Undercliff Posted on August 25, 2022

Harold (later Sir Harold) Hillier was a god-like figure in my gardening youth. By happy chance 1971 was the year he brought out the most complete catalogue of trees and shrubs for sale ever (I imagine) produced. It was also the year I wrote my ambitious International Book of Trees. Hillier’s Manual was my bible; I could not have attempted my book without it. II have my original copy (now bound in leather) beside me, with double ticks beside the plants I ordered for my growing collection and a single tick for ones I recognised and would eventually write about. I scribbled notes as I went. The Manual was, I now know, largely the work of Hillier’s young assistant, Roy Lancaster.

I remember Hillier at the time talking about Ventnor and the benign climate of the south coast of the Isle of Wight. He was sending, he said, a lot of his marginally hardy species for planting on the seaside undercliff, where frosts are relatively rare. It has taken me fifty years to get round to it, but we have just visited what is now the considerable botanic garden that now thrives around them.

There is none of the formal apparatus of a conventional botanic garden here; no order beds, in fact little botanical order. The thirty-odd acres are informally divided, mostly by geography: Australia at one end, Japan at the other. Within their zones plants are allowed, or encouraged, to let rip. It creates moments of hallucination: under the gum trees, your feet scuffing the noisy leaf litter, you are in Australia. Then Australia’s fierce botany gives way to banks of hydrangeas, before you are ducking the heavy fronds of scores of Kiwi tree ferns concealing a deep gully. Further on, splendid specimen trees, Hillier’s legacy, perhaps, surround an open lawn which was actually green in parts – thanks to their shade and seaside moisture. Further on again the spires of echiums form tall palisades, before a vine tunnel through an olive grove. Perhaps ecology is more apt than botany for such an album of plants and their habitats. To me it was a magical journey.

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