The Director's Correspondence contains letters from several members of the Veitch family, famed for the Veitch & Sons Nurseries, a name synonymous with horticulture for much of the 18th century, when it enjoyed a reputation as the leading plant nursery in the world. It is especially fitting to remember Sir Harry Veitch this month ahead of that most anticipated of horticultural events: the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Sir Harry was instrumental in establishing the show at its current home in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea. From 1862, the RHS held a 'Great Spring Show' at their garden in Kensington, and from 1888 to 1911 the show moved to Temple Gardens. In 1912, the show was cancelled to give precedence to the Royal International Horticultural Exhibition, which by the offices of Harry Veitch was held at Chelsea. This proved to be such a successful site that the RHS still holds its show there today.
As we continue to digitise the Directors' Correspondence concerning Asia, we have come across letters from John Gould Veitch, Sir Harry's brother. J. G. Veitch was one of the first plant collectors to visit Japan. Foreigners were not admitted into Japan until 1853 and just seven years later, at the age of 21, J.G. Veitch arrived in Nagasaki determined to collect new and exotic plants to send back to his family's internationally renowned nursery. His movements within Japan were highly restricted so he began by gathering plants from the owners of private gardens in the area. However, he soon received an invitation from the Consul General of Japan, Rutherford Alcock, to join the first British ascent of Mount Fuji.
The Directors' Correspondence collection contains several letters from Rutherford Alcock, including one from July 1860 in which he anticipates the arrival of J.G. Veitch who he hopes will help him with his botanical collections (Alcock was already sending plants to England for both RBG Kew and the Queen) [DC 57 f.3]. Later that year Alcock writes: "By a piece of great good fortune just as I was about to start on an expedition to ascend the far famed Fusiyama [Mount Fuji]...to learn something of the botany of the mountains of Japan, a son of Mr Veitch of Chelsea arrived, and I immediately attached him to my suite". [DC 57 f.5]
This was also a piece of great good fortune for Veitch as it allowed him to be the first to collect and send back valuable seeds and cones from the conifers of Mount Fuji for Veitch & Sons to raise for commercial purposes. For example, the consignment he sent back to his family's nursery contained Larix kaempferi, the Japanese larch, which has remained popular in Europe, and is used as a material for bonsai. The Directors' Correspondence also contains Veitch's own list of 'The more striking trees and shrubs' observed on their journey as well as Veitch's notes on the agricultural crops, vegetables and fruits of Japan, which were sent to RBG Kew by Alcock [DC 57 f.4].
J.G. Veitch introduced many new plant species from Japan, but by that time, the Veitch nursery was already famous for the introduction of new and rare plants. 'Hortus veitchii' records that the House of Veitch introduced: 232 orchids, nearly 500 greenhouse plants, 118 exotic ferns, about 50 conifers, 153 deciduous trees, 72 evergreen and climbing shrubs, 122 herbaceous and 37 bulbous plants from all corners of the world!
This year, from the 24 to 28 May, the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea will once again be resplendent with the world's finest blooms and ambitious show gardens - including Kew's own garden in partnership with the Times. We can't wait to see what new delights the nurserymen and growers will have on display, following in the footsteps of the pioneering Veitch & Sons.
- Ginny -