petre's widow and, while lamenting his death in a letter to a friend, wrote that "The Only Man that Makes a Figure in Raiseing plants for Sale is Mr Gordon... He has a peculiar Skill & fortune in Raiseing a great Variety of Rare hardy Exotic Seeds both from america & Europe...”

Collinson certainly appreciated Gordon's skills writing, in 1763, in more detail about his abilities in dealing with the amazing array of new plants coming into the country: “The Skill & Ingenuity of some men is Surprising... what shows his great knowledge & Experience in Vegitation is his way of Raiseing the finest... Hardy Shrubs that Excell all others by His Care. He furnishes every Curious Garden all the Nursery Men and Gardners come to him for them... and His Sagacity in Raiseing all sorts of plants from Cuttings, Roots, & Laying, surpasses all others by which our Gardens are Enriched with an Infinite Variety".

As already mentioned, Collinson and Miller often visited Gordon’s seed shop and exchanged experiences in raising rare seeds, many harvested from Gordon’s nursery.  Collinson later wrote that he knew of no other man who could raise the “dusty seeds" of Kalmias, Rhododendrons and Azaleas, while Miller [even though it's said they didn't get on] is known to have commended Gordon for raising Kalmia latifolia.

'Kalmia latifolia' (mountain laurel) from Catesby’s 'Natural History', 1731

As mentioned above, it was one of Linnaeus’ correspondents, John Ellis (c.1710-1776), a British cloth merchant and naturalist, who had initially recommended Gordon as a “correspondent”, and a good source of plants.

Ellis also wrote to Linnaeus that Gordon “has more knowledge on gardening than all the gardeners and writers on gardening in England put together; but he is too modest to publish anything”, and that if Linnaeus sent him any rare plants he wanted cultivated, Gordon was his man. No doubt this recommendation led to Linnaeus sending Solander to Gordon's nursery, and to their subsequent correspondence and exchange of plants. Ellis also wrote that he had recently got “a curious collection of seeds from the East Indies” from Gordon which were growing, but which were “quite new” – another example of just what an exciting, but often unpredictable, time it was in the plant world.

Ellis would also later write to Linnaeus about the criticism of the somewhat unpopular Miller, following his dismissal from the Chelsea Physic Garden in 1771, that “Gordon [along with other nurserymen, Aiton and Lee] have been very long superior to [Miller] in the nicer and more delicate part of gardening”.

Miller’s successor, William Forsyth (1737-1804), botanist and a founding member of the [Royal] Horticultural Society, continued to collect and exchange plants for the Chelsea Physic Garden and, in 1773, Gordon is noted, with others, as still contributing plants to it. Forsyth also pops up in connection to Gordon's involvement with a group of plant collectors who obtained seeds from John Bradby Blake (1745-1773), an English botanist working in China for the British East India Company [see Chinese Plant Trade below].

Gordon’s wealthiest client was Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Portland (1715-1785), in her day the richest woman in the UK, and an avid collector interested in natural history as well as gardening.  Not surprisingly, it's said she ordered many American exotics from Gordon’s nursery although I've been unable to find any detail. Another rich client was Lady Dacre of Belhus in Essex.  According to Mark Laird, in The Flowering of the Landscape Garden-English Pleasure Grounds 1720-1800, records show that she ordered seeds from Gordon in 1768, 1770 and 1771. 

Another client was William Constable (1721-1791) of Burton Constable in East Yorkshire, a member of the Royal Society noted for his collection and study of plants and herbs. He purchased a few plants from Gordon in August 1746 and, in 1761, bought trees including Arbutus andrachne for 2 guineas. During one of his gardeners’ trips to the south-east [including, presumably, to Gordon's nursery], Constable instructed him to “Observe if in the stoves are any fine new Plants.  Ask Gordon after his Umbrella tree” – this being Magnolia amplissima [now Magnolia tripetala].

'Magnolia amplissima', The Umbrella Tree, from Catesby's 'Hortus Europae Americanus', 1767

George William, 6th Earl of Coventry (1722-1775) of Croome Park in Worcestershire, designed by Capability Brown, was an avid plant collector. Over the years, the Earl purchased thousands of trees and shrubs for the estate and plants for the herbaceous borders, glasshouses and hothouse. An article in Garden History [see Note 8], details many of these plant purchases as recorded in over 600 surviving nurserymen's bills, including many from Gordon. Purchases of note from him include the Barbados Cherry, Malpighia verbascifolia [now Byrsonima verbascifolia] in 1770, together with a letter of advice to his head gardener, Mr. Graefer [Graefer later left Croome in 1776 to join Gordon as a nurseryman].

