Hydrangeas Bring Japan to the Royal Pavilion Gardens

To celebrate Heritage Open Days 2020 we are publishing a series of blogs researched and written by Brighton Dome's heritage volunteers. The blogs reveal the fascinating stories connecting Brighton Dome's history with the Royal Pavilion Estate and the city.

The hydrangea was one of the plants selected by William Townsend Aiton, the landscape designer and director of Kew Gardens, commissioned by George IV to create the lavish gardens of his Royal Pavilion Estate in Brighton. The name ‘hydrangea’ originates from the combination of two Greek words, ‘Hydor’ meaning ‘water’ and ‘angos’ meaning ‘vessel’. This name was assigned to the flower by famed botanist Jan Frederik Gronovius in 1739 and refers to the amount of water required to grow and maintain a healthy plant. Hydrangeas are originally native to Asia, namely Japan and China, however, some species of the plant are found in the Americas, including the Hydrangea Arborescens.

The hydrangea has a long and expansive history, but is believed by some to have first arrived in England as early as 1736, as a result of the relationship between John Bartram (1699-1777) and Peter Collinson (1694-1768). Collinson was a botanist, merchant, Quaker and a Fellow of the Royal Society. John Bartram was a botanist, horticulturist and also a Quaker. The two men struck up a friendship which became highly impactful on both of their careers. In 1736, Bartram sent Collinson a sample of the Hydrangea Arborescens from North America. Ten years later, Peter Collinson wrote: ‘My Hydrangea, perhaps the first in England, flowered in August 1746, in my garden at Mill Hill’.

Bartram would send boxes of seeds and specimens to Collinson from America to England, which later became known as ‘Bartram Boxes’. Collinson would keep samples for himself, as well as sell and distribute them to aristocracy, royalty and plant nurseries. In 1765, John Bartram was appointed King George III’s botanist in North America and sent samples and seeds to the royal collection at Kew. Later, in 1789, Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), well-known botanist and patron of the natural sciences, brought a sample of the Hydrangea Macrophylla from Japan to Kew.

There are around 70 to 75 species of hydrangea. Plant hunters throughout the 18th and 19th centuries would travel to China and Japan to discover new species. Although Japan’s borders were closed during the Edo period (1603-1868), the Dutch East India Company had access to a small, artificial island named Dejima Island in Nagasaki. Several notable naturalists and plant hunters discovered new species of hydrangea whilst staying on Dejima, including Carl Peter Thunberg (1743-1828), a Swedish naturalist. Around 1775, Thunberg, who was not allowed on the mainland, bought a goat and insisted that food for his goat came from mainland Japan. This ‘goat food’ included five species of hydrangea, including Hydrangea Macrophylla and Hydrangea Serrata. Another famed botanist, Philipp Franz Von Siebold (1796-1866) lived and worked on Dejima for a period of time in the 1820s. Siebold sent home many plant specimens and seeds and is thought to be responsible for the discovery of Hydrangea Involucrata and Hydrangea Paniculata.

The hydrangea was also popular with Empress Joséphine (1763-1814), wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, in France. She grew hydrangeas at Château de Malmaison and even named her first daughter Hortense (1783-1837) after Hortensia, another name for the flower. She is credited by some as being responsible for the popularity of hydrangeas in France.

Hydrangeas became more common in public gardens and by the 1820s had been present in England for some time. However, when Aiton was designing the landscape with architect John Nash, new species of hydrangea were still being discovered in Japan and China and were an exciting addition to the newly designed Royal Pavilion gardens.

Written by Heritage Volunteer Laura Connell

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