Gifts from the Gardens of China

About the Book

This informative and well illustrated account tells the forgotten story of how many of our most familiar and beloved garden plants were introduced to Britain from China between 1698 and 1862. These are the plants that the Chinese had developed and grown for centuries in their gardens but that we have come to think of as quintessential ‘English’ garden plants: roses that flower all summer, hydrangeas, camellias, magnolias, wisteria, tree peonies, herbaceous peonies, so-called ‘Japanese’ anemones, chrysanthemums – there can scarcely be a garden in the temperate world that does not grow at least one of these. The dedicated and persistent plant enthusiasts who devoted so much time and energy to the acquisition and cultivation of these floral delights have also been forgotten but we who garden with the plants they brought us owe them too much to forget them so easily and this readable narrative restores them to their rightful place amongst the plant collectors who have done most to enrich our gardens.

How I came to write Gifts from the Gardens of China: “I have learned through trial and a great deal of error that successful gardening involves finding the right plants for your particular site. This means carefully assessing the conditions of your own garden and then trying to choose plants that grow naturally in similar conditions. Discovering the wild origins of a plant thus becomes very important and this led me to read about some of the plant hunting expeditions which have resulted in the introduction of many fine plants that now flourish in our gardens, often thousands of miles away from their native habitats. I knew that many of our finest garden plants come from China, described by the great plant hunter E.H. Wilson as the ‘Mother of Gardens’, and so I was delighted to find a copy of E.H.M. Cox’s Plant-hunting in China in an old bookshop. Even though this short narrative was published in 1945, it is still the only general account of Western plant hunting in China to have been written and it provides an excellent introduction to the subject. Sadly, it is now out of print, although it was reprinted about twenty years ago, and second hand copies are well worth seeking out.

I was fascinated to learn that so many of the plants that I have always thought of as ‘English’ garden plants were actually growing in Chinese gardens for centuries before they ever arrived in Britain. Camellias, chrysanthemums, wisteria, so-called ‘Japanese’ anemones, herbaceous peonies, tree peonies, magnolias, roses that flower all summer, mahonias, winter-flowering jasmine, ‘Japonica’ or flowering quince, wintersweet, scented winter-flowering honeysuckles… on and on the list goes. All now stalwarts of British gardens and yet first nurtured and admired in China by Chinese gardeners. These were plants I knew and loved – not demanding or difficult but thoroughly easy and familiar. I wanted to know more about how they got to Britain and about the plant enthusiasts who first brought them here. I went to several bookshops – nothing. I went to my local library – nothing. I went to the Lindley Library (the Royal Horticultural Society’s Library with the best collection of horticultural books in the world) – still nothing specifically about the introduction of Chinese garden plants to this country. However, there on the Lindley Library shelves was the magnificently researched two volume history of European plant discoveries in China written by Emile Bretschneider. Bretscheider was a German physician stationed at the Russian Legation in Peking from 1870 and he devoted his spare time to compiling a comprehensive record of the introduction of Chinese plants to Europe. Cox refers admiringly to Bretschneider’s work and I found it an invaluable source of information. The Lindley Library also has all the botanical periodicals that began to be published after about 1780 and in these I found references to the plants in which I was interested as well as a record of the plant enthusiasts who were responsible for introducing the individual plants from China. I then had to find out about these enthusiasts – in most cases private individuals whose only claim to historical fame lay in their association with these new plants. All of them though were connected in some way with the East India Company and the tea trade with Canton (Guangzhou) in southern China so I spent weeks in the Oriental and India Office Reading Room in the British Library struggling with the huge heavy Company ledgers and reading the Ships’ Logs, tracking the plants and the enthusiastic doctors, tea tasters, supercargoes and Captains as they struggled to overcome the difficulties and keep Chinese plants alive during the long long sea voyage back to Britain.

In my hunt for information about the individual plant enthusiasts, I searched out Wills, Parish Records, tithe maps and Census returns; I read local histories and old business directories; I traced their descendents – in short, I looked everywhere for even the smallest scrap of information and I hope that I have managed to find whatever details still exist about the shadowy figures glimpsed in the old periodicals: Gilbert Slater, John and Alexander Duncan, Thomas Evans, Sir Abraham and Lady Amelia Hume, James Pendergrass, George Hibbert, Charles Hampden Turner, Robert Welbank, Thomas Carey Palmer, Richard Rawes, John Reeves and his son John Russell Reeves. Together with better known figures such as Peter Collinson, Lord Petre, Dr John Fothergill, Charles Greville, and the indefatigable Sir Joseph Banks, they brought us the beloved plants that now flourish in British gardens. Sometimes, at dusk in the garden on a warm summer evening, I can imagine them gathering in the fading light to admire again plants they first knew growing half a world away in the old gardens of Imperial China.”