Carica papaya by Georg Dionysius Ehret, 1750

The Croome records also detail many different fruits supplied by Gordon, including an American (red) mulberry tree at 5s (1762); currants (the pale red ‘Champagne’, 1762 and the white ‘Pearl’, 1763); exotic fruits such as Carica papaya at 5s (1761), as shown here; and a coconut, Cocus nucifera at 5 guineas (1798).  Also listed are several grape vines at 1s and 2s each (1759 & 1761); and ‘Chili’ strawberries [Fragaria Chiloensis, a species of wild strawberry] and another unnamed large variety (1759).

The Earl also had a glasshouse for melons as well as pineapple pits. He bought several varieties of melon in 1763, and bought his first pineapples from Gordon in 1759 at 6p each, 2 dozen more a few months later and, in 1767, another 40. [Gordon had experience with pineapples, as Lord Petre famously grew them in his hothouses.]

Gordon also supplied many named varieties of pear – 52 types are listed in his catalogue, and the table here from the Garden History article lists those purchased by the Earl in 1763.  

List of 16 types of Peach trees from Gordon’s 1770 plant catalogue

Between 1757 and1761, the Earl also purchased over 50 peach trees from Gordon and, although no varieties are mentioned, his plant catalogue of 1780 lists 16 different types, as can be seen here.

I also came across mention of Gordon in relation to a book about peaches published in 1768. First published anonymously in French in 1745 [but probably written by a Jean de Combles], an English translation was published in 1768. And, as Gordon is listed on its front page, together with the London booksellers, it's been suggested that it was done at his urging.

‘A Treatise upon the culture of peach trees’, published in 1768.  Translated from the French, ‘Traite de la culture des pechers’, first published in 1745.

The Earl also collected more exotic species for his new hothouses, and it’s recorded that in 1762 he paid Gordon one guinea for an ‘African Erica’, and also bought “Parcels of Jamaican seeds”.

Another contact of Gordon’s, another “curious” gardener, was Dr John Fothergill (1712-1780), who grew a variety of plants at his 65 acre estate in Essex, including some 3,400 species of conservatory plants.  Fothergill had links with Collinson, having obtained many plants and seeds from him, and became a friend of Gordon’s. He would often send Gordon some of the plants or seeds that he obtained for his “care and management” so that, according to Fothergill’s biographer, “he might have every chance of success in the propagating of new plants...” [see Note 9]. 

Chinese Plant Trade

John Bradby Blake, who studied and recorded Chinese plants and culture, sent seeds of local plants via his sea captain father to England and the American colonies.  In 1773, Blake wrote to his father that he had sent "seven Boxes of Seeds & 18 Plants in Pots – from which Collection of Seeds [you can supply] His Majestys garden at Kew, & that of the Apothecaries Company at Chelsea; but also other Botanical Gardens in private hands…”.  Seeds were also sent to nurseries such at Gordon’s. 

According to a 2017 article in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine [see Note 10], amongst Captain Blake’s surviving documents are tables he drew up itemising the plants and seeds received from his son, and listing the recipients. The article includes the table below [it's rather difficult to read], with the author surmising that the numbers noted against each name [at the top] list their importance, rather than the number of plants or seeds they were sent.  Not surprisingly, the royal gardens at Kew are number ‘1’, followed by the Chelsea Physic Garden, with Gordon at number ‘3’. 

Excerpt from table heading showing 1 Kew, 2 Chelsea and 3 Gordon [Fothergill, mentioned above, is number 4]

Interestingly, and an example of how difficult it was when collecting unfamiliar or unknown plants and seeds from a foreign land, note the heading of the second column which lists the plant names as “Supposed to be”.  Unfortunately, the only plant names listed for Gordon that I can decipher are Cedar & Junipur, Balsum, Mimosa and Hibiscus.  Several of the other entries for Gordon just list numbers or packets of “unknown seeds”, but the article also notes that he received 24 rare Chinese plants.

