William III and Mary II
In the late 17th century, Hampton Court Palace held one of the finest botanical collections in the world. William and Mary were passionate collectors of all sorts, from porcelain and rare birds to tender exotic plants. Their plant collection included 2,000 different species, including 1,000 Orange trees (the symbol of the House of Orange dynasty).
We may think it a rather modern idea to plant our gardens with sculptural Cacti, Yuccas, Palm trees, Aloe’s and Citrus. However, 300 years ago William and Mary were busy sourcing their dramatic collection from the distant shores of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), the Cape of Good Hope, North America and Barbados. The exotic plants they collected were displayed at Hampton Court Palace. Their collection was protected from the English winter in hot houses and orangeries, like the one to the rear of the Lower Orangery garden.
In the warmer summer months the exotics were carried outside and dramatically displayed in the garden. To make it easier to carry the exotics between the garden and their indoor winter homes, the palace gardeners planted them in wooden tubs and great clay pots. These were often expensive and elaborate; some were gilded, some glazed and some painted with rich blue and white decorations. The rarest and most prized exotic plants were displayed in the most elaborate containers.
The restoration project
The Gardens and Estate team and curators at Hampton Court have spent many years researching the Lower Orangery Exotics Garden. They have traced the history of the gardens through contemporary accounts, plant lists, maps, documents and pictures, plus more recent archaeological digs to confirm the exact layout. They have also worked with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, to collect and propagate the exotic plants. The beautiful and ornate containers used by William and Mary to transport and theatrically display their exotic plants have also been painstakingly re-created.
As with William and Mary’s garden 300 years ago, the restored Lower Orangery Exotics Garden has different planting schemes for each season. In the winter, expect the beds to be stark and sculptural, featuring carefully shaped trees such as Yews, Junipers, Holly and Box. In early spring, a riot of Daffodils, Auriculas and Polyanthus will bloom beneath the trees. During the summer, discover the exotics displayed outside the Orangery in the sculpted and painted flower pots. In colder weather, the plants will be moved into the palace to be enjoyed, as they once were.