Lonely Trees

Cornwall is remarkably famous for its swath of glorious gardens. From postage stamp-sized front lawns bordered with summer flowers to the grand estates with their avenues of huge rhododendrons, camellias and all manner of exotic plants. Cornwall’s garden glory days flourished in the Victorian and Edwardian eras when, financed by the county's wealthiest families, intrepid plant hunters travelled to South America, the Far East and beyond on expeditions to bring back native seeds and saplings. The aim was to see which landowner could outdo the other and grow the most unusual trees and plants in a competition of horticultural one-upmanship. Today Cornwall’s great gardens are home to rare specimens that you’d only normally see if you explored the foothills of the Himalayas or climbed the Andes. However, some of these plants and trees are so rare that they are sometimes the only few of their kind growing all alone outside their natural habitat. So here’s our guide to Cornwall’s Lonely Heart Tree Club and where you might want to give these rare beauties an affectionate hug.

Elusive Bloomer: More at home in the hot, subtropical grasslands of southern Ecuador, the Puya Compacta was growing unidentified for several years at Trebah Gardens near Falmouth until it suddenly bloomed four years ago. With flowers of the most stunning deep cobalt blue, the plant, which is a relative of the pineapple, has extremely spiky leaves that are thought to protect it from being eaten by animals. Although it’s extremely rare in cultivation this individual specimen at Trebah seems to thrive in the humid valley that runs down to the shores of the Helford River. However, back home in South America, the Puya is critically endangered in its natural habitat due to commercial development and converting land for crops. For anyone wishing to see this rare plant in full bloom again, you'll probably have to wait another six years as it only deems to show off around once every decade.

Handsome Stranger: Meloisma alba (beaniana) was described by celebrated Victorian plant hunter E.H. Wilson, who discovered and introduced this rare tree from western Hupeh, China to the UK in 1907, as “most striking and handsome”. At Caerhays Castle on Cornwall’s south coast there is a specimen that languishes quite alone amongst the rhododendrons, magnolias, camellias and azaleas that the garden is famous for and is one of only three left in cultivation across the entire British Isles. With its rusty, hairy young shoots and feather-like leaves, the tree blooms with creamy white flowers in pendulous clusters in May and bears small, black fruits. Several attempts by The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew to reintroduce the species have unfortunately failed leaving Caerhays, the Edinburgh Royal Botanic Garden and Borde Hill Garden in Sussex the last remaining outposts of these loneliest of trees.

Single Male: The largest example of Podocarpus totara in the UK (and possibly Europe) stands amid the luxuriant beauty of the Jungle at The Lost Gardens of Heligan. Standing over 75 feet tall, the tree, better known as the New Zealand Yew, has evergreen leaves and distictive bark that sheds lengthways, gradually peeling off and dangling in characteristic long slabs from the trunk. Thought to have been planted by Jack Tremayne, while working with his father, Squire John Tremayne in the mid-1890s this champion tree is an integral part of the garden with sweeping branches creating a dense canopy. If you stand back at a distance and gaze up to the crown of the tree in April and May it is likely that you will see the delicate white blossoms of Clematis armandii, supported up high on its strong, lofty boughs. This specimen is the only male at Heligan and during the early hours of a late spring morning.the breeze triggers this magnificent tree to release vast amounts of wind-disseminated pollen, which rises in a huge, cloud-like plume above the garden.

Solitary Six: Twenty eight miles west of Cornwall, flung out in the Atlantic Ocean the island of Tresco is home to the sub-tropical Abbey Garden described as “...a perennial Kew without the glass”.With specimens originating from far-flung places such as Brazil and South Africa, a lot of the plants that flourish here would struggle to survive any further north. Six sun-loving individuals are Araucaria excelsa, a ancient species of the South Pacific originating from Norfolk Island off the coast of Australia. A tall, stately tree growing up to fifty metres in its native land, the Norfolk Island Pine, as it’s more commonly known, was introduced to Tresco Abbey Garden way back in 1851. The species is a fast growing evergreen and is now widely used as a street tree across Mediterranean climate zones of the world, however the half dozen beautiful trees you’ll find on Tresco are the only ones growing outside anywhere in the UK.

No one to Love: In the 1920s intrepid plant hunter Harold Comber introduced Aextoxicon puncatum, a South American tree, to Trewithen near Truro but alas only one original specimen from that period survives growing all alone in the estate’s fabulous garden. Native to Chile and Argentina where it's important in providing commercial timber, its quite unremarkable appearance meant it was never propagated in any great numbers resulting in very few ever growing outside their natural habitat. A tall evergreen tree with leathery, scaly leaves Aextoxicon puncatum produces yellowish flowers which are followed by small, black to purple fruits that look similar to olives. The tree was grown as an ‘unnamed’ Elaeagnus (oleaster) for more than forty years until it was discovered and identified by the plant experts Roy Lancaster and Sir Harold Hillier on a visit to Trewithen in 1976.

What a Lovely Pear: It's not all exotic in the lonely hearts club and with its spiny branches and tiny inedible fruit the rarest tree at Lanhydrock near Bodmin is probably the local Plymouth Pear, Pyrus cordata. You can admire three lonesome specimens that grow on a footpath named Ladies Walk that runs adjacent to the parkland from the magnificent Victorian house down towards Respryn. Of a somewhat fragile constitution, the pear struggles to produce viable seeds, is susceptible to disease and over the years numbers have declined dramatically due to its namesake city's urbanisation and the decline of hedgerows. Today the pear is found naturally at two locations around Plymouth and Truro and in order to increase the population of this dwindling family, Lanhydrock is now home to a secluded orchard that’s been specifically planted with seeds and suckers from these two wild sites as part of a species recovery programme.