The Landscape Guide

Exotic plants

When in its earliest stages, the picturesque style found an ally, helping to a final victory, in the powerful impetus towards the knowledge of plants which occurred in the eighteenth century. The cultivation of individual trees could not amount to much in the stiff formality of the French style; and it was impossible to use groups of shrubs of different kinds and colouring. Plants were not wanted unless they could be used for architectural purposes, and foreign ones were only acceptable in so far as they accommodated themselves to that kind of art. This applied also to flowers in the parterre. Attempts to acclimatise exotic plants were crippled by the masterful influence of the formal style, and such plants were relegated to the botanic garden. When, however, people began to admire trees and shrubs for their individual beauty and natural growth, they were attracted more and more towards places abroad, whence travellers and explorers brought back novelties, first singly and then in large numbers. Things moved slowly at the beginning; for the scientific and geographical interest taken in any special tree was not very strong. It had to express some feeling—must have, so to speak, something to say to men.

The judicious Kasimir Medicus, in his Materials for the Art of Beautiful Gardening, published in 1782, utters a warning against the destruction of the old gardens, and also regards with some anxiety what he considers the over-strenuous efforts made in the interests of botany. He thinks that the introduction of foreign trees, though in itself praiseworthy, has nothing to do with the laying out of an “English wood,” but is the affair of the botanist. The garden artist ought to study a tree with the eyes of a landscape painter and the spirit of a poet. To him the plane is the tree of reflection, and the annual shedding of the bark typifies the shedding of prejudices by the wise man. The maple is the tree of joyful companionship, and the Babylonian willow the tree of sorrow and mourning.

The whole botanical movement was only a slow and gradual prelude to the great concert that was to be performed in the nineteenth century, after the extensive acclimatisation of foreign plants had been accomplished, in which England took the first place. In the Physic Garden at Chelsea, maintained by the Society of Apothecaries, an attempt was first made in 1683 to acclimatise the cedar of Lebanon. The next year, to the great surprise of Sir Hans Sloane, young trees were growing happily on English soil, with no help from a forcing-house. Yet nobody could have guessed that in the ninteenth century cedars were to be almost the leading feature of the English garden.

A great deal went on henceforth in the way of importing American trees. At first it was only individual travellers and learned persons who explored temperate, hilly countries, especially America, in search of trees and shrubs. The American oak, many species of first poplars, magnolias, and the so-called acacias, only to mention the most familiar names, were introduced. The foundation of the Horticultural Society in London in 1804 was an important step forward. A few years later George Johnson wrote a history of garden architecture in England. He dedicated this work to Thomas Andrew Knight, the president of the Society, and a younger brother of Richard Payne Knight, author of the poem The Landscape . Thomas Knight, who was quite different from his dilettante brother, advanced the gardening of his time because of his energy, his profound knowledge of botany, and his work as a hybridiser.

It was one of the functions of the Horticultural Society to send plant collectors into all quarters of the world. The plants which they found were tried in England, and subsequently an account of them was published in the Proceedings of the Society. One of the men sent out was David Douglas, who had good fortune in discovering conifers in America. He wrote to Sir William Hooker, the Director of Kew Gardens, when he was sending some new things: “You will begin to think that I am raising fir-trees just as I feel inclined.” Early in the century the chrysanthemum and the wistaria were introduced. One of the most successful collectors in the East was Robert Fortune. In the year 1842 he sent from China and Japan Anemone japonica, Dicentra (Dielytra), and other plants which were destined to be great favourites. Dahlias, which had been introduced in the last years of the previous century, became very popular fifty years later. Fuchsias were brought in during the first half of the century; and about the middle came many orchids and innumerable quantities of hot-house plants.

Kew Gardens, founded by the Dowager Princess of Wales in 1759, soon acquired a European reputation. As early as 1789 between five and six thousand kinds of plants were growing there; and when a second list came out in 1810-13, the number had increased to eleven thousand. In 1839 the Botanic Society was founded in London, and did everything that could be done to help the study of scientific botany. The effect of this enormous increase of plant material on the one side, and the growth of scientific botany on the other, with the accompanying knowledge of the geographical distribution of plants, soon become apparent.

