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Lambeth’s 17th century plant hunters

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Tradescant TombAcross the road from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s headquarters is the former church of St-Mary-at-Lambeth.

In the churchyard is the tomb of a father and son, both famous in the 17th century as royal gardeners and importers of exotic plants. Both were called John Tradescant, and they are commemorated in the name of the spiderwort genus, Tradescantia.

John Tradescant senior was born in 1570. Little is known of his early life but, in 1609, the year after his son was born, he became gardener to Robert Cecil, the future Earl of Salisbury. Soon afterwards, Cecil sent him to the Low Countries to find new plants to enhance the gardens of Hatfield House. Among the specimens he brought back were roses, fritillaries and mulberries.

Tradescant’s renown as a gardener and plant hunter grew, and he went on to serve other rich patrons, travelling widely in search of exotic plants for their gardens. Destinations outside western Europe included Arctic Russia, the Middle East and North Africa.

In 1626, Tradescant leased a house in Lambeth, where he cultivated his own garden and built up a museum of items brought back from his travels. This “cabinet of curiosities” was the first museum of its kind open to the public.

In 1630 Tradescant was summoned to the court of Charles I, who appointed him “Keeper of His Majesty’s Gardens, Vines and Silkworms” at Oatlands Palace in Surrey, home of the king’s consort Henrietta Maria, “the rose and lily queen”.

Following in his father’s footsteps, John Tradescant junior was admitted as a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners in 1634 and three years later, probably at the king’s request, made the first of three voyages to North America, “to gather up all raritye of flowers, plants, shells, &c”. On his return in 1638 he succeeded his recently deceased father as director of the gardens at Oatlands.

Among plants introduced to Britain by the younger Tradescant are swamp cypress, tulip tree, yucca and pitcher plant. He also added to his father’s collection of curiosities and produced the world’s first museum catalogue, the ‘Musaeum Tradescantianum’, in 1656.

After his death in 1682, the antiquary Elias Ashmole (1617–92) acquired the collection. It later formed the basis of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, which reopens today (7 November) after major refurbishment.

St-Mary-at-Lambeth, where Ashmole is also buried, was saved from demolition in 1977 and fittingly converted to a museum of garden history. Now known simply as The Garden Museum, it is well worth a visit.

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