The following post was first published in July 2019. It has been updated on receipt of the sad news of Tony Schilling’s death on 23 November 2022. Dr Mark Watson and Dipak Lamichanne remember him fondly in the Epilogue below and our thoughts are with Tony’s family.
Tony Schilling was Curator of Wakehurst Place, part of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, from 1967 to 1991. He oversaw huge developments there, and restored order with renewed plantings after the devastating storm of 1987. Prior to this appointment, he spent two years in the National Botanic Garden of Nepal (NBG) in Godavari, and was instrumental in the establishment of that garden which had opened in 1962. His ground breaking work at the NBG is continued by a vibrant team of dedicated staff led by Dipak Lamichhane, and his legacy continues to grow, quite literally, with the trees and shrubs he collected that are now in research collections, and preserved plant specimens in herbaria.
Tony Schilling’s remarkable contribution to horticulture and botany in Nepal has recently been recognised by the award of a Certificate of Appreciation by the Government of Nepal’s Department of Plant Resources (Ministry of Forests and Environment) during the celebration of their 59th anniversary and 20th Plant Resources Day. Tony said “I feel deeply touched that the Nepalese people have honoured me in this way, and I am incredibly gratified to know that what started as a small venture, has now matured into a fully-fledged, internationally recognised botanic garden. As far as I know, it’s the only botanic garden in the world which has banned the use of plastic, showing the rest of the world where to follow.”
RBGE staff recently worked with Dipak and his team to create the Biodiversity Education Garden at the NBG. Tony’s advice and guidance about the garden at which he had worked 50 years earlier was invaluable to us as horticulturists. We visited his home in Ullapool and he told us about the soil, the growth rates and pest and plant problems he encountered at Godavari, which lies 16 km outside the capital of Nepal, at the foot of the highest mountain in the Kathmandu Valley. He had some entertaining reminiscences about leopards in his house and affectionate accounts of staff long gone. He also gave us a historical and horticultural perspective on a garden that we were coming to know as well as our own. All this information was invaluable to us as we made a successful space for Nepal’s citizens. Crucially, he advised which Nepalese species would grow well and which would not. All gardens have successes and failures when they are first establishing and species choice is the key to success. Today visitor numbers to NBG have increased beyond all expectation. The Garden is a resource for schools, to teach about plant science, and a place for the residents of urbanised Kathmandu to relax, watch birds and enjoy plants.
Tony has undertaken numerous botanical expeditions in Nepal and other mountainous regions of the world. At RBGE we see reminders of his collections on the labels of plants every day, in all four gardens. He wrote an entertaining and informative account of his life and horticultural adventures in a five-part series ‘The Mountains are My Garden’ in Hortus 114 – 118, The Bryansground Press and these are well worth a read. Copies are available in the RBGE Library and from Hortus A Gardening Journal.
A Profile of NBG including more information on Tony Schilling’s input there and the Biodiversity Education Garden is available to read in Sibbaldia The International Journal of Botanic Garden Horticulture 15 9–30, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. It can be found online here: Garden Profile: National Botanic Garden of Nepal
Tony’s many friends were greatly saddened by the news of his passing on 23 November. This date is poignantly the same on which his devoted wife Vicky died three years. Vicki’s death deeply affected Tony, and he established a bursary to support the Tree Register (TROBI) in her honour. Through his actions many commemorative trees were planted. Tony maintained his connections with Nepal, and was always eager to hear of developments at the National Botanic Garden (NBG), pressing us to send photographs whenever we visited Kathmandu. Tony was full of praise when he saw the improvements and new initiatives at the garden, and was particularly impressed by images of the long lines of neatly dressed school children waiting excitedly at the garden entrance.
Tony wrote an entertaining five-part account of his life ‘The Mountains are My Garden’ in Hortus (numbers 114-118, 2015-2016 see above), starting with him falling out of his pram into a garden flowerbed as an infant, and ending with his retirement in Ullapool, Western Scotland, where he grew his beloved plants in the garden at Dogwood. Tony died peacefully with his family in Inverness after a severe stroke. We fondly remember him for his generosity, kindness, wealth of knowledge, adventurous spirit, wicked sense of humour and cantankerous jibes. He lives on in the hundreds of ‘Schilling’ collections growing in gardens across the UK, and in the hearts of those he touched during his long and active life.Dr Mark Watson, Head of Major Floras, RBGE
After reading the article Garden Profile: National Botanic Garden of Nepal in Sibbaldia (2017) (see above), Tony sent me a letter along with historic photographs of NBG. The photographs he sent were a great source of inspiration for garden improvements. The Rock Garden, Orchid house, Cactus house, Ornamental plant house and Water fountain are unique to Nepal, and they are the most popular features of NBG. Thousands of visitors including students, researchers and nature lovers enjoy them each year. They were designed by Tony and constructed under his supervision, and we consider them to be an amazing and beautiful gift from him. His contributions to NBG demonstrate his extraordinary skills and love of plants and his actions motivate us to keep developing the Garden. Long live Tony.From Dipak Lamichanne Head Garden Officer, NBG, Nepal
I knew Tony Schilling when I first started to work in Sussex. Loved n Balcombe and used to walk across to Wakehurst to see hi. What he did not know about rhodedendrums was not worth knowing
I would be interested to make contact again, if he is so inclined, in which case would appreciate it if you could send me his email address
My email address is below
I will pass your details on to Tony.
