The British have developed a number of garden styles over the centuries but none more unexpected than the ‘woodland garden’. No one in 1800, when the first rhododendrons were arriving in this country, could possibly have predicted that a sizeable number of large country gardens, situated on acid soil in rolling wooded countryside or in deep valleys, would be filled in the next century or so with the plant riches of the Himalayas and the eastern United States.
But so it has turned out. At Caerhays, Heligan, Lanhydrock, Trebah, Trengwainton, Trewidden and Trewithen in Cornwall, at Leonardslee, Borde Hill and High Beeches in Sussex, at Crarae, Arduaine and Inverewe on the west coast of Scotland (to select just a few which are open to the public), wealthy Victorian gents with time on their hands, energy and a deep desire to do things properly, experimented with the cultivation of imported exotic plants, most particularly species of the vast rhododendron tribe. These had been collected in upland regions and so had a fighting chance of surviving winters in warm and wet districts of the south and west. Rhododendrons jostled for space and their owners’ affections with other acid-loving plants from the same parts of the temperate world, principally camellias and magnolias, although enkianthus, embothrium, kalmia, michelia and pieris also found a place. Since these plants were predominantly spring-flowering, they fitted a lifestyle which often consisted of the Season in London in early summer, grouse shooting in August, and deerstalking, foxhunting and game-bird shooting through the autumn and winter. Spring was both the critical moment for ericaceous plants, and the time that these gardeners could spare for them.
I saw something of the enduring legacy of those well-to-do plant enthusiasts on a late April visit to Cornwall, where a number of the best gardens have survived intact or been restored, due in part to the iron laws of primogeniture as well as Mrs Thatcher’s tax cuts and, where those have not saved them, thanks to the National Trust. Set very often on favoured slopes above river estuaries or the sea, and sheltered from Atlantic blasts by belts of trees, they are remarkable for many things, not least for the way they have bred an acceptance that foreign, exotic plants are appropriate companions for native trees in an English rural landscape.
They are also remarkable for the size of their plants, thanks to the latter’s age, natural longevity and the kindness of the Cornish climate. Magnolias, such as the best-loved Magnolia campbellii, are 60 feet tall, their pink flowers fluttering birds somewhere in the sky above, while the Tree Rhododendron, Rhododendron arboreum, grows taller than it does in Nepal. And yet ...We tourists ooh and aah, but it has to be said that the plants which were a lifelong fascination to the mining magnate, J.C. Williams (1861–1939), at Caerhays, for example, only momentarily catch our idle interest, since it is hard vicariously to experience the excitement of waiting 20 years for a new, mysterious species to flower. These gardens were a private passion for their makers, a passion which cannot now be dissected: only the majestic settings, and the beauty of individual plants (and they are by no means all beautiful) speak to us now.
In places, these gardens are mature to the point of being elderly. This would be more evident still had not the 1990 gales brutally, but beneficently, felled a lot of old trees and overcrowded plantings. More positively, there does seem a desire to benefit from the assiduous breeding work being done in the temperate world (especially the United States and New Zealand) on Rhododendron yakushimanum and Rh. vireya hybrids, as well as camellias with scented flowers or dwarf habit, and magnolias which flower when young, and have a wide range of colour. The yellow magnolias, such as ‘Elizabeth’, would surely have caused a sensation with the Cornish grandees if E.H. Wilson or George Forrest had sent them back from western China. There are obvious attempts to rejuvenate and develop plantings.
Which is just as well, since big woodland gardens can never be made from scratch again. How could they be? The wonderful, but essentially private, Tregothnan, for example, is 100 acres in extent, while Caerhays is 60. Lamorran House, a well-regarded rhododendron garden created in the last 20 years, is four acres, not 40. The largest ‘garden’ to be made in Cornwall in the last ten years is the Eden Project, a very different enterprise altogether. The old woodland gardens are period pieces. Matchless in their heyday, they are too precious to let go, yet impossible to replicate. Which is sad, but rather more predictable than their creation in the first place.