The Empire in the Garden: The Introduction of Exotic Plants into Britain, 1780-1850

Keith Alcorn

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


Between 1780 and 1850, British gardens experienced a dramatic increase in the number of new species of plants and trees introduced from outside Europe. These `exotic` plants were highly prized, their study and collection supported by an expanding press of botanical journals and horticultural periodicals. Their introduction transformed garden styles at a time when an emerging middle-class sought to convey their enlightened taste, knowledge, and wealth through the creation of gardens.

This thesis analyses developments in Britain in the period of accelerating plant introductions that led to the widespread incorporation of exotic plants into British gardens. Drawing on the records of nursery businesses, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and the Horticultural Society of London, the thesis demonstrates the centrality of the nursery trade in the sponsorship of collecting and the circulation of plants and seeds within Britain. It also reveals the close connections forged between the nursery trade and Kew under the directorship of Sir William Hooker after 1841, as well as the efforts of the Horticultural Society of London to protect the commercial interests of nursery businesses in the distribution of new plants.

Plant introductions were supported by a wider infrastructure of horticultural publishing, societies and shows that publicised new plants. The expanding horticultural press provided information on new plants and cultivation techniques, as well as promoting the acquisition of scientific knowledge that could aid the introduction of plants. Flower shows formed part of a culture of urban exhibition and display, popularising the new exotics among a middle-class keen for novelty. Technological developments in the mid-nineteenth century in glass, heating and construction made the widespread adoption of tropical plants possible, while systematic observation and data collection charted the limits of naturalisation of exotic species in the British climate.

Plant introductions were also structured by British colonialism. Moving beyond accounts of plant collecting in colonial settings, this thesis examines colonial connections in the metropole that facilitated plant introductions. A case study of Glasgow’s Royal Botanical Institution shows how the city’s Atlantic orientation and the city elite’s deep involvement with slave-ownership influenced the development of the city’s botanic garden. Landed estates, large and small, also contributed to the introduction and cultivation of exotic plants. Although colonial connections played a role in the creation of some of the most important collections, large fortunes from landed wealth or individual interests in botany were the predominant drivers.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Driver, Felix, Supervisor
  • Laidlaw, Zoe, Supervisor, External person
Thesis sponsors
Publication statusUnpublished - 25 Aug 2021


  • horticulture
  • Garden history
  • Colonialism
  • British Empire
  • botanists
  • botanical gardens
  • Kew Gardens

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