In a garden every season is beautiful, but some gardens just excel in floral abundance in spring. The rich colour palette of spring flowering bulbs may weave a rich tapestry or light up the landscape with delicate, natural colour. Exotic trees and shrubs produce some of the most extravagant displays as the buds of camellias, magnolias and rhododendrons burst in a pageant of colour. These beauties excel in the mildest regions and for this reason the gardens of Cornwall are renowned for their magnificent collections of mature specimens.
The valley gardens of the south coast of Cornwall, in the far south-west of England, boast a microclimate enabling tender and more exotic species to thrive. Trebah is one of the most magical. Originally acquired by the Fox family in the early 1830s it was laid out by Charles Fox as a pleasure garden. The romantic setting above the Helford River leads down to a secluded cove, reminiscent of a du Maurier novel. Attention was paid to the exact petition of every specimen and despite the ravages of time and periods of neglect the garden today could not be more beautiful. Tree ferns, magnolias, rhododendrons and a superb collection of rare trees and shrubs abound.
One of the highlights of the Cornish gardens are the magnificent specimens of Rhododendron ‘Cornish Red’, a hybrid of R. arboreum which grows to substantial tree proportions and displays its trusses of cardinal red blooms against dark green foliage and cinnamon bark. Some of the towering giants we see today were planted as young specimens nearly 200 years ago.
Trewithen is another Cornish gem. The 18th century Palladian manor house looks out over magnificent lawns bounded by one of the finest collections of magnolias, rhododendrons and camellias. These owe their presence to the plant hunters and were mostly planted as young specimens in the early 1900s.The garden boasts the largest specimen of the Himalayan tree magnolia: Magnolia campbelli var. mollicomata, a fragile beauty that produces its huge flowers in early spring, risking attack by frost which can ruin the display in a cold spring.
Burrow Farm Gardens
In neighbouring Devon, still in the south-west of England, Burrow Farm Gardens deserves greater recognition. Developed over the past 40 years by Mary Benger it features different garden areas from formal to naturalistic. In mid spring the woodland garden is carpeted with the fresh fronds of ferns and sapphire bluebells. Here too magnolias and rhododendrons abound and as spring progresses the azalea glade lights up with the jewel-like flowers of azaleas.
By contrast the Millennium Garden at Burrow Farm is a cleverly designed formal garden with rill and formal pond. The planting is subtle and well chosen: an excellent example of how to create a garden on a gently sloping site.
The Sir Harold Hillier Gardens
In Hampshire, central southern England, both Exbury Gardens and The Sir Harold Hillier Gardens are renowned for their spring displays.
Both boast acidic soil, so rhododendrons, magnolias and camellias thrive. Magnolias were a passion of the late Sir Harold Hillier and the collection at the gardens, which he started in the 1950s as his private arboretum, is perhaps at its best today. From Jermyns house in the heart of the gardens, up to spring walk, an avenue of Magnolia soulangeana cultivars leads to varieties of Magnolia campbelli, Magnolia kewensis, Magnolia stellata and a host of others.
At Wisley, Surrey, the garden of The Royal Horticultural Society, showcases a fine collection of hardy plants and many aspects of gardening. Battlestone Hill is the more naturalistic woodland area of the garden. Here rhododendrons and azaleas enjoy the light shade of deciduous trees and Magnolias thrive in their shelter. Wisley is also well known for its rock garden and alpine meadow. For those gardeners that enjoy the more petite subjects of the plant world this is a perfect place to explore in spring to discover dwarf flowerbulbs, primulas and alpine treasures.