Gardens to visit in the Isles of Scilly
The balmy microclimate of the Scilly Isles means tender palms and exotic flowers thrive at Tresco's famous Abbey Gardens. Digital Editor Catherine Mansley paid a visit.
The Isles of Scilly are like an idealised version of England – where the sun always shines, the food is wonderful, there’s no traffic and no one locks their doors! To say the sun always shines is an exaggeration, but they’re among the sunniest and mildest places in the UK – sea breezes mean it’s never too hot or humid and thanks to the Jetstream, they almost never have frost.
This microclimate has enabled the creation of a very special subtropical garden – the Abbey Garden on the island of Tresco. My husband and I were lucky enough to spend a few days on the Isles of Scilly and took a tour of the garden with curator Mike Nelhams. This gloriously exotic 17-acre attraction is home to 20,000 species of plant, gathered from all over the globe. The mild winters mean Mediterranean and subtropical plants that wouldn’t survive in the rest of the UK, unless they were grown under glass, can thrive here. There are towering palm trees and tree ferns, sculptural succulents, and vibrant flowers from the New Zealand flame tree, proteas, echiums, bird of paradise plants and many more. We visited in September and I had assumed that would be peak flowering season for many of these southern-hemisphere plants. However, they have largely adapted to their new location and now flower in our spring and summer, making May the most flower-filled month in the garden.
The plant collection is truly international – from as far afield as Brazil, California, South Africa, Myanmar, New Zealand and more, all growing happily together. It’s also a lovely place for a relaxing stroll, as the gardens are far more than just a plant collection and are beautifully laid out with lots of inviting paths and vistas. You can also buy plants and seeds from the garden shop.
The mild weather means spring comes early on Scilly, so if you’re suffering from the winter blues, a trip to Tresco to see the spring bulbs in bloom, weeks before they flower on the mainland, is certain to lift your spirits.
The garden is also home to red squirrels, which I was excited to discover are surprisingly bold around visitors. We were able to watch them scampering and feeding – much to Mike’s horror, they have developed a taste for his beloved protea flowers!
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The garden has been painstakingly created over the past 200 years. And despite the microclimate, it hasn’t all been easy. The Isles of Scilly are tiny and fairly flat, so the natural vegetation is mostly low-growing gorse, to avoid being blown away by Atlantic gales. The taller treasures in the Abbey Garden are protected by a dense shelter-belt of trees. Mike took us for a stroll to the edge of the shelter-belt so we could feel for ourselves how much difference it makes, even on a very calm day. And over the years, storms, hurricanes and freak frosts have wreaked havoc in the garden, requiring major revamps and expeditions around the world and to Kew Gardens, to gather new plants to maintain this spectacular collection.
- Getting there: Catherine flew from Exeter to St Mary’s airport, on an Isles of Scilly Skybus. From there, a minibus took her luggage while she walked the 40 minutes to the quay to catch a ferry to St Martin’s on Tresco. Be sure to check the time of the last ferry, as it changes daily depending on the tides.
- Where to stay: The Karma Hotel, St Martin’s
- When to visit: May-September for best weather
Other gardening highlights
HolyVale winery and vineyard, St Mary’s
The HolyVale vineyard takes advantage of the Scilly microclimate to grow grapes to produce a range of delicious wines. It’s one of the only places in the UK growing Pinot Noir. We thoroughly enjoyed our wine tasting there, and learnt a little about wine making along the way. The vineyard is a pleasant place for a stroll, and there are tours if you’d like to find out more. The vineyard is owned by the local Star Castle hotel, where you can also sample the wines alongside their excellent food.
Scilly Flowers, Churchtown Farm, St Martin’s
Scented cut flowers have been a mainstay of the Scillonian economy for centuries, and Scilly Flowers is a small, sustainable flower farm keeping the tradition alive. From October to April the farm is filled with gloriously scented narcissi and from May to October they pick scented pinks. You can visit the farm to enjoy the flowers and watch them being picked, packed and sent to the mainland. Once home, you can treat yourself to a little reminder of Scilly, by ordering a bunch of their fragrant flowers.
Isles of Scilly AONB
The whole of the Isles of Scilly are designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and once you’re there, it’s not hard to see why. From the turquoise seas, to the pristine sandy beaches, the rugged cliffs and grassland and picturesque villages. The islands are home to a huge variety of plants and wildlife, including some that are unique to Scilly, such as the Scilly shrew and the Scilly bee. Most of the isles are car-free, so you can stroll at your leisure and enjoy the scenery and the slower pace of life.