By just spending a bit of time with people who are really ‘into’ something you will quickly find yourself aligning with their position on the subject. I often drag my poor wife to look around gardens. I will stop by a plant that interests me, but before and I can launch into a lengthy lecture about what it is and what it does, she will repeat the same story back at me. I think after spending so long living with a gardener, she might be becoming one herself. (Either that or I need to learn some new stories)
Recently, I was lucky to be able to spend some time in the presence of a group of experts. Last Friday I took a group of garden journalist to visit to Caerhays Castle near St Austell in Cornwall. Caerhays is home to amazing collections of Magnolias, Camellias and Rhododendrons and we were lucky enough to have a tour of the estate given by the owner Charles Williams.
The original collection at Caerhays was established by his great-grandfather J C Williams who funded plant collecting trips by Ernest Wilson and George Forrest to China. The sheltered location and mild climate of the garden made it the ideal testing ground for the many new and exotic species arriving in the country and the collection quickly grew. In response to the interest in these plants the Rhododendron Society was formed (now the Rhododendron, Camellia and Magnolia group) over 100 years ago. When they made an exhibit at Chelsea flower show last year to celebrate their centenary, the great grandchildren of the original founders were still highly active members.
With such a wealth of unique plant material, the garden has for many years been part of a breeding program to develop new cultivars. They were the first to develop the Camellia x williamsii hybrids, and the parent plants used to breed more hardiness and vigour into the genus, can still be found by the back door of the castle, alongside the hybrids they created.
We were blessed with blue sky for the day of the visit and Charles took us on a personal tour of his garden. It wasn’t long before he broke away from the well-beaten path and was leading our group, tramping across carpets of primroses and bluebells towards an inconspicuous but incredibly rare specimen such as an evergreen oak from Japan, originally collected by Forrest, and the only example of it in the country. Many of these plants could so easily be overlooked without the expert guidance of someone who has spent their whole life working in this garden. We were taken to see the Micheleas, close relatives of the magnolias, and shown the difference of fascicle length, which can be used to distinguish them if you an expert, or the striking difference in scent if you are an amateur such as myself.
What was clear throughout our visit was how much passion Charles has for his plants. It became clear that he lives and breathes this garden. He explained how in the past, there had been little in the way of planning of the layout of the garden, but that they would plant a few of each, and see where they survive. The stories he told about each plant brought them to life, almost as though they were close members of his family. He told us that much of his knowledge had been gleaned from the estate archives and the previous head gardener, Phillip Tregunna, who had unfortunately not written a lot of it down. I hope Charles is making detailed records to preserve this information for the future, as there can be few people who have quite such a detailed knowledge of these plants.
The word enthusiasm is derived from the Greek, and originally meant ‘to be possessed by gods essence’. In a way, when we we are filled with enthusiasm for something, it is a kind of possession which has inspired us to become entirely dedicated to discovering every aspect of our chosen subject. I find it enormously rewarding to be around enthusiastic people and they will often inspire and motivate me to be better myself. If we can sustain our own enthusiasm and, like fire, it spreads to others, it will make it even more rewarding for ourselves.
As the famous author Dale Carnegie once said “Flaming enthusiasm backed by horse sense and persistence are the qualities that will most frequently make for success.”