JARS v59n2 - Wisley, The Garden of the Royal Horticultural Society

Wisley, The Garden of the Royal Horticultural Society
Peter Kendall
Portland, Oregon

The Royal Horticultural Society, founded in 1804 at Hatchard's Bookshop, London , as The Horticultural Society, was from its inception and remains to this day the world headquarters of horticulture. Some two decades after its establishment, in the year 1825, the light of the botanical world shone most brilliantly upon the Society when it sponsored the expedition of David Douglas to explore and mine the treasures lurking in the plants of western North America. Douglas became the most renowned plant explorer of his time; his exploits were legendary. Years elapsed, with the Society building upon its rich heritage. Then, in 1899, after the work of Gregor Mendel surfaced, a conference of the RHS examined and embraced his efforts in launching the science of genetics.

A great deal in the scope and direction of the RHS occurred shortly thereafter. In 1903, with pressures mounting to establish more suitable grounds for a garden aimed at achieving its objectives (and following a 30-year search), Thomas Hanbury, a wealthy Quaker, bestowed upon the RHS the acreage at Wisely; he decreed that the land be used for purposes of experimental, scientific and practical horticulture; all branches were to be covered from ornamental to culinary. A magnificent laboratory, erected with materials from old, abandoned estates, was to serve as a vehicle for the instruction of young people destined to make careers in horticulture. Robert Fortune, of plant hunting renown, and Joseph Paxton, designer of the Crystal Palace, were two of its more notable graduates.

Looking toward the
Laboratory at Wisley.
Looking toward the Laboratory at Wisley.
Photo by Peter Kendall

From an original 60 acres under the ownership of George F. Wilson, the grounds were expanded to its current 240 acres with its purchase and donation by Hanbury. With the second Lord Aberconway of Bodnant serving as its president from 1931 until his death in 1953, the RHS at Wisely achieved outstanding marks in its multifaceted undertakings. The full range of horticultural pursuits has been brought under scrutiny in places like the formal and walled gardens, conifer lawn, mixed borders, autumn borders, country garden, the model gardens, the garden for new rose introductions, glass and alpine houses, monocot borders, model vegetable garden, alpine meadow, rock garden, wild garden, the Jubilee arboretum and fruit field and the pinetum.

In an area known as Battleston Hill many of the most noteworthy of the world's rhododendrons and azaleas are showcased. Here, also, are companion magnolias, camellias and other trees and shrubs of similar stature. In the monumental storms of 1987 and 1990, this location was dramatically transformed but remains the same hallmark display area.

The Orchid House
The Orchid House
Photo by Peter Kendall
The Alpine House The Bonsai Collection
The Alpine House.
Photo by Peter Kendall
The Bonsai Collection.
Photo by Peter Kendall

The first of May 1999 was my opportunity to visit this revealing garden for the first time. I trust some of my photographs will convey the impressiveness of my forays about this remarkable place.

Peter Kendall is a member of the Portland Chapter.