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Zoom Talk: Caradoc Doy "Plant Hunters and Pioneers: A Brief History of the Veitch Nurseries in Exeter and London"

Written by Judi Sims. Posted in News

Plant Hunters and Pioneers: A Brief History of the Veitch Nurseries in Exeter and London by Caradoc Doy

The creation in 1830s of the Wardian case increased to 80% the survival rate of plants sent by ship, while  the knowledge Charles Darwin had brought back in 1831 of the growing conditions of his herbarium specimens and seeds  increased the enthusiasm for new plants.

Five generations of the Veitch family employed 23 plant hunters who travelled the globe between 1840-1912. Propagation of the new plants for sale financed the next expeditions. One branch of the family stayed in Devon, the other moved to London with a shop and nursery in Chelsea.

John Veitch  [1752-1839], having already opened a nursery on Acland land at Killerton was asked by the owner, the 10th baronet, to modernise the estate with interesting features, paths and borders near the house. He became head gardener and was advising other estates in every county in England except Rutland; so far no references have been found to estates he advised in Norfolk or Suffolk.

James Veitch senior [1792-1863] assisted his father, supplying plants for people who wanted exotic plants including dahlias and some already mentioned by Darwin. In the 1830s the family bought land for a nursery, built glass houses, (before the repeal of the glass tax) then opened a seed shop in Exeter, selling tools and garden necessaries at a time when garden chemicals had to be signed for.

Some of their most successful plant hunters were brothers William and Thomas Lobb, Ernest Wilson and Charles Maries. 

James and his son, James junior  [1815-1869] were hired to plant and maintain an arboretum at Bicton, Devon which already had an avenue of monkey puzzle trees. Among the first plants introduced in the 1840s were Primula denticulata and a white clematis C. montana grandiflora.

William Lobb, [1809-1863] was sent  to South America collecting exclusively for their nursery. He was a remarkable man but very little is known about him, his two journals having disappeared in WWII. He went to South America twice, each trip lasting four years, then North America. Veitch charged very high prices for the introduced plants, understandable considering the effort and time spent by their collectors.

In 1840 Lobb went to the ‘Organ mountains’ in South America. This very diverse area meant that various collectors nearby would find different plants. One find was Begonia coccinea. He later collected monkey puzzle seeds, very hard to obtain; it took William four years to reach the area, depicted by Marianne North. There is a reference to William using his gun to get branches for the seeds which were sold – 100 for £10 in 1844. Two years later the seedlings were sold at a price which today would be £300. He also found many fuchsias including F. serratifolia, important for breeding. William also found several myrtles; he noticed the natives picking the fruit of one evergreen myrtle or Chilean guava, Ugni molinae. It’s not very hardy but delicious, like wild strawberry and was apparently used for Queen Victoria’s favourite jam.

Another find was the Peruvian magic tree Cantua buxifolia, sacred to the Incas. It too is not very hardy but lovely, with bright pink dangling tubes. They were on offer in 1851 for a guinea, a fortune at the time.

Cantua buxifolia 'Dancing Oaks'

For those unable to afford the plant, Veitch offered a picture in return for a recent invention, several postage stamps. Lobb introduced the Chilean fire bush, Lapageria rosea and a number of nasturtiums including Tropaeolum speciosum, Crinodendrum and Escallonia macrantha var. rubra, which has naturalised in Cornwall but not Devon. The escallonia was used by Veitch hybridisers.

Tropaeolum speciosum

William also collected the seeds and cones of conifers, popular with landowners for clothing their estates, as well as Podocarpus and Berberis darwinii, (Darwin had brought back dried specimens). He also collected the slow growing Cypress 2-300’ tall, Fitzroya cupressoides, also found by Darwin, and named after Beagle’s captain, Captain Robert Fitzroy who later founded the Meteorological Office.

Later William went out to the west coast of America where he found the Western Red Cedar, already discovered by Douglas, who later died in Hawaii. He added Ceanothus C. Veitchianus, re-introduced Fremontedendron and introduced the Giant Redwood or Wellingtonia. William Lobb was famous in his life time and a new moss rose was named after him by a French breeder. He fell ill in California where he died in 1863 and is buried in San Francisco.

William’s younger brother, Thomas, [1817-1894] was also sent out collecting and he became an orchid fanatic finding specimens in Java for glasshouses at home. He spent the best part of 17 years on the tropical islands including the Phillippines and Borneo. He added Deutzia gracilis from Java, and on near by islands found tropical rhododendrons or ‘Greenhouse’ varieties including  R. Veitchianum, both used for hybridising. Some of these still survive despite the devastation of WWI which didn’t help the estate gardens and gardeners.

Thomas added many newly discovered orchids some of which were also used for hybridising. Vanda caeruleum which made Thomas famous, was introduced in 1849. Perhaps his most successful find was Phalaenopsis amabilis used for hybridising. Thomas also collected Nepenthes or pitcher plants finding a number of new species. This was a dangerous place; the head-hunting natives scared him off their sacred mountain.

Thomas also collected plants now grown as house plants; Hoya bella from Thailand and Medinilla magnifica from the Phillippines where he suffered such a serious leg injury he had to come home. He later developed gangrene and the story tells of amputation on the kitchen table. Unable to continue collecting he became a recluse and died in 1894.

