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The Veitch Nursery: A Family Dynasty c.1808-1969


Selection of plants offered for sale in a Veitch catalogue of the 1890's


Introduction


During the 19th century, plant collecting in new and exciting areas of the world increased on a grand scale with nurserymen, botanic institutions and private individuals employing collectors to seek out new ornamentals suitable for cultivation in British gardens. One of the greatest, and probably most famous, of the commercial firms was the family-run Veitch nursery established in Devon c.1808 by Scottish-born John Veitch, and successfully expanded in partnership with his son James (senior), and later with grandsons James (junior) and Robert [see below for the Veitch nurseryman family tree].



Over the years, James Snr. built-up a network of enthusiastic amateurs who supplied him with seeds and plants. By the late 1830's he decided to employ his own collectors and became the first commercial nurseryman to do so. These 'plant-hunters' were often chosen as much for their ability to spot a plant useful for commercial development than for 'botanizing', and Veitch employed some of the most successful collectors of the era. Between 1840 and 1910, Veitch sent 22 plant-hunters around the world. Notable amongst them were William and Thomas Lobb, Charles Maries, Charles Curtis, two from the Veitch family itself, John Gould and James Herbert [although other members of the Veitch family also did their fair share of plant-hunting] and, probably the best known, Ernest Wilson. All played significant roles in the firm’s success.


The Veitch Nurseries and Plant-hunting


The first Veitch plant-hunter was William Lobb (1809-1864), who rediscovered the monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria Araucana – then Araucaria imbricata) whilst in Chile. Originally introduced in 1795, it had remained something of a rarity, and many books and articles say that it wasn’t until Lobb sent back large amounts of seed to Veitch, that it was sold on a commercial scale (in 1843) for the first time.


'The Gardeners’ Chronicle', July 29, 1843

However, today this claim is somewhat disputed, and in fact you only need to look through the pages of The Gardeners’ Chronicle a year or two before, to find several other English nurseries advertising young Araucaria plants for sale in quantity. It would seem to have been Veitch's clever marketing of this plant that led to this belief, and meant that their name became synonymous as a source of exciting new and quality plants.


‘Puzzle-Monkey Trees and Guanacos, Chili’, oil painting by Marianne North (1830-1890). North's last trip took her to Chile in 1884-5 where she painted monkey puzzles in the landscape. Courtesy Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew


Lobb was responsible for many other exciting and profitable introductions. In 1849 Berberis Darwinii, first discovered by Charles Darwin in Chile, which was – and still is, a very popular garden plant; The Gardeners’ Chronicle, writing in 1851, being of the opinion that its introduction would “…earn the gratitude of the whole gardening world.” Lobb also sent back seed and a living specimen of the wellingtonia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) in 1853 which became famous due to its impressive size, and also commercial quantities of seed and cones from many popular Californian conifers discovered earlier by plant-hunter David Douglas. In 1855, The Cottage Gardener even described Lobb's success as a plant-hunter as “…unparalleled in the history of botanical discovery ”.


The success of sales from the Araucaria enabled James Snr. to send out a second collector, William Lobb’s brother, Thomas (1817-1894), who specialised in collecting orchids, many previously unknown to science and introduced to cultivation for the first time. He also introduced the first species of rhododendron from the East Indies in 1849, Rhododendron jasminiflorum, which was exhibited at a Royal Horticultural Society show in 1850 to much acclaim –- Curtis’s Botanical Magazine noting that few plants had "excited greater attention" amongst visitors.


'Rhododendron jasminiflorum', t.4524 from 'Curtis’s Botanical Magazine', July 1st,1850. Illustration by Walter Fitch Hood


James Snr. was a canny businessman and used his horticultural connections, notably William Hooker at Kew and John Lindley of the RHS, to great affect. They advised him on the best places for his collectors to find species still relatively unknown – often attractive novelties which commanded high prices. They also identified and named many of the new introductions, essential for successful marketing, and some 400 Veitch 'plants' were described and portrayed in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine's colour plates [see Nepenthes veitchii below as an example].


'Nepenthes veitchii', t.5080 from 'Curtis’s Botanical Magazine', 1858. The pitchers of this alien-looking plant are more than a foot long. And, right, 'Messrs. Veitch’s Nepenthes House' from 'The Gardeners’ Chronicle', March 16, 1872


Although extremely successful, Veitch was still a provincial nursery and needed to expand. And so, in 1853, James Jnr. bought the Royal Exotic Nursery in Chelsea. By 1855 it was reported that “in this wonderful establishment may be seen one of the most extensive and valuable stocks of exotic plants …”.