The table is headed ‘Account of China Seeds by the Boy & Henry Cap. Bons, Distributed as follows, Saturday February the 26 1774. Divided by Self-Gordon-Foresyght [William Forsyth, Miller's replacement at Chelsea Physic Garden] & Eddie [Alexander Eddie, a nurseryman]

Transporting seeds or live plants from China to Europe was something of a lottery, as most collectors were unaware of how best to preserve their collections, and many specimens didn’t survive the rigours of such long journeys.  However, Blake generally understood them botanically, packaged them up carefully – and sent his consignments of seeds and plants with extensive written guidance on how they might be best cultivated.

Notable Plants

Gordon became famous, and wealthy, bringing exotic plants from all over the world to maturity and flowering – and in sufficient numbers to sell commercially.  He was the first in Europe to cultivate oriental plants such as Ailanthus, Gingko, the Pagoda Tree, many species of American trees and shrubs, as well as different types of magnolia and rhododendrons from Collinson [some originally from Bartram in Philadelphia].  He was also able to successfully cultivate Gardenia, and raised difficult shrubs from seed such as kalmias and azaleas. 


In addition to his “almost magical” touch as a gardener, he was a canny businessman.  In 1758, he made £500 by selling 100 Magnolia grandiflora obtained from just a few cuttings. And following on from his experience at Thorndon with camellias, he popularised the shrub and even 30 years later, in the 1770s, he was selling them for 4s each. [Although, oddly, I cannot find any camellias listed in his catalogue.]

Plate from Catesby's ’Hortus Europae Americanus’, 1767. Depicting 55. The Upright Honey-suckle, 56. The Yellow Jessamin, 57. Hamamelis and 5.8 Frutex corni foliis conjugatis [this last one being the Carolina Allspice, see image from Catesby’s Natural World shown earlier]

Gardenia or the Cape Jasmine

Another plant Gordon successfully cultivated – and profited from, was Gardenia jasminoides.  Just one specimen, in a pot, arrived in England in 1754 from the South African cape via William Hutchinson, a British East India sea captain. Admired by Collinson and others, this sterile double-flowered form proved difficult to propagate until 4 cuttings from the plant were given to Gordon [at the recommendation of John Ellis] who, you guessed it, successfully propagated them, as recorded in Ellis's correspondence [excerpt below].  Ellis also commenting, in a letter to Linnaeus, that Gordon had succeeded “when all the other gardeners had failed in the attempt”. 

Excerpt from 'An account of the plants Halesia and Gardenia'. From a letter dated November 20, 1760 from John Ellis to Philip Carteret Webb – read to the Royal Society of London and published in its Philosophical Transactions

The Gardenia – or the new ‘Cape Jasmine’ as it was known, was a horticultural sensation, with Gordon able to sell young plants for 5 guineas each, as noted by Ellis in his letter.  Over the course of some 3 years, he raised £500 from this one plant – roughly equivalent to £50,000 today.


'Gardenia with a Double Flower’, engraving by Georg Dionysius Ehret, published in the 'Philosophical Transactions' accompanying Ellis' letter and, right, 'Gardenia and butterfly', watercolour by English botanical illustrator, William King c.1750’s.  Courtesy the Natural History Museum

Ellis' letter also included an account of Halesia [deciduous large shrubs or small trees] – writing that it had been mentioned by Catesby in his Natural History.  Ellis had not heard of its cultivation in England until around 1756, when one of his correspondents in Carolina sent him a large parcel of the seeds which he distributed “among many curious gardeners”, including Gordon. And it was, of course, Gordon, who “succeeded so well” with its propagation – Ellis writing of Gordon’s ability “in raising all the rarer and most difficult exotics from seeds, layers, or cuttings”.  


'Halesia carolina' [or the Carolina silverbell/Snowdrop Tree] from Catesby’s ‘Natural History', 1743

The Loblolly Bay – Gordonia lasianthus

During this period of change in the naming of new plants, it was Linnaeus that usually had the final say – and plants were often named for people.  Solander, writing to Linnaeus in October 1760, just a few months after he had met Gordon, says that it would be difficult to name anything for Gordon as, although he was an exceedingly successful gardener when it came to germinating seeds and propagating plants (as well as surpassing Philip Miller), he had not written or discovered “anything in botany”.  Even though it was Gordon who introduced many rare trees and shrubs into English gardens. However, that was to change.

