Skip to main content
Meudon Garden Subtropical

8th September 2022

Tales from the Plant Hunters

It’s an interesting quirk that the relatively small area of Falmouth has some of the most impressive and significant gardens in the UK. During the first half of the 19th century, the town became a hothouse for garden enthusiasts, who shared specimens and competed among themselves to create some of the best sub-tropical gardens in the country; many of which you can still visit today.

In this they were aided by the natural climate of the area, which offered up the ideal conditions for exotic plant species to thrive. These specimens travelled into Cornwall from far-flung reaches of the globe: destinations such as Australia, Myanmar, Brazil, and the Himalayas. But how on earth, at a time of horses, carts, and sail-powered ships, did they actually get here? To answer this question is to delve into the world of the ‘plant hunters’.

This phrase might conjure up images of Victorian adventurers hacking their way through the jungle, but many early plant hunters weren’t dedicated botanists and gardeners, but simply opportunistic sailors. As a demand for sub-tropical plants grew back at home, travellers gathered specimens during the course of their journeys, returning with a cargo that may or may not have survived the voyage.

Meudon’s valley gardens were first created during the early 19th century by the wealthy Fox family . At around the same time, the Foxes also planted gardens at nearby Glendurgan and Trebah, meaning that keen-eyed visitors to all three might notice many similarities in their design and plant species. Members of the Fox family shared a keen interest in exotic plant species, but they weren’t the only ones in Cornwall to do so. In fact, a network of like-minded enthusiasts sprung up in the area, forming the Royal Cornwall Horticultural Society in the 1830s. The local landowner Sir Charles Lemon, who lived at Carclew (which was sadly lost to fire in 1934), joined forces with George Croker Fox and Robert Were Fox to share unusual and exotic specimens.

Robert Were Foxcropped

These plant and seed specimens arrived at Falmouth’s gardens in many different ways, though predominantly by ship (this being at the height of Britain’s maritime dominance). Falmouth was one of the country’s major ports, and the Foxes were merchants and shipping agents, meaning that they had access to any number of ships’ captains, who would seek out and transport plants on their behalf. These were often shared and traded with other landowners in the area. In an 1851 guide to Cornwall, it was noted that Grove Hill, another Fox family garden in the area, had ‘upwards of 200 foreign plants’.

Falmouth was also home to the Packet Service: the Royal Mail’s overseas postage network. Packet ships travelled all over the world, carrying important government dispatches, domestic mail, and passengers. On top of their regular duties, some Packet Service captains were open to a spot of plant hunting. In 1833, one Captain Sutton is recorded as having given the Royal Cornwall Horticultural Society ‘a choice collection’ of plants, including orchids, a previously unknown species of Gesneria, ‘and other interesting plants’ found on a hillside in Rio de Janeiro.

Meudon Garden Flower

If you wander Meudon’s gardens today, you’ll therefore find yourself among many trees and shrubs with fascinating back-stories. One of the most impressive species is a ten-metre Magnolia campbellii var. mollicomata, which puts on a show of beautiful mauve-pink flowers in thespring. This was sourced by the famous plant hunter George Forrest during his expedition to the forests of Yunnan and north Mayanmar in the early 1920s. At only a century old, this magnolia is actually one of the more recent additions to Meudon’s tree canopy. Far older are the enormous tree ferns that you’ll find here, which date back to the early 1800s. It’s said that these were the result of ‘accidental’ planting, due to tree fern stumps being used as ballast on returning convict ships. With the ships being empty of their rather grim cargo, felled tree ferns were instead used to make them sit lower in the water. As the ships neared port in Falmouth, the ferns were thrown overboard and washed up on the beach. When the ferns were later found to be growing new shoots, they were planted into the gardens, where they ultimately thrived.

Hotel Meudon Meudon Gardens 02

Meudon Garden: A wonderful place to spend the afternoon

Though this sounds rather haphazard, a great deal of thought was given to the design of Meudon’s gardens. The plants that grow here are able to flourish because of the valley landscape and Falmouth’s position in the Gulf Stream, which shelters them and ensures a milder climate. However, if you’ve ever stood in the gardens and wondered why it’s so warm, you’ve actually got the early gardeners to thank. They carefully planted trees around the outside of the valley, growing a living windbreak against the cold east wind and creating the all-important sub-tropical microclimate that our plants need.

Despite all we already know about the gardens here at Meudon, there’s a great deal still waiting to be discovered beneath the soil and mature planting. Only recently, our gardeners happened upon two old paths, buried by overgrowth, while elsewhere, there are original trout ponds that have grown over and are – for now, at least – filled with mud, rather than fish. As well as this, we're still waiting to identify some of the garden’s older rhododendron species, some of which have been growing here for such an extended period that their exact origins and genus are unknown. We’re working with experts from Heritage UK and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew to find out more. Far from being consigned to the past, it seems that some secrets of the plant hunters are still waiting to be told. If you’re interested in finding out more, do keep checking back here and follow our social channels such as Instagram and Facebook for more updates from the garden.

Afternoon tea cross sell

Afternoon Tea

Sip tea and indulge in elegant bites, spending an afternoon surrounded by our valley gardens.

Surf N Turf Restaurant Meudon

Restaurant Meudon

Our food story captures the essence of Hotel Meudon’s heritage and location –complemented by Cornwall’s natural larder.

Christmas party at Hotel Meudon - Festive

Festive Breaks by the Cornish Coast

Festive celebrations with added sparkle at Hotel Meudon. Relax and let us do the hard work!