Wooded Wonder

PUBLISHED: 17:02 13 August 2010 | UPDATED: 15:06 20 February 2013

Magnolia 'Caerhays Surprise'

Magnolia 'Caerhays Surprise'

Famous Caerhays Castle and Gardens is the place to visit in spring, so we pay a visit in or April issue. Set in 100 acres of woodland, Caerhays Castle was built 200 years ago, virtually bankrupting the Trevanion family. Fortunately it was purchase...

Famous Caerhays Castle and Gardens is the place to visit in spring, so we pay a visit in or April issue.

Cornwall is home to Caerhays, one of the most significant privately owned gardens in the Westcountry. There can't be many gardens in the country with a more imposing and romantic setting, being only a stone's throw from secluded Porthluney Cove, west of Mevagissey, and with an extensive hillside backdrop that leads to the imposing, grey-granite turrets and towers of Caerhays Castle.

Set in 100 acres of woodland, Caerhays Castle was built 200 years ago, virtually bankrupting the Trevanion family. Fortunately it was purchased by tin-mine owner Michael Williams in 1853, who started the restoration of the castle. Later, towards the end of the 19th century, John Charles (JC) Williams began to develop the grounds, keeping a detailed diary of every plant, its progress, the prevailing weather, his visitors, and meetings with other major garden-owners in Cornwall. He was a very private man, shunning publicity, which restricted widespread publication of his outstanding contribution to horticulture.

This was the period of the great 'plant hunters', particularly those working in the Himalayas and China, who introduced countless new plants to the West. Ernest Henry Wilson, working for the Veitch nurseries, was sending back hundreds of packets of seeds, mostly of little-known plants or those new to cultivation, many of which were rhododendrons. Knowing that the climate and the grounds of Caerhays with its light woodland canopy was ideal for the growing of rhododendrons, JC was asked to grow some of them.

It was at Caerhays that many plants first flowered in cultivation, and needed naming. He exchanged seeds with other major Cornish garden-owners and bought shares in plant-hunting expeditions, including being the major sponsor of the syndicate backing George Forrest who spent nearly three decades introducing plants from Yunnan, China, Burma and Tibet. Then there was Frank Kingdon-Ward and Reginald Farrer.

Not content with developing Caerhays as the home for countless new plant introductions, he began selecting and hybridising new woody plants, having already successfully begun breeding daffodils. Perhaps his greatest success with camellias was in 1925 when, having crossed Camellia japonica 'Alba Simplex' with C. saluenensis, he produced the first Camellia x williamsii hybrids. It was after his death in 1939 that these original plants were selected, the best being named in his honour - 'JC Williams' produces single, phlox-pink blooms in profusion, often so many that growth in the early years is reduced. A characteristic of C. x williamsii cultivars is their ability to start flowering while very young, and for the flowers to drop off as they die instead of staying on the plant as happens with most other camellias.

After JC's death, his son, Charles, continued to tend the gardens at Caerhays, followed by his nephew, Julian, and now Julian's son, Charles, the 6th generation. I well remember taking a group of garden students to Caerhays; they were given a guided tour by Julian and on the long drive back to Devon they were bubbling over with excitement, their notebooks full of jottings about the gardens. Their reaction is typical of many visitors, who today have about 150 acres to wander around, 40 of which have been extensively developed in recent years.

Caerhays holds a National Collection of magnolias, with over 650 species and cultivars, about 250 of which are new hybrids. "Caerhays does not stand still," says Charles. "Like all good gardens that do not want to age with their owners, we are always adding, replacing and renovating areas. We had to carry out a massive re-planting following the 1990 gales, which brought down over 200 large trees and severely damaged the boundary windbreak. Our new areas are being protected by laurel screens, which are quick-growing, interplanted with taller growing beech and Monterey Pine." Caerhays has the outstanding figure of 80 Record Trees, the largest of their type when measured for height and girth. Only Kew has more. And Caerhays is not standing still in the introduction of new plants - 20 hybrids being recently listed - and seeds and material continue to arrive from today's plant hunters.

Caerhays is packed with wonderful plants. There are huge banks of rhododendrons and azaleas and vast numbers of other members of the erica family and camellia species, numerous other shrubs, cherries and ornamental trees, and an incredible collection of deciduous and evergreen oaks. Now, with over 100 Podocarpus (evergreen trees and shrubs from the southern hemisphere), Caerhays is applying for them to be recognised as a National Collection. The garden's huge bushes of evergreen michelias are probably the best one is ever likely to see. Tree ferns, conifers, hollies, dogwoods - it is difficult to name a group of woody plants suitable for a woodland garden that is not represented here. Understandably, Caerhays has always attracted numerous visitors including many of the world's leading gardeners; the visitors' book records many visits by HRH Prince Charles and the late Queen Mother.

Visitors are advised to look in all directions, not just in front or to the side but above, where some of the large trees may be covered in blossom. "Our magnolia display now starts in the second half of February, with some over 70ft tall, often continuing for at least another 8-10 weeks," says Charles, "by which time, one of my favourite trees, Magnolia campbellii alba should have just finished blooming."

Caerhays Castle and Gardens is open until 20 June 11am-5pm. (01872 501310, www.caerhays.co.uk

Latest from the Cornwall Life