Trebah hydrangeas

Photographs: Charles Francis


August 2008: In the hills and valleys of Trebah, dozens of exotic trees are taking root among giant, much-loved ones which were once as small as the newcomers are now. Twenty-one years after the garden first opened to the public, Trebah is looking to the future as well as the past.

The trees, from Japan and Australia, South Africa and the Himalayas, have all been adopted by admirers of the garden, many of whom, like Trebah itself, have something to celebrate this year, such as a 100th birthday, or a special wedding anniversary. Donors pay £250 to adopt a tree for life, and by doing so, contribute to the cost of maintaining one of Cornwall’s most beautiful gardens.

All the trees are looked after by hand, says Trebah plant archivist Nicola Wharton. “When someone has entrusted you with a tree, you have to take special care of it. A lot of though goes into their position — maples, for example, like dappled light. A great benefit to Trebah is that we now have a wonderful variety of new trees coming on. Each one is a feature tree, and they are all unique.”

They are growing up in the shadows of some very illustrious trees dating from the days of the Victorian plant-hunters, including eight which, as the largest of their kind, have champion status.

The champion trees include the stunning Magnolia campbellii with its canopy of deep pink blooms, and the iconic, much photographed palm, Tracycarpus fortunei, which has reached a height of around 14.73 metres (nearly 50 feet). The tree was for many years one of a trio, but there are now only two remaining. However, three new palms are springing up, ready to fill the gap.

giant trachycarpus

There is also a scheme to ensure that Trebah’s magnificent collection of rhododendrons continue to delight visitors for years to come. Rhododendron ‘Trebah Gem’ is currently being micropropagated at Duchy College Rosewarne, as part of a programme to secure the future of plant species at risk of sudden oak death. “This rhododendron is unique to Trebah. It is 100 years old, and nearly reaching the end of its days,” says Nicola. “We are not trying to copy everything that was planted here before, but to ensure that we have a new generation of the plants to take into the future.”

The aim, throughout the garden, is to strike a balance between continuity and change. One new project is to refresh the water garden, with the creation of twisting paths highlighting the natural watercourse. Nearby, in the stumpery, a cascade is now flowing down a natural rock face which was uncovered by chance among tree ferns.

Trebah water garden

Trebah waterfall

The plants, which include the black tree fern, Cyathea medularis, and the silver tree fern, Cyathea dealbata, are thriving in the shady, humid atmosphere. “A lot of the tree ferns came over from Australia in the 1890s — but we also have some which came Tasmania in the 1990s, and are self-seeding,” says Nicola. “Ten years hence, there will be a tree fern forest here.”

Thirty years ago, most of Trebah was a forest. Then, in 1981, Major Tony Hibbert and his wife Eira bought the lovely Georgian house, enchanted by its magical location overlooking a wooded ravine with the Helford River beyond.

“I was looking for peace, with no worries, no work, and no responsibilities,” recalls Major Hibbert. But that was before Cornwall Garden Society informed the Hibberts that an important garden lay beneath the jungle, created almost 200 years before by Charles Fox, from a well-known Falmouth Quaker family. The couple were persuaded to bring the garden back to life — and the major has no regrets about the quiet retirement that never happened: “Trebah has given me the best years of my life,” he says simply.

Major Hibbert’s intention was never to restore the garden which Trebah had once been. “I wanted to create something new from the mixture of gardens we found under the forest which had grown up for more than 40 years,” he says. “My idea was that we would have a natural, wild Cornish garden, where the hand of man was invisible — and it has worked. We now have to ensure that the people who come after us will stick to the same ethos. If people start to see the hand of man, you are losing the plot.”

In 1990, ownership of Trebah was transferred to the Trebah Garden Trust, a charity set up to ensure its long-term future — but in his 90th year, Major Hibbert still tours the garden regularly with head gardener Darren Dickey.

Darren first came to Trebah to help clear paths in the aftermath of the devastating storms of 1990, which felled 70 trees. He was reminded of those days just before Christmas 2000, when a 160-year-old beech tree fell close to Mallard Pond. “Although it was a great loss, it created a great planting opportunity,” he says. “The area has now been planted up with a mixture of trees and shrubs which will help spread colour through the seasons, either side of the main hydrangea flowering time in July and August.

