Photographs: Charles Francis
Fox Rosehill Gardens
March 2017: A conversation with Jacqui Owen, community engagement officer for Falmouth Town Council and Cormac Solutions, and gardeners Howard Burns and Matt Stannard
Fox Rosehill is not well known, despite its location close to the busy beaches and shops of Falmouth. What is its story?
Jacqui: The garden has an amazingly rich history. It is the last surviving town garden in Falmouth owned by the Fox family, who also created Glendurgan and Trebah. The family had a shipping agency, and many exotic plants were brought here on packet ships. Some of the plant material went to Kew Gardens, but Robert Were Fox, who moved to Rosehill in the 1820s, did a lot of acclimatisation work here, including naturalising 300 species from New Zealand and Australia. We believe this was the first subtropical garden in the UK.
How did the garden develop from these exotic roots?
Robert Fox’s nephew, Howard Fox, bought Rosehill in 1872. He extended the garden and created a Mediterranean planting style, featuring dracaenas, with conifers as a shelter belt. It’s because of his work that what we now call Cornish palms can be seen in so many places across the UK. Visitors used to say that this wasn’t like an English garden, as it featured a banana grove and lemons, oranges and dates flourishing in the open. In 1923, a Daily Mirror article stated that there were 50 banana trees at Rosehill, and some of the leaves measured seven feet.
The great artist Henry Scott Tuke was a friend of the family, and Falmouth Art Gallery not only has some of his paintings, but photos of him painting in the garden.
What happened to the garden develop after Howard Fox’s time?
In 1944, the garden was given to the people of Falmouth by Howard’s daughters Olivia and Stella, and the house was later bought by Falmouth Art School, now part of Falmouth University. Over the years, the garden was looked after by local councils, and is now managed by Cormac, under contract from Cornwall Council.
Can you describe some of the important trees here?
We have two national champions, Leptospermum scoparium and Olearia paniculata, and two county champions, Crinodendron hookerianum and Eucalyptus dalrympleana.
The tulip tree – Liriodendron tulipifera – overlooking the main lawn was planted on the occasion of Howard Fox’s 80th birthday in 1916, and is absolutely stunning. It’s braced now, and has been crown pruned to reduce its canopy, because it’s started to split: we don’t want to lose it, so this should enable it to carry on for years to come. We also have a great Rhododendron ‘Cornish Red’ with stunning red bark, some magnificent magnolias, two beautiful myrtles and a rare Chilean laurel.
The garden has been revitalised in recent years. What form has this regeneration taken?
There was concern that the exotic feel of the garden would be lost if there was too much pruning – but that resulted in all the interest being up high, with everything else fighting for light. One of our gardeners says that visitors would get neck ache after a visit to the garden! Now that some pruning has taken place, there is fresh new growth coming through, and next spring, it will look amazing.
We’re always looking to add to our tree family by introducing new species. People also want to donate plants to us. One lady who had tended her camellias and rhododendrons for 30 years, could no longer manage them. After two days’ hard digging by our team, they were dug up and planted in here, which is lovely, because the lady can still come and enjoy them without having the maintenance.
Are you able to grow exotic species on site?
Yes, and having the nursery here means we can supply our own plants not just for Fox Rosehill, but for the landscaping projects Cormac is involved in elsewhere in Falmouth and at other gardens in West Cornwall. Every year, we grew more than 40,000 plants here. We have a strong volunteer programme, which is based at Gyllyngvase Gardens, but the volunteers also help with propagation here, which expands their knowledge. We couldn’t do half the work we do without them.
What are your current projects?
Howard: We’re hoping to build a compost area, remove self-set holly and holm oaks and underplant with more exotic ornamental trees. A large pine and a holm oak, both diseased, have been removed, opening up a new sunny spot, where we’d like to plant a dash of year-round colour, something the garden currently lacks.
Matt: Another thing we want to do with the council money is restore the cactus house, so it can be open to the public. We have to keep chopping the cactuses back, as they push through the roof.
There is some fantastic stuff in there, like the dragon tree, which has red sap, and Katanchoe tomentosa, the panda plant, which has pale furry leaves with chocolate-dipped edging. One child who came here recently on a school visit remembered coming before, when she fell over and hurt her knee and I gave her a panda plant as a present!
Panda plant (Kalanchnoe tormentosa)
Another interesting cactus is Aloe saponaria, which is used as soap in South African townships. Behind the main bed in the cactus house is a mural, which was planted about 20 years ago, and looks like a scene from an Arizona desert.
What is the vision for the garden in the years ahead?
Jacqui: This is a plantsman’s garden, and a garden of great historical importance, and we want to carry on in the same vein of experimentation in which it was started. The Friends of Fox Rosehill Gardens have been formed with the aim of raising the profile and use of the garden. We would love more people to know that the garden is here.