The Veitch family, of Scottish ancestry, occupy a prominent place in British horticulture. For over 150-years (c.1768-1929) the family ran important nursery businesses in London and Devon, and funded plant collectors to travel East and West in search of botanical delights to bring back to Britain. While it is clear that the relationship between the firm and its collectors could sometimes end up on rocky ground, the collectors in far flung parts of the world continued to enrich Britain's botanic knowledge and diversity.
Gardening was in their blood – starting with Thomas Veitch, gardener to Sir William Scott. Although credit for starting their horticultural reign goes to his eldest son, John (1752-1839), who was the first to start a tree nursery at Budlake, having been apprenticed into the horticultural trade and worked as a gardener for aristocratic families.
John Veitch's youngest son, called James, trained at his father's Budlake nursery and later started his own at Mount Radford around 1830. Crucial to the tale of the giant trees, James Veitch hired William Lobb to travel to the Americas as a plant collector, and his brother Thomas to travel to Asia in the 1840s. In 1853, in partnership with his son, also called James, he bought the exotic nursery of Joseph Knight and Thomas A Perry at King's Road, Chelsea.
It was the firm of James Veitch & Sons that sold the Giant Sequoia as the Wellingtonia (although the name was actually given by botanist John Lindley), and provided the specimen planted by Queen Victoria at the Royal Horticultural Society grounds at Kensington.
James Veitch was also joined by another son, Robert, who set up base in Devon. On the death of his father in 1863, the businesses separated into two – Robert Veitch & Son in the West of England, with James Veitch & Sons concentrating on the London market.
In 1898, James Veitch & Sons became a limited liability company headed by James Herbert Veitch (1868-1907), a grandson of James Veitch Jr. Apart from travelling the world collecting plants and publishing his findings in The Gardener's Chronicle and as A Traveller's Tale, he privately published Hortus Veitchii, a history of the firm in 1906. Already suffering from ill health, he died the following year.
Ultimately, the London nursery closed down (the business declined in the lead up to and during WWI – in 1913 the seed business and trial site at Slough were sold to Sutton & Sons of Reading), and the Devon site became part of the University of Exeter in 1969. However, this was long after the second son of James Veitch Jr, Sir Harry James Veitch, died without an heir in 1924.
While this gardening dynasty returned to the good soil from which they had sprung, the plants and trees that they brought back to Britain have been fruitful and multiplied. So much so that many that were once considered rare and a spectacle are now seen as commonplace – but nonetheless beautiful.