Colesbourne Park

'England's Greatest Snowdrop Garden'

Henry John Elwes was born and died at Colesbourne Park, but after the age of 17 spent at least part of every year abroad. He was an all-round naturalist at a time when the world was open to the travelling collector - especially a British one.

Born into comfortable circumstances, Elwes went to Eton and then to tutors in
Brussels and Dresden before joining the Scots Guards in 1865. He did not take soldiering very seriously, being more interested in ornithology which in those days consisted of collecting specimens and eggs. He resigned his commission in 1869 and from then on lived the life of travelling naturalist and country gentleman. In 1870 he went to the Sikkim Himalaya, crossing the border into then-forbidden Tibet. The journey was inspired by reading Joseph Hooker's Himalayan Journals. He made many visits to Asia, and these resulted in the major paper 'On the geographical distribution of Asiatic birds' read to the Zoological Society in 1873. on the strength of this he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society. This was his last major ornithological contribution, as his interest moved on to insects and, increasingly, to plants.

He was later to ascribe his interest in plants to his wife, Margaret Lowndes, whom he married in 1871. His first garden was at Miserden, near Cirencester; he later moved to Preston House, Cirencester, before inheriting the Colesbourne estate on the death of his father in 1891.

The visit to Turkey in 1874 during which he discovered Galanthus elwesii was somewhat fortuitous, as it replaced a trip to Cyprus at short notice. It is evident that on this journey Elwes' interest was strongly focused on plants, and he collected numerous species of bulbs. In early April he was in the mountains near Smyrna (modern Izmir) and came across the fine large snowdrop which was named after him, Galanthus elwesii. Before leaving Turkey he arranged for bulbs to be collected later in the season; the first of the many millions exported ever since. The original painting from 1875 of Galanthus elwesii for Curtis's Botanical Magazine is shown to the right. 

Elwes' horticultural interests largely concentrated on bulbs, and he was said to have the finest collection in private hands. In 1880 he published the magnificent folio monograph The Genus Lilium, written with assistance from J.G.Baker at Kew, but he wrote disappointingly little about his gardening experiences. He was famous for his breeding of Nerine and Eremurus, but E.A. Bowles noted that he was specially interested in Arisaema, Crinum, Crocus, Fritillaria and Iris, as well as Kniphofia, Paeonia and Yucca. It is from Bowles' memoir in Elwes' posthumous biography that we get most information about the Colesbourne garden, but even this is sadly scanty.

H.J. Elwes was a busy man. He combined horticulture with entomology and big game hunting, estate management and raising prize-winning show livestock, and sitting on the District Council. He had considerable presence, being of large stature with a big black beard and booming voice; and not surprisingly, he was noted as having something of an argumentative disposition.

From 1900 to 1913 he undertook his greatest work, The Trees of Great Britain and Ireland, in conjunction with the botanist Augustine Henry. Between them, in seven large volumes, they described every species of tree then grown outdoors in the British Isles, and recorded the finest specimens then to be seen. Most of these were visited and recorded personally, in which process Elwes wore out two motor cars. In addition he undertook numerous journeys abroad to study the trees in the wild, even visiting Chile to see monkey puzzle trees (Araucaria araucana) in the wild. The work remains an invaluable source of information on trees and arboriculture.