The History of McBean’s Nursery – over a century growing exquisite orchids and rare plants in East Sussex near Lewes

McBeans Nursery in full bloom with various beautiful orchids

The 140 year old Orchid Nursery near Lewes

In 1879 McBean’s nursery was created by the Scotsman James Ure McBean on a piece of land just outside of Lewes in the South Downs. James was a passionate horticulturist and dreamt of growing exotic plants from the nursery. The original McBean’s glasshouse was used to grow a variety of imported plants including ferns. It is said that the first orchid in the nursery appeared amongst ferns.

It was Albert, James’ son, who fell in love with orchids. He was absolutely passionate about growing the finest orchids from the nursery in the world; it was he with his passion and drive that originally won McBean’s recognition as one of the greatest orchid establishments.

Innovative and award winning from the start

In the early 1900’s Mr Schlegel was the Nursery’s principal grower winning several awards. The first cymbidium awarded was named Cymbidium Schlegeli in his honour. Unfortunately, in 1914 Mr Schlegel, being of German parentage, was interned. His hybridisation work continues to this day.

From the very beginning hybridisation, the artificial crossing of two plants was of great interest and importance. The experiments to raise orchids from seed took many years. Few plants made it to maturity; the mortality rate was about 99%.

A day at the Nursery

In the 1920’s a typical day began at 6am with Albert McBean standing at the nursery gate, watch in hand, making sure everyone arrived on time. Albert then led the men in prayer before the work began. In the 1930’s Albert decided that the Cymbidium would become fashionable as a cut flower and the nursery concentrated its main effort into producing high quality cymbidium for the floristry trade.

The nursery grew steadily and its breeding techniques changed drastically when the Head Grower of the day, Sidney Rothwell, learnt revolutionary new sowing techniques from Professor Knudson of the USA. This involved sowing orchid seeds in sterile media (agar) in Pyrex flasks. Using this technique Sidney produced well over a million seedlings in his time.

Export and world fame

In 1939-45 many plants were exported to the USA on boats that were returning empty after delivering arms, etc. for the war. The RHS was helpful with regard to permits for fuel and agar so that laboratory work could continue.
In 1942 Albert McBean sadly died leaving behind a widow and four daughters.

The royal connection

In 1971, McBean’s acquired the stocks and business of Charlesworth & Co. of Haywards Heath. From the Charlesworth collection a search was made for Alba clones with a view to producing high quality Odontoglossum crispum. Two crosses that resulted from this programme were Odontoglossum Royal Wedding and Odontoglossum Royal Occasion. McBean’s were proud to supply flowers of these hybrids for the wedding bouquet of HRH Diana Princess of Wales.

A continuing success

Over the years McBean’s has bred thousands of different varieties of orchids, registered hundreds and has received hundreds of awards for its plants and exhibits. The nursery is proud that it is one of only three surviving nurseries that were invited to exhibit at the very first Chelsea flower show in 1913.

To see our wondrous array of orchids visit our online shop and own your very own piece of history.