When I see flame-coloured Crocosmia growing like wildflowers by the side of the narrow lanes, I just know that the flora of the Penwith peninsula is going to be unlike anywhere else in the UK.
During our fortnight’s holiday in the sub-tropical far west of Cornwall – a place special to my heart as we got engaged here 11 years ago – I stumble across exotic aeoniums, echiums, gunnera and agapanthus at every turn – in the gardens of the little granite cottages of the clifftop village of Treen where we are staying, to the lush greenery of the neighbouring Penberth valley, where a climate of intense sunshine and equally heavy rain showers has spawned a jungle of super-sized plants. It is no surprise that this is home to the Chelsea Gold award-winning nursery Penberth Plants. Their garden is closed for the duration of our stay but I am hankering after their Aeonium ‘Logan’s Rock’, named for a local landmark. On the walk down to our favourite beach of Porthcurno we pass a forest of Gunnera manicata. Pink and blue hydrangeas bloom at every turn; sunflowers are on steroids; and skyscrapers of Echium piniana tower in the gardens of beachside bungalows.
In the gardens of St Michael’s Mount – only open on Thursdays and Fridays to protect the fragile infrastructure from increasing visitor numbers – this sub-tropical lushness has been harnessed in the most celestial of settings, where the sea meets the sky. Perched on the south east side of what is essentially a rock in the middle of Mounts Bay, the original walled garden was constructed in 1780. My first view of the garden is an aerial one, from the dizzying heights of the castle above, ancestral home to the St Aubyn family. The garden is maintained by a team of four National Trust gardeners, under the eye of garden designer Michael Harvey. My favourite part of the garden is the Middle Walled Garden, part of a tier of three walled gardens, which Harvey has designed to represent a lapping shore with green and grey foliage. Succulents including aeoniums, aloes, echeverias and sempervivums grow on the sheltered east and west terraces. Following the cats cradle of steep granite paths makes me feel like an explorer, despite the constant stream of garden visitors. Due to an overloaded automobile, I restrict myself to buying one plant to take home, an Echeveria ‘Duchess of Nuremberg’, which will remind me of the strange beauty and nobility of this place.
A little inland, Trengwainton is a National Trust garden showcasing some of the exotica brought back by plant hunters in the 1920s. Many of the plants on display were grown in Britain for the first time here. A woodland walk through the garden’s 25 acres leads past hydrangeas and rhododendrons, past unusual tree ferns and the handsome family home of the Bolitho family – still privately-owned – to an agapanthus-lined terrace with stunning views over Mounts Bay. The Little Weeds are not always the most enthusiastic of garden visitors, but they are delighted by the annual display of scarecrows made by local primary school children in the walled kitchen garden (built to the proportions of Noah’s Ark). This year’s theme is people from around the world across the ages, including Ishita the Indian, standing in a patch of pink cosmos, Adebayo from West Africa in front of an espaliered pear tree, and Regulus the Roman guarding a bed of onions. Also impressive is the array of garden games the National Trust has laid on – croquet, badminton, mini-archery, tug-of-war and outdoor djenga – making for a happy half hour. On the other side of the orchard, the ‘Dig for Victory’ garden complete with its own Anderson shelter, demonstrates how in World War II a shortage of medical supplies led the government to set up a body dedicated to growing medicinal herbs and plants including deadly nightshade and opium poppy for pain relief, brambles for children suffering from dysentery and diarrhoea, and dandelion for eczema. There is also a shed with drying tobacco leaves to show how civilians made their own tobacco, as the imported stuff was requisitioned for the military.
In the bustling town of St Ives we encounter a very different garden, the secluded town garden of the artist Barbara Hepworth, home to some of her organic sculptures and her airy studio where the artist’s tools are still scattered as if she has only just left. Yorkshire-born Hepworth was inspired by the rugged beauty of the Penwith peninsula and by the many ancient monoliths dotted around its moors. The planting is simple – bamboos for privacy, peaceful white Japanese anemones – but there is something magical about this garden with its views out over the sea to the same lighthouse that inspired Virginia Woolf. A little network of shady paths take you on a continuous journey around the garden, appreciating the sculptures as you go.