Photographs: Charles Francis
November 2010: A conversation with head gardener Neil Bennett
The Boscawen family have been living at Tregothnan since the 14th century. When does the garden date from?
It is about 200 years old. The family have been avid plant-collectors through the ages, and it’s the plant collections which make the garden so special. The Hon Evelyn Boscawen continues that tradition today, with much enthusiasm: plant-collecting is his passion. He is always trying to increase the rarities we have. The north and south sides of the house are Humphry Repton-designed landscapes, but apart from that, the garden was designed by the Boscawens. They are very proud of it. It’s the largest in Cornwall: 100 acres of beautiful and historic landscaped garden.
How have the finds of the plant-hunters shaped the development of the garden?
We have so many camellias, magnolias and rhododendrons — so in the spring, Tregothnan is as spectacular as any garden in Cornwall. The first camellias ever planted outside in the UK were planted here 200 years ago. We have a camellia maze, and we’re going to have our first National Collection — Camellia sasanqua, a Japanese species. It’s unusual because it’s autumn-flowering, and one variety, ‘Narumigata’ is scented. We will have an avenue of sasanqua going on for a quarter of a mile. We’re also going to have a collection of Camellia reticulata, which has a much showier bloom. We have some of the biggest magnolias in the country — people love the showiness of Magnolia campbellii – and we have more Rhododendron ‘Russellianum’ planted en masse than anywhere else in Cornwall.
Tregothnan is also becomingly increasingly well-known for the tea grown on the estate. How did this new venture start?
We’re famous for camellias, and the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, is part of the same family – hence our link with tea.
There is also another link: Evelyn Boscawen is a descendant of Earl Grey. The first tea was planted in 1999 in what was once the kitchen garden by the then head gardener Jonathon Jones, who is now the garden director. We have a Magnolia campbellii there, and Jonathon discovered that it was growing as big as the native ones in Darjeeling. We thought if we could grow that, we could grow another plant native to Darjeeling — tea. It has been very successful. We now have various plantations throughout the estate. I planted 400 plants in the Himalayan valley, in an area we now lovingly term Darjeeling Hill. We also have other planting from the Himalayas there, like Cornus capitata and rhododendrons, which look out to a Himalayan pagoda-style summerhouse.
Do you have a favourite plant?
My favourite is Cercidiphyllum japonicum. It’s hard to beat: it is very graceful looking, so it’s lovely as a green foliage tree, and in autumn it turns crimson. It also has a wonderful scent of burnt sugar – a bit like candy floss.
What are the current projects at Tregothnan?
One of our newest projects is the Australasian area, which is only two years old. The star plant in this area is our Wollemia nobilis, discovered in 1994 in Wollemia National Park, 200 miles west of Sydney. There are only about 100 left in the wild. It dates back 90 million years: it’s hard to get our minds round that timescale. It was the great plant find of the last century, and Mr Boscawen is the first person in Europe to have one in his private collection — another botanical first for Tregothnan. It comes from the monkey puzzle family, so it bears similarities to that. Ours is quite unusual, because it has both male and female cones on it. It has to have netting round it – we don’t want it to live for all this time, and then for the squirrels to get it!
We are also in the middle of starting a tree peony collection; we’ve finished the planting for that, but not the landscaping yet. And we’re going to complete a wooden boardwalk in the South American garden, and make a jetty over one of the ponds. We hope this will be finished by Christmas, or if not, by early next year.
What are your plans for next year and beyond?
Increasing the plant collection is a must every year, particularly building up the Camellia sasanqua collection. In the next five years, we’re talking about doing a new Italian garden by the house — a really exciting project.
When can people visit the garden?
I do private tours of the garden at any time of year, which take a couple of hours, and are followed by a cream tea. The owners also open the garden one weekend a year for a chosen charity, usually in April. Last year we had 6,000 people here.