The British are known for their love of cultivating beautiful gardens – a passion which goes back to the Middle Ages. In those days, the gardens were useful and well-ordered, providing fruit and vegetables and also herbs to make medicines. However, the luxury of having a well-stocked garden was reserved only for the upper classes and for the monasteries, with fruit orchards and rectangular beds of produce providing fresh food.
Many ordinary people lived an impoverished lifestyle and it wasn’t until the Victorian era that the middle classes in suburban areas began to take an interest in gardening. The British public became fascinated with the new plants that were being shipped in from all over the world.
© Magnus / Adobe Stock
As a result, a more formal style of garden became the norm, displaying the latest species brought back to England by the explorers of the era. Today’s gardens remain influenced by the Victorian style – in particular those belonging to large country estates and stately homes.
In recent years, a resurgence of interest has led to new gardens being created in the Victorian style. They have been a popular feature of the Chelsea Flower Show in the 21st century.
In the Victorian era, from 1837 to 1901, gardening became a pastime that could be enjoyed by the masses. An increase in population led to more middle-class families moving to the suburbs, while new technology made gardening easier, and more diverse plants boosted interest. Gardening became a status symbol of the industrial revolution.
When Edwin Budding of Thrupp, Gloucestershire, invented the lawnmower in 1830, it made garden maintenance much easier. Prior to this, the scythe had been the main means of cutting back a garden. By the 1860s, lawn mowers were being mass produced.
Experiments to create hybrid plants had begun in the 1830s. Many took place at the laboratory garden at Down House, in Kent, where the legendary naturalist, biologist and geologist Charles Darwin learned how to adapt orchids for fertilisation.
In addition, the development of sheet glass in 1847 meant larger greenhouses could be built more cheaply, while the invention of asphalt in the 1860s led to the introduction of more garden paths.
Main garden features
Finely-manicured lawns became a feature of the Victorian garden. For wealthy families with a large lawn, it became an outdoor “parlour”, with traditional garden furniture, such as ornate chairs and a table. The lawn needed constant attention to keep it in tip-top shape.
Trees were also a popular feature, providing shade when sitting outdoors. Trees with bright leaves, or “weeping” species, were often planted. For the wealthier families, more exotic trees could be cultivated in the conservatory or greenhouse.
Larger collections of trees were displayed in arboretums, while shrubs were a common means of defining property lines, marking paths and hiding fences. Mixed species of shrubs would also frame doorways and bay windows.
Among the most popular species of plants were the rhododendron, camellia and magnolia. Each has its own fascinating history.
The 19th century English botanist, Sir William Jackson Hooker (who had helped populate Kew Gardens) was fascinated by the rhododendron. He said the rhododendron genus “excited interest” across Europe when he exhibited coloured lithographic drawings of 26 new species that his son, Joseph, had discovered in the Kingdom of Sikkim, in the eastern Himalayan mountains, between Bhutan and Nepal.
The detailed botanical drawings had been created by Walter Fitch, based on Joseph’s sketches that he had made while in Sikkim. They were made into a widely-read book, Rhododendrons of the Sikkim Himalayas.
The colourful drawings of the exotic plants, with their bright red and white flowers and six-inch trumpets, were produced in a pre-photography era. They were totally different from the more delicate rhododendrons that had been introduced into Britain from Asia Minor and North America prior to 1850.
Despite the incredible beauty of the drawings, they were later described as an “understatement” when compared with the magnificent real plants. When the new species of rhododendron were brought back to Britain, they became the “aristocrats” of the plant world.
The camellia has also entranced gardeners since Victorian times. The exotic plant blooms quite early in the year, producing stunningly beautiful flowers. Camellias had been popular in China and Japan for centuries, but they didn’t appear in Britain until the early 19th century.
By 1850, the camellia was a much-prized ornamental shrub. The formality of the blooms and the elegant evergreen foliage made it particularly popular.
Interest in the camellia waned in the early 20th century, but it became popular again in the 1950s, when new varieties and species were introduced. The camellia has remained on trend, thanks to its ability to bloom early in spring, with the most famous variety being C Japonica.
This species blooms from late January until April or May. When there’s a mild start to the New Year, it flourishes and the flowers bloom early. However, if snow and ice then return and the air is particularly damp, this doesn’t suit the camellia.
The magnolia was named after the 17th-century French botanist Pierre Magnol, who invented the concept of plant families, based on their morphological characters. He recognised the evergreen American species, which became known as Magnolia Virginiana.
The plant was first grown in Europe in the 18th century and Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus named it “magnolia” in 1737.
Despite the magnolia being “discovered” in the 17th century, it is one of the most primitive plants in evolutionary history. Fossils have been unearthed showing that it existed in North America, Asia and Europe more than 100 million years ago.
In Victorian times, when small, ornamental gardens became popular, evergreen magnolias were a common choice, even in the gardens of smaller houses. There are around 80 species in existence today and about 50% of them are tropical.
Without the inquisitive nature and the artistry of our Victorian ancestors, the British landscape would look very different today – we have a lot to thank them for!
Adorned with a wonderful assortment of mature trees and more than 6,000 plant species, Pinetum Gardens is a 30-acre estate that is brimming with exquisite botanical examples. Come and see us soon!