Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Topsham Bookshop: Veitch Exhibit

These rare long-stemmed begonias (left and right) are the
prototypes from which all modern begonias were bred
This is slight nepotism, but I'll mention it anyway. This week (23rd-28th July) The Topsham Bookshop, where I work part-time, is hosting a presentation by the horticulturalist Caradoc Doy to commemorate the legacy of the Veitch Nurseries of Exeter and Chelsea.

If you ever go to garden centres - I do, though I'm not as enthusiastic about plants as my wife - you often wonder where the new exotic plants they keep inventing come from. The answer is, generally, that they're hybridised in nurseries from precursors that go back to Victorian times and a vast amount of international prospecting. Veitch had a team of 22 plant-hunters who searched worldwide over the second half of the 19th century.

It was a risky business. One Veitch explorer, Thomas Lobb, suffered a leg injury in the Phillipines, leading to amputation; Gottlieb Zahn drowned near Costa Rica; Gustav Wallis, died of some combination of yellow fever, malaria and dysentery; and Henry Chesterton, also died of tropical disease in Colombia after collecting the 'Dracula orchid' Dracula chestertonii. His obituary in the Shipping List read:
Mr. J. H. Chesterton, the botanist, died at Puerto Berrio on the 26th. He had been quite ill, but left the hotel 'San Nicholas,' thinking that he had sufficiently improved to be able to make his trip up the river. Sad mistake! He continued to decline, and was barely put on shore at Puerto Berrio where he died. Poor Chesterton's reckless spirit rendered him very efficient as a plant-collector.
You can read more in the Lives of Travellers section of Hortus Veitchii itself.

Anyhow, horror stories apart, Veitch were were the largest group of family-run plant nurseries in Europe during the 19th century, and by the outbreak of the First World War had introduced 1281 plants into cultivation. Their legacy continues today with the Chelsea Flower Show, which is the modern incarnation of the International Horticultural Exhibition organised in 1912 by Sir Harry Veitch.

See Caradoc Doy's site for further background, and the Topsham Bookshop Veitch Exhibit page for a taster of the bookshop display.

James H Veitch's classic 1906 book Hortus Veitchii : a history of the rise and progress of the nurseries of Messrs. James Veitch and sons, together with an account of the botanical collectors and hybridists employed by them and a list of the most remarkable of their introductions is online at the Internet Archive (ID hortusveitchiihi00veitrich). If you want to see an original copy, The Topsham Bookshop has one on display for the week; and for botany enthusiasts who prefer the real thing to an e-version, Caradoc has a special offer on his very nice centenary reprint.

title page of Hortus Veitchii
Veitch's original Chelsea nursery,
from Hortus Veitchii

- Ray

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