Recreating Queen Mary’s Exoticks

Mary II's collection of exotic plants was once so big that she employed a dedicated botanist to look after it. Now, Hampton Court Palace gardeners are recreating her collection.

By Historic Royal Palaces

Aloe Sapponaria, Hampton Court Palace (2020) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

Hampton Court Palace is famous for its Heritage Collection of Queen Mary II's Exoticks, which dates back to the 17th century. 

Citrus myrtifolia, Hampton Court Palace (2020) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

Mary II ruled jointly with her husband William III. The couple were 'plantaholics', and collected plants for their gardens at the Paleis Het Loo in the Netherlands, as well as for Hampton Court Palace.  

Citrus medica digitata (Buddha's hand), watercolour (2009) by Tony BarrettHistoric Royal Palaces

In the late 17th century, it was the height of fashion to collect plants that were being discovered around the world.

Orange fruit, Hampton Court Palace (2019) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

At its peak, Mary's collection included around 2,000 different species. She even employed her own botanist, Dr Leonard Plukenet, to look after the plants.​

Scadoxus puniceus (Blood Lilly), Hampton Court Palace (2020) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

Many of the plants in Mary’s collection were tender exotics, brought back from Dutch voyages to South America and South Africa. 

Citrus trees, Hampton Court Palace (2019) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

Citrus fruits in particular were among the rare and collectable plant curiosities of the day and around 1,000 of the plants in Mary's collection were orange trees. Oranges were a symbol of William III's House of Orange dynasty.​ 

The greenhouses

During Mary’s reign, plants were kept over winter in three specially designed glasshouses, built by a Dutch carpenter. These were among the earliest greenhouses in England.​

During the summer months, the plants were displayed outdoors, in the warmest part of the gardens, an area that had once been Henry VIII's fish ponds. Moving the plants from the glasshouses was a huge task for the 17th Century gardens team, with no modern machinery to help.​

Lantana camara, Hampton Court Palace, Richard Lea-Hair, 2020, From the collection of: Historic Royal Palaces
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Aloe Sapponaria, Hampton Court Palace, Richard Lea-Hair, 2020, From the collection of: Historic Royal Palaces
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Rebuilding the collection, 300 years on

Since 1987, Hampton Court Palace Gardens and Estate team have been rebuilding the Exoticks collection. The gardeners researched the original specimens in Mary’s collection and started growing them through partnerships with local nurseries and British and European suppliers. Many have been grown from seed.

Potting 'Abelmoschus Moschatus' seeds, Hampton Court Palace, Richard Lea-Hair, 2020, From the collection of: Historic Royal Palaces
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Potting seeds, Hampton Court Palace, Richard Lea-Hair, 2020, From the collection of: Historic Royal Palaces
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Citrus trees, Privy Garden, Hampton Court Palace (2019) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

Just as in the late 17th century, the current Exotick collection is now kept in the nursery greenhouses over winter and displayed outdoors every summer.

Exotick plants on display (2019) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

It’s still a huge task for the nursery team to move as many as 250 plants to the gardens. 

The tubs of citrus and Exoticks are loaded onto trolleys, transported and then manually carried to the Orangery and Privy Gardens, where they are on public view from June to September.

There are now around 256 plant species in the collection, including many types of citrus and a wide range of succulents.

Many plants in the collection were considered exotic in the 17th century, but are much more familiar today as houseplants or patio plants. Some of the plants are from the southern hemisphere and flower during the winter months in the UK.

This blood lily is native to South Africa.​

Scadoxus puniceus (Blood Lilly), Hampton Court Palace, Richard Lea-Hair, 2020, From the collection of: Historic Royal Palaces
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Scadoxus puniceus (Blood Lilly), Hampton Court Palace, Richard Lea-Hair, 2020, From the collection of: Historic Royal Palaces
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This evergreen succulent, Aloe microstigma, also comes from South Africa.

Aloe microstigma, Hampton Court Palace, Richard Lea-Hair, 2020, From the collection of: Historic Royal Palaces
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Aloe microstigma, Hampton Court Palace, Richard Lea-Hair, 2020, From the collection of: Historic Royal Palaces
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Lantanas first appeared in the Exotick collection in the 17th century. Since 2008 they have formed a National Plant Collection in their own right.

Many varieties have flowers that change colour as they mature. Lantana is used in summer bedding schemes around Hampton Court Palace gardens.​

Lantana camara, Hampton Court Palace, Richard Lea-Hair, 2020, From the collection of: Historic Royal Palaces
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Lantana camara, Hampton Court Palace, Richard Lea-Hair, 2020, From the collection of: Historic Royal Palaces
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The display of the pots is almost as important as the plants themselves. The pots are replicas of 17th-century style planters and are painted by hand. ​​

The design of these terracotta pots is based on fragments found during the restoration of Paleis Het Loo.

Queen Mary II Exoticks in the nurseries at Hampton Court Palace, Richard Lea-Hair, 2020, From the collection of: Historic Royal Palaces
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Queen Mary II Exoticks, Hampton Court Palace, Richard Lea-Hair, 2020, From the collection of: Historic Royal Palaces
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Credits: Story

Watercolour artists are all members of the Hampton Court Palace Florilegium Society, which creates botanical paintings and drawings of the plants growing in the gardens and glasshouses at the palace.

Find out more about the Hampton Court Gardens and our National Plant Collections.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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