Catesby included the Loblolly Bay from the south-eastern coast of North America in his Natural History published in 1730, and gave it the pre-Linnaean name of Alcea Floridana quinque capsularis. Bartram cultivated it in his garden in the 1760’s, while Collinson, who described it as an "Elegant Ever Green Shrub... next in Beauty to the Magnolia", obtained it [either by seed or as plants], but found it difficult to bring to flower.

‘Althea Floridana’ from Catesby’s ‘Natural History’, 1730. This is actually The Loblolly Bay (‘Gordonia lasianthus’) – Althea was its original name until superseded by Gordonia

Botanically, there was also some confusion as to which family of plants it should belong, but its eventual name, under the new genus Gordonia, was the result of a transatlantic discussion over the course of some 10 years between Alexander Garden from Edinburgh, who had recently emigrated to South Carolina, and John Ellis.  Garden had suggested the name of Gordonia for the plant in honour of his old schoolmaster, Dr James Gordon, but after his death one year later in 1757, Garden retracted his request. However, as the name stuck, Ellis suggested keeping the name in honour of nurseryman, James Gordon, instead, especially as he had succeeded in cultivating it from seed. 

'The Loblolly Bay' from Catesby's 'Hortus Europae Americanus’, 1767

However, it was not until 1770, when some of the plants eventually flowered and could be properly described, that Ellis wrote to Linnaeus [published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1771] to suggest the Loblolly Bay should be in a new genus named “as a compliment to our worthy friend, that eminent gardener Mr James Gordon, near Mile-end, to whom the science of botany is highly indebted, and whose merit is universally known for his great knowledge in the cultivation of exotic plants”. Linnaeus agreed, and the plant officially became Gordonia lasianthus.


From a letter dated December 20, 1770 from John Ellis to Dr Linnaeus – 'with the Figure and Characters of that elegant American Evergreen-tree, called by the Gardiners the Loblolly-Bay'. Read to the Royal Society of London and published in its Philosophical Transactions, 1771

The Ginkgo

Gordon was amongst the first to cultivate the Ginkgo in the west, successfully growing it from seed from around 1758 – although it's unclear where he obtained them.  Linnaeus was keen to obtain a specimen, but it would be several more years until Gordon was able to send one, probably a cutting. Gordon eventually writing to Linnaeus in October 1769 enclosing plants, including the Ginkgo – then known as Ginkgo Kaempferi, later renamed Ginkgo biloba by Linnaeus in 1771. [Although it's recorded that the 6th Earl of Coventry at Croome Park bought a ginkgo from Gordon in 1766 for the huge sum of 5 guineas.]

The images below depict, left, what is thought to be the herbarium specimen made by Linnaeus from the actual living plant sent him by Gordon and, right, the oldest Ginkgo growing at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew – one of several of the trees grown by Gordon in 1758. It's also thought to be one of the first of its species to be grown in the UK.

Herbarium specimen of Ginkgo biloba, courtesy The Linnean Society of London and, right, one of Gordon's Ginkgos still growing at Kew today

Another of Kew's famous trees, the Pagoda Tree (Sophora japonica), is thought to have come to Kew from Gordon’s nursery, and he is credited with its introduction in 1753 [see below].   Although the source is unclear, it’s possible that the Pagoda Tree and the Ginkgo came from the same batch of seeds that Gordon received (probably) from China or Japan [although he didn’t obtain them via John Blake, as Blake wasn’t in China until several years after Gordon grew the plants].

Entry for 'Sophora japonica'. Excerpt from ‘Hortus kewensis, or, A catalogue of the plants cultivated in the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew’, v.3, 1811

Sophora Japonica by Pierre-Joseph Redoute and, right, Kew’s famous Pagoda Tree, Sophora japonica [now Styphnolobium japonicum] planted in 1762.  Photograph courtesy RBG, Kew


During this period, when gardeners were passionate about the new exotic and rare plants coming into the UK from around the world, Gordon was amongst the first to grasp their economic significance.  And, by adding a seed shop to his already successful nursery business, Gordon was, according to garden historian, John Harvey, “able to secure a substantial slice of the London trade, and his was by far the most influential firm in the country during the whole of the third quarter of the century".

