Garden to visit
Home to 3,000 plant species, this unique subtropical paradise bathes in the warm air of the Gulf Stream
Tresco Abbey is a unique subtropical paradise
Once described as ‘Kew without the glass’, the Abbey Garden on the tiny island of Tresco is a subtropical plant paradise. Thanks to its location in the Scilly Isles, about 30 miles off the south-west tip of Cornwall, the garden enjoys a fabulously mild microclimate, bathing in the warm air of the Gulf Stream. Tresco Abbey Garden was created nearly 200 years ago by Augustus Smith, a philanthropist and education reformer, and now supports a rich and diverse collection of plants that wouldn’t ordinarily survive in Britain. When Augustus arrived on Tresco in 1834, having leased the islands from the Duchy of Cornwall, he realised that although the climate was warm, the islands bore the full brunt of the prevailing Atlantic weather. To create a protective shelterbelt he planted Monterey pines and cypress trees, fast-growing specimens from the Californian coast that can cope with salt-laden winds, as well as banks of the evergreen oak, Quercus ilex. Augustus had connections with Kew and would receive plants from there. It’s also likely that Scillonian sailors would have brought back seeds from their travels to exotic lands for experimental planting in these balmy coastal gardens.
The garden Augustus created was set around the ruins of a Benedictine priory, but over the years subsequent generations of the family have extended the garden and expanded the plant collections. Visitors can now wander through shady, humid glades of tree ferns, pepper trees (Macropiper excelsum) and nikau palms (rhopalostylis) from New Zealand, to sunny terraces planted with aloes, agaves and the UK’s tallest Canary Island palms. From the top of the garden you can admire stunning views across turquoise waters and glistening white sandy beaches. It’s hard to believe you’re still in the British Isles! There are about 3,000 different species in the garden, predominantly from the Mediterranean zone (which includes parts of coastal Chile and California, the Cape of South Africa and south and west Australia). Aeoniums, known locally as Scilly cabbages, are dotted about the gardens and colonies have made their homes in cracks in the walls of the abbey ruins. The woodland floor has been colonised by a peppermint pelargonium so successfully that the gardeners have to mow it to keep it under control! Spiky-leaved Chilean puyas erupt with spectacular displays of blue flowers in spring, and gigantic blue spires of Echium pininana from the Canary Islands self-seed along paths and in borders, where they tower over visitors. At the top of the garden the conditions are at their most extreme – hot, dry, bright and windy. Here the wind-tolerant silver tree (Leucodendron argenteum) thrives along with proteas and the pincushion plant (Leucospermum cordifolium). It’s rare for the garden to be without something in bloom: some plants have adapted to our northern hemisphere seasons, while others remain on southern hemisphere time, and many more just keep flowering all year round. So, if you’d like to experience exotic planting without paying for a long-haul flight, head to Tresco. You won’t even need your passport!
A WORLD APART (clockwise from top left) A blue wooden bridge at the entrance; the shell house; aeoniums on the terrace; a lush tropical paradise; Leucospermum cordifolium (pincushion plant) thrives in the sun and wind