Knight's enduring interest in animal and plant life led him to create a walled garden and modest range of hothouses at his farm at Elton Hall in 1786, where he concentrated on plant growing and livestock breeding. He may well have remained thus but for two significant events.
The first was that Sir Joseph Banks of the London Horticultural Society (later the Royal Horticultural Society) noted the intelligence of Knight’s written work and encouraged his experiments with plant physiology and breeding. In April 1795, Knight read his paper to the Society entitled, 'The grafting of Fruit Trees'. He was aware that many of Britain’s older fruit varieties were in decline, notably apples and pears, as well as cherries, plums and nectarines. Furthermore, he had observed that disease could be passed on by grafting and that poor or irregular cropping of older varieties were affecting trade volumes during a period of particular difficulty - namely, Britain’s lengthening war with France. He regularly corresponded with Banks and published his Treatise on the Culture of the Apple and Pear in 1797.
The second event was that in 1809, Thomas Knight came into possession of the considerable estate of Downton Castle from his brother. With the benefit of his pioneering skills in plant breeding and 10,000 acres of land at his disposal, Knight continued to develop disease-resistant cultivars of tree fruits in their many thousands. His work also raised stocks of potatoes, peas and cabbages to new standards of excellence. He is perhaps best remembered for the Downton Strawberry, or 'Knight's Seedling'.
Knight's published and practical work encouraged landowners, commercial nurserymen and gentlemen gardeners to adopt his findings and to plant new, vigorous varieties with great success. No less a scholarly work, but with exquisite illustrations was Knight's second volume, Pomona Herefordensis, published in 1809. Two years later he was rewarded with the office of President of the London Horticultural Society, a position to which he was re-elected annually until his death.
Thomas Knight was arguably the most innovative botanist of his era. Although his theory of 'degeneration' of fruit has since been disproved by modern methods, his observations of phototropism (the tendency of a plant to turn towards a source of light) and the cambium (the cellular plant tissue responsible for the increase in girth of stems and roots), and his studies on the ascent and descent of sap, have long been accepted facts of plant physiology.
He was held in high regard by contemporary practitioners and writers, notably Charles McIntosh, who wrote in 1826 that 'To the exertions of Knight...we are indebted, for many of our best fruits, and not only the improvements of our native sorts, but also for the introduction of several foreign kinds'.
Professor John Lindley, delivering his introductory lecture to the University of London on 30 April 1824 was yet more fulsome in his praise for Knight: 'Nine-tenths of the most important discoveries that have been made in modern Horticulture, especially the art of regulating and adapting artificial climate to vegetation, are due to the botanical knowledge of the most distinguished vegetable physiologist of this kingdom; whose successful attempts at applying science to practice have recently been crowned, if I may so express myself, by the complete subjugation of the unmanageable constitution of the Pine-apple'.
In 1991, a little over 150 years after Knight's death in 1838, Tim Smit and John Nelson patiently restored the ‘lost’ gardens of Heligan, Cornwall. In rebuilding the pineapple pits to a productive standard, they chose to work to the designs that had been drawn up by Knight in 1822, which had so impressed Lindley and others in their day. The first ripe specimens from Heligan were cut just five years later.
Knight, T, A (1797) Treatise on the Culture of the Apple and Pear, London
Knight, T, A (1809) Pamona Herefordensis, London
Numerous papers in the Royal Horticultural Society collection
Beauman, F. (2005) The Pineapple, King of Fruits Chatto & Windus, London, pp. 253
Darrow, G, M (1965) "The Strawberry: History, Breeding and Physiology" www.nal.usda.gov/pgdic/Strawberry/book/boksix.htm
History of Horticulture www.hcs.ohio-state.edu/hort/history/079.html
McIntosh, C (1828) The Practical Gardener and Modern Horticulturalist Vol 1. Thomas Kelly, London
The Peerage.com http://thepeerage.com p17531.htm#i 175307
www.rootsandleaves.com (Knight family history/Wormsley Grange)
Shull, C.A & Stanfield, F (1939) "Plant Physiology, Thomas Andrew Knight in Memoriam". Vol 14. No.1 Univ. of Chicago www.plantphysiol.org/cgi/reprint/14/1/1
Stearn, William (1999) John Lindley 1799-1865, Gardener, Botanist and Pioneer Orchidologist Antique Collectors Club, London pp. 85
Contributor: Jonathan Cass