The Peckham Botanist was a self-educated 18th century Peckham Quaker, Peter Collinson. He was a discoverer, cultivator, planter and provider of plants which transformed the appearance of English gardens, pleasure grounds and parks, influencing the gardens we enjoy today. He introduced over 180 flowers, shrubs and trees to this country – species now taken for granted as ‘home-grown’.
In the eighteenth century, Peter Collinson was famous for bringing exotic plant species to England from all around the world. Many of these plants have transformed the English landscape. He introduced over 180 new species including hydrangeas, rhododendrons and magnolias. Peter Collinson was born in 1694 and lived in Peckham where he planted many of these new species. It’s recently been established by Derek Kinrade (a member of the Peckham Society and responsible for much local historical research) that Collinson’s nursery was just outside the present boundary of Burgess Park, to the east of Whitten Timber’s present building (see marker on the map here). He later moved to Mill Hill in 1748 and died in 1768.
The son of a London woollen merchant, Peter Collinson entered his father’s City business and this provided him with access to international trading routes to bring seeds and plants back to England. Collinson was one of the most active of the 18th century group of enthusiasts who propagated seeds for trees, shrubs and flowers that we now think of as part of the typically ‘English countryside’. ‘Capability’ Brown, the landscape designer was familiar with seed boxes sent to his clients via Collinson. Many of the great public spaces we visit today still contain descendant examples of his planting introductions. Collinson could indeed be regarded as one of the true facilitators of the English landscape garden. As a Quaker, he was prohibited from going to university. However, his contribution to science and his expertise as a botanist was recognised and he became a member of the Royal Society in 1728 at the age of 34.
When Peter Collinson lived in Peckham it was a small village outside London surrounded by fields. However during his lifetime he saw an era of unprecedented expansion of trade and commerce, scientific knowledge, expansion British exploration and activity around the globe and in England industrial development and country estates and gardens for the wealthy landed gentry and new middle classes. Collinson was at the forefront of plant collection and distribution of seeds from original species collected from the USA, Europe, the Far and Near East. One of the main areas of trade for Collinson was with the American Colonies (American War of Independence 1776).
Collinson established contact with John Bartram, a Quaker merchant from Pennsylvania who started the first botanical garden in America. Collinson pioneered methods of transportation and packing to bring the plants safely to England and for over 30 years Bartram sent boxes of seeds and cuttings to Collinson, who distributed them to the aristocracy, stately homes and nurseries throughout England. Collinson brought in and distributed plants in quality and quantity where previously they had been extremely rare. From his office in the City, Collinson distributed the box contents to his eagerly awaiting supporters (funded via annual subscription). These were enthusiasts also interested in science, members of the Royal Society and influential. He was reticent about naming his patrons but there were about sixty including members of the royal family, Lords Bute and Petre (the owners of Longleat, Blenheim and Syon) as well as the plant nurseries: William’s, Gray’s, John Bush at Isleworth, James Gordon of Mile End and James Wood at Huntingdon. The plants: maples, thorns, robinias, ailanthus, red oaks, tulip trees and cornus were very popular and were adapted to the English landscape style.
Peter Collinson can now be regarded as one of the foremost influences in domestic gardens and country estates that are enjoyed by millions today. He introduced into England over 180 flowers, shrubs and trees from all over the world, species that are now taken for granted as ‘home-grown’. Examples of some of these species can be seen in Peckham and Burgess Park; the magnolia tree in Chumleigh Gardens and two near the entrance to the Old Kent Road; rhododendron bushes in the American Garden in Dulwich Park.
Plant species introduced by Peter Collinson
- Acer saccharinum (Silver Maple)
- Ailantus glandulosa (Tree of Heaven)
- Aster nervosus
- Azalea nudiflora
- Betula nigra
- Clematis reticulata
- Collinsonia canadensis
- Cornus paniculata
- Crataegus macrantha
- Delphininium grandiflorum
- Fraxinus caroliniana (Carolina Ash)
- Hydrangea arborescens
- Iris cristata
- Kalmia latifolia
- Lilium pensylvanicum
- Magnolia acuminata (Cucumber tree)
- Paeonia tenuifolia
- Phlox maculata
- Potentilla floribunda
- Rheum palmatum
- Rhododendron maximum
- Rhus radicans
- Sambucus canadensis
- Viburnum dentatum
- Yucca (5 different species)
- Zinnia multiflora