Daffodils, magnolias, camellias, rhododendrons, palms, agapanthus, tree ferns… to name but a few of the plants which Cornwall is famous for and which people now associate with its gardens. How many other counties in the UK so easily bring to mind particular plants?
But of course, when people think of typically Cornish gardens – especially the large garden estates – they often bring to mind non-native species; plants which were introduced to the county following expeditions to far-flung corners of the world, in relatively recent history. From the Far East, South America or Africa. Very few species in the whole of the British Isles are endemic – i.e. only found on our island. So it’s no surprise that most of the plants we take for granted in Cornwall, originated overseas. And it may be surprising to discover that many of them have only been here for a century or two.
In recent years, some have declared the start of spring in Cornwall as heralded by the grandest of magnolias; the moment when seven of the Champion Magnolia campbellii trees in the county are displaying at least 50 blooms. These specimens are found throughout Cornwall on estates such as Heligan, Trewidden and Trengwainton. But magnolias were only brought back to the UK (from the Himalayas) by Sir Joseph Hooker in the mid-19th Century, and the first of these harbingers of spring were planted in our county only shortly after.
The Cornish daffodil industry has been strong for at least the past hundred years. But the narcissi (Tazetta) favoured by, for example, growers on the Isles of Scilly, go back as far as the Pharaohs in Egypt. They too are relative newcomers to our land.
Similarly, Tree ferns arrived in Cornwall only a century ago, as ballast in the holds of ships transporting other cargo. They came into ports such as Falmouth, and started to regrow and became admired as exotic additions to our gardens.
Native plants may be less obvious and grand but can of course be as special. There are local apple specialities (e.g. Hocking’s Green or King Byerd), and Kea Plum. Erica vagans, or ‘Cornish heath’ was voted the County flower in 2002 by the wild flora conservation charity Plantlife. This species is only found in the UK on The Lizard. Others regard the most Cornish of plants as gorse, the Cornish oak or broom. They are wilder plants, which aren’t necessarily grown by gardeners, but are still distinctively part of the Cornish landscape.
We love the fact that, here in Cornwall, we can enjoy so many varied flowers and trees, whether they originated here or abroad. With our climate allowing them to bloom earlier than ‘up country’, or survive that bit better because of our relatively mild winters, Cornwall is a special horticultural place. The plants that we are famous for may have been dictated by the souvenirs of expeditions around the world, but they add to the attraction of living in, or visiting, our county.