Such was the success of nurserymen such as Gordon, that the plant trade was transformed, as one modern writer puts it [see Note 11], from “an aristocratic fashion for the few” (or in many cases, of course, a passion), to plant production on an industrial scale, paving the way for the great nurserymen of the 19th century.

When I began researching James Gordon, I thought this would be a short post. However, and although no words of Gordon's survive apart from a few letters to Linnaeus, many contemporaries wrote of his skills in raising new rare and exotic plants of the day in detail, and some records survive of the plants he supplied to grand estates. And although I've found much more on Gordon than I'd anticipated, there's no image nor a description of him.

Bill from ‘Gordon, Dermer & Edmonds, Seedsmen, Fenchurch Street’, 1786.  Courtesy British Museum

Gordon retired from business in 1776, leaving the nursery and seed shop in the hands of his sons, William, James and Alexander. By the time he died in 1780, the business was named James Gordon & Co., and the nursery was recorded as comprising a house, garden, greenhouses and land.  Gordon's sons continued with the business – often in conjunction with other nurserymen [as this bill shows], so that the business changed names several times over the following decades.  The nursery continued until around 1837 when much of the land was needed for building.  However, the seed shop in Fenchurch Street survived until 1845.

After his death in 1780, The Gentleman’s Magazine described Gordon as the “ingenious and eminent botanist”. And over time he was not forgotten. For example, while researching this post, I came across a brief article in The Gardeners’ Chronicle from 1905 describing Gordon, the “eminent” nurseryman of Mile End, who was "mentioned frequently by botanical writers" of the time. 

Gordon's death noted in 'The Gentleman’s Magazine', vol. 51 for 1781


1.@PlantingDiaries is, like my own, one of the top 5 blogs/podcasts recommended last year by The Gardens Trust for those interested in garden history so please do take a look.

2. For more on the Wardian Case, see my post The Wardian Case - preventing damage to plants by "monkeys and parakeets".

3. Article 'A Nation of Shopkeepers: Shop Signs', blog by The Bodleian Library, Oxford, 2001

4. ‘A Cryptic Shop Sign Quiz from Georgian London’, blog by Matt Green of Londonist

5. Article ‘The Stocks Held by Early Nurseries' by John H. Harvey.  From The Agricultural History Review, vol.22, no.1, 1974

6. Article 'Cook's Voyages: First Pacific Voyage July-September 1771' from the Captain Cook Society

7. “Forget not Mee & My Garden...”: Selected Letters 1725-1768 of Peter Collinson, FRS. Edited and with an introduction by Alan W. Armstrong, 2002

8. Article 'An Eighteenth-Century Obsession – The Plant Collection of the 6th Earl of Coventry at Croome Park, Worcestershire' by M Stone, A Hooper, P Shaw and L Tanner. From Garden History, vol. 43, Summer 2015

9. Memoirs of the life and a view of the character of the late Dr John Fothergill. Drawn up at the desire of the Medical Society of London, by G. Thompson, 1782

10. Article 'Botanical Collecting in 18th century London', by Sarah Easterby-Smith. From Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 34(4), 2017

11. Article ‘Gordon, wizard of sowing and cuttings, and Gordonia’, blog by Silvia Fogliato of Plant Names, October 2016

Images from the British Museum are from the Sir Ambrose Heal’s Trade Card Collection. Released under Creative Commons.


James Gordon's Catalogue

In addition to the articles detailed in the Notes, I consulted the following:

The Tulip by Anna Pavord, 2019

Article ‘James Gordon, Mile End’s Famous Nursery Man’ by Derek Morris. From Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society, vol. 51, 2000

Article 'Garden Seeds in England before the late 18th century: The Trade in Seeds to 1760' by Malcolm Thick. From The British Agricultural History Review, Vol.38, Part 2, 1990

The Chelsea Gardener Philip Miller 1691-1771 by Hazel Le Rougetel, 1990

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3 commentaires

04 avr.

A wonderful collection of information about James Gordon,so interesting and well written.Ruth


26 mars

incredibly informative and detailed (as ever!)



23 mars

Another fabulous blog - love reading these

Brigette xx

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