Tony is my cousin/god parent. I haven’t seen him for goodness knows how long. I remember us ( my mum, dad and younger brother) visiting him in Wakehurst Place where he lived. I often wonder how he is. Please, if possible, send my regards. Jill.
Teresa Burton (Turner)
When I was a chid I lived at Wakehurst Place Farm and we knew Tony for several years. I remember many adventures around the botanical gardens and even once convincing Tony (well at least I thought that I did 😉 ) there were bears in the forest. I would love to make contact with Tony. Please can you pass my details onto him.
Tony was a great help to me and friend to me when I was setting out as a gardener/horticulturist some 25years ago!
Remember some very happy time both in Sussex especially “Shergolds” and his wonderful home up in Ullapool.
Tony is truly a “gardener of the mountains”
James Balcombe (Beijing China)
I worked as herdsman on Home Farm, Wakehurst Place in 1968/69. During that time, I knew Tony well. We had a shared interest in classical music. He would recount some of his experiences in Nepal. He had a great sense of humour and a sharp wit, though this was always restrained when he was with the garden staff. He said he had an “image” to maintain!
I remember an occasion when Patsy, (the farm donkey) escaped from her paddock one night and proceeded to the plant nursery, and bit the tops off some of the carefully nurtured specimens growing there. I can not recall how much damage was done, but understandably Tony was not amused.
I left Wakehurst and returned to Devon very early in the New Year of 1970 to fulfil my ambition of getting a dairy farm of my own. Over 50 years later, I am still here, though we no longer milk cows.
I regret that I never kept in touch with Tony, but it is good to see he has received well deserved recognition for a life times work in his specialist field.
Please pass my very best wishes on to him, and my email address as well if appropriate.
Tony does not use email and I have passed your message on to him.
Hi Kate .. my name is Elaine and I’m the partner of Tony’s son Steve Schilling . We have loved reading the above comments and would happily pass on any requests. Tony is an avid writer (as you say a technophobe) and I’m sure he would certainly the old fashioned way. We speak daily so happy to pass on any information.
We have recently moved to Westmeston and were surprised to hear this was the former home of Tony Schilling, a renowned gardener and botanist. My husband and I are keen gardeners and would love to hear something about the garden he designed and planted here – as it is sadly overgrown and neglected and we are working hard to bring it back to life.
Of course he will be busy with many things but it would be lovely to hear what plants he grew in the back garden , and also in the west-facing front garden . We admire greatly a yellow tree peony at the back – and a red one at the front.
Thank you and best wishes
As a boy, I used to live at Pondfield Cottages and Steven was a playmate of mine.
I seem to remember planting a tree with him at Wakehurst after school one day. It was tipping down with rain, but we both had our picture taken and it was printed in the Mid Sussex Times. We could not have been more than about five or six at the time.
Please give him my best regards – would be lovely to catch up with him.
We currently hold the National Collection of Eryngium, and we gather from a couple of sources (most recently Mike Grant, former editor of The Plantsman/Plant Review), that Tony might be able to shed some light on the introduction of Eryngium horridum to the UK.
If so, we’d love to hear from him as the horticultural history of the genus is a topic we’re keenly researching!
Hope it’s possible to pass this message on.
Thanks and best wishes.
Brian & Kathy Pike
I was the Typist at Wakehurst Place from 1979-1990 and part of my job was typing Tony’s field notes on his return from his trips to Nepal. Please send my regards to Tony.
Hi Kate, would you be kind enough, or perhaps Elaine and Steve, to pass on our very best wishes to Tony. We were on an expedition with Tony to Everest base camp, run be Thomas Cook, in 1977. Tony led the exhibition. We had many reunions, and have met Steve, though he was very young. Tony came to our wedding in 1980. We have very happy memories of times in the mountains together. In fact, we are, as we speak, continuing our love of mountain walking at this time, walking in the Pyrenees.
Our love to you, dear Tony.
From Michael and Caroline Sterling
Tony and I became lifelong friends in 1955 when I was an RAF National Serviceman in Air Traffic Control at RAF Tangmere and Tony was an Aero Fireman based next to the Control Tower. We scrambled up the easier rock climbs at Harrisons Rocks near Turnbridge Wells, went on a climbing trip r to N Wales on my Matchless Motorbike, ice skating in Brighton and visits to Humphrey Littleton’s jazz cellar in London. Tony’s passion for mountain flora was bubbling over even then. We maintained contact thereafter, including working together to lead walks in the Lake District from a Holiday Centre in Borrowdale and exchanged postcards thereafter whenever one of us did a mountain trip. When I became a geology student at Aberystwyth University, I saw an opportunity for Tony to join some friends of mine on a student expedition to Arctic Norway to study Arctic plant ecology, geology and meteorology. Tony discovered an extremely rare and sought after alpine poppy and became joint author with Doug Pollard on the paper that described and classified it. This helped Tony’s step-up in the Kew hierarchy. His knowledge of alpine flora, enthusiasm led him to his position as Curator at Kew’s Wakefield Place and his UN-funded establishment of the Royal Nepal Botanic Gardens.
My partner and I have maintained contact with Tony and supported his Significant Tree Preservation Fund in honour of his deceased wife Vicky.
Only a few months ago Tony generously acknowledged my help to his career by getting him on the expedition to Norway when he phoned to thank me and o advise that he had cancer and would, after a good long life, let it take its course. However, he died suddenly of a heart attack.
My partner, Pat Pollard, was also on that expedition to Norway and also has fond memories of Tony and his wicked sense of humour.