In 1849 a young Cornishman William Lobb arrived in San Francisco. Not to take part in the famous Gold Rush but to hunt for green gold for his employer, the enterprising Exeter nurseryman, James Veitch.
What Lobb bought back created a wave of excitement and made Veitch a fortune. It also had a great impact on the landscape of many great British parks and gardens, and, with luck, will continue to do so for a very long time. Lobb returned with seeds of the biggest tree in the world: the Wellingtonia, or as it should now more properly be called, Sequoiadendron giganteum.
Veitch was not only a skilled and well-connected plantsman but also a very shrewd businessman. He had selected California as a likely hunting ground for plants following consultation with Sir William Hooker, the director of Kew, because he identified a potentially big money-making opportunity.
In the 1820s David Douglas had gone out to the north west Pacific coast of America plant hunting on behalf of the Horticultural Society and had sent back large quantities of seeds from a large number of ‘new’ conifers, famously saying “you will begin to think that I manufacture pines at my pleasure…” But the seeds had only been circulated amongst members of the society which meant that even 20 years later “young plants of most of the species could scarcely be bought with money” (Veitch, Manual of the Coniferae 1900).
Now, James Veitch aimed to supply, if not wholly new species, those species which was still rare in cultivation and the plants of which would command the top price.
William Lobb was conscientious and during 1850 and 1851 consignments of cones and seeds that included the Monterey pine, Bishop Pine, knob cone pine, gray pine, californian nutmeg and lastly the bristle cone fir which Hooker described as “among the most remarkable of all true pines (Botanical Magazine 1853) began to arrive back in Exeter. Seedlings of all of them were soon on sale from Veitch’s nursery.
By the autumn of 1851 William had extended his operations further north and adding the coastal redwood and the sugar pine to his list of discoveries. 1852 saw him following Douglas’s footsteps through Oregon to the Columbia River and coming back through northern California, but by 1853 he was back in San Francisco. There he attended a meeting of the newly formed California Academy of Sciences at which the Academy’s founder, Dr. Albert Kellogg, brought forth a local hunter whose pursuit of a grizzly bear had led him face to face with an entirely different sort of giant…. a monstrous tree.
Lobb obviously realised the potential of this ‘discovery’ – which was hardly new because of course there had been reports as early as 1833 of these giant trees – but they had never been followed through. Knowing that Kellogg had started making a herbarium set but that it was still incomplete, Lobb immediately set off and reached what is now known as Calaveras Grove. There he collected seed, shoots, and even a couple of seedlings and, instead of sharing his plans with Dr Kellogg, he raced back to Britain as fast as a ship could carry him.
Meanwhile Calaveras Grove rapidly became a tourist attraction. Trees were cut down to discover their age, a dance floor was created out of one of the stumps, and a house built on another. But none of this stopped wholesale logging of the sequoia forest, even though the wood is pretty low commercial quality.
For more on that take a look at :
By way of a slight digression… in 1853, workmen felled the ‘Mammoth Tree’ . Its stump measured 24 feet wide at its base, and a ring count showed it was 1,244 years old. James M. Hutchings wrote in Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity in California (1862): “Upon this stump, however incredible it may seem, on the 4th of July, thirty-two persons were engaged in dancing four sets of cotillions at one time, without suffering any inconvenience whatever; and besides these, there were musicians and lookers-on.”
A letter from Lobb to Veitch was later adapted for an article in Gardener’s Chronicle, attempting to describe the size of “this vegetable monster”.
Veitch might have been extremely surprised and probably initially annoyed to find Lobb returned so unexpectedly, but that must quickly have turned to amazement when he saw what Lobb had brought. He must have been able to hear the cash-tills ringing in his head. The cones, bark, seeds and foliage was exhibited at Horticultural Society meetings and at his London nursery – the Royal Exotic on the Kings Road in Chelsea. Veitch even sold lithographs of the trees for 7s 6d each. In under two years the nursery had thousands of seedlings for sale and for growing on. They were two guineas each or 12 guineas a dozen and despite their high price sold very well,eagerly snatched up to embellish great British estates.
The scale of this operation made me wonder how much seed Lobb could possibly have carried back, but I was surprised to discover that, despite the tree’s immense size, the cones are only the size of hens eggs and that it takes 300 sequoia seeds to weigh a gram.
The larger-than-life conifer, which was to become later to become symbolic of the vast American wilderness, also became a status symbol in Britain.
So hurrah for Veitch and Lobb getting the credit for the introduction of the giant sequoia to Britain. The only problem is that they weren’t actually the first to grow it here.
