T for Trees, Tresco and Tradescant: Julia Grigg’s Morrab Miscellany

Julia celebrates trees in some of the notable gardens around Penzance, takes a trip to Tresco and enjoys a fictional account of the life of gardener and naturalist John Tradescant.

T is for TRE, the prefix in the Cornish language which means ‘homestead.’ When the homestead is on a grand scale, you might well expect there to be a garden surrounding and adorning it.

Close to Penzance there are many such.

There’s TREWIDDEN, for example (15 July’s blog.)

Then TREREIFE, in the care of the Le Grice family, a garden begun in C17th century, landscaped into a small park in C18th. This was the era when the English love affair with TREES in a landscape began.

In Remarks on Forestry published in 1794 artist and educator William Gilpin (1724-1804) commented, ‘It is no exaggerated praise to call a tree the grandest and most beautiful of all the productions of the earth.

Another nearby garden is TRENGWAINTON, dating from mediaeval times, the courtly home since 1867 of the Bolitho family. Trengwainton’s trees are notable in that almost ninety of them feature in the Tree Register, a record kept of the UK’s ancient trees. These include some of the magnolias, whose huge waxy flowers burst forth in February, and the acers in autumn. Also Champion Trees (the largest tree recorded of its species) which are to be found in the walled gardens and include Craibiodendron yunnanense, Dodecadenia grandiflora, Eucryphia x hillieri and Hoheria populnea.

Then, in contrast, just over a mile east of Penzance in a sheltered south-facing valley there’s the forest setting for an evolving series of contemporary site-specific sculptures which is TREMENHEERE, created by owner Dr Neil Armstrong and begun only in 1997. With sweeping views to St Michael’s Mount on a site which was originally an untamed hilly 10 acres, Tremenheere today promises new exotic plants introduced and new vistas opening up on a continuing basis.

“Tremenheere Sculpture Garden” by sbittinger is licensed with CC BY 2.0.

These three gardens share a magnificence of trees, some very ancient, older even that Trereife’s grand Magnolia campbellii planted a hundred years ago and still flowering profusely on or around St Valentine’s Day.

And so, if planning a TRYST, would you choose for it to be on the mainland in a secluded grove of trees – or would you rather fly away across the sea to a shimmering island, an island, for example, such as TRESCO in the Isles of Scilly?

I’ll remain discreet about my own choice, simply reporting that one sunny Tuesday recently I find myself on board a Westlands Leonardo AW819 helicopter swooping up and away from Penzance on the 15 minute flight en route for the Isles. I’ve a rendezvous with Andrew Lawson, Tresco Abbey Garden’s Head Gardener, my purpose being to observe the rare Silver TREE FERN Cyathea dealbata.

Originally from New Zealand, the fern lives up to its name when, after about three years of growth, its leaves demonstrate a metallic gleam and the brown sori (the places on the fronds’ undersides where the spores which propagate fern growth are formed) stand out in sharp contrast to this silver colour.

While Andrew’s turning up the fronds to show me this, I learn that Cyathea can be found in west Cornwall, including at Trengwainton, Tremenheere, and on Tresco, with excellent specimens also growing in Morrab Gardens – but that it flourishes nowhere else in the UK. We owe this exceptionalism to the moderating effects of the surrounding Gulf Stream’s warm waters on Cornwall’s extreme southwestern tip and its isles.

Andrew describes the experimental propagation of new ferns grown in cold frames under glass from dried spores gathered in from the world’s sub-tropical climate zones.

Meanwhile, back in Morrab Gardens several cyathea are flourishing, one particularly good example pointed out to me by Head Gardener Joe Palmese. This faces on to the Middle Pond, happily sited between a tall banana palm and a dicksonia fern.

Morrab’s Head Gardener, Joe Palmese, with one of the magnificent Cyathea ferns in the Gardens Photo: J Spry-Leverton

Finally on TREES: in a useful new book Trees of Life (Head of Zeus 2021) author Max Adams writes lyrically, ‘Trees’ beauty, adaptability and resilience..have inspired humans…The role of trees in connecting the heavens and the earth, life and death in ever-renewing cycles can seem almost magical.’ The book is well illustrated and highly informative about Adams’ chosen selection of 80 trees across the world and across the ages upon which human cultures have depended for a range of products and services.

If ever you’ve thought historical fiction staid, after having read Philippa Gregory’s TAKE on the lives the TRADESCANTs (introduced in 1 July’s blog) you may feel quite differently.

Gregory cleverly imparts nuggets of gardening history while letting loose her imagination a two-novel presentation of the father’s and son’s stories. These range into territory far beyond seeds and weeds, some of the exploits described being heroic while others are erotic.

In Earthly Joys we meet John Tradescant Senior(1570-1638)whose skill as a gardener is unmatched. Tradescant’s talents soon come to the attention of the country’s most powerful man, the Duke of Buckingham, the lover of King Charles 1. Finding Buckingham flamboyant, charming, reckless and irresistible, Tradescant follows him to court, to war, even to the forbidden territories of human love.

And in the sequel, Virgin Earth, Gregory again combines horticultural history with a haunting love story which spans two continents and two cultures, set in a tumult of revolutionary politics. As England descends into civil war, John Tradescant the Younger (1608-1662) gardener to Charles I, fears Royal defeat. Determined to avoid serving the rebels, John escapes to the Royalist colony of Virginia, a land whose fertility stirs his passion for botany. Only native American people understand the forest, and John, drawn to the Powhatan tribe’s way of life at the moment it comes into fatal conflict with the colonial settlers, is torn between his loyalty to his country and family and his love for the girl who embodies the freedom he seeks.

The Tradescants’ TREASURES also feature in the books, the extraordinarily bizarre bounty father and son collected as travel souvenirs: skeletons, minerals, carvings, furs, feathers, textiles, coinage, trade beads etc etc. Displayed to the public for a sixpenny entrance fee, this was the first time such a collection was made accessible to everyone, thus constituting the first Museum. Some of the Tradescant collection subsequently went to help found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum.

And finally for T: TROMPE L’OEIL.

For those who enjoy artifice and the creation of illusion in a garden then this is for you: a blog from the Gardens Trust written by the phenomenal David Marsh who produces lengthy informative posts every week.

In Putting Gardens in Perspective you’ll discover a world of fascinating detail about the devious ways the eye’s been tricked through history.

PS: a nb here about TIME – as we approach the year’s end, in order to accommodate the entire alphabet before 31 December from now on there’ll be THREE posts a month: 1st of the month, the 10th and the 20th.

T for RABINDRANATH TAGORE

From your blossoming garden gather fragrant memories of the vanished flowers of a hundred years before. In the joy of your heart may you feel the living joy that sang one spring morning, sending its glad voice across a hundred years

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), best known as a poet, was truly a polymath, influential as an educator, social reformer and philosopher. The first Indian to win a Nobel Prize for literature in 1913, he was a novelist and the writer/composer of an entire genre of songs (as well as the national anthems of Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka). Tagore was additionally talented as a painter and had an important role in modernising Bengali art. At Santiniketan in Bengal in 1921 Visva-Bharati University was founded by Tagore who devised a curriculum whereby humanity could be studied ‘somewhere beyond the limits of nation and geography.’ Tagore’s legacy of principled humility lives on here with many classes still taught under trees in open fields

Read more of Julia Grigg’s Morrab Miscellany

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