A for Acclimatisation: Julia Grigg's Morrab Miscellany

Julia Grigg portrait photo

Come with me on a stroll through the alphabet…

I’m newly arrived in Penzance, coming at last to settle in Cornwall. To where I have history: my maternal grandmother having been born on St Michael’s Mount. Living in the neighbourhood of Morrab Gardens, I’m delighted to be contributing this blog through 2021 to the Gardens’ website.

What’s the idea?

To issue the blog fortnightly, following the alphabet from A – Z, to write something each time that’s relevant and relatable – possibly unexpected – across the spectrum of all things gardening.

Each time there’ll be a quotation from a notable source and then – true to the spirit of a miscellany – a focus around perhaps a snippet of garden design and/or horticultural history, a personality, or perhaps a poem or a flowery artwork, or even to include a philosophical musing. Gardens encourage contemplation, after all…

So, on JANUARY 1, we start with A

A is for ALL ABOUT this blog – as per above.

It’s also for ACCLIMATISATION, which is on my mind – since it’s what one needs to do when coming to live in a new environment. For survival.

For plants, acclimatisation is defined as ‘the process in which an organism adjusts to changes in its environment, such as altitude, temperature, humidity, light.’

In the C19th a golden age opened in England for acclimatising plants from foreign climes, following on from the massive worldwide accumulations of the previous centuries.

The founding of the Horticultural Society in 1804 in London accelerated collectors going to all parts of the world, specimens arriving from South Africa, Australia, Brazil, Chile etc. The arduous return sea journey meant often many perished.

By 1813 Kew Gardens boasted 11,000 different plants, among them the anemone from China, the fuchsia and innumerable orchids. Only a very few of these could withstand the country’s winters.

With the formation of the Botanic Society in 1839 underlining the country’s mid-century passion for horticulture, England took the lead in pioneering acclimatisation methods.

Plants 'hardening-off' in a cold greenhouse
Plants propagated by Friends of Morrab Gardens volunteers ‘hardening-off’ in a cold greenhouse to acclimatise. Photo: Paul Brett

Before this had come the useful invention by Nathaniel Ward in 1833 of a glass case designed to maintain tender plants in transit at an even temperature.

Then in 1840 at Chatsworth the Duke of Devonshire’s gardener, Joseph Paxton, finished his great Palm House. Made of iron and glass, 300 feet long and 67 high, it allowed for full height palm trees to flourish. After innovating this heated wonder of the horticultural world, Paxton went on to design Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851.

The magnificent Temperate House at Kew came soon after in 1862, both of these forbears of the contemporary controlled environments and ‘zones’ that characterize Cornwall’s Eden Project.

Magnolia grandiflora in Morrab Gardens, Penzance
A bud of one of Morrab’s magnificent magnolias, the blossoms that announce spring has arrived in Cornwall.
Photo: J Spry-Leverton

Observing how, with warmth, exotic flora could be sustained indoors, gardeners grew more ambitious, vying with each other to grow such rarities outdoors.

As a direct result of the Gulf Stream washing its shores, West Cornwall experiences some of the UK’s warmest weather. With its almost frost-free winters noticeably milder than more inland areas of the country, many plants thrive all year round.

Hence Cornwall taking pre-eminent position, then and now, for its early spring showings of magnolias, its wild growths of rhododendrons and its lofty, abundantly flowering camellias.

1889 and Morrab Gardens enters the scene.

Morrab House, its walled gardens, heated conservatory, fernery and palm house were now owned by the Corporation, which presciently allocated the sheltered 1.2 hectares of land for a public park.

Postcard of Morrab Gardens, Penzance c. 1905
A view of Morrab Gardens from a postcard published around 1905

At its opening the Gardeners’ Chronicle wrote, ‘Tourists may fancy themselves in the tropics or on Mediterranean shores’ while noting the Gardens’ significant ongoing role in the study of acclimatisation.

Such study was, of course, advanced by the generous gifting from owners of nearby Cornish estates, who, as passionate plant collectors, had often been the first to successfully cultivate the bamboos, tree ferns, cordylines and agaves they donated.

Lucky Penzance to be living with this heritage.


Just living is not enough… One must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower

1 January’s quote is from the author of many fairy tales remaining very familiar to us today, such as ‘Thumbelina’ and ‘The Princess and the Pea.’ Hans Christian Anderson (1805-75) rose from a poor background in Denmark to be widely known for his writing for children. He is considered to have pioneered – along with Charles Dickens – a more humane portrayal in literature of poverty and deprivation.

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