Zen Gardens: Julia Grigg’s Morrab Miscellany

For the last in her Morrab Miscellany series, Julia meditates in the serenity of a Zen garden, and selects spectacular flowering plants beginning with ‘Z’

Z is for ZEN.

This is what the National Geographic magazine has to say about Zen Gardens, ‘One of Japan’s cultural icons, the Zen garden is traditionally thought of as a spare, somewhat abstract arrangement of rocks, gravel, and minimal greenery. This sparse, karesansui or ‘dry landscape garden’ is meant to embody serenity and inspire reflection. But trees: cedar, pine, maple, and bamboo, miniature bridges, winding waters, and many varieties of moss may also be found in a Zen garden. Whatever the style, the purpose is to embody the philosophy and practice of Zen Buddhism.


The philosophy of Zen Buddhism aims at the perfection of personhood. It is not an ideology, but a way of living. Through the regular practice of meditation, wisdom is achieved and compassion becomes of central importance. As the Zen practitioner perfects a stillness of mind, he/she will thrive through a habitual celebration of the self, other people, everyday life and nature in all their different aspects. Generally speaking, Zen cherishes simplicity and straightforwardness in grasping reality and favours behaviours based on these principles undertaken in the ‘here and now.’

A wander through a Zen garden immerses us in a world of beauty and grace, lifting our minds and souls to a gentler place. Intrinsically appealing and healing, bestowing precious tranquillity, the Zen garden speaks to something deep inside all of us: the need for quiet contemplation, calm.

Happily, you don’t have to travel to Japan to experience these gifts; garden designers around the world have utilized Zen principles and practices.’

Yes, true: Zen Gardens are to be found in unexpected places, even, for example, in Nairobi, that rapidly-urbanising metropolis located 90 miles south of the Equator and known as ‘the city in the sun.’

The website of Zen Garden, Nairobi (www.zengarden.co.ke) describes its layout as based on ‘Asia’s urban gardens,’ an opulent restaurant sited at its heart.

One can wonder whether author John le Carre (1931-2021) ever strolled in the cool shade of its palms and flame trees when he came to Kenya’s capital while researching his hard-hitting East Africa-based thriller The Constant Gardener (Hodder and Stoughton 2001.)

One of the novel’s characters declares, ‘One year’s gardening in Kenya is worth ten in England,’ neatly summing-up the story’s merciless focus on a hothouse post-colonial environment where, against a setting of lush tropical beauty, rampant corruption grows out of control.

Maybe while tussling with plot points le Carre’s eye was distracted a moment by the blackish-green leaves strikingly striped with white of a handsome ZEBRA plant (genus: Aphelandra squarrosa, family Acanthaceae)?

Maybe the Garden’s lush vegetative growth even caused him to cast his mind back to meanderings through Morrab Gardens?

(He, living on West Penwith’s coast nearby, assuredly passed frequently through them while undertaking his duties as the Morrab Library’s Chairperson 1997-2002, and subsequently its Patron for many years.)

In praise of the Library he served so well, le Carre wrote, ‘Whether you’re an impassioned bibliophile or just someone who loves a good read, the Morrab is for you: a Cornish treasure house, a meeting place for like-minded souls, and a vibrant forum for contemporary writing.’

A reading room in The Morrab Library, with a view out of the window across the Morrab Gardens to Mount's Bay
The Morrab Library’s Collections are housed in this beautiful building within Morrab Gardens. Image: The Morrab Library

Of all the plants with names beginning with the letter ‘Z’ there are five especially beautiful flowering ones.

Four I think you could describe as ‘exotic’:


And then for UK gardeners there’s the fifth, the more familiar ZINNIA (ELEGANS). The Zinnia is elegant with its purplish-pink to near white petals, sometimes with a red or yellow blotch at the base of each petal. Who doesn’t love to see a display of easy-to-grow Zinnia flowering in full summer sun?

First of the exotics is Zantedeschia, commonly referred to as the Calla lily, a beautiful white, yellow, pink, orange or purple flower in the family Araceae. Native to southern Africa and grown from rhizomes, Zantedeschia flourishes in full sun. Its long-stemmed flowers are made up of three inner ovate or triangular-shaped segments and three outer petal-like segments which form a funnel around a central cone. Strongly-scented, this lily’s perfume may be considered overpowering by some!

Next, the Zenobia or Queen Zenobia flower is an ornamental plant whose flowers have bright purplish-pink petals making them resemble mini peonies when fully open. It is described as ‘low-maintenance, high yield and drought tolerant.’ Native to southwest Asia, Zenobia is delicate however, preferring a subtropical climate, coming into bloom in the spring and flowering throughout the summer.

Zephyranthes, commonly called rain lilies since they often bloom after rain has fallen, are considered to be one of the least difficult species of Amaryllis (Amaryllidaceae) to cultivate, the seeds sprouting very easily when planted under just a thin covering of sowing medium. Native to Central and South America and flowering from August to October, Zephyranthes blossoms, white, yellow and pink, tend to be star shaped. Often grown as a houseplant, Zephyranthes can survive outside during warmer months if temperatures do not drop below 40 degrees F.

Finally, there’s Zygopetalum, an orchid whose name, derived from the Greek word zugón, means ‘yoke’, referencing the yoke-like growth at the base of the flower’s lip. Zygopetalum are South American natives, with the majority of species being found in Brazil in humid forests at low-to mid-elevations. Most of the Zygopetalum species are epiphytes (growing on the surface of a supporting plant but not parasitic) but some are terrestrials (growing in the ground), both displaying glossy, strap-like leaves. These exquisite orchids, easy to grow, are known for their erect, fragrant, waxy and long-lived flowers, their multiple blooms appearing in shades of green, purple, burgundy, and raspberry.

Whatever your gardening or garden-related plans for the New Year soon to be upon us, I wish you ZEST for the pondering, plotting and accomplishing of some splendid new green beginnings in 2022.

With the last letter of the alphabet we come to the end of the Morrab Miscellany, time for me to sign off, say goodbye.

In these deepest days of winter, for Morrab Gardens it’s hibernation time: its inquisitive squirrels snoozing, its beloved hedgehogs sound asleep. And although under its earth in roots, shoots and bulbs the awesomely mysterious stirrings of spring’s coming revival continue, for now these are hidden from our view.

So ssssh….! Let’s let all of it slumber on.

A good moment to steal away through the gates, leaving the lawns and trees and bushes, the borders, the beds and ponds to their silence.

Well – almost silence – because listen very carefully and I do believe you’ll be able to catch a reassuring sound that goes a bit like this: ZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz


The garden is truly a mirror, the counterpart of the social, political and artistic history of a civilisation

Gabriëlle Andrée van Zuylen van Nyevelt van de Haar (1933 – 2010) was a Baroness, landscape architect, garden designer and writer. The garden of her first married home was designed by the revered British landscape architect Russell Page (1906-85), about whom she wrote her first book.. (Russell’s own book The Education of a Gardener was published by Harvill in 2014.) Becoming a specialist on the construction of gardens, especially historic gardens, van Zuylen wrote on the Alhambra, Monet’s garden at Giverny, and Stourhead, among others. She saw pleasure as a garden’s primary purpose but delineated three main historic functions for it: 1) as the sacred enclosure, the place blessed by gods; 2) the power, where a great garden makes a masterful demonstration of status; and 3) the domestic, the small garden as a private retreat providing its owner respite and relaxation.

Read more of Julia Grigg’s Morrab Miscellany

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