January 2011: A conversation with gardener Josephine Stewart
This is a garden with a long and illustrious history. What’s the story?
Fox Rosehill was created by the Fox family — who were Quakers here in Falmouth — after they established a shipping agency in the mid-1700s. They paid sea captains to bring back seeds and plants from all over the world, so they had access to plants which would not have been seen anywhere else in the UK at that time. The Foxes owned half a dozen gardens in the area; Robert Were Fox, a scientist and enthusiastic plant-hunter, was the owner of Rosehill. The garden passed to his nephew, Howard Fox, in 1872, by which time it was bursting with fantastic plants. He extended it, and continued to collect subtropical species and exotics.
What did the Foxes plant?
Dicksonia antarctica came into Falmouth more or less by mistake, so legend has it. The tree’s trunks were used as ballast on ships returning to Falmouth — and then people noticed that they were starting to sprout. Phormium tenax first came from New Zealand in the mid-1700s, so there is every reason to suppose that ours was one of the first in the country, as was the Magnolia soulangiana, which came into the country in the early 1800s. The first Olearia paniculata was brought into the Scilly Isles from Australia: it was felt that it probably wouldn’t survive the British climate, so slightly hardier ones came in – including ours, which is a record-breaker, with the greatest girth of its species in Britain.
Has the planting changed much since the Foxes’ day?
We’re influenced strongly by the passion of the Victorian plant-collectors. We maintain the original planting, but we also live in the spirit of the Foxes, who were enthusiastic about new and different plants. We’re not afraid to introduce exciting things as long as they fit the character of the garden. When we cut down some conifers and created a herbaceous border, we introduced new plants into it, but also plants which might well have been smiled upon by the Foxes. We have lots of psuedopanax from New Zealand, and as well as Echium candicans, we have recently introduced Echium wildpretii, which has red spires and is absolutely gorgeous.
Variegated cordyline with Taxodium distichum
How did the camellia collection develop?
Robert Were Fox planted 300 camellias. Two years ago, the International Camellia Conference donated quite a number of varieties when they came to Falmouth, and when these plants are established, we will have camellias from every country in the world that produces them.
What can visitors see in the garden in January?
Early camellias will be in flower, and maybe some magnolias: grandiflora has massive white flowers the size of dinner plates. There’s an Agave americana which has a flowering spike 25 feet tall, and that’s worth seeing. The cactus house has a permanent display of succulents and cacti from around the world.
Do you have any planting or restoration plans for 2011?
Whenever plants need to be replaced, we have an opportunity to replant in a totally different way, while making sure it’s in keeping with this special garden. A Pinus radiata was removed last year, and we’re going to redevelop that area. It’s quite sheltered, so we could bring in plants which we might have been cautious about before, if we can create the correct protection from the wind.
How has the garden coped with freezing temperatures for the third winter in a row?
We haven’t been too badly affected, as we are in a nice little microclimate. But last winter, there were six days in a row when the temperatures were incredibly low, and we had some sad losses. Some plants from hot climates can survive for a short time at very low temperatures, but longer than that means we have casualties. We’ve been able to plant identical plants to those that are left, or put in something similar but hardier.
Why is the garden special?
There are a lot of plants you would normally find in conservatories, but here they grow outside all year, which is amazing. If you were a plant expert, you would have to pay to see some of the plants and trees we have here, but Fox Rosehill is free for everyone. People come to be with the trees and the plants. We have 59 different bamboos and a huge number of different eucalyptus. People love the banana grove. I don’t wrap the bananas for the winter — they survive because of their position. In the spring, Fox Rosehill is a riot of colour, with massive magnolias, rhododendrons and camellias, and all the spring bulbs: crocuses, narcissi, violets, primroses. And it really comes into its own is summer. It’s a very calm, peaceful place, and people come here to relax from the pressures of the day and the heat. It’s like a secret garden: you can wander along the paths and be in your own world.