In the early morning light of May 2018, Grand Circle Cruise Line’s M/V Corinthian dropped anchor off Tresco in the Isles of Scilly archipelago. Once the landing platform was launched, the ships tender sped off toward Tresco on a mission, to fetch Mike Nelhams, curator of the island’s near- subtropical Abbey Garden that we’d come to see.
The setting …
With all passengers aboard gathered in the lounge, the witty and affable Mike filled us in not only with details about the garden but what it is like to live on a tiny dot of land 30 miles off the Cornwall coast.
Mike first came to Tresco in 1976 as a horticultural-scholarship student, returned in 1984 as head gardener and was named curator a few years later.
Tresco is the second largest of the five inhabited Isles of Scilly, out of an archipelago count of 145. “If it’s big enough to sit on when the tide’s out, we call it an island,” Mike told us. The total population of those inhabited is 2,203, of which St. Mary’s, the biggest island, claims 1500. “That doesn’t leave a lot left over for the rest of us. About 200 for Tresco.”
That number swells considerably with seasonal day visitors, we learned, most flying from Cornwall to St. Mary’s and making their way by ferry to Tresco.
“And last year we had passengers cluttering up the place from 75 cruise ships come to call,” Mike said, adding with a smile, “Well, you’re here, that’s OK.”
Abbey Garden is Tresco’s star visitor attraction. Mike described it as like no other in Britain and possibly Europe. In its 17 acres grow some 20,000 sub-tropical plants representing 6,000 species from 80 coastal regions all over the world.
Mike has the last say as to which plants stay, go, or are introduced. “I’m a gardener,” he said. “I like plants that look good, have flowers. I’m not interested in something that’s one-inch tall and doesn’t do anything, just because it’s obscure.”
Every year, in the dead-of-winter January, Mike along with the head gardener and horticultural students make a count of plants in flower, a number that invariably fluctuates on either side of 300.
Except for January 1987 …
A siege of icy weather of a severity virtually unheard of on the archipelago settled in. “Nearly the entire garden was turned into stewed rhubarb and smelled a lot worse,” Mike related.
Replacement entailed contacting gardens throughout Britain to see what they might share, with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in particular, chipping in. More plant material was gathered on horticultural trips to the various Mediterranean climate zones of the world. California, Australia, New Zealand, South America, South Africa …
With that, we were off by ship’s tender to explore what Mike described as “Kew without its glass lid.”
The garden’s history …
For nearly 700 years, the Isles of Scilly has pledged allegiance to king and country via the Duchy of Cornwall, today flying under the wings of Prince Charles.
Tresco, unlike the other islands has long been leased. Today, the Dorrien- Smith family is in its fourth generation of caring for the garden, created in 1834 by then lease-holder Augustus Smith around the ruins of an old Benedictine Abbey.
It was Smith who conceived of planting a surrounding, towering, shelterbelt of tough evergreen trees able to shrug off salt air and stormy Atlantic gales as a means of protecting the expanding collection of tender plants in his private garden.
The experience …
We walked paths crisscrossing terraces of varying elevations with plants of sumptuous size on either side – towering palms, giant lipstick red flame trees, agave, proteas, grevilleas….
Chinese pheasants strutted by. A red squirrel made a derring-do jump from a Monterey pine. The squirrels, introduced as a pair in 2012 at the suggestion of Prince Charles, have increased to more than 60 to Mike’s dismay. A favored food of the squirrels is flowers.
As if the garden’s lush diversity were not enough, an “Italianette-style” addition was recently installed. Conceived by current owner Robert Dorrien-Smith as an entrance centerpiece, its formal balustrades, terracotta urns, and fountain struck me as jarring to the spirit of the garden.
Too, while applauding Augustus Smith’s dense shelterbelt, I wished that it had windows. As I wandered the paths, I longed to view the sea as a reminder that this astounding collection of thriving subtropical plants exists on a dot in the wild Atlantic.
A reminder of the savage sea …
And wild the Atlantic can be, as evidenced by the Valhalla Collection situated in a far corner of the garden. Augustus Smith began a collection that today displays 30 figureheads, along with other salvaged decorative carvings, from 19th century sailing ships downed on Scilly’s rocks.
A wild Atlantic was left to the imagination as we tendered back to the Corinthian on calm, Caribbean-hued seas. A fitting goodbye to Tresco’s subtropical, horticultural paradise.
If you go …
The garden is open daily 10-4 pm. Adult admission: 15 lbs. Address: Tresco Abbey Garden, Tresco, Isles of Scilly TR 240QQ, UK; Telephone 01720 424108.Web: tresco.co.uk