THE CORNISH BROTHERS WHO TRAVELLED THE WORLD AND CHANGED CORNWALL'S GARDENS
PUBLISHED: 15:52 13 January 2015 | UPDATED: 13:13 30 August 2017
The Victorian mania for exotic plants transformed our Cornish gardens - and much it was down to the Victorian Lobb brothers
The Victorian mania for exotic plants transformed our landscape. SUE SHEPHARD explores the extraordinary story of the Cornish brothers who travelled the world.
Cornwall prides itself on its sailors and travellers, its naturalists and garden makers. And plant hunters? Two of the greatest plant hunters, whose finds transformed our gardens were Cornish and, until now, virtually unknown.
Cornwall has some of the loveliest and most unique gardens in the country thanks in part to its balmy climate which proved ideal for gardeners keen to grow the huge variety of plants that in Victorian times were flooding in from around the world. These plants were discovered and collected by plant hunters who risked life and limb to forage in the far corners of the expanding world for botanical treasures to feed the voracious appetite of wealthy Victorians who wished to display rare exotics as fashionable status symbols in their gardens, conservatories and drawing rooms.
'For nearly 20 years the Lobbs travelled thousands of miles over land and by sea through dangerous and often uncharted territories in search of new and unusual plants, returning with horticultural gold to make Veitch’s a hugely profitable business.'
Two of the most successful but curiously least known of these courageous and resourceful plant hunters were Cornishmen. Brothers William (1809-1864) and Thomas Lobb (1817-1894) were born in Egloshayle near Wadebridge and raised in a cottage on the estate of Pencarrow House where their father worked. As young lads they were both keen botanists: William studied wild flowers, especially ferns, and Thomas had a love of orchids. Both trained as gardeners: William at Scorrier House and Thomas at Carclew House until they met James Veitch, when their futures changed forever. Veitch ran a flourishing horticultural nursery in Exeter and later Chelsea, and hired the brothers to collect the precious seeds of exotic plants from distant shores that his fashionable customers so craved.
Their orders were often curt, giving little hint of hardship: Immediately on [your] arrival at Rio proceed at once some distance into the Interior, perhaps 5 or 6 days journey, to take with [you] a guide and mules and to return to Rio with [your] collections in time to ship them by the Packet that will leave for England in about six weeks’.
For nearly 20 years the Lobbs travelled thousands of miles over land and by sea through dangerous and often uncharted territories in search of new and unusual plants, returning with horticultural gold to make Veitch’s a hugely profitable business. They rarely saw their families or each other.
William travelled vast distances through Brazil and Argentina where he narrowly escaped several armed uprisings, across the Andes and into Chile, Peru, Ecuador and north to Panama. His most famous collection was seed of the Chilean pine which in England is known as the Monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria Araucana)
William travelled vast distances through Brazil and Argentina where he narrowly escaped several armed uprisings, across the Andes and into Chile, Peru, Ecuador and north to Panama. His most famous collection was seed of the Chilean pine which in England is known as the Monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria Araucana). Sir William Molesworth planted an avenue of the trees at Pencarrow House where it was said the prickly branches would puzzle a monkey to climb’. The name monkey puzzle’ stuck.
Other fabulous plants introduced by William which are still commonly grown in gardens today include the flaming-red Chilean firebush (Embothrium coccineum), Berberis darwinii and Crinodendron hookerianum, plus the Chilean national flower (Lapageria rosea), along with several new varieties of alstroemeria, begonia, escallonia, fuchsia, myrtles, passiflora and some lovely climbing nasturtiums such as Tropaeolum lobbii.
Meanwhile Thomas was sent to the far side of the world, to south-east Asia where he hunted in Singapore, Burma, Borneo and Java sending back a great variety of fabulous rare orchids and insect-eating plants such as Nepenthes which caused great excitement at home. He also found new tropical rhododendrons, along with numerous epyphites luxuriating in the jungle as well as trailing aeschynanthus and tree ferns up to fifty feet high.
In 1848 Thomas was sent to India to find the fabled Blue orchid (Vanda coerulea) which he found and collected in the Khasia Hills in Assam, north-east India. Orchid hunting was highly competitive business and Victorian orchidmania’ meant that large quantities of rare plants were being stripped from their native habitats (though Thomas was not guilty of this himself).
The following year William was sent to the Pacific north-west America with orders to collect seed of now fashionable conifers. Whilst there he also found some still popular hardy shrubs such as the lovely blue Californian lilac (Ceanothus), yellow-flowered Fremontodendron californicum and scarlet Delphinium cardinale. But it was the discovery of a giant tree that made William Lobb famous and his boss rich.
Amazingly, the seeds William despatched to England were successfully grown in pots, and the tree named Wellingtonia in honour of the First Duke of Wellington and upsetting the Americans who wanted to call it Washingtonia
When William heard a story from a hunter about enormous trees growing in Calaveras Grove in California he hurried there to find stands of giant and ancient trees (they are known to be 3,000 years’ old). Amazingly, the seeds William despatched to England were successfully grown in pots, and the tree named Wellingtonia in honour of the First Duke of Wellington and upsetting the Americans who wanted to call it Washingtonia. It’s proper name is Sequoiadendron giganteum – or giant Sequoia – and enormous specimens can be found growing almost everywhere in England.
William grew weary of travelling and working for the Veitch, who happily took all the profit and fame for his plants. He settled in California and died there in 1864, aged 55. Thomas made one last trip to south-east Asia to collect more orchids and ferns. In the Philippines he broke his leg and had to cut short his contract and return home. He too ceased working for the Veitch nursery and retired to live in a cottage in Devoran near his sister and her family. His leg injury grew worse and, in an operation performed on his sister’s kitchen table, the leg was amputated (without anaesthetic).
Thomas grew reclusive spending his days gardening and painting orchids. He died in 1894 and is buried in Devoran churchyard where a plaque commemorates the wonderful and productive lives of both the Lobb brothers whose legacy lives on in our parks and gardens. n
Blue Orchid and Big Tree - Plant Hunters William and Thomas Lobb and the Victorian mania for the exotic by Sue Shephard and Toby Musgrave is published by Redcliffe Press £19.50. Special offer for Cornwall Life readers: £17.50 with free postage.