The not-so-lost Gardens of Heligan

They might be a stone’s throw away from Cornwall’s big landmark attraction, the Eden Project, but the “Lost Gardens of Heligan” are a totally different thing.
This is the fairytale-like story of an old plantsmen’s garden which got neglected and abandoned for decades, before being brought back to life in the 1990s, and becoming a much loved tourist’s attraction.

Let’s set this straight, the vistas are one of the big interests of Heligan. This is possibly one of the most famous views of the gardens, taken in the Jungle (a steep, sheltered valley with streams and ponds), where the exotic look of the Gunneras, tree ferns, nympheas and bamboos works wonders :

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The vistas are spectacular, that goes without saying…but Heligan is also a garden for true plant lovers. Plant hunting has always been a specialty of the place, with famous botanists such as Sir Joseph Hooker bringing back plants from far away countries (Nepal, India, Australia…) in the 19th century. Amazingly, many descendants of these plants are still grown in the garden, like this imposing Rhododendron…slightly different from the one in your back garden, isn’t it? 😉

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The Valley is home to plants loving temperate humid conditions, such as Rhododendrons, bamboos or hydrangeas. Here, two glorybowers, Clerodendrum trichotomum var. fargesii and Clerodendrum bungei, small Chinese shrubs with deliciously fragrant flowers :

Clerodendrum trichotomumClerodendrum bungei

Hydrangeas were another favourite of Victorian plant hunters, who brought back plant material from China, Japan and the Himalayas. There are some nice specimens at Heligan : here two Hydrangea aspera (with fuzzy leaves), Hydrangea macrophylla (with its tiny blue petals) and Hydrangea quercifolia (which, as the name states, has oak-shaped leaves).


More exotic sightings in the Valley include a curious gesneriad from Chile with bottle-shaped flowers (Mitraria coccinea) and a gorgeous Himalayan ginger, Hedychium densiflorum (possibly the cultivar ‘Stephen’) :

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The boardwalks, although a bit slippery (!), are winding nicely in the valley, and allow the visitor to see the plants from different perspectives…chunky tree ferns, good-sized banana plants, and a very enthusiastic climber on the rail (possibly Akebia quinata?).


Temperate humid forests are well represented with the Chilean trees Eucryphia cordifolia and Luma apiculata (the Chilean myrtle). Both are known to be melliferous, although they also seem quite popular with flies and spiders!


The top of the Valley is slightly drier, and hosts plants from the Southern Hemisphere, like South African Agapanthus and Protea :


Of course, no Southern Hemisphere garden is complete without New Zealand endemics such as the prehistoric looking Pseudopanax ferox (Toothed lancewood or horoeka if you want to risk the pronunciation) and a majestic conifer, Podocarpus totara (New Zealand Yew or totara) :


The other main part of the Gardens is the “Northern Gardens“, which are a bit more classical in shape and content. The Flower Garden offers a colourful scene made of annuals such as Cosmos, cornflower (Centaurea cyanus), exotic Cleome, multicoloured Scabiosa, yellow Coreopsis and statices (Limonium platyphyllum) :


Around the flower garden, against the walls, are three beautiful glasshouses, the Vinery House (which hosts grapevines and tender succulents), the Citrus House (used to store citrus trees in winter), and the Peach House (used to grow peach and apricot trees). The glasshouses date back to 1830-1880, and were rediscovered in an derelict state in 1991 :


This is how they look now…imagine how much work was needed to get them back to this state!

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What I like with Heligan Gardens is that they ooze with history, and a good example of that is the Head Gardener’s Office, which must look pretty close to its Victorian state. You can almost feel the gardener cleaning and sorting his seeds in front of the fire :

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But the visit is not over yet…a slightly hidden but oh-so-gorgeous greenhouse containing Pelargonium cultivars, and the delicate purple Tibouchina…


…and the secluded Italian Garden, complete with olive trees, jasmines, palms, and even kiwi trees directly introduced from China. Built in 1906 by Jack Tremayne, Heligan’s Italy-loving owner, it was designed as a “Suntrap“, a place to relax in the sun while listening to the gentle splashing sounds of the fountain.


Around the Jungle and the Northern Gardens lies the rest of the estate, which has been left “wild”. Check out the “Heligan Wild” website for nice wildlife watch webcams and images! Wildlife-friendly initiatives include a wildflower meadow (filled with pollinators when we visited), with far-reaching views to the sea :

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and an insect hotel (structure made of wood, straw, brick, metal wire, soil, everything really…which provides food, shelter and nesting places for insects like bees and butterflies, but also birds and rodents) :


I haven’t even mentioned the Vegetable Garden, the strange Crystal Grotto, the amazing Pineapple Pit (a clever design invented by Victorian gardeners to grow pineapples in the UK – a prized and rare delicacy at that time -!), or the incredibly romantic Lost Valley… Heligan is so big that you really have to consider a trip there as an attraction, rather than as a simple garden visit.

We will definitely go back in spring, to discover the two National Collections of around 70 Camellia and 350 Rhododendron introduced to Heligan before 1920 (the earliest plantings date back to 1850), they must look magnificent….but please, please, people of Heligan, consider putting more labels in the garden!


  1. I agree with Emily! You captured the vistas wonderfully. Lucy and myself have intended to go in the past, but both times opted for Eden for some reason. Thanks for sharing this lovely place with us.

    1. Thanks Tim! What I really like with Heligan is that it’s not “wonderfully designed”, like some other gardens…it has retained its original Victorian plans (and plants), and even though the gardens are well restored, a visit there is still an historical experience. It’s also very big (over 200 acres I think), so one minute you can be in a wild woodland, and the next in a traditional walled garden!

      1. It really sounds amazing. I remember us chatting about the programme about Heligan that I blogged about last year and I’m really glad that you got to go. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that it’s not too long before I also get to visit this garden.

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