Who are the John Tradescants?

At the far end of our gardens, past the formal Sunken Garden, sits the Tradescant Garden. Here, our horticulturalists have planted a variety of plant life, using garden inventories of the John Tradescants as a guide when choosing the plant material. The fascinating specimens include the dragon plant (dracunculus vulgaris), a plant that is quite odoriferous when it blooms in early summer, the crown imperial (fritillaria imperialis) which blooms with a ‘crown’ of orange or yellow blooms, and the Turk’s-cap lily (lilium martagon), a lily with multiple blooms on each stem. These plants, unknown in early seventeenth century England, were introduced to or propagated in England by the John Tradescants. But, who were the John Tradescants? John Tradescant, both elder and younger, were best known as gardeners and botanists. But, they accomplished so much more than that.

John Tradescant, the elder, was born sometime in the 1570s. Little of his early life is known, but he was likely from Suffolk in east England. His first position of note was as head gardener for the Earl of Salisbury, Robert Cecil. From there, he moved up to become gardener to George Villers, Duke of Buckingham, before eventually securing a position with Queen Henrietta Maria. Tradescant traveled extensively throughout the European continent for his work even venturing as far as Russia and the Mediterranean as a member of diplomatic missions. Along the way, he collected interesting plant varietals, keeping some for his own garden but also planting the specimens in the magnificent gardens of his employers. Many exotic plants were first introduced to England by the elder Tradescant. It is important to note that Tradescant did not only bring back plants, he brought back all manner of interesting items he found on his adventures—animal bones, coins, etc.

John Tradescant, the younger, was born in 1608 and followed in his father’s footsteps. He inherited his father’s botany skills, his love of travel and his great curiosity, and he ventured even farther afield than his father. Whereas elder Tradescant paid to send someone to the new Virginia colony, the younger Tradescant made at least two trips to the colony and brought back New World species that had yet to be seen England—including spiderwort (phalangium Virginianum Tradescanti, aptly named after the Tradescants) and magnolia trees. Tradescant was on his way back from his second trip to Virginia in 1638 when his father died. He then assumed his father’s position as Keeper of the Gardens, Vines, and Silkworms at Oatlands Palace, one of Charles I and Henrietta Maria’s royal homes. Tradescant the younger spent much of his life cultivating a garden at his family home on South Lambeth Road, located in a largely rural area across the Thames River from London.

Well known as gardeners and botanists, the Tradescants were also great collectors of unusual artifacts. To be a collector and to be seen as curious during the early seventeenth century was a great thing. The Tradescant collection was composed of all matter of objects, collected on their travels, given to them by others, or even purchased when other explorers returned from trips. Their collection included Powhatan’s cloak from Virginia, a blow fish, stuffed bird specimens, whale bones, weaponry, and foreign coins. It was displayed, in one, very stuffed, room in the family home on South Lambeth Road. Called “The Ark,” the great cabinet of curiosities was open to the public to visit for a fee, making this collection the first museum in England. Included in the visit was a chance to see the garden, planted with plants from around the world. Unfortunately, shortly before the death of John the younger in 1662, he drunkenly signed the entire collection over to Elias Ashmole, and it was subsumed by Ashmole’s collection, all of which was left to Oxford University to become the basis for the world famous Ashmolean Museum. Luckily, there is a contemporary inventory of the Museum Trasdecantianum collection.

The Tradescants can be thanked for bringing many plants to England for the first time. They were also exceptionally skilled at raising and propagating non-native plants in England’s climate. Not only did father and son have a botanical cabinet of curiosities, they had a cabinet of curiosities encompassing all manner of things. Proud to show off the collection, people came from near and far to see both the plants and objects at the first English museum. The beautiful gardens at Agecroft Hall are open, so please come and explore the space inspired by the John Tradescants and their curious minds.

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4305 Sulgrave Road, Richmond, VA 23221 

(804) 353.4241