• Shila Desai

Plant Hunters of the 19th Century

How a visionary estate owner and intrepid plant hunters recreated China's Yunnan Province's rhododendron and magnolia woodlands in Cornwall


Rhododendron heaven, Caerhays Castle

Caerhays, an informal woodland garden overlooking the sea and extending to over 140 acres, can be traced back four generations to the work of Chinese plant hunters of the 19th century when plantsman John Charles Williams (1861–1939) and plant hunters E. H. Wilson (1876–1930) and then George Forrest (1873–1932) secured rich botanical booty for the gardens.


The plant hunters scoured Yunnan province in western China, for new, largely ericaceous, flowering shrubs and trees and, by sponsoring intrepid expeditions, Williams was rewarded with access to the first of hundreds of exotic plants and seeds new to Western eyes. Many thrived in their new Cornish surroundings, as the aspect and climate somewhat resembled the plants’ native conditions and the steeply sloping, coastal site and impenetrable shelter belts of trees protected the precious Oriental specimens from westerly gales. High rainfall and Cornwall’s relatively mild spring temperatures afforded the requisite moisture and humidity. The specimens were densely planted, replicating their natural habitat, and this organic woodland style still characterises the nature of the garden today.

Many of their new plant introductions can still be seen in maturity in the garden today.


As with other GG gardens, Caerhays has a unique microclimate. Prevailing and frequently westerly gales rage over the top of the sheltered garden. Sea mists bathe the woodland in moisture and humidity which is very suited to the Chinese mountain habitats from which so many magnolias and rhododendrons originate. In addition, the rich acidic soil is ideal for growing ericaceous plants.


Path lined with blooms at Caerhays

Magnolias are also intrinsic to the gardens at Caerhays, which today hold a National Collection comprising more than 80 species and 500 named cultivars, flowering tumultuously throughout the spring.

In 1887, Williams planted his first Magnolia stellata, which, 130 years on, just about survives today. Other early specimens have proved more robust: M. sprengeri Diva (planted in 1912) and M. x veitchii (planted in the 1930s) continue to flower profusely in the garden and are now massive Champion trees.


Magnolia Caerhays Belle

Some species are now virtually extinct in their Chinese source forests, having been felled for firewood, cleared for agriculture or ring-barked by goats. Caerhays has propagated new plants from the original, surviving specimens. In this way, it has been able to facilitate the reintroduction of species to the affected hillsides in China and engage in plant-exchange programmes around the world.


Owner and our host, Charles Williams of Caerhays

On our spring tour we will be hosted by owners Charles and Maggie Williams in a newly renovated Georgian mansion on the grounds of Caerhays Castle. Charles is a source of endless knowledge about Caerhays’ x williamsii camellia hybrids, huge, Asiatic magnolias, and over 80 UK record sized trees as measured by height and girth.


We will stay at their beautifully restored Georgian mansion, The Vean, on the grounds of Caerhays, with our own private chef. Reserve your spot today on this very special tour.



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