The Duke of Argyll’s Tea Tree

In a recent stroll around the Systematic Beds in the Botanic Gardens, I was intrigued to spot this label:

Neither the English nor the Linnaean name conveyed anything at all to me – nor am I sure that the plant closest to the label is in fact a Lycium barbarum. (The Systematics at this time of year tend to have rather more labels than visible plants, and it is one of the great joys of the area, as spring moves to summer, to see almost bare earth erupt into colourful, sometimes gigantic, mounds of perennials.)

Echinops (now barely visible) in the Systematic Beds last July

So I went home, and looked it up, and lo! It turns out to be one of two Lycium plants (the other being Lycium chinense) which produces the goji berry. I could never be accused of being on trend, but I vaguely recollected that, a few years ago, goji berries were one of THE superfoods?

Lycium barbarum, from Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz, by Prof. Dr Otto Wilhelm Thomé, 1885. (The plant has naturalised in Europe since its introduction to gardens.)

So, again, I looked it up, and according to the infallible source that is Wikipedia, about the millennium, ‘goji berry and derived products became common in developed countries as health foods or alternative medicine remedies, extending from exaggerated and unproven claims about their health benefits’. It is a fascinating story of cunning marketing, which seems to have originated in the research (not replicable and now discredited) of an American ‘nutritionist’ who claimed inter alia that it could cure cancer; and that a Chinese herbalist named Li Ching-Yuen, who died on 6 May 1933 (survived by his 24th wife), who had been born in 1736 (other sources say 1677), had attributed his longevity to a diet of goji berries.

Li Ching-Yuen, photographed in 1927

Li Chen-Yuen did exist, and was photographed (with hideous-looking overgrown fingernails which make one wonder how he picked herbs) in 1927, at the age either of 250 or 191. Many of the war-lords of the period called him in to ask for assistance in improving their lifespans. But modern gerontology dismisses this bizarre story almost as firmly as most nutritionists dismiss goji berries.

Lycium barbarum in fruit

Equally as interesting is the name of ‘Duke of Argyll’s Tea Tree’, or ‘Tea Plant’. Lycium barbarum had arrived from China early in the eighteenth century, and was known to Linnaeus, who applied the generic Lycium, possibly recalling  Pliny the Elder’s use of the word – though the latter in fact almost certainly used it of dyer’s buckthorn, Rhamnus saxatilis tinctorius. The word ‘Lycium’ is problematic in itself – Greek λυκιον (lykion) means either ‘wolflike’, or ‘relating to the part of Asia Minor formerly known as Lycia’. One of the English names is ‘wolfberry’, along with ‘Chinese boxthorn’, ‘mede berry’ (!?) and ‘Barbary matrimony vine’ (!!!???).

Allan Ramsay, Archibald Campbell, 3rd Duke of Argyll (1744). (Credit: National Galleries of Scotland)

As for the Duke of Argyll … his alternative name was ‘the King of Scotland’, because of his political importance. Archibald Campbell, third duke of Argyll (1682–1761) was the second son of the tenth earl and first duke of Argyll, while his maternal grandmother was the famous court beauty Elizabeth (née Murray, later Tollemache, finally Maitland) , duchess of Lauderdale (and countess of Dysart in her own right: 1626–98), who effectively held court at Ham House near Richmond, where she welcomed guests including Oliver Cromwell while at the same time acting as a Royalist spy, part of the mysterious society of the Sealed Knot.

Sir Peter Lely, Elizabeth Murray (1648–9), countess of Dysart, later duchess of Lauderdale (Credit: the National Trust)

Lord Archibald was educated at Eton and the university of Glasgow; he also studied civil law at Utrecht, and probably went on a European tour in 1699–1700 with his elder brother, John. When his father was elevated to a dukedom in 1701, he abandoned any plans for a career in the law, and joined John in the English army, becoming a colonel of the (then newly founded) 36th Regiment of Foot and governor of Dumbarton castle, but soon he found himself at the very centre of the political negotiations around the union of England and Scotland.

In 1705, he was appointed lord high treasurer of Scotland, and in the following year was nominated by Queen Anne as one of the Scottish commissioners, and created earl of Islay (then spelled Ilay), Lord Oransay, Dunoon and Arrose. Subsequent to the successful negotiation of the Union Treaty, he was chosen as one of the sixteen peers to represent Scotland in the House of Lords, and acquired further roles, both political, financial and judicial, during the turbulent period of the Hanoverian succession and beyond.

