Sitting enjoying the sun in my garden in North London, I could see in the distance Mill Hill Ridgeway, where lies Mill Hill School, whose site occupies part of the gardens of Ridgeway House, former home of botanist and avid gardener Peter Collinson (1694-1768). He was one of the most important importers of rare and exotic plants into English gardens, and many of the rare species he introduced to Mill Hill in the 18th century continue to flourish today in the grounds of the school. His love of plants arose during his stay with relatives at Peckham, then a hamlet south of London (and subsequently his own home), but his famous garden was at Mill Hill, which he inherited in 1749 through his marriage to Mary Russell.
Collinson was the son of a woollen cloth merchant, one of a Quaker family of cloth merchants. He took over the family business with his brother James and improved it by extensive trading with the American colonies. Through his business contacts he obtained samples of seeds and plants from around the world, and he came to realise there was a market for such things in England. His main contact and friend in America was another Quaker, John Bartram, (1699-1777) the father of American botany. His son William (1739-1823) who accompanied his father on plant-hunting trips up and down the coast of the then British colonies of North America became a famous scientific recorder and artist in his own right.
John Bartram had originally solicited Collinson’s support for the post of King’s Botanist (to George III) in North America in the 1730’s, though he was not granted it until 1765. Part of his fame rests on his ingenious methods of packing seeds and plants so they could withstand the journey. His writings refer to protecting seeds in bottles, gourds and other containers, or of coating individual seeds and packing them in material which kept them viable. His success in this endeavour made it possible for Collinson to distribute viable seeds and seedlings – there is a letter to Cromwell Mortimer at the Royal Society referring to cedar seeds being sent from Bermuda (ref. EL/C3/39) – and to encourage this to create a scheme whereby such items were supplied in return for an annual subscription.
The influx of American specimens made a great impact on the British landscape. Recipients of the seeds were influential landscape planters such as the dukes of Richmond, Argyll and Bedford, Henry Clinton, 2nd Duke of Newcastle, John Stuart, Ist Marquess of Bute , who had much to do with the founding of the botanical garden at Kew, and Robert Petre, 8th Baron Petre who planted some 40,000 American trees on his estate in Essex before his untimely death in 1742. Other recipients were James Gordon, gardener to Lord Petre, and Philip Miller, the gardener of Chelsea Physic Garden and author of the best selling ‘The Gardeners Dictionary’, and natural historians including eminent botanists such as Stephen Hales, John Ellis, J. J. Dillenius, Sir Hans Sloane and, of course, Linnaeus, father of the standardised botanical naming system, who named horse balm (Conllinsonia canadiensis) after him.
Not only did Collinson encourage John Bartram, he also encouraged Mark Catesby by providing him with money to publish the results of his travels in America, ‘Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands… 1726-1747’. Catesby had been supported in his explorations by William Sherard, one of the leading advocates of the exploration of the American colonies, as well as Sir Hans Sloane, though despite pressure from Sloane Catesby insisted on retaining his own sketches and artwork, and had strong views on how they were to be published. Collinson made several interest-free loans to Catesby to enable the publication , which remained the most authoritative work on American natural history for the next hundred years, particularly birdlife, and enabled Catesby to be described as ‘the founder of American ornithology’.
Collinson himself and the circle of contacts had an immense influence on English gardens. They fostered a national obsession and changed gardens for ever, introducing beautiful evergreens, fiery autumn foliage and colourful shrubs. Many of these men of wealth and taste were also Fellows of the Royal Society; Collinson was elected in 1728; he and Sir Hans Sloane proposed Mark Catesby in 1733, Collinson and Philip Miller proposed Carl Linnaeus in 1753, Collinson and John Ellis proposed Linnaeus’s protégé Daniel Solander in 1764, after Linnaeus had sent Solander to help Collinson classify his plants with Linnaeus’s new system. All of them fostered an international community where plants and ideas could be exchanged over vast distances, changed the landscape forever, and made it possible for me to sit in my garden and enjoy the ordered result of such pioneering exchanges.