Photographs: Charles Francis
March 2016: The new year was just three days old when the first magnolias of the season burst into bloom at Caerhays Castle — almost two months ahead of their normal flowering time. Charles Williams, owner of the estate, described the sight as “quite staggering”. The Williams family have lived at Caerhays for more than a century, and have kept a garden diary for most of that time. In his entry for January 4, 2016, Charles wrote: “What I can say with great certainty is that this is a uniquely early magnolia season.”
The first blooms he found were on a Magnolia mollicomata x Magnolia campbellii hybrid, which usually flowers early in March. He recalled: ”In 2010 or 2011 we had a magnolia flower on the table at a shooting lunch in very late January, but this beats all known records by about a month.” Within hours, Caerhays’ head keeper, Philip Tidball, reported that another magnolia was in full bloom — the American hybrid, ‘Todd’s Forty Niner’, “which we have known to be early,” said Charles, “but never this early!”
There were similar stories from other great Cornish gardens. At Trewithen, near Grampound, the first magnolia flower was spotted on New Year’s Eve. Head gardener Gary Long has monitored the progress of Trewithen’s magnolias annually since 2003. In 2012, the first flowers appeared in mid-January — the previous record — but in 2010, there was no sign of them until March 8.
“This really is exceptionally early,” said Gary. “In fact, we declared that spring officially started in the garden on December 7, when our first camellia came into bloom. We all know it’s been much milder than usual, but 2016 is already turning out to be a horticultural record-breaker.”
Further west is Trewidden, which enjoys a sheltered location not far inland from Mount’s Bay, and can probably claim to have the first magnolia to flower in Cornwall. Head gardener and magnolia enthusiast Richard Moreton found the garden’s much-loved Magnolia ‘Trewidden Belle’ in bloom four days after Christmas.
“I was going to keep a close eye on ‘Trewidden Belle’ from the beginning of January, but I like to come in to check on things in the garden between Christmas and New Year — and to find 12 flowers on the Belle was quite a surprise,” he said. “If anything, you would expect it to flower later than some other magnolias: it’s a hybrid of Magnolia campbellii var mollicomata ‘Lanarth’ — which does flower early in the season — and Magnolia sargentiana var robusta — which is a later variety. Every winter and every spring are different, but this is unprecedented.”
By January 6, ‘Trewidden Belle’ was able to boast 50 blooms — a number which carries special significance for Cornwall’s Spring Story, a marketing campaign launched in 2013 by The Great Gardens of Cornwall group and its main sponsor, the Nare Hotel.
Toby Ashworth, owner of the Nare, explains: “When six of the great gardens — Caerhays, The Lost Gardens of Heligan, Trebah, Tregothnan, Trewidden and Trewithen — have 50 blooms on their champion Magnolia campbellii trees, we announce that spring has sprung. Many people planning to come to Cornwall don’t realise that we’re normally about a month ahead of the rest of the country, so putting the Cornish spring on the national stage helps to start the tourist season early.
“As the head gardeners start to report the number of magnolia blooms they have, it sets the ‘bloomometer’ going on the Great Gardens of Cornwall website. By putting this system in place to monitor the arrival of spring, we ensure that we have accurate records, instead of relying on anecdotes.
“In the last two years, spring arrived in the first few days of March. We’re now checking records to see if this is the earliest we have ever seen magnolias in bloom. The poor old flowers, birds and bees are going to be very confused this year. We could still have a very chilly March — but what we are hoping for is a prolonged spring, with some lovely sunny days to show off Cornwall’s magnolias in their best light.”
The magnolia is used as a key performance indicator for Cornwall’s Spring Story because it has become an iconic Cornish tree, says Toby. “More than 100 years ago, a lot of the great estates were sponsoring plant hunters to go to China. One of the reasons that we still have so many magnolias in Cornwall is that the estates where they were planted are largely still owned by the same families.”
Magnolia campbellii ‘Alba’
Some of the first magnolias ever to be shipped to Cornwall were planted at Caerhays. The estate now has more than 500 different varieties in its 140-acre garden, and was awarded Plant Heritage National Collection status in 2001. This month, Charles Williams is giving a lecture entitled Magnolia Mania, which will include a walk around the garden. He will talk about Caerhays’ first magnolias, and the vast range of varieties in the National Collection. There will also be practical information for amateur gardeners interested in growing their own magnolias, and a chance to see some of the estate’s latest hybrids.
The sheltered coastal environment of Caerhays has proved to be a perfect match for the magnolias’ native soil in the mountains of China, observes the estate’s head gardener Jaimie Parsons: “We have microclimates, woodland, and good acid to neutral soil.”
Magnolia sargentiana var robusta sprengeri ‘Diva’
The oldest specimen in the National Collection is a Magnolia stellata, planted in 1897 on the front lawn, and still thriving — but the collection really began in the early years of the 20th century, when plant hunters George Forrest and Ernest Wilson sent back a huge quantity of plant material to Caerhays’ then owner, J C Williams, including a Magnolia campbellii, which was planted in 1910. It is this tree, now standing 30 metres high, and with official champion status, which is Caerhays’ Cornwall Spring Story representative.
Within a few years of the arrival of the first magnolias, new hybrids were being created at Caerhays. “When J C Williams started hybridising magnolias and camellias, it became a passion for him,” says Jaimie. It is a passion he pursues with equal enthusiasm, in partnership with Charles Williams. “We’re now crossing hybrids with other hybrids, which not many people are doing. With a good hybrid, you get 20 seeds,” Jaimie explains. “We pick the biggest, and pot them on, then plant the healthiest ones — and wait up to 15 to 20 years. We do lots each year, rather than wait 20 years for each one!”
Successful hybrids include ‘Caerhays Belle’, known for its impressive, eye-catching salmon-pink flowers, hardy dark mauve ‘Caerhays Surprise’, and spectacular ‘J C Williams’, which has blooms of an unusually rich reddish purple. “Our latest is ‘Caerhays Splendour’, which we created in 2000,” says Jaimie. “It first flowered in 2011, which was really exciting. It’s a dark cyclamen colour when it’s in bud, and then as the flower opens, it’s a lot lighter in the centre.
Magnolia ‘Caerhays Splendour’
“We did about 30 hybrids in 2005, which was a particularly good year — sunny and not too windy. A lot of the 2005 hybrids are planted around the garden, and we’re waiting for them to flower. When they do, we give each one a year of two to see what the flowers are like. We can’t keep them all, because we’re running out of room. But in the last 10 years, we’ve extended the garden by taking in a field at the top, and planted some magnolias there.”
Jaimie insists that this year’s early blooming — followed by plunging temperatures — does not mean there will be nothing for visitors to see when Caerhays opens its gates for the new season. “There is always a danger of frost,” he says. “But we have a steady stream of magnolias — and some will flower until midsummer.”