Jane Kilpatrick


“A treasure for the library. It is beautifully written, very well researched, and most readable. The illustrations are fantastic, and the whole book is a delight. And so is the follow up, Fathers of Botany, a must for any gardener interested in the origins of plant. ”

Amazon Reviewer, 5 stars

“A pleasure to dip into. I cannot praise this book enough. The author has uncovered a wealth of material, a rich slice of garden history and woven it into a most compelling tale. I must hope that she will be equally tempted if not persuaded to take it on from there. This beautiful book with its many lovely coloured illustrations is not only a joy to look at, but also tells an amazing story of the determination and perseverance shown by the succession of courageous men who brought us so many of our best-loved garden shrubs and flowers.”


“The Chinese were discerning gardens for many centuries before the first European travellers arrived, specialising in a select few genera and species. They treasured the weird and unusual, and kept the traditional flowers going while ignoring new ones. Thus their gardens were filled with numerous varieties of peonies, camellias, plums, chrysanthemums, roses and azaleas; plus a few varieties of Daphne, Hydrangea, Primula and Anemone. This book describes the excitement that the discovery of these Chinese garden flowers caused when they were first seen in Britain, the circumstances of their introduction and the characters who were involved in bringing them back. It covers the time from the arrival of Dr James Cuninghame in China in 1698 to the departure of Robert Fortune in 1862. By the end of Fortune's career, most of China's garden plants were so well-known in Britain, that it is hard for us now to imagine the enthusiasm they caused among the gardening public. The text is well written and scholarly but also carries the story along at a good pace. Notes on sources are covered in an appendix, and referenced unobtrusively in the text. Though the basic history is well-known, Jane has used numerous original sources to find interesting detail to enliven the text, and any gardener will find it fascinating. This book is profusely illustrated, from the well-known plants brought back by John Reeves which are now in the RHS Lindley Library to the seldom-reproduced earlier paintings collected by Cuninghame and now in the British Library. Others are photographs of flowers, many taken by the author herself in Chinese gardens. Portraits and scenes of Chinese life add interest too, and all are very well printed. There is a good bibliography, and a appendix with notes on the main characters, all of which make up a fascinating and beautiful book, both to enjoy reading now and to use as a source of reference in the future. At £35 it is money well spent.”

Gardens Illustrated, August 2007

“Think peonies. Think wisteria, chrysanthemums, lilies, roses: plants of the highest order, valued by gardeners throughout the temperate world. But think also interior decoration: furnishing fabrics, wallpaper, marquetry, ceramics. China's exuberant flora spills delightfully beyond its botanical and horticultural confines. Jane Kilpatrick, historian and former antiquarian bookseller, begins her account in 1698, the year of the first British study of Chinese flora, and takes us up to Scottish plant collector Robert Fortune's departure from China in 1862, just 20 years after the signing of the Treaty of Nanking, which ceded Hong Kong and a handful of Chinese ports to Britain. It is impossible to exaggerate China's botanical riches, yet not so difficult to picture the countless England-bound ships, their decks and cabins laden with seeds, live plans, notebooks and bulging herbaria. Nor it is hard to imagine the excitement at home as Wardian cases, chests and brown-paper parcels were opened by eager gardeners and institutions. We owe a great debt to a succession of men who secured this lasting treasure, and their doughty escapades - steeped as much in the whiff of disease, salty seas and gunpowder as they are in the scent of many beautiful and, thankfully, now familiar plants - have been expertly heaped into the modest dimensions of this fascinating and handsomely illustrated volume. ”

Anna Rose Hughes, House & Garden, Autumn 2007

“There is no doubt that European gardens owe an immense debt to China and Chinese gardeners. Plants have been cultivated in China since at least the 7th century BC, and the first Chinese botanical and horticultural treaties appeared centuries before those in the West. At first sight, this book seems to differ little from the several accounts of plant hunting in China that have appeared in recent years. However, these mainly concentrate on 20th century plant hunters, such as Farrer, Wilson, Forrest and Kingdon-Ward. Our love affair with Chinese plants started much earlier, when China was not only remote but virtually inaccessible for foreigners. The earliest Chinese plants to reach Europe, including oranges, peaches, apricots and rhubarb, came via the Silk Route, European visitors to China were few until the 17th century; even then, they were restricted by the Chinese to just a few ports. Nevertheless, the Chinese flora intrigued visitors and the more enterprising collected what they could in those places where access was permitted. Over the years, a remarkable number of Chinese plants filtered back to Europe. Those that survived the hazardous sea journey, particularly camellias, chrysanthemums and roses, whetted the appetite of plant lovers in Europe. This lively account provides a chronological account of the travails, failures and occasional successes of those who strove to introduce these plants to our gardens. Fascinating biographies of the main protagonists, some famous, some obscure, mingle with the stories of the introduction of Europe of the ancestors of modern garden plants, and of their breeding. The text is copiously illustrated with portraits, plants, photographs and contemporary illustrations. It is an entertaining and highly enjoyable reminder of the great sacrifices made by the passionate enthusiasts who, over the centuries sought to enrich our gardens with exotic plants.”

Phillip Cribb, The Plantsman NS Vol 6 Part 4

Jane Kilpatrick

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