Battersea Park’s first Superintendent, John Gibson, created the Sub-Tropical Gardens in 1863. The first public Sub-Tropical Gardens in the country, they attracted immediate attention for their show-stopping colours, giant leaves and unusual plants.
In 1835 Gibson was sent to India by the Duke of Devonshire hunting for orchids, on a journey that took him through Madeira and South Africa. He brought both plants and ideas back to England and at Battersea created a mixture of exotic plants and colourful “carpet” bedding that started a fashion that swept across England and can still be seen in gardens today.
Gibson created a mild micro-climate for the tender plants in the garden, making a dense shelter belt of earth and trees from the wind. He moulded the planting beds on top of brick rubble to help drainage and absorb the heat of the sun during the day and act as storage heaters for the plants during the cooler nights. Many of the plants were planted in pots and could be lifted out of the ground and put into the Park’s glasshouses for the winter.
The Sub-Tropical Gardens remained a feature in the Park until World War II when many of the gardeners went to war and much of the Park became allotment gardens to help feed local people. In 1992 the Friends of Battersea Park took the first step in the recreation of the Gardens by planting a large palm tree which thrives there to this day. Wandsworth Council with assistance from the Heritage Lottery Fund restored the Gardens to the original plans in 2004. The plants stay out all winter but the more tender species are given winter protection of fleece and straw.
The Sub-Tropical Garden has always been a popular subject for postcards.