Photographs: Charles Francis
May 2012: A conversation with head gardener Jaimie Persons
What do you think makes Caerhays such a special place?
The Williams family have been here since 1840, and they sponsored the plant-hunter George Forrest on his first expedition. In 100 acres, you can see plants from all over the world. Every day there’s something different to see; if you get off the beaten track, you sometimes notice a plant you haven’t seen for a couple of years. We have a National Magnolia Collection: the oldest is a stellata, dating back to 1897. We also have 80 Champion Trees, and last year we were awarded the Podocarpus National Collection.
Do you have any favourite magnolias?
One favourite is Magnolia ‘Shirazz’, which has port red flowers and a ghostly inner petal. I like the way the flower stands proud; it’s not at all floppy. I also like Magnolia ‘Peachy’, which is yellowy-orangey-pinky, and the evergreen Magnolia doltsopa, which has pure white lightly-scented flowers which open from a velvet bronze casing.
Caerhays is the original home of the renowned x williamsii camellias. Are new hybrids still being created here?
We are still hybridising — I did 20 to 30 last year, and a magnolia hybrid I planted in 2000 has flowered for the first time this year, which is really exciting. It hasn’t been named yet. The material we have here to create new plants is fantastic. We also collect seeds from a chap called Alan Clark, who still goes plant hunting. I know I won’t see all of the hybrids I’ve planted grow to maturity, but I hope to see some of them in flower. I plan to stay here until I retire, if they’ll have me.
Magnolia sargentiana var robusta x mollicomata ‘Lanarth’
What brought you to Caerhays?
I’ve been gardening since I was a kid; my grandfather and my great-grandfather got me into it, and I had a greenhouse when I was 12. I came here in 1994 and took over from Phil Tregunna as head gardener in 1996.
I’m lucky that the Williams family are so interested in the garden, and have a lot of knowledge of plants. I work closely with Charles Williams. We talk about what’s in the greenhouse, what new plants we’re looking to get, and where we’re going to plant them. We choose a place where we feel they will grow best, rather than where they’ll look good with something that’s already there. Nature doesn’t have colour schemes, so we don’t.
What can visitors see in May?
We’ll have deciduous azaleas, some of the williamsii camellias, and a lot of yellow magnolias. There will also be later-flowering rhododendrons, some of which are scented, like ‘Lady Alice Fitzwilliam’, which has lovely peeling bark and flowers which are pink in bud and open white with a yellow throat, and ‘Polar Bear’, which is mostly white. And there will be a carpet of bluebells. We always wait for all our wildflowers to set seed before we cut the grass: that’s why we have so many primroses and bluebells.
Caerhays enjoys a lovely sheltered location. Has it managed to escape battering by wild Cornish winds?
The hurricane of 1990 came dancing all round the estate, and did a lot of damage. There was a huge row of Pinus radiata, and most of them were taken out. We also lost some of the original George Forrest rhododendrons. Another year, a huge chestnut tree was hit by lightning and came down.
Caerhays has gained a few extra acres in recent years. How did this come about?
We’ve extended the garden by taking in an eight-acre field. We’ve planted laurel hedges as windbreaks, and we’re now planting things like horse chestnuts, acers, and hardy magnolias. As time goes on, and it gets more of a microclimate, we’ll put more tender plants there.
Which other areas of the garden have you been focusing on in recent years?
We cleared 20 mature beech trees to plant Mr and Mrs Williams senior’s golden wedding anniversary garden. The trees were at the end of their lives and would have threatened the plants below if we hadn’t removed them. We’re also taking out old laurel hedges where the plants have grown bigger than the hedges, which has created lots of new planting areas. We’re propagating and replanting old varieties, as we don’t want to lose them.