Friday, February 22, 2019

The Veitch Dynasty

Kew Gardens

Kew Gardens

Regular readers of the Flora Wonder Blog know that I am enamoured with British horticulture – with its history, its current institutions and with the general appreciation their populace has for food and ornamental gardening. We have wonderful gardens and gardeners here in America too – and I would include (without wanting to boast) my own Flora Wonder Arboretum – but in the UK everything seems a little more serious, a little more polished and highly more supported. I loved when I saw a ruddy-cheeked student crew at Kew, for example, that was turning the October soil with forks for a future planting site. God, the girls were Plain-Janes in appearance, but I would have hired every one of them for their enthusiastic energy, and thus they all became beautiful to me. My wife admired the young men, for the lads also toiled with gusto – such good kids! Does anyone want to do an internship at an Oregon nursery?

I wanted to write a blog on the Veitch Nursery's history but I got somewhat side-tracked when re-reading Sue-Shepard's Seeds of Fortune, A Gardening Dynasty (2003) with a foreword by the eminent British horticulturist, Roy Lancaster. The strangely titled book is dedicated “In memory of William and Thomas Lobb and all the plant collectors, nurserymen and gardeners who have filled our gardens.” Hmm...that's a little odd when you consider all of the Veitch players who contributed to the “dynasty,” such as E.H. (“Chinese”) Wilson for example.

Sequoiadendron giganteum

Sometimes before reading a historical or scientific book, or when reading it for the second time, I'll turn to the index and zero in on something that catches my fancy. Wellingtonia grabbed my attention, so I turned to pages 115-116. What, I wondered, would Ms. Shepard reveal about the “giant redwood.” Well, William Lobb – a Veitch plant collector operating in California – grabbed seeds of the giant redwood in 1852 and rushed them back to England so that his employer could be the first to introduce the tree to Britain. Lobb's employer, James Veitch, “was ecstatic and he put aside all other work to concentrate on raising quantities of seedlings,” and a short time later he was offering them for sale. For the record, though, Scotsman John Matthew beat Lobb by four months, but he was just a private gardener who distributed a few seeds to his friends. It was James Veitch who was particularly anxious to have the giant redwood named for the Duke of Wellington and English botanist John Lindley did so. Americans weren't happy with the name and argued for Washingtonia for their own war hero and first President. Eventually the tree was scientifically named Sequoia gigantea by botanist Stephan Endlicher; he was a brilliant Austrian intellect, but man, I would have changed my name if it was Endlicher. Anyway, among English gardeners the tree is still commonly known as Wellingtonia.

In California the Calaveras Grove – where the giant redwood was first discovered – became a tourist attraction, and I have seen the enormous stump of a felled tree which was turned into a dance floor. A decade ago then-President Obama posed for my camera with him on the stump, for he supposed himself to be a “giant” leader and inquired with me if Sequoiadendron could possibly be renamed Obamadendron, as he assumed that I was most influential in the botanical world. I promised to look into it... Sue Shephard, author of the Veitchian tome, writes: “Happily the Grove [implying the Calaveras Grove] is now part of the National Park and its largest and oldest specimen, known as 'General Sherman', is still revered.” (Emphasis mine).

Indeed Ms. Shephard is correct that the General Sherman tree is the most massive single-stem tree in the world, but it is not found in the Calaveras Grove, but 123 miles away at the Sequoia National Park. Nor is it the oldest (at about 2,000-2,500 years old) because the President Tree is believed to be about 3,200 years old. Shephard could easily have checked her facts on the internet, or at least the editor should have, but then that's what you get with an English author writing about an American species. Frankly I'm happy that it was finally named for a native American*, albeit a half-breed born in Tennessee who never even saw the giant redwoods.

Strix occidentalis

*The local California Miwok tribe used the term “Wawona,” but it is not certain if it was used for the “big tree” or for the “hoot of the spotted owl,” (Strix occidentalis) a bird considered the trees' spiritual guardian. But wouldn't it be great if the giant redwood would have been scientifically named Wawona giganteum?

Joseph Dalton Hooker

Ok – let's get back to William Lobb. While his brother Thomas was collecting non-hardy orchids in Asia, William was sent by James Veitch to collect in western North America, and I have always wondered, as with the incredible David Douglas, if all three of us have stepped foot on the exact same soil – yes, it could be so! Remember that it was Joseph Hooker of Kew that sponsored collectors and David Douglas wrote to his friend Hooker, after finding yet another Pinus species, that “You will begin to think that I manufacture pines at my pleasure.”

