Majesty and Colour

PUBLISHED: 14:08 13 August 2010 | UPDATED: 15:44 20 February 2013

Magnolia Trewidden Belle, Photo: Keith Hargreaves

Magnolia Trewidden Belle, Photo: Keith Hargreaves

In this February issue we visit Trewidden Garden, one of Cornwall's oldest with magnificent early spring blooms and an interesting history

Majesty and Colour

Louise Danks visits Trewidden Garden, one of Cornwall's oldest, with a significant mining history and an awesome plant collection

The beautiful drive along the coast past St Michael's Mount to Trewidden Garden more than puts you in the mood for a garden visit and this one, a mile inland from Newlyn, is a hidden gem. Steeped in history, this garden couldn't be more Cornish if it tried. This woodland garden was created on top of an ancient tin mine known as Trewidden Bal. It dates back to before Roman times and is thought to be one of the oldest in the county. Even now there is evidence of the open-cast mine in the Tree Fern Pit and the Burrows - in fact there are small reminders of the garden's mining heritage at every turn.

Thomas Bolitho came to Penzance in around 1769; the family were involved in many businesses in the area and became important merchants. Thomas' eldest grandson bought the land at Trewidden and built a house there. The success of Trewidden Garden has historically been credited to its head gardeners and forward-thinking owners. The garden does not seem to be one which head gardeners are in any hurry to leave. George Maddern worked alongside Edward Bolitho, who created the garden in the second half of the 19th century, for 45 years.

Edward's son, Thomas Bedford Bolitho, followed in his father's footsteps and had the foresight to plant the open-cast mine with tree ferns (Dicksonia antarctica), at the time recently available from Australia and costing around a couple of pounds for a three-foot specimen. Now they are often described as one of the finest tree fern stands in the northern hemisphere. Reading about this spectacle does not prepare you for the majesty of these plants when you discover them at the heart of the garden.

During the Second World War, a German bomber dropped an incendiary bomb on Penzance. It landed at the northern end of the Tree Fern Pit at Trewidden, blowing mature tree ferns out of the ground. However, it takes more than a violent uprooting to stop these gloriously tough plants thriving, and today many of them can be seen growing along the ground where they would have landed.

The area surrounding the Tree Fern Pit is covered with tree fern seedlings, the carpet of fresh green covers the ground and the low Cornish hedges - it's unlikely that visitors will ever have seen such a wide range of tree fern species or stages of growth in one place. Richard Morton, the Head Gardener, is doing sterling work expanding the collection and has introduced some rare specimens.

All around this 15-acre garden you'll stumble upon mining relics that survived the Second World War on the estate. Large cast-iron smelting kettles now contain aquatic plants but would have originally been full of molten tin. Granite ingot moulds sit modestly along the pathways around the garden and it's only when you stop and look that you realise what these chunks of stone were used for.

With sharp eyes, you will notice almost life-size bees cast in tin positioned around the garden as part of a trail. The tin used to make these bees had an interesting journey back to Cornwall. Tin ingots were being transported by the SS Liverpool when it sank off the coast of Anglesey in 1863. Many of the ingots bore the Bolitho stamp and were originally smelted at the Chyandour smelting works near Penzance. The tin was lifted from the wreck and was returned to the garden in bee form.

Evidence of Trewidden's mining heritage continues in its walled garden. This south-facing kitchen garden is planted with slightly more exotic species than perhaps would be expected in a traditional walled garden and is a haven for butterflies and bees, crammed full of summer-flowering nectar-rich plants. A large smelting kettle makes an attractive water feature planted with water lilies.

At the last count, nine Champion Trees can be found at Trewidden. Champion Trees are awarded this accolade by the Tree Register when they are measured and verified as being the tallest or having the widest girth or being of exceptional merit. A handful of the Champion Trees at Trewidden are magnolias, a couple are eucalyptus, but what's amazing is that this garden, being so close to the sea with strong coastal winds, can boast the tallest of anything.

If it's flowers that excite you, Trewidden Garden holds the second largest camellia collection in Cornwall with over 300 species and cultivars. The Western Plantation holds the core of this impressive assortment, there's even a Camellia sinensis, the famous tea-producing camellia.

If you are hoping to see some this month, you will not be disappointed. Three types that are in bloom in February include the Camellia 'Cornish Snow', which starts to flower in November and will still be flowering in February. The Camellia japonica 'Alba Simplex' is in flower by February, and if you are lucky, you will also see Camellia x williamsii 'Debbie', which is slightly later flowering.

Trewidden also has some spectacular magnolias. The famous Magnolia 'Trewidden Belle' can be found in the South Garden, formally an orchard and home to one remaining apple tree and a collection of Acers over 100 years old. 'Trewidden Belle' has rich magenta blooms the size of dinner plates and the tree is nearly 14m in height. It has a very interesting heritage and was bred by the Williams family at Caerhays. An enormous specimen of Magnolia x veitchii 'Peter Veitch' towers well above the garden and adorns the sky with its pink-flushed blooms in early spring. Magnolia sargentiana var. robusta proudly shows why it is worthy of Champion Tree status, with showy pink flowers appearing in spring on the tallest and widest tree of this kind in the UK.

Although this garden is a true spectacle in spring, Richard's ongoing aim is to extend the season of interest here. There are a large number of horticultural curiosities and Richard continues to add to them. If you spot him at work it's worth picking his brains - his knowledge and enthusiasm are infectious.

There are old and young plants of interest around the garden. Look out for the Butia capitata or jelly palm; it's incredibly old and thought to have been planted around 1890. An evergreen tree from Japan, Castanopsis cuspidata is not something you'd see every day but at Trewidden it is a stately specimen with glossy foliage. One of the new introductions is a small group of Scheffleras, probably best known as the umbrella plant, except these are hardy outside and are proving to be evergreen at Trewidden.

This garden is fascinating on many different levels and will interest the geologist, historian, gardener, walker and artist, basically anyone who fancies a good day out. Steeped in Cornish history yet definitely forward thinking, this garden is one to visit.

Richard is in the process of creating a volunteer programme at Trewidden as well as a 'Friends of Trewidden' scheme. 'Friends' will be privy to guided tours, horticultural workshops and free entry to the garden. Trewidden opens on

11 February from 10.30am-4.30pm every day except Mondays and Tuesdays.

Trewidden Garden, Buryas Bridge, Penzance (01736 363021,

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