Cornwall is the Ultimate Destination for Garden Lovers
Great Britain all but invented garden tourism. The acres of green space surrounding heritage homes here have attracted flora fanatics to the U.K.’s countryside for nearly a century, and travelers trek all over in pursuit of celebrated landscapes. But if the British Isles can be said to have a single horticultural capital, it may well be the county of Cornwall—home to more than 70 grand gardens, all of them open to the public.
Extending out from the southwestern corner of England, the Cornish Peninsula enjoys an enviable geographic position. Ocean waters surround it almost entirely, and it sits on the Gulf Stream currents in such a way that it can claim warmer temperatures and more sunshine than most other spots in Britain. As a result, the growing and blooming season comes early to Cornwall, so much so that the entire U.K. pegs the start of spring to the day every year when 50 flowers have opened on each prize-winning Magnolia campbellii tree at six of the county’s gardens: Caerhays Castle, Trebah, Tregothnan, Trewidden, Trewithen and the Lost Gardens of Heligan.
Spring flowering season lasts a long time, too. According to James Humphreys, estate manager of Trewithen and secretary and treasurer of the Great Gardens of Cornwall—a consortium of a dozen of the county’s top historic landscapes—spring here extends well through May. “Cornwall can grow plants that grow nowhere else in the U.K., some fairly exotic ones, too” says Humphreys. “Certainly the subtropical climate helps, but so does the fact that some of the bigger landowners sponsored plant hunters in the 1800s and 1900s, sending them off to collect specimens in Asia and elsewhere to bring back to their estates.”
Such plants continue to dot Cornwall’s gardens now, offering a touch of the South Pacific in the pineapples at Heligan, or South America in the Chilean fire bush at Trelissick, or Asia at Tregothnan, the only place in Great Britain to grow, harvest and produce tea.
An interest in the study of flora also powers the Eden Project, an interactive and immersive plant science center in a series of massive geodesic domes built into disused clay pit mines. These biospheres house a diverse array of Mediterranean landscapes as well as an entire rainforest with a canopy catwalk. Like Cornwall’s historic gardens, the Eden Project offers a rich and rewarding entrée into the botanic world, one whose look into the future of horticulture is as extraordinary as the heritage landscapes’ window into the past.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2016 issue of CTC&G (Connecticut Cottages & Gardens) with the headline: A Gardener's Eden.