American Garden

Ex committee member Tom Maxwell tells of a forgotten feature, from The Battersea Park Review issue 87.

The Victorian craze for collecting world rhododendrons had started purely with the collection of American species. When our Park opened in 1858 it was exactly the time that rhododendron gardens were beginning to appear elsewhere in public parks. Specially created peat beds were laid for the purpose. When it was discovered the plants were pollution tolerant they became even more popular, with mass plantings on islands in some parks. George Lovell wrote in 1859 “American gardens have come to be considered an almost necessary feature in the grounds of every country residence, large or small.”
Osterley Park has recently re-instated theirs and Dulwich Park received Heritage Lottery funding to do the same. Ours has largely been forgotten.

Fortunately, Walter Johnsons book “Battersea Park as a centre for Nature Study, 1910” not only has a map showing the exact position of the American Garden but also tells a little of how it looked. The garden, like many others, was short lived. The reason for this was that once the Asian rhododendrons started to be collected the prefix “American” started to be dropped.

What was planted? We don’t yet know exactly but these types of garden invariably included rhododendrons, azaleas, kalmias, magnolias, vacciniums, andromedas and heathers, all of which were
arriving from America and were collectively called “American plants”.

Johnson in 1910 tells us on how entering Rosary Gate “on our right, stretching about a furlong, is a narrow strip of ground known as the American Garden. Several heathers and low shrubs (rhamnus fragula was one) serve however to recall its former aspect.” So we know it had ceased to be cared for by the Park authorities fifty years after its creation and to this day rhododendrons are still curiously missing from the Park.

With the proposed new development of the US Embassy nearby this might be the opportune moment for the Friends to raise funds for the recreation of what must have been one of the showcase plantings the Victorians came to the Park to see.