Bringing Bishop Compton’s garden back to Fulham Palace

Press Release: January 2019

Planting the past, growing the future

Bringing Bishop Compton’s lost garden back to Fulham Palace

Plant lovers may already know Fulham Palace, not as the home to the Bishops of London for 1,300 years, but as home to one of the earliest botanic garden in London.

Now Fulham Palace is bringing more of its Grade II* listed garden’s history to life with the ‘Cultivating Compton’ project. New beds are opening in early 2019, made up of exotic plants first brought to the Palace (and many to England) for the first time under Bishop Compton, Bishop of London from 1675 to 1713. The planting is being undertaken as part of a larger restoration project, ‘Discovering the Bishop of London’s Palace at Fulham’, part-funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).

The variety of plants is vast, with 80 new species going into the site, ranging from the tiny ‘Dutchman’s breeches’ (Dicentra cucullaria) to magnificent magnolias (Magnolia virginiana) both of which are thought to have been originally introduced to England by Bishop Compton.

Compton was a passionate plantsman. He used his position as Bishop of London, which included overseeing overseas colonies, to arrange delivery of plants to his garden at Fulham Palace from missionaries in the Caribbean, Africa, India and mostly from Virginia, North America.

The reputation of Compton’s garden lasted for centuries, Faulkner in 1813 described Compton’s legacy, to collect “a greater number of green-house rarities and to plant a greater variety of hardy exotic trees and shrubs, than had been seen in any garden in England.” However, Compton’s successors didn’t share his love for botanical horticulture and Compton plants were removed, sold on or destroyed.

Compton’s plants survive only as herbarium pressings. Dr Mark Spencer, botanist and curator, has found many examples of plants grown at the Palace at the Hans Sloane Herbarium in the Natural History Museum. Mark has been putting together a list of plants grown at the Palace in the 17th century during Compton’s residency so that we can plant them at the Palace once again. Mark explains, “Exploring Compton has been fascinating, I really had no idea what an important role he had in shaping our gardens and there is still so much more to learn. My personal favourite discovery was that he had a penchant for spicy food and put flowers in his salad, three centuries before it became trendy!”

Following on from Mark’s research head gardener, Lucy Hart, began to search and source these plants. She has gone to similar lengths to Bishop Compton, arranging the delivery of plants from nurseries and botanic gardens from across the UK and as far as Cape Town; and she will be undertaking a seed finding expedition in Virginia this year.

“Sourcing Compton’s plants from botanic gardens and nurseries has been an exciting challenge. I’ve really enjoyed talking to expert growers about the project, many of whom are already aware of Compton’s introductions. I’m very proud to be replanting the species he once grew here, and taking our botanical collections to the next level.” Lucy Hart, head gardener at Fulham Palace.

When selecting the plants, site conditions, aspect and soil have been considered, including soil pH testing. Compton grew acid loving Swamp Azalea, Rhododendron viscosum and the remarkable Spice Bush, Lindera benzoin – both of which are perfect for the Palace’s acidic soil. He also grew many woody shrub species and small trees including some with fabulous autumn leaf colour such as Sassifras albidum, Stag’s Horn Sumach Rhus typhina and Cockspur Thorn, Crataegus crux-gali. Compton’s plant inventory included herbaceous ground cover; Zantedeschia aethiopica, Canada Wild Ginger Asarum canandense, Maidenhair Fern Adiatum pedatum, Dutchman’s Breeches Dicentra cucullaria,  Toad Shade Trillium sesille and Virginia Bluebells Mertensia virginica to name a few. These will provide beautiful seasonal understory cover through the plantings, complimenting the taller species and demonstrating Compton’s horticultural diversity.

Many specialist nurseries from all over the UK have helped source these plants including North American woody plant nursery specialist, Mallet Court Nursery in Somerset providing many plants from the collection. Temperate to Tropical plant nursery, Plantbase, in Wadhurst, East Sussex has helped provide a few of the more tender species such as Schinus molle from South America and Zingiber officinale from Asia. As well as other nurseries, Lucy is also being donated seeds and cuttings from RBG, Kew, Chelsea Physic and Kirstenbosch National Botanic Gardens in Cape Town South Africa. These are mainly species that are unavailable in cultivation such as some lavender species and Aeonium arboreum from the Canaries which were described by John Evelyn in 1681 during his visit to the Palace, “to visit the Bishop of London, in whose garden I first saw the Sedum arborescens in flower which was exceedingly beautiful.”

The new beds will be completed in spring 2019. Visitors will be able to see Compton’s plants as part of a free visit to the botanic garden and new museum at Fulham Palace which opens in late spring.


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