The Cornish Bloomometer

Lawrence Wright reveals an unusual way of marking the arrival of spring in southwest England.

Magnolia campbellii
Spring arrives when Magnolia campbellii has 50 blooms!
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When does spring start? Well, depending on who you ask – the answer will vary greatly. Some will tell you that the 1st of March heralds the beginning of spring. Others that the 21st is the momentous day, while a cautious few insist that spring doesn’t come until the clocks go forward at the end of the month. There is another option for the first day of spring though and it could well be my favourite of all. A time that that is reserved only for those in the far South West, Cornwall – the day that Magnolia campbellii has 50 blooms. 

It is widely known that the gardens of Cornwall are bathed by balmy conditions through the year when compared to the rest of the UK – locally known as ‘up country’. Winter does come to the far south west but it is rarely as gripping as it is even just as far north as Devon and Somerset. Winter here is damp and cool which means that spring always comes early. It is not unheard of for daffodils to be flowering in November and December, or Rhododendron that normally flower in May to start putting out a few tentative flowers in January. The plant that has however become synonymous with the arrival of the Cornish spring is the Magnolia.  Bursting into a frenzy of colour from mid February, Magnolia campbellii blooming is the turning point – winter is over and spring is here to stay. 

Garden tourism

Cornwall is the garden capital of the UK. The mild winters and long summers make the county ideal for growing plants, many of which you often cannot grow further north. The abundance of gardens to visit means that garden tourism is big business. Several of the larger gardens have joined together forming a group, The Great Gardens of Cornwall. Towards the end of winter these gardens always have one eye on their campbellii. You can keep track on the progress of flowering on The Great Gardens website Spring Story Bloomometer. Think Blue Peter’s charity totaliser but for flowers. When one plants produces 50 blooms or more spring is announced, last year a bouquet of Magnolia was presented to No. 10 Downing Street to declare the fact to the PM. The arrival of spring is a hot topic on social media follow the coming of the Magnolia by searching #springstory #50blooms. 

Star of the Show

Magnolia campbellii is a Himalayan magnolia species famed for the dramatic show that it puts on in early spring. The bare branches are clothed with huge goblet shaped flowers that range from pure white, through the palest pink to sumptuous deep rose. Not a plant for a small garden, or for the impatient, these large trees take upwards of 25 years to flower from seed. Although perfectly hardy, trees should be planted in a sheltered location due to the early blooming. Magnolia flowers will not tolerate cold weather and will quickly discolour if frosted. This should not dissuade you from growing a Magnolia though few forget the time they gaze on the beauty of their first perfectly formed bloom.   

Cornish Spring

Whether you can grow Magnolia in your garden or not, by following Cornwall’s Spring Story you will know that spring and summer is just around the corner wherever you garden. 

The Cornish Spring was the idea of The Nare Hotel proprietor Toby Ashworth. He found that many of the hotel visitors arriving in April and May were actually missing the magnolias because they arrived too late to see them “While the north of the UK is still in the grips of winter, Cornwall is well into spring with much warmer weather.”

Lawrence Wright

About Lawrence Wright

Lawrence Wright started gardening with his granddad when he was ‘knee high to a grasshopper’ but you would have thought that falling into a runner bean row at 4 years old and being lost in the twining stems would have put him off gardening for life. It didn't. He studied horticulture at Brooksby Melton College in Leicestershire and was a HBGBS (Historic and Botanic Garden Bursary Scheme) trainee at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. He won the Chartered Institute of Horticulture’s Young Horticulturist of the Year in May 2016 and has just graduated from the RHS Wisley trainee scheme and is now working at Tregothnan as a horticulturist.
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