Do behold the King in his glory…King Sequoia!

"Wellingtonia Gigantea," c. 1855. Lithograph, Bancroft Library

“Wellingtonia Gigantea,” c. 1855.
Lithograph, Bancroft Library

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.

gold-rush-view_of_san_francisco

San Francisco from Telegraph Hill, 1850 lithograph by Currier & McMurtrie. In public domain

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.

 

 

James Veitch  Hortus Veitchii, 1906

James Veitch
Hortus Veitchii, 1906

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.

David Douglas, 1829 Linnean Society, London

David Douglas, 1829 Linnean Society, London

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.

The Bristlecone Pine, Abies bracteata (D. Don) Poit. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 1853,  t. 4740

The Bristlecone Pine, Abies bracteata (D. Don) Poit.
Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 1853, t. 4740

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.

from L’ Illustration horticole (1854)

from L’ Illustration horticole (1854)

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.

 

 

 

from  Veitch's manual of the coniferae [second ed, 1900]

from Veitch’s manual of the coniferae [second ed, 1900]

 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 :

http://www.cathedralgrove.eu/text/05-Pictures-Politics-5.htm

screenshot

 

By way of a slight digression… 2009-10-06-impromptu-ball-on-the-stump-of-a-sequoia-1in 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.”

Gardener's Chronicle 23rd Dec 1853

Gardener’s Chronicle 23rd Dec 1853

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”.

screenshot

 

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.

from Veitch Manuel of the Coniferae

from Veitch, Manuel of the Coniferae

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.

From Gardener's Chronicle, 15th April 1854

From Gardener’s Chronicle, 15th April 1854

 

 

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).

screenshot

The avenues of sequoias at Benmore. left c.1950 right c.2012

 

from Gardener's Chronicle 23rd Dec 1853

from Gardener’s Chronicle 23rd Dec 1853

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?”

from Gardener's Chronicle 23rd Dec 1853

from Gardener’s Chronicle 23rd Dec 1853

 

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”

fromr "The Pinetum Britannicum" by Edward James Ravenscroft 1863

fromr “The Pinetum Britannicum” by Edward James Ravenscroft 1863

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.

"Se-Quo-Yah." Lithograph, 1836. Indian Tribes of North America

“Se-Quo-Yah.” Lithograph, 1836.
Indian Tribes of North America

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.

Wellingtonia Avenue, Finchampstead 2004, from http://www.redwoodworld.co.uk/picturepages/finchampstead.htm

Wellingtonia Avenue, Finchampstead 2004, from http://www.redwoodworld.co.uk/picturepages/finchampstead.htm

Wellingtonia Avenue, Finchampstead 1927, Francis Frith Postcardsfrom http://www.redwoodworld.co.uk/picturepages/finchampstead.htm

Wellingtonia Avenue, Finchampstead 1927, Francis Frith Postcardsfrom http://www.redwoodworld.co.uk/picturepages/finchampstead.htm

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part of the avenue at Cowdray http://www.redwoodworld.co.uk

Part of the avenue at Cowdray
http://www.redwoodworld.co.uk

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.

The wellingtonia avenue at Ashridge,  © Copyright Chris Reynolds and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The wellingtonia avenue at Ashridge, © Copyright Chris Reynolds and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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.

Second avenue at Orton Hall http://www.redwoodworld.co.uk

Second avenue at Orton Hall
http://www.redwoodworld.co.uk

Third avenue at Orton Hall http://www.redwoodworld.co.uk

Third avenue at Orton Hall
http://www.redwoodworld.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Wellington Memorial at Stratfield Saye, with attendant sequoias, http://www.redwoodworld.co.uk

The Wellington Memorial at Stratfield Saye, with attendant sequoias,
http://www.redwoodworld.co.uk

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.

Wellingtonias, Stratfield Saye © Copyright Andrew Smith and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Wellingtonias, Stratfield Saye
© Copyright Andrew Smith and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Wellingtonias, Stratfield Saye © Copyright Andrew Smith and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Wellingtonias, Stratfield Saye
© Copyright Andrew Smith and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

 

 

 

Veitch’s Manual of the Coniferae also has a footnote listing a few of the “fine specimens”

screenshot

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]

 

Sequoiadendron giganteum seeds from http://www.forestart.co.uk

Sequoiadendron giganteum seeds from http://www.forestart.co.uk

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

The foliage of seqwuoiadendron giganteum,  Natural History Museum

The foliage of sequoiadendron giganteum,
Natural History Museum

 

About Parks and Gardens UK

Parks & Gardens UK is the leading on-line resource for historic parks and gardens providing freely accessible, accurate and inspiring information on UK parks, gardens and designed landscapes. Email - info@parksandgardens.org. Website - www.parksandgardens.org
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