The original nursery at Chelsea from 'Hortus Veitchii', 1906 – and, right, 'James Veitch & Sons, Royal Exotic Nursery, Chelsea–Catalogue of Seeds, etc.', 1896


However, Veitch’s outstanding achievement was probably its promotion of the first journey into western China by Ernest Wilson (1876-1930), which eventually resulted in some of our best-known garden plants reaching Britain. [So successful was he in fact, that he became known as Ernest 'Chinese' Wilson subject of a future post.] Wilson was sent to collect seeds of species likely to be hardy in Britain, and also to collect living specimens of plants previously only known to exist from dried herbaria specimens. Wilson's first foray into China in 1900 produced more than 1,500 seed packets of different plants, most of which had never been grown in Britain before. Almost half were rhododendrons.


Wilson’s main task on this trip, however, was to find the almost legendary Handkerchief Tree (Davidia involucrata), originally discovered in 1869 by French missionary, Pere David. Wilson travelled to a small village where plant-hunter Augustine Henry (1857-1930) had found a Davidia back in 1888. The famous story goes that, after being guided to the exact spot, Wilson discovered that it had recently been cut down and used to build a nearby house. Only the stump remained. He did not, he later wrote, sleep much that night.


'Davidia involucrata', t.8432 from 'Curtis’s Botanical Magazine', May 1912. Illustration by Matilda Smith


Fortunately, Wilson found other Davidias a few miles away and eventually collected a large quantity of seed to take back to Veitch. He later described coming across one of these trees “with its wealth of blossoms… more beautiful than words can portray… I am convinced that Davidia involucrata is the most interesting and most beautiful of all trees which grow in the north temperate regions. The flowers… when stirred by the slightest breeze resemble huge butterflies or small doves hovering amongst the trees”.


Wilson later photographed 'Davidia involucrata' growing on Rhode Island in the US in May 1928. From the article 'E.H. Wilson’s search for Davidia involucrata' by Lisa Pearson of the Arnold Arboretum, November 2018


After his second trip to China in 1903, Wilson returned two years later with the seed of 510 species and 2,400 herbarium specimens.


Hortus Veitchii


Although most of the Veitch family papers have been lost, much of their work is chronicled in the Hortus Veitchii of 1906 compiled by James Herbert Veitch for private circulation [see Notes for link]. It's a history of the plant collecting explorers and hybridists working for the nurseries during the period 1840-1906, and commemorates the huge contribution made by the firm to western gardens.


Title page of 'Hortus Veitchii', 1906

Hortus Veitchii lists over 1,500 plants, including those introduced or raised by the Veitch nurseries: 238 orchid species, 513+ orchid hybrids, 402 stove and greenhouse plants, 48 insectivorous plants, including many species of nepenthes (or pitcher plants which became a popular addition to Victorian conservatories), 117 exotic ferns, 49 coniferous trees, 239 deciduous and evergreen trees, shrubs and climbing plants, 122 herbaceous plants and 37 bulbous plants. Over the years, Veitch also introduced many improved varieties of fruit and vegetables.


John Gould Veitch in particular brought back several plants previously unknown to British gardens, including several beautiful forms of Acer palmatum and Lilium auratum when he visited Japan in 1861 when the country first opened its borders to foreigners. The lily was exhibited in 1861 and Dr Lindley wrote in The Cottage Gardener in January 1855 that “If ever a flower merited the name glorious, it is this, which stands far above all other lilies…”.


'Lilium auratum', t.5338 from 'Curtis’s Botanical Magazine', October 1st, 1862. Illustration by Walter Fitch Hood. One of the plants that the Veitch nursery was most proud


Hybridising


The majority of plants sent back by the Veitch collectors were usually successful in their own right, but often subtle changes to a plant’s genetic make-up would improve colour, hardiness or foliage to better suit the commercial market. The work of John Dominy, and the other hybridisers employed by Veitch, was a controversial achievement in Victorian Britain as it was seen as tampering with nature. However, it produced many successful hybrid plants and Dominy is credited with raising the world’s first orchid hybrid Calanthe x Dominii which flowered in 1856; this was followed by Cattleya x Dominana, and Catanthe x Veitchii, which became the most widely grown hybrid at the time. For 15 years, Veitch was the only nursery producing orchid hybrids which gave them a huge lead in the highly competitive world of orchid collecting.


Cattleya x dominana. Doiminy’s hybrid Orchid raised in 1850

Veitch also successfully produced hybrids of their own introduced species of streptocarpus and nepenthes – all fashionable, and therefore profitable, plants of the day. Begonias in particular were popular summer-flowering plants, and Veitch successfully hybridised some of the most popular garden varieties. Hippeastrums or amaryllis had long been known in gardens but another Veitch plant-hunter, Richard Pearce, introduced new species which provided new material for the hybridisers.


The Trials and Tribulations of 'Plant-hunting'


In1877, Peter Veitch set off to join Frederick Burbidge on a plant collecting trip to Borneo. You may recall several mentions of Burbidge (1847-1905) from some of my other posts in his capacity as Curator of the Botanical Gardens of Trinity College, Dublin but, in his earlier life, he was employed by the Veitch nursery as a plant collector. After 2 years exploring Borneo, Burbidge and Veitch brought back several new species of plants, including nepenthes, orchids and ferns, many named for Burbidge. One, Burbidgea nitida, was described by Sir Joseph Hooker in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine as an entirely new genus of plants (Hooker naming it for Burbidge).