James Veitch junior [1815-1869] ran the new Chelsea enterprise from 1853 on a small 4 acre site on the King’s Road where he had many competitors, now there is only one nursery left. He needed more land and set up peripheral nurseries. The Veitch Memorial Medal was created in his memory and has since become the RHS medal.

Richard Pearce, already in South America was asked to collect for James, exploring Chile, Peru and Bolivia. He found the tuberous Begonia boliviensis, the first tuberous begonia brought to Europe. He also added a red flowering Berberidopsis corallina now endangered in Chile due to deforestation. The Edinburgh Botanic Garden is trying to save it from extinction and return it. Pearce was high in the Andes when he found Masdevallia Veitchiana.

Begonia boliviensis

In 1863 James (senior) died picking flowers for his wife’s funeral so there was a double funeral. While James junior continued in London, his brother, Robert found a new site in Exeter, Robert was really a farmer and had a contract to landscape grounds round a house, now the site of the University’s Reed Hall.

John Gould Veitch  [1839-1870] was sent to Japan. He was the very first official collector to be let into the country which had been closed to foreigners for years. He was soon followed by Robert Fortune. In the foothills of Mt Fujiama John found a ‘fluffy’ conifer Cryptomeria elegans. He also found Magnolia stellata, dwarf Japanese maples and Lilium auratum, regarded as a weed in Japan. It was exhibited in Chiswick in 1861 and 5,000 people queued to see it - ‘men took off their hats and women curtseyed.’


Magnolia stellata                                                                  Lilium auratum

Robert’s son, Peter [1850-1929] was hired by his cousin, Harry, to travel to New Zealand and Australia and the South Sea islands; one collection was lost overboard in a gale so he repeated his collecting trip only for the second collection to be lost in a shipwreck. In Borneo he joined forces with another Veitch collector, F W Burbridge and with an escort they climbed Mt Kina Balu where they found the largest pitcher plant, Nepenthese  rajah which holds 4 pints of water.

Peter returned to Exeter where he landscaped gardens, including the cemetery where members of his family are buried. His son John Leonard volunteered  for the Cycling brigade in WWI and was killed three months before the war ended.

Peter’s daughter Mildred [1889-1971] left her teacher training course and moved to the new site in Exeter (which she eventually sold to St Bridget Nurseries in 1969). In the meantime, in London, James Junior’s son, Harry, [1840-1924] sent Charles Maries to Japan and China. He preferred Japan, travelling the length of the archipelago. It was in Japan that he found the hardiest banana, Musa Basjoo [named Chinesis!] He added Viburnim plicatum Marriesia ‘Hokkaido’ and in China, Hamamelis mollis.

Hamamelis mollis

James H Veitch [1868-1907] now headed the London branch  and wrote Hortus Veitchii, published for private circulation in 1906. The speaker found 1659 plants they had introduced, ranging from alpines to trees. Since then he has found even more; not all have survived the vagaries of time and relocation. They had added hundreds of fruit and vegetables too, many since lost .They included the climbing pea, Veitch’s Western Express, now saved in the Heritage Seed Library, a crab apple Veitch’s Scarlet and a very large apple Rev. W Wilks.

In the 1890s Dr Augustine Henry, an amateur botanist was in western China working for customs and botanising in his time off. He sent thousands of specimens to Kew including 500 new plants many named after him. One morning he recorded a dozen new species in a valley at a time when China was engaged in a huge deforestation programme. He pleaded with Kew to send out a botanist to make a survey. Kew had no budget for this but Veitch did and asked Kew; they recommended 21 year old Ernest Wilson. He became the most remarkable collector; by the end of his career he added at least 1000 new plants, finding 400 between 1899-1902.

Officially he was sent to find the Handkerchief tree Davidia involucrata. He began by visiting Charles Sargent at Harvard, who advised on the trees and shrubs he’d find. From there he went to San Francisco and Hong Kong travelling inland to meet Henry who showed Wilson a sketch of where to find this tree before having to return to work. Fortunately the locals knew and led Wilson, but in the mean time the Chinese had cut it down - it had taken him a year to get there. Fortunately he later found a grove of the trees in flower and sent back seeds to England. He also added Clematis montana var. rubens, Acer griseum, Primula pulverulenta, Parthenopsis henryana and Wilson’s favourite flowering plant, Kolkwitzia amabilis, as well as Lilium regale.


Davidia involucrata                                                               Kolkwitzia amabilis

William Purdom [1880-1921] was sent out after Hortus Veitchii was written so does not feature in the books; now several publications are paying him due deference. He added Viburnum fragrans, and the red birch Betula albo-sinensis var.septentrionalis from Kansu.

Sir Harry Veitch [1840-1924], the last of the Veitch dynasty in Chelsea, had been knighted for his charitable work. The RHS asked the Chelsea Hospital if they could hold a one-off show there. It was so popular that the arrangement has continued. As Sir Harry had no heirs, he wound up the London part of the enterprise by 1914. The seed business continued in Exeter until the seed stock was sold to Suttons in 1914.

All plant photos courtesy of the Hardy Plant Society