Xmera / Garden History / Gardeners: Henry Nicholson Ellacombe

Henry Nicholson Ellacombe (1822-1916) a 19th century Gloucestershire plantsman

Ellacombe was a plantsman and writer on gardening remembered for:

In 1897 Ellacombe was one of the first 67 recipients of the RHS Victoria Medal. Following his death a memorial volume was edited by Arthur Hill, assistant director of Kew gardens and his colleague William Jackson Bean.


Background

Ellacombe was born in Bitton, South Gloucestershire, on the road between Bristol and Bath, where his father Henry Thomas Ellacombe was then curate. He was the only son, but had 5 sisters when his mother died in 1825. He was educated at Bath Grammar School and Oriel College, Oxford. Ordained in 1847, he spent a year as curate at Sudbury, Derbys. and then became his father's curate at Bitton. In 1850 when his father succeeded to family living at Clyst St George, Devon, he succeeded him as vicar of Bitton.

In 1852 he married Emily Aprilla, daughter of Major-General Thomas James Wemyss with whom he had 10 children. His wife died in 1897. In 1891 he became an honorary canon of Bristol and is generally known as Canon Ellacombe.

The Garden

'It is not a large garden the whole extent, including a good proportion of lawn, being about an acre and a half, and in shape a parallelogram, or double square. It lies on the west side of the Cotswolds, which rise about half a mile away to the height of 750 feet; and about fifteen miles to the south are the Mendips.'

Ellacombe thought the shelter from winds provided by the hills was important for the hardiness of his plants. The garden also had the advantage of a southerly aspect and rich and deep alluvial soil. Joseph Dalton Hooker declared the Bitton garden had 'one of the most favoured climates and soils in Britain for a general collection of the herbaceous plants of temperate climates'. However, the limey soil meant that he couldn't grow acid-loving plants. Ellacombe refused to use peat, although his gardener was reputed to have smuggled a load in once under the cover of darkness. At only 70 feet above sea level he also found that he couldn't grow the higher alpines, which he loved.

Ellacombe's approach was the antithesis of garden designers such as Gertrude Jekyll:

'My ideal of a good mixed garden is one in which the borders are always full, in which there is no repetition, so that there can nowhere be found one yard like another, and which in every month of the year and in every week can show a different set of plants in flower... Every border must be full; and for this purpose no border is given up to any one class of plants; there is a mixture of shrubs, herbaceous plants, bulbs, and ferns all joined together, without any respect to uniformity of outline, or fancied harmonies in colour, or studied variations in heights, but each placed where it grows, because that particular place was supposed to be best suited to its wants, or sometimes for no better reason than to fill a vacancy.'

Ellacombe believed in sharing plants, believing 'no garden could flourish that was not constantly giving. He was proud of converting his gardener to his way of thinking. The earliest entry of a consignment of plants from Ellacombe at Kew was September 1869, when a parcel of 65 herbaceous plants was sent from Bitton. Over a 5 year period in the 1870s he received around 4,900 plants and 1,000 packets of seeds from friends and botanical gardens from Kew to New York, Berlin and Gibraltar. He also exchanged plants with Henry Fox Talbot, the pioneer photographer, who developed a botanic garden at Lacock. Two of his letters to Charles Darwin survive.

Also in the 1870s he provided plants for illustration in the Botanical Magazine:

Jamesia americana
Sedum pulchellum

and information about the hardiness etc. of others:

Saxifraga floruenta an alpine plant intolerant of frosts at Bitton
Tulipa hageri the illustrated plant was from Ellacombe's friend Henry John Elwes (botanist and plant hunter), but he had also sent an example to Kew.

In 1881 Joseph Dalton Hooker dedicated volume 107 of the Botanical Magazine to Ellacombe drew attention to his generosity with plants.

Ellen Willmott became a friend of Ellacombe's in the 1890s:

'To keep in touch with the treasures of the Bitton garden, it would have been necessary to visit it every week throughout the year, and one would have been well repaid, for such a wealth of rare, interesting and choice plants, could hardly have been found in any other garden, even of far greater extent.'

Henry John Elwes wrote in an obituary in the Gardeners' Chronicle, of the Bitton garden, that one of its features was:

'that its owner had no speciality, though he had the best of everything that will live in the open air; he was equally fond of shrubs, herbaceous plants, and bulbs, which were grown without much order wherever space could be found to plant them'.

By the end of his life It was estimated that 3,000 varieties of plants were grown there, and it was said there was no garden of its size in England that contained so many varied, rare, and interesting plants:

Travels

Ellacombe kept diaries of his trips abroad during the last 40 years of his life. The trips were taken to visit leading continental gardens; to observe plants, especially alpines, in their natural habitats; and to collect plants. The opening up of the continent by the railways in the second half of the 19th century allowed him to make quite extensive tours while leaving his parish for only a few weeks. The first recorded trip, in 1873, was a fortnight's tour of Belgium, accompanied by his then 83 year old father. In 1897 he walked over St Gothard Pass (aged 75) 'a grand walk and an easy one' although even in July path was cut through deep snow and Lac Lucendro was still frozen over. He fell in love with Piora, a Swiss valley 5 miles long at 6,000-7,000ft, rich in alpine pasture and lakes. He recommended Piora to anyone 'in search of a place in Switzerland where they will find quiet rest in the midst of beautiful scenery and abundance of flowers'. He observed that at Piora 'there is little fear if the most greedy collector doing any real destruction; he may help himself as largely as he likes with a clear conscience, and he will do little harm for those who come after him'. He himself collected a 'handsome Gentiana punctata', which he had spotted by the lake-side near the hotel he had thought they were seedlings, but soon found they were not and 'it took several minutes of work with the alpenstock to follow the root to the end, and then it turned out to be nearly a yard in length, with many ramifications, but the nature of the soil allowed me to get all I wanted without any injury to the roots.'

In 1903, by then in his eighties, he crossed from Switzerland into Italy by the little known Muscera Pass near Simplon. After some difficulty he found a guide, 'an elderly man who looked intelligent and active; he confessed that he had never been over the pass, but he knew the first part of the walk, and with that we had to be content'. The party left at 6am, with Ellacombe on a small horse and his companions walking. After the lunchtime halt, it started to rain with thunder for 4 or 5 hours. They reached the summit at 6,946ft and Italy shortly after lunch. On the descent their guide's knowledge ran out and there was no visible track. They got lost and finally reached Prestino around 7pm. There they were met by their carriage, which took them on to their hotel in Domodossola.

'In all my walks in search of flowers I have never and nowhere seen such a wealth of flowers as I saw there: from beginning to end there were scarcely any gaps and not only did we see an immense variety of species, but in each species a large abundance of individuals'.

Likes

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The vicarage at Bitton remains, but little is left of the garden Ellacombe inherited and developed. In a Gloucestershire Garden is still readable today, with its emphasis on observing plants and working with what soil and climate you have.