Horticulture and Botany

Gardeners in Britain on the grand scale had long been interested in defeating the seasons. One way of doing this was to construct “stove walls”, hollow brick walls where in winter, or more likely spring, fires would be lit on the north side to warm the fruit trees planted on the south side. Felton Park’s stove wall was built in 1774. The sole purpose of this extravagant procedure was to get plums, pears and apples to ripen a few weeks early. Serving up fruit “out of season” was a great status symbol.

Grander still (and much more challenging) was growing pineapples. For these pineries had to be built, which looked something like giant cloches. It seems Felton Park had one of these too, though it no longer survives. The Newcastle Courant noted in 1827 that Mr James Lowry, gardener to Mr Ralph Riddell of Felton Park, won gold medal in the Durham and Northumberland Horticultural Show for best pineapple. (Later that summer at the Alnwick Show he only achieved silver. Presumably the Duke had to win.) Pineapples were mainly for table decoration. They were far too rare and expensive for anyone much below the Royal Family and dukes actually to eat.

But in the 1780s and 1790s a new factor came into play: the Empire. Along with new peoples and new animals, new species of plant were being discovered each year and they could, in theory, be brought back to Britain to grow. Sir Joseph Banks, founder of Kew Gardens, was the great impresario of this movement (and, incidentally, Loudon’s first patron.) Brought back they were and the most fashionable London nurseries began to produce superbly illustrated catalogues – this was the great age of the botanical drawing - of new strains imported from India, Australia, etc., sometimes announcing the date of arrival of the ship carrying the seeds or cuttings. Once ashore, however, getting the growing environment right, constant heat and humidity (at a reasonable cost), was not easy. How to house and cultivate these “exotics”, as they were called, became a major challenge.

And some things they got plain wrong, Camellias for example. They defeated the seasons by flowering in February and March, when few other plants did and, with their many varieties, became extremely popular. It was widely (and wrongly) believed that they could only survive under glass. Felton Park acquired two indoor camellias, still there today, probably at the time the greenhouse was built.