The first Wisteria sinensis in Europe

John Reeves, East India Company inspector of tea in Canton from 1812-1831, was comissioned by Joseph Banks to acquire plants for the Horticultural Society of London.  During this time he obtained at least two clonally propagated plants from an old plant of Wisteria sinensis that was growing in the garden of his colleague, the Chinese merchant Conseequa in Canton, who in turn had obtained it from his nephew Tinqua.

Reeves propagated the plants by layering, potted them up and put one each aboard two ships bound for England. One plant was transported in late 1815 with Captain Welbank on HCS Cuffnells and the other in early 1816 with Captain Rawes on HCS Warren Hastings. Reeves himself accompanied Captain Rawes and the second plant on the journey from Canton to England on a two year visit home. Captain Welbank arrived in England with one plant on 4 May 1816 and Captain Rawes and John Reeves arrived with the other on 11 May 1816. Upon their arrival both plants were transferred by their respective ship’s captains, into the hands of the gifted gardening enthusiasts Charles Hampden Turner at Wood Lodge, Shooters Hill (who then moved to Rooks Nest Park, Godstone) and Thomas Carey Palmer at Vale Cottage, Bromley.

Glycine (Wisteria) sinensis - Illustration by John Curtis 1819

Glycine (Wisteria) sinensis – Illustration by John Curtis 1819

The first plant to arrive, grown by Charles Hampden Turner, was painted by John Curtis for John Sims in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (Sims 1819: t. 2083). The lectotype of the name Wisteria sinensis is the illustration, the sole element seen by John Sims. This plant was propagated and a young plant was given to Loddiges Nursery in Hackney c. 1820 and figured in 1823 in the Botanical Cabinet. Thomas Carey Palmer cultivated the second plant of Wisteria sinensis in his Bromley garden and gave a propagated plant from it to nurseryman James Lee in Hammersmith c. 1818. Sir James Edward Smith collected a flowering herbarium specimen from that plant in Hammersmith on 28 May 1821. This specimen has remained in the Smith Herbarium, now at Burlington House, London (LINN) under the name ‘Glycine chinensis’.

The two plants settled into cultivation in two villages south of London a mere fifteen miles apart. It is not known if Charles Hampden Turner and Thomas Carey Palmer were acquainted. Thomas Carey Palmer and the Rhode family, whose daughters married Charles Hampden Turner and Captain Robert Welbank, lived only three miles apart in Bromley, Kent. It is tempting to speculate that Palmer and Turner just might have exchanged information on the progress of their respective plants at some time, either in Bromley or possibly in the Great Hall of the Horticultural Society at 21 Regency Street.

Dr James Compton FLS

PhD University of Reading


About Alastair Culham

A professional botanist and biologist with an interest in promoting biological knowledge and awareness to all.
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One Response to The first Wisteria sinensis in Europe

  1. Pingback: Banbury’s Historic Wisteria sinensis in White Lion Walk | All Things Books

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