Over 100 years ago, the Lord Proprietor of the Isles of Scilly, Mr Augustus Smith, wrote to a lady friend in England, describing some of the plants in his garden and how they were doing. The puya showed signs of, but as yet the aloe did not. Chamaerops excelsa (a sort of palm tree) and the dwarf palm (C. humilis) were in full bud, and he had forests of dracaenas and beschorncrias in full blossom.
Anyone with a vague knowledge of plants will recognize at once that the plants Mr Smith mentioned are all of the greatest rarity and delicacy. At that date, Puya alpestris probably flowered in the open nowhere else in England; chamaerops was less rare, but still uncommon; and dracaenas, and especially beschornerias, being natives of the Canary Islands and of the hot plains of Mexico respectively, were extremely uncommon plants to find in any garden. The garden at Tresco was full of such rarities over a century ago, and still is. It is certainly the only garden in Britain in which so many sub-tropical plants can be grown in the open.
The island of Tresco is the second largest of the Scilly group, and lies forty miles out into the Atlantic, off the Cornish mainland. When Augustus Smith came there, in the thirties of the last century, the island was wild and almost uninhabited, swept by wind, and bare of trees except for a few poor specimens which just survived in the garden of the vicarage. But the island cast a potent spell, and a Bishop of Truro, following a fleeting visit, described it as having ‘. . . a wonderful freshness in the air . . . the colours of the white sand, the blue and sapphire sea, the golden sea weed, the Sea, the gorse and heather, have the freshness of a jewel’.
Augustus Smith, a natural gardener, who understood perfectly the needs of plants, realized at once the possibilities of making a garden at Tresco, bleak and windswept as it might at first appear. He recognized that the climate was blessed, as the climate in no other part of Britain was, by the warm breath of the Gulf Stream, and that the island was seldom blighted by frost. All that was needed were walls and windbreaks, and these he started at once to build and plant. Within a few yeacs he had his first successes, and soon rare plants from all over the world were spreading theirand showing their as they might have done in gardens a thousand miles to the south.
The garden at Tresco is divided into three lengthwise by the Top Terrace, the shorter Middle Terrace, and lowest of all, the Long Walk, which is the main axis of the garden. The Lighthouse Walk acts as cross-axis, and this runs to the Neptune Steps, presided over by a stone head of the sea god himself. The garden is celebrated the world over for the rare plants which grow in it. More vivid by far than a list of Latin names are a few delightfully intimate glimpses of how the garden grew, and what grew there, to be found in Augustine Smith’s correspondence with his friend, Lady Sophia Tower. 9 May 1850. Scilly is very gay, and still more so could you take a walk in my garden, though the wind has played sad havoc there of late, breaking and shrivelling the, sparaxis, and mesembryanthemums most cruelly: of these last, I have now two of the great large-leaved ones in flower, one being a beautiful yellow, and the other a purple, both as large as Adelaide’s face. 13 October 1850. My garden is still in high beauty … At present the Guernsey lilies, imported from Mr Luff at Guernsey, are pre-eminent: they are very handsome, but are nothing to the Bella Donnas as to making a show in the garden. I wish I could send you some of my Red Mullet. I have had so many lately that I have hardly known what to do with them, and of enormous size.
In the intervals of feasting on mullet and admiring his mesembryanthemums with flowers as large as Adelaide’s face (Adelaide must have had a small face, for even in the Isles of Scilly mesembryanthemums seldom show flowers more than four inches across), Augustus Smith found time to represent Truro in the House of Commons. When he died in 1872, an obituary described him as ‘a busy, thoughtful and resolute man’ which indeed he was. Tireless in his garden-work, thoughtful in devising new methods of cultivating plants and new ways of protecting them from the elements, and resolute in his confidence that he could make a garden on Tresco Island, which had once, to others, seemed so unpromising a prospect.
On the East Rockery, below the house, grow some beautiful ratas from New Zealand (Metrosideros robusta), which are covered with copper-scarlet brushes of flowers in June. Nearby grows a relation of the, Furcraea longaeva, which only flowers after years of preparation, and then rewards its patient cultivator with a spire of creamy green flowers twenty feet high. Echiums, from the Canary Islands, giant cousins of our native anchusa, are a sight at Tresco in spring when they flower in half a dozen dazzling shades of blue. Other plants which grow in very few other British gardens, if any, are the pink-belled correas from Australia, silver pink proteas from South Africa and the violet pea-flowered Podalyria calyptrata from South Africa.
Before leaving this garden of exotics, the visitor must not miss the interesting little museum, ‘Valhalla’, near the southern entrance of the garden. This contains the figure heads of nearly seventy ships which have been wrecked on the rocky coast of Scilly. ‘The influence of the sea is strongly felt at Tresco. It is the sea that brings the Gulf Stream to bless the islands, and make a garden such as Tresco possible . . . it has a radiant climate – a climate which can coax botanical rarities, as well as daffodils, grown by the million for the London market, to take the winds of March with beauty.’
OPEN Monday to Saturday throughout the year: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. (Closed on Sunday.) LOCATION (and how to get there) Scilly Isles, by helicopter or boat to St Mary’s, thence by small boat to Tresco Island.