The Garden Guide

Book: London Parks and Gardens, 1907
Chapter: Chapter 11 Inns of Court

Gray's Inn Catalpa Tree

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After such a delightful summary of their charms it seems cruel to try and dispel one of their most treasured traditions-namely, that Bacon planted the catalpa. It is a splendid and venerable tree, and there is no wish to pull it from its proud position of the first catalpa planted, and the finest in existence in this country; but it is hard to believe that Bacon planted it, in the light of the history of the plant. There is no mention of a catalpa in any of the earlier writers-Gerard did not know it, and it is not in the later edition of his work by Thomas Johnson, in 1633, or in Parkinson's "Paradisus," in 1629, or in Evelyn's "Sylva," in 1664, all published after Bacon's death. The tree was first described by Catesby in his "Natural History of Carolina," a splendid folio which appeared in 1731. There it is classed as Bignonia urucu foliis, or Catalpa, as it was not until later that Jussieu separated the genus Catalpa. He says the tree was not known to the inhabitants of Carolina till the seeds "were brought there from the remoter parts of the country," "and though the inhabitants are little curious in gardening, the uncommon beauty of this tree induced them to propagate it, and it is become an ornament to many of their gardens, and probably will be the same to ours in England, it being as hardy as most of our American plants: many of them, now at Mr. Bacon's, at Hoxton, having stood out several winters without any protection, except the first year." Hoxton was then a place famous for its nursery gardens. In 1767, in Catesby's volume on the trees of North America, he gives the same story, and adds, "in August 1748" it produced, "at Mr. Gray's, such numbers of blossoms, that the leaves were almost hid thereby." This Mr. Gray owned the nurseries in Brompton, famous under the management of London and Wise. In Philip Miller's dictionary, Catesby's history of the plant is referred to, and also in 1808, in the Botanical Magazine, when the plant was figured. There it says the plant "has been long an inhabitant of our gardens, being introduced by the same Botanist [Catesby] about the year 1728." "It bears the smoke of large towns better than most trees; the largest specimen we have ever seen grows in the garden belonging to the Society of Gray's Inn." There is no hint that the tree in question could have been here before Catesby's discovery, and it is not till John Claudius Loudon's Encyclopï¾µdia in 1822 that the planting is attributed to Bacon. Such a remarkable tree could hardly have escaped all gardeners for more than a century, during a time when gardening was greatly in fashion, and every new plant greedily sought after. We know that nearly a hundred years ago this specimen was the finest in England, and therefore it may have been planted not more than a hundred years or so after Bacon's death. Raleigh very likely walked with Bacon on the spot where it now stands, but, alas! the possibility that he brought Bacon a tree from Virginia, which was only discovered near the Mississippi a century later, is hardly credible. [ The Gray's Inn website reports, in 2007, that "On the west side of the Great Walk can be seen the single twisted trunk of an ancient catalpa, the remains of a greater tree crushed beneath an up-rooted plane-tree in the hurricane of 1987. Legend has it that this tree was planted by Sir Francis Bacon, but it is more probable that it was an import from the Orient a hundred years later. In 1802 the Walks themselves fell prey to development with the start of Verulam Buildings and by 1825 Raymond Buildings was completed (soon to provide the solicitor's office where articled clerk, Charles Dickens, first started work at the high desk to be seen in the Doughty Street Museum)."]