Caerhays Castle and Spring Gardens: A Story of Plant Hunting Expeditions, Garden Diaries, and Constant Evolution

A spring garden where tradition is celebrated but new ideas bloom year round


Caerhays Castle and Spring Gardens occupy a dreamlike slice of the Roseland, mere steps from Porthluney Beach the estate looks like a scene from a fairytale.

Caerhays is the perfect blend of tradition infused with new ideas. Owner Charles Williams is an oracle on the history of Caerhays, and the fourth generation of his family to document the development of the gardens. The history of Caerhays is rich and evocative, full of pioneering plant hunting expeditions and horticultural firsts. As befits a castle estate, this is a garden where the past is revered, but the mindset remains as it has always been, progressive, and focused on the continued growth and expansion of the gardens.

Caerhays is home to a National Collection of Magnolias


Caerhays holds a Plant Heritage National Collection of Magnolias (Magnoliaceae) and boasts around 180 different species and subspecies of magnolia, and in the region of 700 different named varieties. Caerhays’ role is to protect magnolias, display them to the public and safeguard the genetic material. Caerhays is admired by many as one of the greatest known collections of magnolias, Catherine Cutler, Interim Head of horticulture at the Eden Project is inspired by “the sheer blow-you-away impressiveness of the Magnolias at Caerhays”.

However a visit to Caerhays is not all about the magnolias. Caerhays also holds a National Collection of Podocarpus (Podocarpaceae), and within its 140 acres of woodland boasts 80 Champion Trees, ranking 10th in the UK and Ireland for the number of Record Trees. Every day of the year, regardless of the season, there is something exceptional in bloom at Caerhays, and a new corner of this great Cornish garden to explore.

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Plant hunters, expeditions to China and the ‘Garden Diary’


In 1897 Charles Williams’ great grandfather, J C Williams, started writing daily commentary in his garden diary. The leather bound book captured the day to day details of the garden, and it’s a custom Charles still takes great pride in continuing at Caerhays today.

Charles says, “My great grandfather, JC Williams, funded plant hunting expeditions to China by the great plant hunters Ernest Wilson and George Forrest. Caerhays therefore became one of the very first UK recipients of literally tens of thousands of new species of plants which were unknown in Western Europe. Today 60-70% of what we see growing in British gardens actually originated from China, and it’s all happened in the last 100 years or so. In 1902 there were only around 60 rhododendron species growing in the UK, but by 1918 there were 356 rhododendron species growing at Caerhays alone”.

The ‘Forrest letters’ chronicle the correspondence between JC Williams and George Forrest during seven plant hunting trips to China. Charles describes the letters as “a unique archive that provides an amazing account of the hardships and struggles the plant collectors faced in feudal China to bring back seed of the new species to the UK”.

It is hard to imagine what our Cornish gardens would look like, had visionaries like JC Williams not funded this band of spirited pioneers to travel the globe in search of the exotic. Without Ernest Wilson, George Forrest and the adventurists who risked so much, our gardens would bloom in very different shades today.

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Caerhays is one of the most horticulturally significant gardens in Cornwall


Incredibly, Caerhays has only had 4 Head Gardeners in the last 127 years, John Martin (1897 – 1922), Charles Michael (1922 – 1956), Philip Tregunna (1956 – 1996) and Jaimie Parsons (1996 – present day). This supreme level of continuity has become one of Caerhays’ many strengths. The stability, patience and long term vision in its garden management has ensured that nearly all of the original genetic material imported from China has been protected and still thrives in maturity at Caerhays today.

Charles continues “Caerhays is the original home of the x williamsii Camellias. JC Williams crossed two tender species from Japan and China (japonica & saluenensis) to produce a much hardier and more floriferous generation of camellias. The camellia became a garden plant and not a greenhouse plant. The same cross has been replicated around the world and there are now around 30,000 named x williamsii Camellia varieties”.

How wonderful that it was here, at Caerhays, that the camellia began its hybridisation journey from delicate temperate, to hardy Cornish stock. There is so much variety in the garden at Caerhays it can be hard to take in, so Charles often keeps things simple in the garden diary, and makes note of his favourites as “the best things in the garden today”.

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Caerhays Castle Spring Gardens is always developing and evolving


The same progressive mindset that fueled JC Williams to fund the plant hunters of days gone by, now inspires Charles, Jaimie and their incredible team to experiment with planting schemes and create fresh areas of garden each year.

Charles describes some of the new areas of garden, such as “the Tin Garden which commemorates the rhododendron, camellia and magnolia hybrids bred by my father in his lifetime, and the old Kitchen Garden now houses a collection of 65 different varieties of Malus. The new areas are planted with plants which have not been grown before at Caerhays, or which once grew here and have died out previously. The excitement of seeing these new planting areas grow and develop creates favourite new areas at different times of the year”.

Charles continues, “Just when you think you know all the species and hybrids in a particular genus you will always find that there are new species to discover. There is no limit to gardening or plant knowledge and always more to excite those who are interested”.

The beauty of the garden diary is that the journey of Caerhays Castle Garden has been, and continues to be, documented for prosperity. Just as we are transported back in time by the stories of JC Williams and the intrepid plant hunters, in 100 years time, people will look back on Charles’ diary entries with wonder. The progressive thoughts and ideas of Charles, Jaimie and the team of today, will become a fascinating historical record for tomorrow’s gardeners. The story of Caerhays Castle Garden does not yet have an ending, it is still being written day by day in the garden diary, entries mimicking the rhythm and bloom of this Great Garden of Cornwall.

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