The earl of Ilay’s name appears among the list of ‘approvers’ in the vote of 16 January 1707 in the Scots Parliament: the Union was agreed by 110 to 67 votes (with 46 absent or abstaining)

In 1743, John, the second duke of Argyll, died, and as he had four daughters and no sons, his brother succeeded to the dukedom and the vast acreage of land which went with the title. He planned to step back from politics, writing to a friend, ‘I have not health and constitution and I shall not have time on account of my private affairs, and my amusements to enter into any political scheme that required application, attendance or bustling’. Two years later, Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender, rather undermined this intention, and he was still involved in politics for the rest of his active life. He had separated from his wife soon after their marriage in 1713, and she died in 1723. He left his personal wealth in England to his mistress, Mrs Elizabeth Anne Williams, and the dukedom went to a cousin, while the political roles were effectively inherited by his nephew, John Stuart, later the third earl of Bute.

Another portrait of the 3rd duke by Allan Ramsay, dated 1758: is he writing or annotating the volume? (Private collection)

But in spite of relentless and tortuous political activity, the third duke found time for scholarship (he had one of the largest libraries in western Europe), and particularly for botany. Early in his career, he acquired an estate near Richmond, added to it forty acres of Crown land on Hounslow Heath, and turned it into a garden. He was never concerned to build a large house, but until his villa, Whitton Place, was completed on the site in the 1730s, he lived in the gardener’s cottage. The first thing he built was a greenhouse (not a glasshouse), ‘80 feet in length with a hipped roof and an open rusticated loggia of five 10-foot bays’ according to this interesting site.

Whitton Park, a plan of 1766. The greenhouse is on the terrace walk, facing down the canal.

It was designed by James Gibbs, possibly more famous for the Senate House in Cambridge, and the Gibbs Building in King’s College, as well as St Martin’s-in-the Fields, London, etc. etc., who dedicated his Book of Architecture: containing designs of buildings and ornaments of 1728 to the second duke of Argyll. It contains three further plans of buildings for ‘the Right Honourable the Earl of Ilay’ at Whitton, none of which seem to have been built.

Whitton Park, a view of the canal and the Gothick tower

But the duke did build a ‘Chinese’ pagoda, lots of waterways, a tower, a moat and large bridge, and he imported exotic plants to fill the greenhouse, including the famous ‘tea tree’.  Elizabeth Williams lived at Whitton Place until her death a year after the duke, in 1762, at which point the earl of Bute (who had become George III’s prime minister in the same year) seems to have swept in and carried off the choicest and rarest plants to the emerging royal botanic garden at Kew. The estate was put up for sale in 1765, and was lived in by the Gostling family until 1894. They converted the greenhouse to a house, and sold part of the land and the duke’s villa to Sir William Chambers; it was later owned by Benjamin Hobhouse, father of the more famous John Cam Hobhouse, friend of the even more famous Lord Byron.

A description of Whitton Place, from the Gentleman’s Magazine, 1790
Whitton Place in 1794

After the death of the last Gostling descendant, the estate was sold, and despite local efforts to keep the gardens as a public park, little by little it was sold off piecemeal for housing, the greenhouse/house being demolished in 1911; Whitton duke’s house had been demolished in 1847.

A photograph of the gardens in 1928, with the tower visible through the trees

I think it is safe to assume that if the third duke actually drank tea concocted from his eponymous plant, the leaves, rather than the berries, would have been used – this was certainly the tradition in China and Korea. These days, it is the dried berries that are used, and some of the many recipes suggest steeping them in the hot water until they have re-plumped. (You can add hibiscus flowers, ginger, pomegranate, rhubarb, cinnamon, agave nectar, and much, much more.) But perhaps he simply kept the plant in his greenhouse as one of the many marvels of the exotic East he collected, when he had time among the political schemes that required so much ‘application, attendance or bustling’ throughout his life.


This entry was posted in Biography, Botany, Gardens, History, London, Natural history and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Duke of Argyll’s Tea Tree

  1. Fascinating post. Pleased, now, not to have succumbed to gojimania. Reggie


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