The sentimental period had passed away, having lived itself out. The fashion of composing poetry and talking philosophy in such garden scenery as was supposed to express a definite thought or feeling—a fashion which appealed strongly to German theorists at the turn of the century—had dwindled away to nothing. Moreover, people grew weary of tricks and playthings in gardens. “ La nature,” says Alphand in the seventies, “finissait par triompher de tout cet ameublement baroque.” The garden artist was drawn more and more towards the actual plants, and since he wanted to get a real acquaintance with the bewildering number of things offered to his choice, his chief study must needs be botany. Thus the garden fell entirely into the hands of the gardener and the botanist,  seeming to elude the architect altogether. 

People plunged into a study of the conditions necessary to plants, especially trees and shrubs, and were proud to think that “every tree and every plant had been assigned the place which Nature had intended for it, some on the mountain tops, some in the valleys, some in the shade, some in the sunny meadows, and others on the borders of the forest."

It was thus that the tree standing alone came to occupy the centre of the picture, as we saw so clearly in the grounds laid out by Pückler at Branitz (Fig. 606). 

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Later on arose a delight in planting a pinetum or plantation of conifers, and fortunately a great many new conifers were to be had. In England especially the pinetum became a thing of great beauty, for people learned that they must control thickness of planting, which at first was excessive. At the beginning it was thought that the soil of England could not supply nourishment enough for the cone—bearing giants when they had reached their full stature, as they were tropical trees. The first pinetum was established in Kew Gardens in 1843. Plantations of this kind were in a sense the sign of a new influence which hailed from Italy, but these plantings were very unlike those of the Italian Renaissance, when dark pines stood in even rows, like pillars with a green roof. Italy herself had, however, changed; the new pinetum with its picturesque groups at the Villa Doria Pamfili was planted near the gates of the gymnasium, the old park itself being made as far as possible like the English.

Although botanical interest was so strong and active, it was inevitable that English parks, with their exclusive care for trees and shrubs, should become in the long run uniform and dull. The means of expression were limited. The cry for variety which had kept artists and owners on the move for hundreds of years was subsiding more and more. Fortunately, however, the plants brought over by explorers in foreign countries were not limited to trees and shrubs; on the contrary, there were many different kinds of flowers. Only a few of these could endure northern winters, and the first result was the erection of new forcing-houses. The orangeries of the old style had fallen into the background since the picturesque fashion came in, and new ones were not made. Thus the number of hot-houses in private gardens increased at the expense of orangeries.

In 1833 the Englishman Ward invented an air-proof glass case, on the principle of the circulation of water through earth and air at an even temperature, and the transportation of tender plants to Europe with comparatively little trouble was thus possible. People who cultivated flowers grew more and more skilful in hybridising the original plants that were brought over. We ought to remember, for example, that innumerable kinds of roses were raised in the nineteenth century. And very soon there arose great trading firms, which sent out their own explorers to every part of the world in search of new plants; indeed some firms, such as Veitch of Chelsea, Bull of Chelsea, and later Sander of St. Albans, and Vilmorin of Paris, had collectors scattered about in every country.

It was natural that people who had nursed tender plants through the winter and spring should want to enjoy them in summer in their own gardens. The most imposing effect was produced when they were planted in great masses, but in the North such an effect was unnatural, and it was not easy to produce. The method first hit upon was neither systematic nor artistic. Carpet-gardening, introduced into Europe by Pückler (Fig. 605), must be regarded as the first stage of a new alliance between flower-growing and the picturesque garden. 

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


The beds were filled with different flowers according to the time of year, and were mixed with plants that had various-coloured leaves. Unfortunately this ugly and stupid style is to be found in certain public gardens even in our own day.