Scilly in bloom; an island garden
Turn any corner on a walk on the Isles of Scilly, at any time of year, and the colours there to greet you - in the winter flower fields, along the vibrant hedgerows, amongst the subtle heathlands, beside the coastal shores or in manicured residents’ gardens - are simply superb.
The entire archipelago is a garden in one and a kaleidoscope of colour with horticulture, husbandry and natural flora living side by side. The balance between nature and artifice is delicate, complex, and ever-changing, and stretches back in time as long as humankind has inhabited these isles. Indeed a flick through old photographs from just a generation ago reveals a very different landscape on Scilly to one we’re used to seeing today.
The beloved cobalt-blue and white agapanthus found in gardens and hedgerows are native to New Zealand, as are the swathes of pittosporum hedges that line and protect the fields of dainty white and yellow narcissi. Aeoniums originally came from the Canary Islands and Africa and, of course, Tresco Abbey Garden boasts some 20,000 plants and flora from all around the world.
But don’t let this detract or distract; it’s because of the Isles of Scilly’s fantastic warm, maritime climate and natural environment that these immigrant sub-tropical plants and flowers now thrive alongside native species – and it’s what gives visitors and residents so much to indulge in and enjoy alongside the wilder marram grass, elms, pink sea thrift and tiny eyebrights.
One of Scilly’s most peaceful of gardens is perhaps, Carreg Dhu on St. Mary’s (pronounced ‘crick dhu’ locally, and meaning Black Rocks in Kernewek, the ancient Cornish language). This was once a disused quarry which, with community help and a number of generous donors, was turned into a beautiful, sheltered garden by, and for, Scillonians back in 1986. It was, and still is, a labour of love for the small army of volunteers who tend to the agapanthus, belladonna lilies, echiums, fuchsias, camellias, daffodils and geraniums etc.
It is, of course, Tresco Abbey Garden that is undoubtedly the largest gem in Scilly’s crown. Horticultural enthusiasts from around the world arrive to walk the cultivated terraces and marvel at the impressive collection of sub-tropical plants that bask in the warmer climate of the archipelago. And away from the 20,000 or so heavenly species that this walled sanctuary harbours, you can also discover the acre and a half that is the kitchen garden that provides for Tresco Estate and a number of eateries across the island.
But for all the wonderful experiences found in curated gardens across Scilly, perhaps the most breath-taking ‘garden’ is to be found in the islands’ wild spaces, natural spaces – a living garden of wild flowers across the rugged cliffs and heathlands.
The landscape on Scilly today is the product of thousands of years of small-scale farming and agriculture – a way of life that can be traced back to Bronze Age civilisations. More recently, bigger and more exotic plants have escaped from cultivated gardens, and thrived and multiplied - often overshadowing the smaller, rare indigenous species that are inherent to the Scilly landscape.
No organisation is more aware of the necessity to maintain the right balance between old and new, indigenous plants and otherwise, than local conservation charity, the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust. Its small team of rangers ensures that rare species such as adder’s tongue fern, sheep’s bit, and orange birds-foot survive and aren’t overrun by the likes of pittosporum, gorse and bracken and that our precious landscape benefits many species instead of just a few, including the little gems of Scilly’s plant life.
So, as you step out on your coastal walks, head for the gardens or set off across the wilder heathlands, enjoy the garden of Scilly in its entirety. Throughout the winter into early spring, scented narcissi prevail, and then from March through to September, the islands come alive in a riot of colour and texture.