History of Exotic Gardening

Gardening as a hobby became popular during the Victorian era, and not just as a private pastime. This was the age of the Industrial Revolution, when squalid slums spread through towns and cities. During this period municipal authorities in many of the major cities made a concerted effort to provide extensive public gardens, creating open areas for pleasure and recreation. This apparently benevolent action, sponsored by the wealthy industrialists of the time, was not without private interest as the benefactors believed that access to public gardens would decrease drunkenness and improve the manners of the lower working classes. The upper classes and intellectuals of the period also thought that encouraging gardening would minimise antisocial behaviour by creating tranquil settings that would engender a sense of pride and respect for public spaces.

The exotic garden style reached its heyday during the mid-nineteenth century in Britain. The seemingly endless expansion of the British Empire opened up all the corners of the globe to the new avid gardeners. Intrepid botanical explorers were constantly bringing back new species, a task made easier by the invention around 1829 by Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward (1791–1868) of a small portable glass structure called a Wardian case. Use of these structures turned the trickle into a veritable flood of new exotic plants that were subsequently housed in large glasshouses or domes. Virtually every major European capital, however chilly its climate might be, managed to create a display of exotica from around the world.

In Britain, the repeal of the glass tax in 1845 and the growth of new industries producing cheaper glass started a massive boom in glasshouse, or greenhouse, production. These fanciful new structures housed collections containing a wide range of exotica, including such recently introduced plants as orchids, bromeliads, ferns, and palms. Cities vied for the best collections; visitors flocked by the thousands to see spectacular plants with huge leaves and exotic flowers. During this period an increasing number of plants became available and public interest in them quickly developed. At the same time, hothouses—large intricate structures of glass and iron, often called stoves or winter gardens—started to appear. Glass was relatively cheap, as was labour to care for the hothouse plants and fuel to heat the structures. Kept at a minimum temperature of 21°C, these hothouses recreated the humid, damp atmosphere of the plants’ native habitats, producing lush, verdant growth.

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, was opened to the general public in 1841, and the famous Palm House at the Kew Gardens, a gigantic greenhouse some 110 m long and 18 m wide constructed with the latest manufacturing techniques, was opened in 1848. It stands to this day as a marvel of Victorian construction containing a large range of tropical plants from around the globe. So also does the oldest existing public conservatory in the Western Hemisphere, the Conservatory of Flowers located in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, opened to the public in 1879.

The stately monkey puzzle (Araucaria araucana) became one of the “must-have” trees of Victorian society, planted in large and small gardens; many towering specimens survive to this day. This venerable plant was first introduced from Chile to the British Isles in 1795 by Archibald Menzies (1754–1842), a Scottish physician and naturalist. He allegedly pocketed some fertile monkey puzzle seeds when they were given to him as a dessert while he was dining with the governor of Chile on a global circumnavigation. He sowed the seeds on the ship during his return voyage to England; only five seedlings survived the journey and were given to Kew Gardens, where one survived until 1892. The monkey puzzle remained a rarity until the 1840s, when William Lobb rediscovered it on a plant-hunting expedition to South America, thus starting the Victorian-era explosion of interest.

A craze had begun for planting exotics outside as well as inside. Fabulous displays were created in the larger cities, with massed beds of flamboyantly coloured plants laid out in intricate, often geometric patterns. One of the earliest Victorian proponents of the new style of bedding was John Gibson, who produced large foliage displays in Battersea Park, one of London’s best-known public gardens. He used, as well as the more familiar bedding plants, a dazzling array of exotics such as bananas, cannas, and tree ferns, all bedded out for the summer months. The park was laid out between 1846 and 1864 to the grand designs of James Pennethorne and John Gibson.

In 1871 William Robinson’s The Subtropical Garden appeared, discussing the use of many different types of tropical and subtropical plants that could be successfully planted out during the warmer months of the year. Robinson, and later Gertrude Jekyll (1843–1932), disliked the formal, regimented planting style then in vogue and preferred the more naturalistic look. He also maintained that exotic-looking gardens could be created using hardy plants that had the appearance of their more tender subtropical counterparts—plants that would be visually pleasing but survive throughout the year and revel in Britain’s cool maritime winters.

Gardeners in general soon discovered from the likes of Robinson that many exotic plants would actually thrive in temperate gardens with a mixture of hardy exotics and the more tender summer bedding, with the larger subtropical species and their cultivars kept under glass for the cold winter months. One of the benefits of this style of gardening was that it greatly lengthened the garden’s season of interest. Plants of this nature could be enjoyed for a far longer period than those in the traditional cottage garden, which comes to a flowering peak in June; the new style carried on through high summer to autumn, often creating an explosion of riotous colour and large leaves with the use of such plants as cannas and gingers.

This sumptuous style of planting started to wane toward the end of the nineteenth century with the loss of the larger estates and their patrons, who paid for their rather expensive upkeep. The once-praised greenhouses became far too expensive to run, with labour costs spiralling and the price of fuel soaring. Well-known gardeners like Gertrude Jekyll praised the virtues of the cottage garden style, hailing the end of bedded-out plants, and hence the fashion for exotics came to an end.

After World War II, fairly low-growing, regimented bedding plants such as blue lobelia, red salvia, white alyssum, heliotrope, and bedding begonias started to be used again; these were employed especially by parks and gardens with the odd well-spaced, solitary canna thrown in. These plants were comparatively cheap and could be grown from seed, creating a splash of colour fairly quickly.

In the latter part of the twentieth century the use of exotics slowly started to re-emerge as a style of gardening, boosted since the 1960s by the ease of air travel to the Mediterranean and farther-flung parts of the world. Travelers somewhat bored with traditional herbaceous borders and prissy summer bedding saw many exotic plants and wanted to recreate what they saw in some small part of their gardens. By the mid-to-late 1990s and into the twenty-first century it had become very fashionable to have a garden designed by somebody else, invariably with a standard set of plants that are generally considered exotic or subtropical looking. While the use of exotics unquestionably adds flare to the garden, you will probably be happier if you make the choice of plants yourself.

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