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A postcard from Tresco Abbey Gardens

Ollie Whitehead, Curator of Public Programmes

The endorsement of ‘warmest place in the UK’ may sound like a dubious consolation prize, but the Isles of Scilly, an archipelago made up of around 200 islands and rocks roughly 40km southwest of Land’s End in Cornwall, are just that.

Tresco Abbey Gardens, photos by Ollie Whitehead

The fact that these granite outcrops share their latitude with parts of Siberia and the Canadian Prairies is a difficult thing to comprehend whilst stood on a white sand, quartz-flecked beach that’s basking in the late summer sun. This is largely due to the gift of the North Atlantic Drift, a warm water current that flows northeastwards to these shores from the Caribbean. And if the Isles of Scilly are a subtropical microclimate, then Tresco Abbey Garden is an even more unique set of microclimatic conditions within that.

An admission notice for Tresco Abbey Private Gardens, c.1965. Garden Museum Collection

Founded in 1834 by Augustus Smith, Tresco Abbey Garden has been widely influenced and expanded by a further 4 generations of the family, and is now under the custodianship of Robert Dorrien-Smith. The garden sits on the site of a ruined 11th century Benedictine Abbey and hosts a collection of 2500 species of plants. When plants and trees are such a key way to locate oneself in the world, this is a garden that offers a truly dislocating experience. There’s no need for glass to keep the more extreme weather conditions outside, everything here is open to the natural elements of the islands.

The garden is cool, damp, and shady at the lower levels, and makes way for much warmer and brighter conditions the higher up the hillside one travels. The species growing here originate from across the globe, but particular collecting focus is given to the southern hemisphere; from Australia and New Zealand, to South Africa and Brazil. Walking around with Head Gardener Andy Lawson, he uses Chile as the simplest way to describe the breadth and depth of the collection; despite being only 445km at the widest point, the country’s 4270km length has at least seven climatic sub-zones; from arid, desert, subtropical, Mediterranean, to temperate and alpine, and most of these are replicated on this 17 acre site.

As we wander, it strikes me: I haven’t seen quite so many healthy aeoniums and pine trees together since Sarah Price’s Benton End-inspired designs from Chelsea Flower Show earlier this year. Aeonium cunatum and Crassula multiclava have successfully colonised stonework, and the former are in fact so happy that it’s not uncommon for the garden to see their own cross-bred hybrids. Making my way through, I was heartened to recognise two species that we host at the Garden Museum; the soon-to-flower Mexican tree dahlia and the unmistakable wavey shapes of the Agave americana. Our gardens team have just moved the latter to one of our glasshouses in the front garden for its participation in a display relating to our upcoming exhibition; a show exploring the work of the Antiguan artist, gardener, and radical, Frank Walter.

Agave americana in the Frank Walter greenhouse display outside the Garden Museum (c) Matt Collins
Agaves and pine trees at Tresco Abbey Gardens c.1910. Photo postcard, Garden Museum Collection

Generously sharing his more-than-37 years’ experience of the site, Andy says it’s plausible, though of course impossible to prove almost 200 years later, that some of the plants in the Tresco Abbey collection may indeed be closely descended from those collected by Charles Darwin on his voyage aboard the Beagle to the South Pacific, which visited, among other locations… Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Brazil, and Chile.

One of the most significant impacts on the garden’s development has been the growth of a so-called shelterbelt of trees that protects it from the worst of the westerly Atlantic winds. This is made up of species including Monterey pine and cypress, evergreen oak, New Zealand Christmas Trees, eucalyptus, New Zealand kauris, and self-seeding Madeira lily of the valley trees that stand at over 18 metres tall. The growth of this shelter has allowed Andy and the team to plant things today that wouldn’t have been possible back in the 19th and even 20th centuries. There is a clear sense of pride in the things that thrive, and there’s a real sense that Andy and the team are keen to push the boundaries of what will grow, with specimens originally from Queensland, New Caledonia and tropical Asia recently introduced, such as Australian umbrella trees, bottle trees, lesser-seen relatives of monkey puzzle trees, and Bird’s-nest ferns.

Dotting the hillside, perhaps nothing is more magnificent than the Norfolk Island pine, a native of the South Pacific, which even as a healthy mature tree will die at the first sign of frost. There has been more than one occasion where an unexpected cold snap and a deviation from the virtual lack of frost on the island has had disastrous consequences; in 1987 five days of snow wiped out around 75% of the garden’s collection, forcing the team to plant and rebuild. Fundamentally, this is what can be considered as the intrinsic beauty of Tresco Abbey Garden; the very fact it exists in the first place is remarkable, but the precarious existence is the thing that significantly heightens the experience and appreciation.

Here isn’t a particularly easy place to get to, but then perhaps that’s another part of its great appeal. The time travelled is well rewarded with the experience of unique conditions and specimens, and vistas unseen elsewhere in the UK. Like a double take, this is the kind of garden that has to be visited twice to be believed. Or at least, that’s what I did, and I feel much richer for it.