Essex is famous for being the home of some of the world's famous naturalists and horticulturists. Once the preserve of the rich, gardening in modern times is now a passionate pastime of many. However, in the 17th and 18th centuries, many plant collectors and naturalists were themselves undertaking trips to far-off lands, or sending out plant collectors to the New World, India and the Orient in search of exotic plants for the parks and gardens of the aristocracy.
John Ray (1627-1705) known worldwide as 'the Father of English Natural History' lived at Black Notley, near Braintree. He produced not only the first book of flora covering the British Isles but also the Historia Plantarum, published in 1686. He influenced the brilliant young botanist, Mark Catesby (1683-1749) who lived at Castle Hedingham. Catesby, the son of a lawyer, was hugely intelligent with a sharp observing eye. He studied natural history in London before going to stay in Williamsburg, Virginia with his sister in 1712. Having inherited a useful large legacy from his father who had died six years earlier, the 30-year-old was free to travel the world. Following a visit to the West Indies in 1714, he returned to Essex with many new exotic seeds and plants.
Throughout his travels in America, he studied the country's flora and fauna, sketching animals, birds, reptiles and plants which he later included in his published works. Catesby's collections were sent to a Hoxton nurseryman, Thomas Fairchild. His reputation in the field of natural science grew on both sides of the Atlantic and in 1722 he was recommended by William Sherard to undertake a plant-collecting expedition to Carolina on behalf of the Royal Society. Catesby settled in Charleston for a time, travelling to other parts of eastern North America and the West Indies collecting plant specimens and bird life. Hans Sloane, scientist and founder of The British Museum Society was mightily impressed with the specimens received in London. Catesby returned to England in 1726. He spent the next seventeen years preparing his Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands.
A keen contemporary of Catesby was Robert, 8th Lord Petre (1713-1742) whose friendship with the American botanist John Bartram (1699-1753) of Philadelphia led to several exchange visits. Bartram supplied cuttings and seeds of many varieties of American trees and shrubs, some unknown in England at the time of planting in the Thorndon Hall parkland at Ingrave, near Brentwood. Unfortunately, Lord Petre died from smallpox at the young age of 29 as his father had before him. Peter Collinson, another distinguished botanist when writing to Bartram two years after Petre's death, still mourned him and wrote "the greatest loss that botany and gardening ever felt in this island". After his death, his nurseries contained almost 220,000 plants mostly exotics. Petre's imports, recorded in the 1740 Hortus Siccus extended to 16 huge volumes.
Years later, in 1783, Lady Petre was still sending cuttings and seeds of English varieties of pear and apple trees to Bartram's family firm in Philadelphia.