History

John Tradescant the Elder

Tradescantia was first described by Carl Linnaeus in his book, Species plantarum, in 1753 and named by him to honour the father and son duo of John Tradescant the Elder (1570 – 1638) and John Tradescant the Younger (1608 – 1662).

John the Elder was gardener to Robert Cecil, the 1st Earl of Salisbury, at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire. In 1610, Cecil sent him to Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands to acquire fruit trees which became the first of many plant hunting expeditions resulting in hundreds of European plants, shrubs and trees finding their way to England.

Following Robert Cecil’s death in 1612, John moved to London as gardener to the Earl’s son, William, and then found favour with Royal favourites who engaged him to design gardens in some of the great stately homes. In his later years John became a gardener to King Charles 1.

On his extensive travels, John the Elder collected seeds, artefacts and bulbs and assembled them in a collection of curiosities of natural history in a large house he named The Ark, in Lambeth, London. The Ark was a collection of rare and strange objects which became the first ever museum open to the British public. It was named Musaeum Tradescantianum. His son, John the Younger, was now assisting his father and travelling in the direction of the Americas for horticultural specimens. He travelled with the Founding fathers to America, landing in Virginia and James Town, and collected enormous amounts of rare plants and trees to match his father’s. He also published the first catalogue of its kind in 1634 which is now kept in the Bodlean library, Oxford.

Shortly before his death in 1662, John the Younger asked his friend, Elias Ashmole, to ensure his wife Hester would be provided for by the income from the Museum. In fact, Ashmole drew up a deed of gift awarding the whole business to himself, tricking John and his wife into signing the deed on the pretence that the museum would, upon John’s death, be jointly owned by Hester and himself. Not long after John had died Elias took Hester to court and gained control of the whole business and museum which he presented to Oxford in his own name. This enormous collection became the core of what is now the Ashmolean Museum.

Between them, the Tradescants introduced more than 750 plant species to England including many that are common today such as Larch, Lilac, Robinia, Cherry Laurel. Spruce, Canadian Maple, Chamomile, Hissop, Mint, Gardenia, Michaelmas Daisies, Phlox, Virginia Creeper, Hydrangeas, Cyclamen, Hellebores, Rosemary, Pelargonium and, of course, Tradescantia which he brought back from Virginia in 1629.