“From March to June, evergreen azaleas will be in flower, with colours ranging from ice white to red. Drifts of Clethra arborea will add height and form, and a specimen Michelia doltsopa ‘Silver Cloud’ will make a nice feature tree and add scent. There will also be three New Zealand Christmas trees, which have spectacular crimson red bottlebrush-like flowers. At the end of the year, hoherias and eucryphias will create a flurry of white at the back.”

Another current scheme is the restoration of the shelterbelt dating from the days of Charles Fox. “It was left to its own devices, and some of it is a bit too closely planted,” says Darren. “It’s one of the keys to protecting the garden, so we are clearing out Rhododendron ponticum and coppicing laurel.”

Darren will soon be welcoming a new trainee gardener to Trebah, under the Historic and Botanic Bursary Scheme, which offers placements in important gardens through the Royal Horticultural Society. It is part of a plan to extend further links with other horticultural establishments.

“It’s nice to share information about plants,” says Darren. “It’s what used to happen when many of the great Cornish gardens were originally created. At Glendurgan, they cleared some nerines and agapanthus the other day and said: ‘Do you want them?’.

“We also receive a lot of material from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, as Trebah is seen as a testing ground. Cornish gardens have always been about pushing the boundaries with plants and seeing how they will cope outside their normal conditions. But we must be careful that we don’t fill up the garden of plants which don’t belong here.”

The distinctive wooden bridge across Mallard Pond was painted blue to complement the surrounding hydrangeas when they are in bloom, and to add a dash of colour when they are not. Although it offers a magnificent vista up through the garden, its presence has proved controversial — because it is an ornamental addition to a natural setting — yet it is popular with visitors.

Trebah agapanthus

Another much-loved feature is Alice’s Seat, a secluded summerhouse constructed from green oak, with cob walls and a thatched roof. It stands on a site known to be a favourite haunt of Alice Hext, who lived at Trebah from 1906 to 1939. As Nicola says: “Because it is high up, the sun shines into it in the afternoon, and twinkles on the leaves. It has a lovely timeless feel.”

There are now plants to shine a spotlight on other times in Trebah’s history. The fact that the beach was used as an embarkation point for American soldiers taking part in the D Day landings in 1944 is well-known — but not the fact that racing driver and car designer Donald Healey lived at Trebah throughout the 1960s. The boathouse on the beach which bears his initials carved in stone is now open for refreshments and is to house a display of Healey publicity posters.

Other ideas for the garden include illuminated garden walks, and concerts in the natural amphitheatre in the heart of the bottom, which can hold 500 people. Special events are already held in the Hibbert Centre, the spacious, attractive building featuring Douglas fir beams which houses the restaurant, shop and plant centre.

“Once we started having 100,000 visitors a year, we needed better facilities to cope,” says Nigel Burnett, director of Trebah. “The idea was that the building would mirror a Malaysian tea-planter’s bungalow set into the hillside. It ended up a lot more substantial than we first envisaged!”

The building, which was given a Cornwall Sustainability Award, is in keeping with Trebah’s plan to be at the forefront of green tourism — and to aim for excellence in everything. This includes giving visitors a chance to take a bit of Trebah home with them, in the form of the Trebah Seed Collection — and offering personal advice on the care of their chosen plant — using top-quality local produce in the restaurant and nurturing a child-friendly atmosphere. Admission prices for children have been reduced, and themed adventure trails created around the garden, plus the imaginative Tarzan’s Camp playground.

“We thought about changing the branding to ‘Trebah’ instead of ‘Trebah Garden’ — but when people come here for the first time, it is important that they understand that we are not just an attraction, we are a garden,” says marketing manager Claire Vickers. “There is a fine balance between attracting families without alienating keen horticulturalists and people who come here for peace.

“Trebah was in many ways a trailblazer, and we know that we have influenced other gardens, like Heligan. Major Hibbert had a vision of Cornwall as the garden capital of England, and Trebah as a garden for the whole community. It is now down to the Trebah Garden Trust to take that vision forward.”