The Garden Guide

Book: London Parks and Gardens, 1907
Chapter: Chapter 12 Historical Gardens

Famous trees in the Chelsea Physic Garden

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The famous cedars were planted in Watt's time, and from contemporary references to them, there seems no doubt that they were the first to be grown in England. John Evelyn in his "Sylva" in 1663, writing of the cedar, says, "Why should it not thrive in Old England?" and Ray is astonished in 1684 to see the young trees flourishing at Chelsea without protection. They are shown in a plan of the Garden in 1753 (the year of Sir Hans Sloane's death) at the four corners of a pond, which no longer remains in the same position. Eighteen years later the two furthest from the river were cut down (1771), "being in a decayed state" (and no wonder) from the rough usage they had been subjected to. The timber, 133.75 feet, was sold at 2s. 8d. a foot, and, together with the branches, the trees fetched �23, 9s. 8d. The two specimens nearest the river were for nearly a hundred years a conspicuous object, although much injured by snow in 1809. By 1871, only one remained, and, in a report of the Garden seven years later, it was said to be in a "dying condition." At the time the new Management Committee came into office, that one was quite dead. They left the tree standing until the fungi on it became a danger to the rest of the trees in the Garden, when most reluctantly it was felled in March 1904, all the sound parts of the timber being carefully preserved. Miller gives a good account of them in his time. "The four trees," he writes, "(which as I have been credibly informed) were planted there in the year 1683, and at that time were not above three feet high; two of which Trees are at this time (viz. 1757) upwards of eleven feet and a Half in girt, at two Feet above ground, and thereby afford a goodly shade in the hotest Season of the Year." He goes on to point out that they were planted so near the pond, which was bricked up to within two feet of them, that the roots could not spread on one side. Whether the water was good for them he is not sure, but feels certain it was injurious to cramp the roots. The two specimens nearest the green-house had had some of their branches lopped off, to prevent their shading the grass, and suffered in consequence. Though one remained for nearly 150 years after Miller gave these measurements, it was only 13 feet round the trunk at the base when it was felled, and was so completely rotten ir must soon have fallen. Miller records that three of the trees began producing cones about 1732, and that in his time the seeds ripened, and germinated freely, so it is probable that many plants in England are descendants of the Chelsea trees. That these were actually the first to be grown in England there is not much doubt. Evelyn regrets in his "Sylva" the absence of the cedars in England. The only trees which have put forth rival claims to the Chelsea ones are those of Bretby and Enfield. The Bretby one is undoubtedly very old, but there is no early reference to it in histories which mention the Enfield trees, and the famous one at Hendon, traditionally planted by Queen Elizabeth and blown down in 1779, and a few others; and there is no contemporary evidence of the date of its planting to warrant the assumption that it was before 1683. The Enfield tree in the garden of Robert Uvedale was said, in 1823, by Henry Phillips, to be about 156 years old, therefore older than the Chelsea ones by some six years; but there is no evidence to corroborate this. When Gibson describes the Garden in 1691, he makes no mention of it, and it seems unlikely he would have omitted such an important tree. There exists much correspondence with Uvedale and botanists of his time, but in none of the letters or early notices is the cedar mentioned before Ray's note of the Chelsea trees, or even referred to as the first planted in England, so it seems the Chelsea trees' claim to be the first is fairly established. The oriental plane, which fell just as it was going to be taken down in 1904, was one of the finest in London, planted by Philip Miller, and is quoted by John Claudius Loudon, in 1837, as then 115 feet high. Some of the other famous trees have also died, such as the cork trees and paper mulberries; but some have been more fortunate, and are among the oldest of their kind in England. The Koclreuteria paniculata is probably the finest in this country, and the other old trees which were noted as being particularly fine specimens in 1813 or 1820, and which are still alive, are Diospyros Virginiana, the Persimmon or Virginian date plum, the Quercus ilex, black walnut, mulberry, and Styrax officinale. Rhus juglandifoliat which grows by the wall, was probably planted when introduced from Nepaul in 1823. The wistaria and pomegranate are old and still flourishing, and young plants of the trees once famous in the Garden are doing well. The amount of attention the novelties in the Physic Garden used to attract is well shown by the spurious translation of De Sorbiere's travels. The little book, published in 1698, purported to be a translation of De Sorbiere, but was really an original skit. The writer pretends De Sorbiere visited the Garden, and reported a delightful series of imaginary flowers. "I was at Chelsey, where I took particular notice of the plants in the Green House at that time, as Urtica male oleus Japoniᄉ, the stinking nettle of Japan; Goosberia sterelis Armenia, the Armenian gooseberry bush that bears no fruit (this had been potted thirty years); Brambelia fructificans Laplandiᄉ, or the Blooming Bramble of Lapland; with a hundred other curious plants, and a particular Collection of Briars and Thorns, which were some part of the curse of the Creation." That it was worth while laughing at the Garden in a popular skit, shows what an important position it had taken. The green-houses were among the earliest attempted, and many scientific visitors describe their plans and arrangements. They were rebuilt at great cost in 1732. The statue to Sir Hans Sloane, by Michael Rysbrach, stood in a niche in the green-house wall. It was moved to the centre of the Garden in 1751, where it still stands. The Garden was honoured by a visit from the great Linnᄉus in 1736, and he noted in his diary: "Miller of Chelsea permitted me to collect many plants in the Garden, and gave me several dried specimens collected in South America." Among the valuable bequests to the Garden were collections of dried plants, now in the British Museum of Natural History, and a library left by Dr. Dale in 1739, on condition that "suitable and proper conveniences" were made for them at the Physic Garden. They should be there still, and the new buildings are eminently suited for their reception; and their use to students would be very great, now that the Garden is well equipped for supplying all the requirements for the modern teaching of botany.