||Subtropical and exposed gardens
In the cool climes of Scandinavia and northern Europe, and on the prolific Canadian coastlines, you are fairly unlikely to come across exotic plantings with palms, bananas, cycads and bromeliads. These are all the sorts of plants at home in tropical rainforests – a far cry from the cooler countries.
Yet there are pockets of pleasure to be found. Take, for example, the Scilly Isles, situated 28 miles (45km) off the southwestern tip of Cornwall, England. These small islands, of which four are large enough to be inhabited, are set in the middle – seemingly – of the Atlantic Ocean, with no mainland in view. You would expect conditions here to be harsh and uncompromising, yet because the islands are situated in the currents of the Atlantic’s Gulf Stream, both the sea and air temperatures are far warmer than one would usually expect for this latitude.
As a consequence, an amazing range of exotic-looking plants are able to be grown. One of the islands, Tresco, boasts a world-famous subtropical garden containing more than 20,000 plants, most of which are non-indigenous, but which nevertheless thrive – with no protection from wind and salt.
Tresco Abbey Gardens, Scilly Isles
Tresco, the second-largest island in the Scilly Isles group, features an amazing variety of scenery: wild rugged granite outcrops and heathland
to the north, with subtropical sandy beaches and the Abbey Gardens in the south. This is because the unique microclimate at the sheltered southern tip of Tresco has formed a unique environment, with many species of plants thriving here that would not survive on the UK mainland.
The Abbey Gardens are home to more than 20,000 exotic plants from 80 countries across the globe (including Brazil, New Zealand and Africa).
The gardens were originally the private estate of Augustus Smith. He began to create this beautiful setting from the bare moorland around the old Priory following his appointment as Lord Proprietor of the Scillies in 1834. He constructed a series of walled enclosures and terraces on the rocky southern slopes of the island. Tall windbreaks channelled the weather up and over the site, sheltering the gardens from the worst of the weather.
By planting the hotter, drier terraces at the top with species imported from Australia and South Africa, and those at the bottom with species that prefer a more humid regime – such as plants from South America and New Zealand – he created a garden with a greater biodiversity than can be found anywhere in the Southern Mediterranean.
Plan:Exposed coastal garden
Tresco Abbey Gardens has both formal and informal elements, and so does the garden in the plan shown here. If one followed this plan, and the planting choice was largely made up of exotic plants and succulents (and there are views of the sea, distant or otherwise), then the similarity to Tresco would be complete.
D Formal pond
I Woodland glade/seat
J Wildlife pond
K Garden office
M Herbaceous border
Plants at Tresco
Fringing the lush grid of paths criss crossing the subtropical space at Tresco Abbey Gardens are cacti, date palms and giant lipstick-red flame trees, with rarities such as lobster claw (Clianthus puniceus), great white spires of Echia, brilliant Furcraea, and bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae),
to shocking-pink drifts of Pelargonium.
Fittingly, the layout begins with the original plantings around the Priory and ends with the new, terraced Mediterranean Garden, a horticultural world tour condensed into 17 acres (6.8ha).
If led blindfold into the garden you would be hard-pressed to tell which region of the world you were in. The top terrace, with its sea views and open, sunny aspect, is home to many plants from the dry regions of Australia and South Africa; summer breezes and salty winter gales alike push through the foliage of Protea, Leucadendron, Aloe, Banksia, bottle brushes (Callistemon), Dryandra and Cape heaths (Erica hyemalis).
Moving lower down to the more protected slopes of the middle terrace, we move into a quite different plant grouping. Date palms (Phoenix dactylifera), Echium and Aeonium jostle for position with passionflowers (Passiflora spp), century plants (Agave spp) and Puya (which in its natural Chilean habitat would be pollinated by colourful hummingbirds).
Shadier parts of the garden at the base of the hillside reveal statuesque tree ferns (Dicksonia spp) from Australasia. Alongside grow towering gums (Eucalyptus spp) and the Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria excelsa).
The seasons at Tresco
At any time of the year the flowering capacity of the garden is amazing. The summer months reveal a mixture of colour from Mesembryanthemum, Pelargonium and Watsonia suffused with individual highlights such as Furcraea, Metrosideros and Abutilon.
The word ‘winter’ does not really exist on Tresco; the locals prefer to call it an extended autumn with flowering periods. Throughout November, December and January, the proteas, aloes and tree heaths are at their exotic best, with flowering camellias thrown in for good measure.
Statues and figurines, symbolizing the ‘natural forces’, accentuate the garden’s overall beauty, whilst shipwrecked figureheads at the front of the Valhalla Museum remind you of the remoteness of these small islands.
History and legend are deeply rooted in the island’s culture too. Many people believe that Tresco was the legendary ‘Lyonesse’, or ‘land across the sea’ – the final resting place of King Arthur.
Access to Tresco
Tresco Abbey Garden is open every day of the year to visitors. Access to the island is the main limiting factor.
By helicopter: from the Heliport at Penzance, Cornwall, the Sikorsky craft of British International Helicopters soars across Mounts Bay with its castle on St Michael’s Mount, and swings southwest along the breathtaking coastline. The journey is just 20 minutes.
By sea: travel by sea aboard the Scillonian, which departs from Penzance, on the Cornish coast. The journey to Tresco takes 2hrs 40min.
By light aircraft: the final option is to fly via the Skybus from the English airports at Newquay, Exeter, Bristol and Southampton, as well as Land’s End (the closest mainland airfield to the Scilly Isles, at the tip of Cornwall). Flights take you to the airfield on St Mary’s, a neighbouring island, and you then need to hop on a quick ferry over to Tresco.