Seed of the giant sequoia had, in fact been collected a year or so earlier by John Matthew, who sent it home to his father Patrick Matthew in Perthshire. Patrick Matthew was, amongst other things, a natural scientist, in correspondence with Darwin. He germinated the seeds, and planted the resulting saplings out on his small estate. The largest of his trees is now around 12 m (39 ft) in girth and 4 m (13 ft) in diameter. Other seeds from John Matthew’s batch almost certainly ended up at Benmore in southwest Scotland, where they now reach 54 m (177 ft).
The 1853 Christmas eve issue of The Gardeners Chronicle carried an ecstatic article on the new tree. “What the tree is this! Of what portentous aspect and almost fabulous antiquity!… but what is its name to be?”
And of course the answer was “the greatest of modern heroes. WELLINGTON” who “stands as high above his contemporaries as the Californian tree above all the surrounding forest. Let it bear henceforward name of WELLINGTON Gigantea”
As you can imagine this led to squabbles, and not just over the science. Lindley followed the advice given by the magazine (unsurprising really since he edited it!) naming the new tree Wellingtonia gigantea, in honour of the Duke who had just died and that name has persisted in England in common usage. However, in America Dr Kellogg was furious as he had planned on calling the tree Washingtonia. Perhaps fortuitously, both names were taxonomically disallowed, because they had previously been used for plants of other species. Disputes continued right through until 1939 when the name Sequoiadendron giganteum was coined for it.
This commemorates the Cherokee Sequoyah from Georgia (1770-1843), who invented the Cherokee alphabet; his name was used for the genus Sequoia, with the addition of the suffix dendron, from the Greek for tree. But no matter what it was called the tree quickly made a mark on the British landscape.
Because Veitch was able to supply very large quantities of saplings, even if expensive, and so, because of their formality of shape they were often planted as avenues. Probably the most photographed, and also amongst the earliest, is the Wellingtonia Avenue at Finchampstead nr Camberley, planted in 1863 by John Walters MP.
Amongst other early plantings of avenues were those at:
Cowdray House in 1854, where 47 survive of the original planting.
Ashridge in 1858, where the avenue is underplanted with rhododendrons. They are already about 150 feet high but are unlikely to grow much higher because of their exposed position on the top of the Chiltern Hills.
Compton Verney in Warwickshire has a sequoia avenue planted by Henry Verney in 1863, but with other specimen trees planted acrooss the estate.
Veitch’s nursery were especially proud of the avenue at Orton Hall near Peterbrough which consisted of 35 pairs of trees spread over 700 yards, and which by 1900 were between 60 and 70 feet tall. “Viewed from the west end the avenue appears like two enormous walls of green foliage; the impression caused by the vista is not easily forgotten.” [Veitch, Manual of Coniferae, p.279] Presumably there has been more planting since then because according to the enthusiasts at Redwood World there are several dozen Wellingtonia clustered around the hall grounds and in the surrounding woodland, as well no less than three avenues leading away from the hall! The first has only 19 trees, the second 127, and the third 29.
And of course there just had to be sequoias at Stratfield Saye the country seat of the Dukes of Wellington. This clump of trees stand in the Pleasure Grounds, and has been formed by the layering of the lower branches of the central parent tree which was planted in 1857 by the second duchess. It was designated one of 50 Great British trees in 2002 to commemorate the Golden Jubilee.
Veitch’s Manual of the Coniferae also has a footnote listing a few of the “fine specimens”
A quick search on our database revealed 149 mentions of Wellingtonia, spread right across the country,including a large number of mentions for Scottish parks and gardens. Cemeteries too seem to feature quite a lot in the list. However for an even more specoific listing of sites that have sequoias then take a look at: http://www.redwoodworld.co.uk where a group of enthusiasts are plotting and photographing every one they can find.
The saviour of the original sequoia forest of California was pioneer environmenatlist John Muir, who wrote of the Wellingtonia in 1870:
“Do behold the King in his glory, King Sequoia! Behold! Behold! seems all I can say. Some time ago I left all for Sequoia and have been and am at his feet, fasting and praying for light, for is he not the greatest light in the woods, in the world? Where [else] are such columns of sunshine, tangible, accessible, terrestrialized?’ [letter to Jean Carr, quoted in Postwestern Cultures: Literature, Theory, Space, edited by Susan Kollin, University of Nebraska Press, 2007, p.122]
And finally… if you decide you want to emulate Victorian aristocrats and plant your own avenue then you won’t be stung by Mr Veitch’s exorbitant prices. Seed of sequoidendron giganteum is now just 99p for 0.25 gram (approx 42 seeds)or if you want to plant a forest then you can buy 100 grams (approx 17,000 seeds) for £107.50 at: http://www.treeseedonline.com
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