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The Hub of a Flowering Nation: The Royal Horticultural Society


Article by Jennifer Ward

The sight of a gardener stooped over his or her plants may bring to mind the moral virtues of patience, gentleness, and tenacity. The plants themselves are the image of balance, harmony, beauty and persistence. Those who have a passion for gardening often highly value the pursuit of virtues as well. Although they undoubtedly exist, most of us would be hard-pressed to find an impatient and miserly lover of flowers. Charity may be the last moral virtue we associate with gardens, but the Royal Horticultural Society of Britain has merged the two in a legacy that has becomes an international treasure and a source of great national pride. It is partly due to their influence that when the subject of gardens is mentioned, England will most often come to mind. Though there are many other countries with impressive histories of cultivation, it is England that has most successfully merged gardening with various aspects of public life.

The RHS did not spring up overnight. Its history is intertwined with that of a nation long involved in the exploration and settlement of the world. Let us briefly put the negative effects colonization wrought upon certain cultures aside, to consider some of the great advancements it did make. Increased appreciation for the flora of distant lands undoubtedly expanded the collective English aesthetic taste. With an increasing variety of plants and flowers at their fingertips, gardeners were able to experiment with new textures and colours, and as a result, create some of the most inspiring natural sanctuaries known to humankind. I will leave for another discussion the effects this cross-breeding may have had on local plant ecosystems and environmental stability. Let us focus here on the ways in which the RHS has expanded our aesthetic imagination in its encouragement of the proliferation of horticultural diversity.

The Society was first christened the Horticultural Society of London in 1804, by Joseph Banks and John Wegwood. Its name was changed by Prince Albert in a Royal Charter in 1861. Its original aim (which still remains true), was to collect information about any and every plant species, and to improvement horticultural practice in general. In the 1820s, the Society begun to host flower shows, which only continued to grow in popularity. In the1850s, the Society suffered from a lack of funds, and falling income from its garden. A low point in its history was the sale of its library which then contained many rare books and original specimen drawings. Prince Albert, who was the Society's President at the time, was able to rescue the failing fortunes by setting up a new Charter, as previously mentioned. He was also responsible for establishing a new garden in Kensington, which would serve as its headquarters until 1888. When Royal support finally begun to mount, the Society was able to resuscitate its library by purchasing John Lindley's collection in 1866.

The Society's four main gardens were each acquired by different means. Wisley (in Surrey) was purchased in 1903 by Sir Thomas Hanbury and given to the Society as a new experimental garden. Wisley was the sole RHS garden for 80 years. In 1987 Rosemoor (in Devon) was given to the Society by Lady Anne Palmer. In 1993 Hyde Hall (in Essex), the gift of Mr and Mrs Dick Robinson, was added. As recently as 2001, the RHS amalgamated with the Northern Horticultural Society and now runs Harlow Carr (North Yorkshire) as well as the others. Aside from its gardens, the Society's is also known for its record setting flower shows, the most famous of which is the Chelsea Flower Show. The shows at Hampton Court and Tatton Park are also world-renowned.

The flower shows are only one example of the RHS's commitment to public horticultural education. As stated on their website, the RHS "believes that horticulture and gardening enrich people's lives," and they are "committed to bringing the personal and social benefits of gardens and gardening to a diverse audience of all ages." Though many other gardening movements have sprung up all over the world, (reactions to continued industrial and technological mechanization), it is the Society that provides the paradigm from which to branch out. Their consistent effort over the last two centuries to nurture a passion for plants in all people deserves to be emulated. Beyond being simply a role model, the Society continues to actively encourage excellence wherever horticulture is practiced. In both private and public, the Society works continually to bring sustainable practices to the art and craft of gardening.



The Society receives no government funding, and memberships provide only a quarter of its operating expense. The other portion comes from generous donations, sponsorship, volunteer work, and legacies. Members of the RHS receive free unlimited access to the Society's four famous gardens. They also receive the RHS's monthly journal, reduced prices on tickets to a variety of events, free advice from the Wisley garden's Advisory Department, and access to seeds from the annual Seed Distribution Scheme. This project makes specially cultivated seed, from more than 700 plant varieties, available to members every year. In response to more than 10,000 requests annually, the RHS distributes approximately 250,000 packets of seeds to RHS members worldwide.

The RHS's focus on Education is one of its key charitable components. When one thinks of the RHS, grey hairs and retired people might come to mind, but one of their central aims is to bring greater understanding to a “new generation of gardeners.” The Society offers four levels of Horticultural Certificates and Diplomas, leading up to the Master of Horticultural Award. These levels of education have truly set the standard in the industry, and the RHS receives countless applications from all over the world, as well as funding and sponsoring ample scholarships and bursaries. They also offer paid internships in a variety of specialist disciplines such as Rock and Alpine Gardening, Orchard Culture, and Fruit Cultivation, to name only a few. They also provide access to a database of related internships in the field. The RHS is custodian of the Lindley Library, housed within its headquarters at 80 Vincent Square, London, and in branches at each of its four gardens. The Lindley Library is now the world's foremost horticultural collection, containing over 50,000 books, 1,500 periodicals and 18,000 botanical drawings. It is open to the public as a reference library only. The RHS also publishes three of the world's most respected gardening journals, and a variety of journals of professional, scientific, and leisurely interest. Wide variety of books, videos, plant registries, and scientific publications on just about any garden-related topic one could bring to mind. The RHS also gives out the Victoria Medal of Honour to persons who are deemed by its Council to be deserving of special recognition in the field of horticulture.

In the arena of research and development, the Society has moved from fertilization to genetics, to naming and categorizing. In 1908 the first list of daffodil names was published, and today, the Society is the International Registration Authority for more categories of plants than any other organisation in the world. Their websites hosts links to everything from garden design ideas, to topical advice, to local weather information. Showing a hardiness and diversity as mature as nature herself, the Society has truly adapted with the times. The online component of the RHS boasts "Gardening for All" as its wide-reaching motto. It has moved from a collection of the elite, to a champion of the universality of its trade.


Please also visit Old London Maps on the web as many of the maps
and views available there have plans and depictions of gardens from
the medieval period through to the late nineteenth century.

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