When all seven of Cornwall's champion Magnolia campbellii trees have at least 50 blooms, spring has officially arrived! Get your spring off to a flying start at three Cornish Partner Gardens - The Lost Gardens of Heligan, Trebah and Caerhays Castle. You'll find them filled with early camellias, magnolias, bulbs and much more.
The Lost Gardens of Heligan
Mystical, magical and enchanting: that's how Head of Gardens and Estate, Iain Davies, describes early spring at Heligan.
'Buds are getting fat, colours are changing and the sunlight makes spring feel very close,' says Iain. Unlike many other parts of the country, frosts don't sit for days, meaning flowering gets off to a surprisingly early start.
Magnolias are abundant at Heligan. 'They shine throughout the garden like a beacon,' says Iain.
One fine example is a stately Magnolia campbellii in the Northern Garden. Dating from an 1850s Joseph Hooker plant hunting expedition, it is one of the largest examples Iain has ever seen.
The garden is home to the National Plant Collection of pre-1920 Rhododendrons and Camellias. The rhododendrons crescendo in April but there are already plenty to see in February. Don't miss the spectacular R. 'Cornish Red' on Flora's Green, which collapsed and began to self-layer, so that one mangrove-like plant now covers a huge area.
'If the garden had always been manicured, it would not have attained that size. That's part of the romance of Heligan,' says Iain.
Camellias start to bloom from the end of December, with displays reaching a peak in February. Among Iain's favourites is reddish pink double C. 'Gloire de Nantes'. 'It is a stunning plant. You walk around the corner and it hits you - you just have to stop and look at it,' says Iain.
Other February treats include a range of Correa in flower - including C. lawrenceana and C. backhouseana - with colours ranging from cream through mauve and orange. You'll find these at the garden entrance and in the Jungle. Iain is keen to establish a National Collection of these pretty Australian natives.
Many visitors ask about the large clumps of irises in the New Zealand garden - these are Iris unguicularis (Algerian iris), which produce their fragrant, deep violet flowers for some 6-7 weeks in late winter.
What would spring be without bulbs? In the last two years, 50,000 snowdrops have been planted in the Northern Garden, and some 100,000 daffodil bulbs bring an abundance of colour to the Woodland Walk.
Head to the Jungle to see one of Heligan's most iconic plants: Gunnera manicata. In early spring it is putting up its intriguing flower heads - these can be 4ft tall in February, giving an indication of the ultimate proportions of this lush monster!
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'Spring comes a lot earlier here because we're so much more protected and sheltered. Things really start to come alive in February,' says Head Gardener Darren Dickey. The different levels of this valley garden mean you can look up at, and down on, spring interest as you walk around the garden.
Like many Cornish gardens, Trebah features abundant camellias. Especially lovely is 'Macdonald's Seedling', a New Zealand bred cultivar with rich, blood-red petals, vibrant yellow stamens and prominent veining. Rhododendrons and azaleas start to show their hand along the Himalayan Walk in early spring - R. arboreum and large leaved grandiflora types are well represented.
There are bursts of colour from magnolias in variety, too. The undoubted star is the champion Magnolia campbellii, which lights up the Chilean Comb. The 24m specimen, planted around 1870, makes an impressive sight, covered with saucer-shaped, flush-pink blooms. Early Rhododendron protistum var. giganteum, crocuses and thousands of snowdrops are among the other welcome heralds of spring.
The Acacia collection brings a mix of colours, from whites and yellows to pinks and reds. A. dealbata flowers in February, its sunny yellow flowers standing out against the feathery, silver foliage. You can find several among the rhododendrons along Radiata Path.
Carpets of Cyclamen coum thrive under the beech trees, near Alice's Seat and along Radiata Path, bringing a vivid burst of colour that's particuarly welcome in the darker areas of the garden.
Perfume brings another important dimension to the early spring garden. Darren and his team are establishing a collection of scented plants, including Sarcococca, Lonicera fragrantissima and Hamamelis. 'S. confusa doesn't have showy flowers but it has a wonderful scent. The lovely evergreen foliage is also good to clip,' says Darren.
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Picture a walk on a sunny day, surrounded by plants from all over the world, and birds busily singing and nesting. 'On a perfect spring day, Caerhays is a completely different world,' says Head Gardener Jaimie Parsons, who has gardened at the estate for more than 20 years.
February sees a tremendous number of Camellia x williamsii and C. japonica cultivars in flower. 'x williamsii camellias never let you down,' says Jaimie. 'They are one of the hardiest camellias you can grow, and they drop - rather than hold onto - their dead flowers.'
Among the earliest to bloom are Camellia × williamsii cultivars 'J.C. Williams', 'Saint Michael', 'Donation' and 'Monica Dance'.
Such is Caerhays' magnolia collection that you can see magnolias in flower from mid February to June. Leading the way are the garden's 24m M. campbellii. Other early bloomers are M. sargentiana var. robusta, M. campbellii hybrids and 'F.J. Williams'. Some newer cultivars such as 'Bishop Michael', 'Bishop Peter' and 'Darjeeling' also start to colour early.
Yellow primroses flourish here, carpeting the woodland floor. 'You can't take two steps off the path without stepping on one. We wait for the wildflowers to set seed before cutting the grass, encouraging them to naturalise,' says Jaimie.
Adding to the glow are the masses of daffodils, including some crossed by J.C. Williams, wild N. cyclamineus, and swathes of unnamed daffodils which have happily hybridised and spread.
If time allows, walk to Kennel Close at the top of the garden. Ten years ago this was a field but now it is a young woodland garden, created from scratch and planted with many new and interesting hybrids.
'It's a good chance to see how to start a woodland garden, planted with the next generation in mind,' says Jaimie.
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Plan your visit
Each of these Partner Gardens offers free entry to RHS members (main cardholder) at selected times.
Click on the 'more about' link for full details.