William Lobb didn't accomplish much during his last 3-year contract in America for Veitch. James Veitch wrote to William Hooker, Joseph's father, “We hear Lobb has been ill, his writing appears shaky and I am inclined to think it probable he will soon return. Earlier, when he was hired to search for plants in the Americas, he was described in Hortus Veitchii as “quick of observation, ready in resources, and practical in their application; he had devoted much of his leisure to the study of botany, in which considerable proficiency had been acquired.” So what happened to him? What happened to the collector of seeds of the giant redwood, as well as the first “commercial” importer of Araucaria araucana seeds, Luma apiculata, Lapageria rosea, Embothrium coccineum and so much more? Sadly he was exhibiting the symptoms of syphilis, probably contracted in the ports of South America, and he died forgotten and alone at St. Mary's Hospital in San Francisco, the cause officially recorded as “paralysis.”

James Veitch Senior

When sending collectors out James Veitch needed someone he could trust, “who had a knowledge and love of plants but, he pointed out, the man had to understand 'what to collect for a nurseryman rather than one who only appraised plants with a Botanist's ego.” In spite of William Lobb's ultimate demise, he and his brother were the first collectors sent out by a commercial nursery, and one must conclude that the business venture was successful.

Nepenthes species

William Lobb's brother Thomas joined the Veitch firm in 1830 at age 13. Ten years later he went the opposite direction and was sent to collect in Singapore, Malaysia, Java, Burma, India and Nepal. Unlike William, Thomas kept his pants on, but on his fourth trip he suffered a leg injury and it was later amputated. He collected a lot of non-hardy orchids and Nepenthes for there was a lively trade in these exotics for a wealthy class to show off in their “stove” houses.

Arthur Bulley

Somewhat like today, competition existed not only among collectors to be the first to introduce something, but also among the nursery businesses as well. While E.H. Wilson was working in China for Veitch, Arthur Bulley of Bees Nursery in Chester also had a man, George Forrest, exploring in China. In the Gardener's Chronicle publication Bees got credit for the first-flowering specimens of Meconopsis integrifolia. James Herbert Veitch immediately wired the Chronicle to point out that the Veitch plants had flowered at the exact same time. As competition was increasing James wrote to Wilson: “I see Vilmorin [in France] must have got a lot of plants – and there is no doubt we are only just in time.”

Davidia involucrata 'Sonoma'
Davidia involucrata 'Platt's Variegated'

In fact when E.H. Wilson was dispatched to China to search for the “Dove tree,” Davidia involucrata, first discovered there by Armand David twenty years earlier, Wilson was successful and collected an abundant harvest. The Veitch Nurseries had triumphed once again, and even before its first flowering Davidia was a commercial success. However, like William Lobb and the Sequoiadendron, it turned out that in 1898 the French nurseryman Maurice de Vilmorin had raised a young tree from seed sent to him by the missionary Pere Farges. Vilmorin's specimen flowered in 1906 and it was noted for smooth leaves, and was named Davidia involucrata var. vilmoriniana. Wilson collected a thousand miles away from the Farges discovery and his was a hairy-leaved version. In any case the Veitches were so pleased with Wilson that they presented him with a gold pocket watch inscribed: “E.H. Wilson from James Herbert Veitch 1899-1903 Well Done!”

Abies mariesii

Charles Maries
The first time I encountered Abies mariesii it was at the Hoyt Arboretum in Portland, Oregon about 35 years ago. I hope their few specimens continue – I guess I haven't seen them in many years. One characteristic that I find interesting about the species is that the male pollen flower is colored lime-green when most Abies species are colored violet-purple...but that's assuming that the Hoyt's are true to name. The species was named for their discoverer Charles Maries (1851-1902), an English botanist and plant collector who was noticed as industriously exceptional and intelligent by the Veitch firm...then sent to Japan, China and Taiwan to collect between 1877 to 1879. He did a good job and discovered over 500 new species which Veitch then introduced to England. Maries is credited with the discovery of Acer nikoense (maximowicziana), the white form of Daphne genkwa, Hamamelis mollis, Pseudolarix amabilis, Rhododendron fortunei and Loropetalum chinense. Interestingly, Maries did not end up in England to rest on his collecting laurels, but was recommended by Sir Joseph Hooker to the post of Superintendent of the gardens at the Maharajah of Darbhanga where he planned the gardens that surrounded the palaces. Besides ornamentals, Maries became an expert on mangoes, and he studied their flavours, colours and textures, then wrote and illustrated the manuscript Cultivated Mangoes of India, but it was never published. Unfortunately Maries died at age 51 from a kidney stone, and damn – what a painful ending that must have been for the astute horticulturalist.

