Our history : On the hunt … for plants! Plant Hunting, Collecting and Specimen Trees

The information concerning the history of plant acquirement at Middleton is complicated and, from this historian’s perspective, infuriatingly patchy. It isn’t that we are just missing the box of the jigsaw, we are also missing quite a lot of pieces. However, it is also one area where we suddenly discover a new titbit of information, which fills in another piece of the puzzle.

Plant hunting and collecting has actually been going on for thousands of years. In fact, many plants and trees now found in Britain are a result of plant hunting imports. At Middleton, two European species that were first introduced to England in the 15th century were being grown within a century of that date. These were hops, which were being grown on a large scale at Middleton by 1580, and the sycamore.

The first plant collectors at Middleton, we think, were the 17th century naturalists Francis Willughby and John Ray. At Cambridge University, Ray had attempted to create a garden that contained one of every type of plant in Britain. As Ray and Willughby travelled around Britain and on their European Tour, they sought the seeds and specimens of unusual plants and trees that they came across. There are letters that mention in passing the “store” of live plant varieties Willughby had growing at Middleton. Additionally, they both created dried herbariums that have both miraculously survived. What is more uncertain are the precise details of what they planted at Middleton. Partly, this is because much of what they planted has since become naturalised in our environment. In regard to the trees specifically, the legacy of their hunting is thought to be a surprising number of odd oak hybrids in various places around the Estate. To them many plants, even within Britain, were so different to what they knew as to make them unusual enough to be hunted (even though we may consider those plants now to be weeds!).

Hortus siccus

When French Jesuits were sent to Asia in the 18th century, they sent back many exotic and unusual descriptions and specimens of plants. Those in England with a keen interest in botany then quickly dispatched their most intrepid botanists to go off and find as many species as possible (and they really did risk life and limb to get plants). These Asian journeys inspired a style of garden planting that became known as the English Landscape Garden Style. It was observed that Chinese gardens avoided formal flower beds and rows of trees. Instead, they focused on irregularly placed, spaced and thus eye-catching trees, plants and structures. During the Victorian era, plant hunting for even more unusual and exotic plants reached its peak popularity.

At Middleton, the Glade was remodelled in an English Landscape Garden style in the Victorian era. We know that it was done in two stages. Unfortunately, we only have a vague idea of when it was first created, 1856 to 1880. Therefore, we think that it was created by one of two tenants, John Peel or Hanbury Barclay (we are placing our bets on Barclay!). The initial specimen trees planted were all Asian and have been dated to about 1860. These include the Deodar Cedar (Himalayas) and a couple of Oriental Thujas (northwest China).

The second phase of specimen trees were planted during the tenancy of Egbert de Hamel (1886-1924). Egbert was a keen natural historian and travelled the world studying the natural world and collecting samples. We know that he specifically visited Canada, Japan, Australia, Sri Lanka, South Africa and Iceland. From South Africa, we know that he brought back Sparrmannia Africana. This was grown in the glasshouse at Middleton Hall and the flowers were even used in his daughter’s wedding bouquet! He also introduced many American trees to the Middleton Estate. The specimen trees that he added to the Glade were the Giant Sequoias (USA) and Monkey Puzzle (Chile). He introduced numerous Scarlet and Pin Oaks (USA) in the Glade and along the Nature Trail. Near the entrance drive, he also planted a Patagonian Oak (Chile).

Hence, thanks to the centuries of plant hunters and collectors at Middleton, in one small part of Warwickshire you now have a garden containing plants from all over the world.

Debbie Jordan, Middleton Hall Trust Volunteer & Historian