Garden plants and their hunters – William Lobb

Updated/Fact-Chacked on June 2, 2023 by Gareth James

William Lobb plant hunterAs a young man, William Lobb collected widely in Chile, Ecuador and western North America in the 1840s and 50s. He had been sent to this little-known region to gather plants for the world-famous Veitch nursery, and he was to find, for them, a plant whose rarity had made it into an absolute ‘must have’ for Victorian society – the monkey puzzle.

The tree, also known as the Chilean Pine and botanically named Araucaria araucana, had actually been introduced to Britain in 1795 by Archibald Menzies. Still, it seemed impossible to get it going from seed set in the UK. So it remained a precious rarity rediscovered it on one of his plant-finding trips in Chile – he was smart enough to obtain seed from a wide range of trees which he sent back Veitch Nurseries and by experimenting with them all, Veitch managed to find a reasonably prolific strain, so much so that by 1843 the nursery was offering 100 seeds for sale for £10 – the equivalent of about a pound a seed today.

He also found Desfontainia spinosa, an evergreen shrub which, in sheltered situations, can grow to six feet tall. The holly-like leaves have led to it being known colloquially as Chilean Holly, but it has two-inch long tubular flowers, which are bright scarlet and have yellow splashes. In addition to the plants he found, William Lobb has one named after him: an Old Garden Moss rose bred by Laffay, in France, in 1855. It has deep purple flowers between three and four inches across that have a strong scent and fade to a soft violet as they age.

What was Veitch Nursery?

Veitch Nurseries of Exeter was a prominent nursery business that significantly impacted horticulture throughout Britain and the world. The original nursery was started by John Veitch sometime before 1808 [1]. John Veitch, a Scottish gardener, arrived in Devon in 1771 at the age of 19 [2].

As the business expanded, it became unfeasible to manage the entire operation from one location, leading to the establishment of two separate businesses based in Chelsea and Exeter [1]. John’s son-in-law, James Veitch, opened a shop in Exeter, and as the business continued to grow, James Junior established a nursery on Kings Road [3]. Veitch Nurseries were pioneers in horticulture, as they were the first to sponsor English plant collectors on expeditions across the globe, beginning in the early 1800s [3].