Burchell in Brazil

“Morenia Pöppigiana”
from von Martius Historia naturalis palmarum [1824-1850]

Two recent posts have looked at the plant collecting and travels of William Burchell in  St Helena and his more famous trek across South Africa.  Today’s looks at the rest of his long life and especially his long plant hunting  trip to Brazil.

Burchell had returned to Britain from South Africa in 1815 still aged only 35 and was feted by all the leading botanists of the day, including William Hooker, then the first Professor of Botany at Glasgow University and later the first director of Kew.  He couldn’t have run the family nursery, even had he wanted to, because his father had leased the land and business to another nurseryman. What was he to do?

It took him ten years to decide, and it was to lead to another extraordinary journey and an even greater collection of botanical and natural history specimens than he had made in South Africa. The Dictionary of National Biography is laudatory:  “His work as a Naturalist has never been equalled … his objective, detailed annotation and brilliant appreciation of nature set science a goal seldom achieved.”

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The quirkier side of Chaumont

detail from Liberty, Equality, Fraternity 2012

Last week’s post looked at the history of the chateau at Chaumont-sur-Loire, now home to the famous international garden festival. This week’s is going to look at some of the inspirational, if sometimes [ok often] quirky, gardens that have been hosted there over the last twenty years or so that I’ve been going.

your author captured in a garden of distorting mirrors


In keeping with the silly season that seem to affect the press every year this is perhaps not my most serious piece of well-researched garden history, but it does show that gardens can be humorous too!


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I’ve just come back from visiting the garden festival at Chaumont-sur-Loire. The great Renaissance chateau there has had a very chequered history, but for the last 28 years has been home to a wonderful celebration of gardens  unlike any other that I know.

To start with the festival lasts for months, and combines permanent planting and installations with dozens of temporary ones.  It attracts designers and artists from round the world. It values innovation and sustainability more than most, and recycles materials and plants from year to year.  It’s also open access, relatively inexpensive and surprisingly uncrowded.  Bits of it can be brilliant, others wild and wacky, and sometimes there are miserable failures or a complete mess but thats part of the fun and excitement of going. You never know what you’re going to find!

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Beaudesert: “a desert beautified”

Beaudesert is/was  an enormous estate in Staffordshire’, its name probably coming from the French for  the surrounding landscape – “beautiful wilderness”.  It has a reasonably well recorded architectural and contents history up to the demolition of the great Elizabethan mansion in 1937 but the story of its gardens and grounds is much less well known.

I started this post last year during the Repton celebration because the great man had prepared a magnificent set of designs for the grounds  in a Red Book presented to the owner in January 1814. However as I began to research further I discovered that very little definite seems to be known about his impact so abandoned the effort because there were other things to do. BUT a little more time has meant that I could a little bit more research so read on to find more …


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Hard or Soft?

No I’m not talking about how you like boiled eggs [or even Brexit] but one of the great debates in the history of garden design which has been between the relative importance of the hard landscaping of architects and the soft landscaping of  plantsmen. It came to a head in the later 19thc with the arguments in print between those, like William Robinson who thought that plants should be the dominant player, and those like Reginald Blomfield who claimed it was architecture that should be the prevailing force.

The Downes, Hayle

Blomfield was backed by another architect, nowadays often overlooked in this debate, whose book Garden-Craft Old and New I bought from the bookstall of Essex Gardens Trust when I went to speak to them a few months ago. This was John Dando Sedding, another bearded Victorian you probably won’t have heard of, so read on  to discover more about him and how he launched “a little raft of bladders”.

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