Chiswick Garden ‘most important in UK’

Images above: Dutch Codlin apple 1820 painted by William Hooker, grown at Chiswick by Robert Thompson; Hoya pottsii brought back from China by the Socety’s plant collector John Potts; Penstemon ovatum

Royal Horticultural Society Garden

Chiswick was once the home of ‘the most important garden in Britain’ according to Fiona Davison, Head of Libraries and Exhibitions for the RHS.

In the 19th century the Horticultural Society (before it became the Royal Horticultural Society) chose Chiswick to be their nursery, to which they brought exotic plants from all over the Empire and worked out how they could thrive in our climate. ‘They scoured all of London’ she told an audience at the Chiswick Book Festival in 2019, ‘and chose Chiswick because it has the most fantastically fertile soil.’ The area had been a centre for market gardening for centuries for the same reason, ‘so residents of Chiswick really have no excuse not to have lovely gardens’ said Fiona.

Images above: Jospeh Paxton 1853; Plan of the arboretum at Chiswick 1826

The Hidden Horticulturalists

Her fascinating book The Hidden Horticulturalists, The Untold Story of the Men who Shaped Britain’s Gardens tells the tale of the working class young men who applied to work at the Horticultural Society’s garden in Chiswick, based on hand written notes she found in a book in the RHS library.

Among them was Joseph Paxton, who was in his early twenties when he met the Duke of Devonshire, whose land adjoined that of the Horticultural Society. So thoroughly did he charm the Duke that he offered him a job on the spot, as head gardener at Chatsworth. That was the start of a rags to riches career. He designed Crystal Palace and through his association with Prince Albert over the Great Exhibition, made connections which enabled him to end his life as a millionaire and an MP.

‘This little patch, 30 acres in Chiswick, was the most important place in the world for gardening. The East India company sent people off to get new samples and gardeners in Chiswick had to work out whether they were able to grow here’.

Images above: Rhododendron dalhousiae brought back from Himalayas by Joseph Dalton Hooker; Pink Quilled Chrysanthemum, collected in China by John Reeves; A yellow calceolaria and a rose illustration from The Horticultural Magazine 1837

Chrysanthemums from China caused tremendous excitement when they realised they could get them to grow, and also Chinese roses, which flowered for much longer than native Western European ones (of which Dog roses are a good example).

‘We should be very proud of the gardeners and what they achieved’ she says. They developed the technology for making glass houses too, ‘though they fried a lot of plants by accident’ in the process, she says.

The Hidden Horticulturalists is available in hardback in book shops and online. Thanks to the RHS for permission to reproduce the images.

Image below: Cartoon showing the rain-soaked flower show at Chiswick Garden in 1828