Actinidia kolomikta

Magnolia kobus var. stellata 'Royal Star'

Besides the aforementioned discoveries, Maries is credited with finding Abies sachalinensis, Abies veitchii, Acer davidii, Actinidia kolomikta, Magnolia stellata, Styrax obassia and many others, and when you consider the abundance, one could stock a fascinating garden or arboretum with just his introductions alone. Really, I fantasize: if I won the mega-lottery, I would buy a thousand fertile acres... and plant separate Wilson, Maries, Lobb, Douglas gardens etc., and let the public wander freely into them.

Acer griseum

E.H. Wilson

Of course a plant explorer can collect seed or even live plants from anywhere in the world, but who is going to germinate the seed and raise the young plants? Who will continue to grow them on and determine if they are hardy or even desirable? I suppose that most introductions are, in the long run, ornamental failures. While Wilson was admonished to collect the Davidia and to not waste his time on other plants, over a hundred years later his discovery of Acer griseum has proved more fortuitous than Davidia, for A. griseum is ubiquitous in American landscapes today and you rarely see Davidia. Both are hardy and easy enough to grow, but that's just the way that horticulture has developed. 

Coombe Wood

No discussion of the Veitch dynasty can omit the mention of the apprentices, the salaried workers and the head propagators and growers – those grunts with soil under their nails. Before Wilson went to China he spent six months under George Harrow at the Coombe Wood facility. Then when he returned to England he found Harrow in charge of all of his plants and seedlings. The Davidia “nuts” had arrived safely in England in spring 1901, and were sown in every possible manor: some soaked in hot water, some in cold, some seed filed down, some put in the stove-house using different temperatures and some planted outside. The crop took its time as most seed requires a warm period followed by a cold one, but the point is that no one knew it at the time. Eventually the outdoor seedbeds showed signs of germination and by May thousands were sprouting. Wilson and Harrow were thrilled while James Veitch and Son Nursery was greatly relieved that they spent their exploration money well.

George Forrest
Frank Kingdon-Ward

George Harrow did such a good job raising Wilson's introductions that the Veitch firm was actually creating a glut of plants. Harry Veitch issued special “China catalogues” between 1909-1913 to reduce some of the stock. A rival nurseryman – remember that all nurserymen are rivals – recalled that “many thousands of new plants that had never been seen before were arriving by the barrowload. We were overwhelmed. It wasn't just an ounce or two of seed of each new plant, but pounds of it in many cases.” Other collectors such as George Forrest and Frank Kingdon-Ward were also flooding England with new plants. George Harrow deserves as much credit for documenting, growing and evaluating Wilson's bounty as Wilson does for collecting it in the first place.

The Veitch firm had introduced, before WWI, 1281 plants to cultivation which were either previously unknown or newly bred varieties. Incredible their accomplishments – which included 498 greenhouse plants, 232 orchids, 153 deciduous trees, shrubs and climbing plants, 49 conifers and 37 ornamental bulb plants.

John Gould Veitch Jr.
1914 was not a good year for the Veitches. Gardening didn't seem so important with the outbreak of the Great War. Harry Veitch's nephew, John Gould Junior, died, and the lease on Coombe Wood expired and could not be renewed. The workers were marching off to war, and Sir Harry Veitch at age 74 had no one to inherit the “House of Veitch.” The stock was liquidated. It must have sickened Sir Harry to see plants auctioned off at a fraction of their value, as I have witnessed the same disgusting practice myself in Oregon. Of course some gardeners and nurserymen seized upon the opportunity to scavenge. Edwin Hillier, Sir Harold Hillier's father, took advantage of the situation as an example. It's sad to think about the industrious, skillful nurseryman, George Harrow, that he had to see everything go out the door. Retired, he died in 1926.

Harry Veitch

The Veitch dynasty involved five generations, and I admit that it's difficult to keep all of the names straight. Some were brilliant businessmen but some were not, as to be expected. I wonder where I would have fit in if I was born a Veitch. I hope I would be like Sir Harry: “If you really love your work you do not keep things dark. I do not keep things that way. I do not play games, I do not shoot, I hate the water as a recreation. But I work and have always liked my work, which brings me into contact with the most charming people. Be sure that if a man is fond of a garden he has got a soft place somewhere.”


  1. Great pic of President Obama. How did you get through the Secret Service?

  2. Berberis darwinii also known as Calafate -- berries delicious. You have this plant?