Photographs: Charles Francis
March 2012: A conversation with head gardener Gary Long
Trewithen was awarded three stars in the Michelin Guide to the South West. What makes it so special?
Trewithen is the family home of the Galsworthy family, and this is their back garden. But it’s also a garden of 30 acres with 24 Champion Trees – they’re either the tallest or have the largest girth of their kind in the British Isles. Mr Galsworthy’s grandfather, George Johnstone, sponsored plant-hunters, and his legacy is the large number of plants of Chinese origin. We also have a large collection of southern hemisphere plants; a walk around this garden is a walk around the world. The vast majority of the plants we sell are propagated from Trewithen stock – the most famous are probably Ceonothus arboreus ‘Trewithen Blue’ and Camellia saluenensis ‘Trewithen Red’. Another unique thing about Trewithen is that although we’re a traditional Cornish woodland garden, we’re not in a valley – 90 per cent of the garden is on flat, level paths. The only problem is you get “magnolia neck” when you look up at the tallest trees and shrubs. But we do have “bird’s nest” viewing platforms so you can look down on them. It gives you a different perspective.
Before the garden opens for the new season, you’ll be visiting Yunnan province in China, where many of Trewithen’s camellias originated from. What are you looking forward to most about the trip?
It’s a chance of a lifetime. I’ll be following in the footsteps of the plant-hunter George Forrest – but by minibus and coach, not trekking up mountains! I’ll be seeing plants in the wild and choosing seeds which will be sent back to Trewithen for propagation, so we can have a botanical collection within a garden setting.
Does Trewithen receive many Chinese visitors?
In 2008, when the International Camellia Congress was held in Cornwall, 30 Chinese delegates came. They had never seen camellias as big as the ones we have here. Camellia is a commercial crop in China, grown in rows which are chopped down used for oil and tea. But as a nation, they are starting to take an interest in the heritage of their plants.
What can visitors see in the garden this spring?
Our camellias, rhododendrons and magnolias will be in full bloom: they’ll wow the public. We have many other spring-flowering trees and shrubs, and there will be a different one coming out every day. I love buds: they are the promise of a flower to come.
Can you describe some of Trewithen’s special plants?
Our Magnolia campbellii subsp mollicomata, near the South Lawn, is the finest specimen in the British Isles, and like our camellias, it is much taller than any specimen in China. The pink Magnolia campbellii was bought by Alison Johnstone, Mr Galsworthy’s grandmother, as a campbellii ‘Alba’, and when it first bloomed 25 years later, and the flowers were pink, not white, she asked the nursery for her money back. Schefflera macrophylla was brought from Vietnam by modern plant- hunters four years ago. Each leaf grows up to one metre, and eventually it will be a massive plant. It used to be regarded as a conservatory plant until people realised it grows very well outdoors – which is what people used to think about camellias.
What can visitors see at Trewithen in the summer?
The rose garden has been getting better year or year. In November we chop the roses down, and then we mulch and prune in February. This is the most labour-intensive part of the garden, but when we see it in early June, we know it’s worth it. The scent alone is amazing.
What are your plans for 2012?
When the garden was first planted, there was a lot of beech underplanted with laurel as a windbreak. Mr Galsworthy has planted 90,000 trees as an external windbreak, so a lot of the laurel is obsolete, and is being removed to create new planting opportunities. We’ve also removed a 250-year-old beech tree afflicted by honey fungus, which has given us a glade where we’ll plant some of the camellia seeds which will be sent from China. Something else we’ll be doing is renovating the water garden in the pleasure grounds, an area which hasn’t been used much since the First World War: before the war, there were a lot of gardeners, but afterwards, there was only one.