This year is the 150th birthday of the magnificent avenue of redwoods at Benmore. The story behind how this species reached Britain involves a race to bring back the first seeds of this remarkable tree and is tied up with the California Gold Rush. The man credited with introducing the giant redwood or Wellingtonia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) to Britain is Patrick Matthew (1790-1874). Matthew was a Perthshire laird with a great interest in trees, horticulture and apple growing. Three of his sons were involved in the Gold Rush that began in 1849 so he took advantage of the situation and requested seeds of the recently discovered giant redwood be sent home.
The tree that has turned out to be the most massive single organism on the planet was originally discovered in the 1840s and then lost again. The rediscovery took place at the start of the Gold Rush by a group of prospectors and the enormous trees of the Calaveras Grove became quite a sensation, with news of the discovery spreading rapidly. John Matthew, the eldest son, sent specimens and seeds to his father via the first transatlantic steam packet. This was a wise move as the plant hunter William Lobb, working for the famous Exeter nursery Veitch, was also in a race to bring the seeds back. As Lobb was not taking advantage of the latest in high speed transatlantic travel he was beaten by four months. Matthew got his seed to Perthshire in August 1853 and Veitch did not get seed until December.
We don’t actually know if the Benmore trees originated from the Matthew collection or the Lobb collection. It seems more likely that they came from the Lobb collection as this was a commercial collection of much greater size. Matthew seems to have distributed his seed and plants among friends locally. A group of redwoods near Inchture in Perthshire are thought to be the first ever planted in Britain. Other possible sites for trees from the original introduction are Cluny House Gardens, Perthshire, various plantings in the Carse of Gowrie and at Gillies Hill beneath the fortress of Stirling Castle.
If anyone can shed any light on the precise origin of the Benmore trees please do get in touch.
Howard L, Minnick
Actually the packet that John D. Matthew sent to his father Patrick Matthew did not go by the new technology of Steam shipping as first thought once the story of the race was told. Had it done so it would have gotten to Scotland even earlier than it did in August of 1853. The date of it’s arrival to Patrick Matthew are correct in comparison to William Lobb’s packet arriving to John Lindley in December of 1853. The full account to include the deception perpetrated by John Lindley the former editor of the Gardner’s Chronicle and long time friend and associate of Charles Darwin can be found at patrickmatthew.com under the subtitle of “The Matthew Redwoods.”
Howard L. Minnick
Major, Corps of Engineers
United States Army ( Ret.)
Botanist, Range Conservationist
& 3rd Great Grandson of Patrick Matthew