Local horticulturalist Stefan Drew looks at several gardens in the Sid Valley, together with the plant collectors associated with them – and draws our attention to the ‘handkerchief tree’, or Davidii involucrata, amongst others:

Victorian Plant Hunters
It is not all foreign names, dead languages and classical Greek. The names of some plants tell us about their more recent history. The Victorian age was one of plant hunters scouring the globe for new plants. The names of three great plant hunters come to mind; Pere David, Robert Fortune and EH “Chinese” Wilson. Their plants are found in many locations around Sidmouth.
As a missionary in China, Pere Armand David discovered numerous plants that were unknown to the gardeners of Western Europe. Several now bear his name, including Clematis armandii, Buddleia davidii and the rarer Davidia involucrata, which in English is variously called the pockethandkerchief tree, dove tree or ghost tree.
It was EH “Chinese” Wilson, in the employ of the Veitch dynasty in nearby Exeter, that brought the Davidii involucrata plants back to Devon. An example of the species now grows in the grounds of the Sidholme Hotel. There’s another fine example at Killerton.
Robert Fortune was another plant hunter who travelled to China and we have him to thank for the hardy palm tree, Trachycarpus fortunei or Chusan palm that grows in Connaught Gardens. Fortune brought three specimens back with him in1842 but today its a species found in many places as its a remarkably hardy plant for an exotic looking palm.
Women also feature amongst the plant names. The striking miniature blue iris, Iris danfordiae, is named after Mrs C.G. Danford. Ellen Willmott is also remembered with several plants bearing the name willmottianus or willmottiae. Other women are remembered in the cultivars named after them.

Sidmouth Garden Guru: The unspoken language surrounding The Byes, Blackmore, Connaught
Gardens and beyond |


To continue from Jean Twibell’s account of Veitch plantsman William Lobb, she takes us very much into the world of plant collecting at the time – and their connections to Sidmouth:

Some History of Knowle : 2. The Veitch connection
He is recorded as bringing seeds of Monterey pine (Pinus radiata) into this country from an expedition 1849-53. Given the local connection and the possible age of the Monterey pines in the Knowle it seems there would be a possibility that these might be amongst the first introduced into this country.
‘I understand the Monterey pine was then fairly widely planted as a shelter tree in British coastal regions. In the climate of its native California it did not grow particularly large and horticulturists were amazed at its performance in Devon where the climate seemed to be far more favourable.
When I went on a walk in the Knowle with the two EDDC tree officers, one was asked how old the biggest Monterey was and he replied “probably dating from 1820”- but that it is too early.’
I talked to Caradoc Doy who has written a book about plant introductions via Veitch. The title is ‘Hortus Veitchii’, published originally by the Veitch business James Veitch and Sons. In 2006 a limited edition was published by Caradoc Doy as a private publication. During Harry Veitch’s lifetime 1,659 plants were introduced. ‘ It will be 100 years next year since Harry Veitch moved the RHS ‘Great Spring Show’ to its present location in the Royal Hospital Grounds in Chelsea.’

Jean concludes:

It is tempting to put together the proximity and importance of the Veitch nursery and the date at which the Knowle would have been planted- but there seems to be no chance of documentary evidence.
Mr Doy told me that all of the plant sales records of the Veitch nursery were destroyed when it was sold and became St Bridgets. Hence no chance of a paper trail unless purchasers of the plants kept records.
The fact that William Lobb brought seed of Monterey pine to Britain in 1850 is recorded in Caradoc’s book. I also keep wondering about the rhododendrons in the south west corner of the Knowle as they look extremely old…..’

Some History of Knowle : 2. The Veitch connection | Sidmouth Independent News

Ed Dolphin, of the Sidmouth Arboretum, also focusses on the Monterey Pine in the Knowles gardens:

Sidmouth’s global skyline
One of the greatest plant nurseries of the time was run by the Veitch family in Exeter. Several sons of the Veitch family were intrepid plant hunters who scoured remote areas of the world in search of new species, but they also employed many professional plant hunters, the most notable being the brothers William and Thomas Lobb, and E H ‘Chinese’ Wilson.
Monterey pines were first described to European scientists in 1831 by the Irish botanist Dr Thomas Coulter from his exploration of the Monterey Peninsula of modern day California. In 1852, William Lobb sent a large consignment of Pinus radiata seeds from California to the Veitch nursery. James Veitch’s team raised several hundred young trees and sold them to gardens and estates all along the south coast. The large knarled tree in the Knowle, number 1,200 in the Sidmouth Arboretum on-line tree catalogue, may be from one of those seeds.

Sidmouth’s global skyline | Sidmouth Herald

With a little more on the Monterey Pine across Sidmouth, Ed Dolphin talks about the ‘signature tree’ of the Sidmouth Arboretum:

Sidmouth Arboretum’s Tree of the Month – Monterey Pine 1102
Monterey Pines (Pinus radiata) are a feature of the Sidmouth skyline.
The Arboretum has designated them as its Signature Tree and so our first Tree of the Month is the Monterey Pine which dominates the garden of Knowle, in Station Road, number 1102 in the Arboretum’s online database.
Native to the Monterey Peninsula in California, Pinus radiata was first described to European scientists in 1835 by the Irish botanist Dr Thomas Coulter from his exploration of the American west coast but his collection of specimens and seeds was lost.
In 1852, the renowned plant collector William Lobb sent a large consignment of Pinus radiata seeds from California to the Veitch nursery in Exeter, where they were germinated successfully.

Sidmouth Arboretum’s Tree of the Month – Monterey Pine 1102 | Sidmouth Herald


And looking at the Bicton estate gardens in the neighbouring Otter Valley, the Historic England pages talk about how one of the most impressive avenues in England came about – as well as a charming arboretum:

After c 50m the drive enters an avenue of monkey puzzles, originally planted by James Barnes with the advice of James Veitch in 1842, using plants raised from seed collected for the Veitch nursery by William Lobb (1809-63). The avenue, some 400m in length, was widened in 1852 (Elliott 1986).
Today (1999), several original trees planted on mounds survive, while new specimens have been introduced to fill gaps.
The arboretum and pinetum were developed in 1839-40 for Lord John Rolle and Lady Rolle by Robert Glendinning, with advice from W S Gilpin, J C Loudon and James Veitch. Messrs Veitch and Son of Exeter supplied staff who were responsible for the maintenance of the trees and shrubs, which were arranged according to the ‘Natural System’, with specimens planted and labelled so as to be visible from a carriage (Gardener’s Mag 1842).

BICTON, Bicton – 1000338 | Historic England