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An ethereal tropical landscape

New Zealand palms lend an instant whiff of the tropics with extravagant coifs, while austere eucalyptuses cut a resinous dash.

The gardener, like the novelist, is out to deceive us. We wander carefully tended pathways, and turn intricately imagined pages, happily hoodwinked into believing they are faithful facsimiles of nature. We don’t want to think about the tricks, we turn our faces away from the artifice, and we wilfully ignore the endless hours of work that conjures such fantasies from chaos. Some fictions are slight, shimmering mantels thrown over the bare bones of unconditioned reality. Others are so great and complex that we might want to lose ourselves in them forever. Tresco Abbey Garden is one such masterpiece.

This fine example of the gardener’s art has been 170 years in the writing. Pen was first put to paper in 1834 with the signature of Augustus Smith, by all accounts a dashing young man, when he leased the Isles of Scilly from the Duchy of Cornwall. Craving solitude, and respite, perhaps, from the series of grand works he had been imposing upon the islands, he threw up a 12-foot high wall around a patch of land on the barren isle of Tresco. He built his home there, and it was from these modest beginnings that the garden grew. He sketched out three pathways; Top Terrace, tracing the garden’s northern boundary, Long Walk, plunging through its heart, and Middle Terrace, connecting the two. Despite plot-twists involving five generations of Smith’s family, and the incorporation of the ruins of a 10th century Benedictine abbey into the garden’s narrative, these three fundaments remain in place to this day.

The plants, our dramatis personae, number in their thousands, crowding the pages even during the midwinter chill. Aloes brawl spikily across pathways, while acacias huddle and conspire in whispers. Norfolk Island pines punch at the skies with armoured green fists, and uncontainable geometric aeoniums are the subject of a thousand spin-offs, colonising walls across the island. New Zealand cabbage palms lend an instant whiff of the tropics with extravagant coifs, while austere eucalyptuses cut a resinous dash. Jubea palms stride like heroes, flamelike silver trees idle away their days languidly. A role-call of flowers vie for romantic lead; Clianthus, Erica, Dyandra, Doryanthes. Amaryllis proclaims bright virtue with vermilion trumpets, Strelitzia’s charms alight on slender stems like birds of paradise. While it might not look it at first glance, the spiny agave, too, is a study in romance. Once known as the century plant, it was thought to flower just once in every hundred years. Its true story, however, is more astonishing yet; most agaves bloom just once in their long lives. Supernova blasts, great fringed unblinking eyes, meteor showers, creeping carpets of eye-aching colour; at every turn, stories of form, structure and perfume clamour to be told.

On a summer’s day, chin lifted to the sun, one can leaf through the pages of this garden with disbelief in full suspension, but this is no tropical idyll. Though Tresco rises from waters of a hue similar to those found in the Caribbean, and its beaches are pure white, lapped by surf warmed by the Gulf Stream, the realities of latitude can only be sidestepped for so long. Like Newfoundland, Tresco lies 49° north, in the throat of the Atlantic. One only need wander outside the confines of the garden to see the truth; there is little vegetation higher than scorched grass and gorses able to withstand the murderous salt-water assault from the west. Undeniable reality paid a visit, unannounced, on Abbey Garden one January afternoon in 1987 in the form of a thick blanket of snow. After the initial blizzard, temperatures dropped to minus eight with wind chill factors of up to -30ºC, and stayed there for weeks. The cell walls of plants more used to the tropics froze, then gave way, across the garden. The fairytale descended very quickly into horror. Flame trees planted in 1851 were stripped naked and their flesh turned to stone. Giant South African aloes, nine feet across, liquefied and rotted in a tangle of limbs. A 72-foot tall Norfolk Island pine, beloved of generations, died where it stood, locked upright in the iron soil. When spring came to Tresco, winter had already carried the garden away with it.

Word by word, through dint of sheer effort, the gardeners began the arduous task of rewriting much of the garden from memory. Visitors that year squinted at the outlines of stick figures, propped up where the main characters once stood. Slowly but surely, the garden was coaxed back to life. This should have been reproduction on a grand scale, but just as the story began to take shape, reality howled its way back in. Within the first hour of the storms of January 1990, the largest tree in the garden, a Monterey cypress, had been felled. A few hours later, and nine out of ten of the protective ring of salt-resistant trees around the garden had also tumbled. Pages were torn from the spine, covers were ripped and tattered. The stewards of the garden could only look on as the manuscript of their precious new edition was whipped from their hands and out over the horizon, the laptop containing their notes dropped into the sea, and the hard-drive that it was all backed-up on obliterated by a passing bus. What had taken 130 years to grow was levelled in 240 minutes.

Once the destruction had run its course, however, they did what any true storyteller would; they started again. This time, it was more than a revision, more than an updated and expanded edition. They made space for a fresh narrative that sprouted up in the rays of the sun, newly admitted through the remnants of the ravaged canopy. In time, they wrote a brand new story, made up of over 60,000 trees. True, on a chilly, misty Scillonian morning, it feels more Jane Eyre than Wide Sargasso Sea, but now that new vistas have been opened, the greatest protagonist of all can be seen once more; the ever present ocean.

Tresco Abbey Garden, Tresco, Isles of Scilly TR24 0QQ, UK



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