Gardens and Herbaria: The Nursery Trade

Specimen of Medicago lupulina with description in German from Kaufmann and Saamenhandler catalogue, 1826; Oak Spring Foundation Library.

As the examples of Mary Somerset and Margaret Bentinck illustrate (see last post), large sums of money were lavished on gardens.  Over the centuries as the number of gardeners grew, gardening became a business.  The wealthy employed managers for their estates and these men in turn hired those who actually did the work.  John Tradescant the Elder spent many years as head gardener to the Duke of Buckingham, who financed collecting trips to Russia, Algiers, and the Middle East in search of new plants to cultivate.  His son John Tradescant the Younger made trips to Virginia between 1628 and 1637, introducing the magnolia, bald cypress, and tulip tree to Britain.  The Tradescants had their own garden on the outskirts of London where they grew the plants they had collected and sold them to interested gardeners, while maintaining their positions on estates.  After Buckingham died, the father served King Charles I as did his son (Potter, 2016).

The Tradescants were early to a new form of business:  the nursery, where gardeners could buy equipment and also novel plants.  On the outskirts of London nurseries cultivated plants in large number and sold the seeds they harvested.  Plants from North America and South Africa became particularly popular because their native ranges had climates more similar to Europe than those from India or South America.  Nurserymen often dealt directly with collectors or plant importers.  There was much communication of information and plants, especially seeds, across Spain, France, the Netherlands, and Britain, with each country’s plantsmen having different sources for exotics.  Some nurseries specialized in exotic plants and had connections with collectors, some of them officers on the British naval vessels.  Another good source of novel species was the Netherlands, with its colonies in the Far East and connections to Spanish and Portuguese trading vessels that stopped at Dutch ports.

Besides cultivating exotics, nurserymen also experimented with better ways of nurturing common garden plants and finding new varieties.  Thomas Fairchild who grew and sold plants in London, was the first to create a hybrid between two plant species.  There is a herbarium specimen at the Oxford University Herbarium of “Fairchild’s mule,” a cross between sweet William and carnation pink—an example of how herbaria can document otherwise fleeting botanical accomplishments (Leapman, 2000).  Fairchild was also the first to have a blooming horse chestnut tree in Britain, almost 200 years after Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq brought seeds and specimens from Greece for Carolus Clusius and Pietro Andrea Mattioli.

As with any business, nurserymen needed ways to advertise their wares.  William Darby, who dealt in exotics, used a herbarium as a sales catalogue; it was portable and provided proof that he in fact had possession of the species (Harris, 2011).  It was also a way to appeal to the more sophisticated gardeners, who also documented their plants this way.  Kaufmann and Saamenhandler, nurserymen in Rostock, Germany, had a sales catalogue for forage herbs and grasses that was sold with and without specimens pasted to its pages (see image above).  There was even a deluxe version that included vials of seeds for each species, except for the six at the end of the catalogue that were considered noxious weeds and were included to help customers identify these interlopers.

Some sellers simply printed up lists of what they had in stock, perhaps with a brief description of each variety.  Others added woodcuts picturing their wares, but for the most elite clients, there were colored engravings as in Robert Furber’s Twelve Months of Flowers with plates of flowering plants he sold, organized by the month they bloomed.  At times the advertising was more subtle.  Mark Catesby, perhaps the best known British naturalist who visited colonial North America, made two trips there.  On the second begun in 1722, he amassed a large collection of plants and animal specimens, as well as notes and drawings he used in his two-volume The Natural History of the Carolinas, Florida, and the Bahamas.  He engraved the illustrations himself because he could not afford to hire an engraver.  To make ends meet, Catesby was involved in London’s nursery trade, where North American plants were popular (Nelson & Elliott, 2018).  Particularly in the second volume, a number of plant descriptions include the names of nurserymen who had successfully grown particular species.  Since only the wealthy could afford these books, they served almost as catalogues for American exotics aimed at a receptive clientele.  After Catesby’s death, his Hortus Europae Americanus was published.  It focused on North American trees and shrubs that could be grown in British gardens and was a more explicit advertisement for these species.

As a brief postscript, a stained glass window honoring Catesby has recently been installed in St. Giles’ Cripplegate Church in London.  It was a joint project of the Mark Catesby Centre at the University of South Carolina and the Worshipful Company of Gardeners, which received a British royal charter in 1605 to regulate the sale of plants, a sign of maturation of the nursery trade.  The window is a reminder of the close ties between plant collecting and plant selling as well as an indication of how Britain values its garden history.  A second example of this is another church building a few miles away.  St. Mary’s Lambeth Church where John Tradescant the Elder is buried.  It was due to be demolished and was saved by being turned into the Garden Museum.  It’s a beautiful building with a lovely old churchyard that includes a prominent memorial to Tradescant erected by his wife.


Harris, S. (2011). Planting Paradise: Cultivating the Garden 1501-1900. Oxford: Bodleian Library.

Leapman, M. (2000). The Ingenious Mr. Fairchild: The Forgotten Father of the Flower Garden. St. Martin’s.

Nelson, E. C., & Elliott, D. J. (Eds.). (2015). The Curious Mister Catesby: A Truly Ingenious Naturalist Explores New Worlds. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Potter, J. (2006). Strange Blooms: The Curious Lives and Adventures of the John Tradescants. Atlantic Books.

2 thoughts on “Gardens and Herbaria: The Nursery Trade

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s