'Burbidgea nitida', t.6403 from 'Curtis’s Botanical Magazine', January 1st, 1879. This native of Borneo is an epiphytic plant, found by Burbidge in the mountains. With similar flowers to the ginger family, 'Hedychium', it's known as the Golden Brush Ginger


It was after their return from Borneo in 1880 that Burbidge was appointed Curator in Dublin, and he published an account of his travels. Titled The Gardens of the Sun: or a Naturalist’s Journal on the Mountains and in the Forests and Swamps of Borneo and the Sulu Archipelago, it gives us some insight into the perils of plant-hunting [available online – see Notes for link].


In one chapter, Burbidge describes how Veitch joined him (after travelling in Australia and the Fiji Islands) and together they set off with 26 men and 2 “bird hunters” – forming “a rather imposing party of 30…”. The men were armed with native swords [presumably to hack their way through vegetation], while a few carried muskets that Burbidge and Veitch had brought with them. In one section of the book, titled Rough Riding, Burbidge describes how the party came across a fast-running river, and they had to cross on the backs of their water buffalos – usually used to carry their gear and plant specimens. Burbidge matter-of-factly writing that “[we] rode them across, while the men carried the packages on their heads, and held on by the saddle-gear or tails of the animals”. In his book, Burbidge even provides a nice little sketch of this event. Plant-hunting was definitely not for the fainthearted…

Veitch and Burbidge “Crossing the River” from Gardens of the Sun, 1880


As with so many garden history subjects I write about from this era, the first world war changed everything – and the business changed with it. The Royal Exotic Nursery in Chelsea ceased trading in 1914, although the Exeter business continued in one form or another until1969.


Summary


The Veitch dynasty was a dominant force in the British nursery trade and made a huge contribution to plant introductions during this era – “there can be few gardens in Britain today that do not contain a reminder of its achievements” as one writer puts it. It's easy to take for granted the huge number and variety of plants we have available today, and easy to forget that the likes of Lobb and Wilson travelled in often difficult and hostile environments to bring back such riches.


Financing plant collecting in far-away places was an expensive and commercially risky undertaking; it often meant a long wait to reap the rewards, with some plant-hunting trips lasting 2 or more years. It also took time to build sufficient stocks of a new plant before it could be included in the Veitch catalogues, and sold at handsome profits to the wealthy new middle-classes who filled their gardens with extravagant flower beds and specimen trees. New developments in glasshouse and heating technology also allowed them to grow the latest Veitch introductions of exotic ferns, orchids and foliage plants from faraway jungles in their conservatories and hot-houses. Veitch was also quite advanced in its advertising and marketing with promotions to the buying public with special offers.


The firm’s scientific outlook also ensured that their collectors contributed much information to scientific institutions, as they were instructed to collect information and specimens of all kinds of natural objects likely to be of value to learned institutions. And in so doing gained the support of the likes of Hooker and Lindley.


Upon James Jnr.’s early death in 1869, The Cottage Gardener compared him to the Tradescants and Peter Collinson, writing “… that a new era in botanical discovery was begun which has placed the name of 'Veitch' among the worthies of science in our own times.”


A replica of Ernest Wilson’s Veitch Memorial Medal (author’s photograph 2006)

A month after James Jnr.’s death, the RHS conceived the Veitch Memorial Medal to commemorate his life in horticulture “for his skill as a cultivator, his genius as an organiser, and his enterprise in sending forth collectors to various parts of the globe”. This has ever since been awarded annually to those who have helped in the advancement and improvement of the science and practice of horticulture, one of the most famous recipients being Ernest 'Chinese' Wilson. Modern recipients include Graham Stuart Thomas, Roy Lancaster, and David Austin.


After James Jnr.’s death, the Chelsea business passed to his sons Harry and John Gould, both of whom had their own plant-hunting forays. Harry was awarded the RHS Victoria Medal of Honour in 1906 and, in 1912, was the first horticulturist to be knighted for his services. [He was also instrumental in the establishment of the Chelsea Flower Show – see my post The First Chelsea Flower Show: the Royal International Horticultural Exhibition of May 1912.]


The one and only woman that really features in the Veitch story – although not often mentioned, was Peter’s daughter, Mildred Veitch (1889-1970). After her father’s death in 1929, Mildred took over the business. Its independence was ended however in 1969 when, in ill health and with no other family members to take on the business, she had to sell and the Veitch name in the nursery trade disappeared. Fortunately, the name lives on in many species of plants and flowers – some of which you may grow in your own gardens.



Notes:


Hortus Veitchii of 1906 compiled by James Herbert Veitch for private circulation. Link below:


The Gardens of the Sun, Burbidge's account of his trip to Borneo 1877-78. Link below:


References:


Seeds of Fortune: A Gardening Dynasty by Sue Shephard, 2003





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