Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens, on the edge of the Dorset heritage coast, were first established in 1765 under the auspices of Elizabeth, the 1st countess of Ilchester. She built a mansion here, overlooking the sea, as her second home (no longer in existence). An 18th century walled garden, still in existence, was established to grow vegetables for the kitchen. It was later developed to include a 20 acre rare and exotic plant garden.
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In 1808 under the auspices of the 3rd earl of Ilchester the fields around the garden were enclosed for woodland plantings. The 4th earl, a botanist and European flora expert, added a larger range of plants, including ones from South America. The woodland provided a perfect habitat for plants from China, Japan, and the Himalayas. The 5th earl continued the family tradition by tripling the size of the garden and adding more plants to the garden collection. In 1899 a catalogue showed that there were over 5000 different plants.
In the late 1960s the gardens, after years of neglect, were restored. In the 1990s additional plants from New Zealand, Mexico, and the Far East were added. The 21st century gardens are both formal and informal with the woodland being semi-wild. There are walled garden walks and woodland valley views. The garden is especially noted for its camellia groves and magnolias. Its rhododendron and hydrangea collections are also of importance. There are red Himalayan rhododendron and Chusan palm trees. There is a Jubilee Sculpture trail in one part of the garden.
Visit the gardens through the seasons to enjoy their full beauty and different colours. In spring daffodils, tulips, and the Chilean lantern tree bloom in the woodland areas. Go in mid-March to see camellias that include the unique collection of crimson and pink Kunming cultivars. In bloom along the valley floor are candelabra primulas overshadowed by magnolia flowers. Rhododendrons also flower in the spring. Catkins are found along the Secret Walk. Golden pheasants are in abundance strutting around the woodland. Ravens and woodpeckers like the gardens as well.
In the summer woodland shrubs bloom as do late rhododendrons. The Chilean fire bush adds red flowers to the mix. Follow the Hydrangea Walk to see these beautiful flowers, especially the cobalt blue ones. Summer flowering trees are the magnolia and japonica. Look for the specimen wingnut tree by the walled garden entry, listed as a Champion by the Forestry Commission. The garden is also home to the national collection of hoheria, the New Zealand lacebark tree, with their white flowers. Herbaceous borders bloom in the summertime.
The Victorian garden shows off its colours now. Bananas, cannas, castor oil, cosmos, geraniums, dahlias, and croscosmia love the hot weather. The Mediterranean garden is planted with South African bulbs and succulents. Colours run riot with blue agapapanthus, red-hot pokers, and yellow Euryops pectinatus. Tree ferns, hostas, and primulas grow in abundance alongside the woodland stream.
Autumn sees the colours of gold and crimson predominate as Japanese maples, red oak, and ginkgos contribute bright fall foliage. Climbing over the trees with its crimson leaves is vitis coignetiae. The Victorian garden and Jungle glade with their sub-tropical plantings still contribute colour at the autumn. Gingers bloom with vibrant orange flowers. Lanterns and floodlights provide an after dark show during half-term holiday. In winter berries come into their own as do early flowering camellia and traditional winter flowering plants.
Abbotsbuy Gardens won the Historic Houses Association/Christie's Garden of the Year award for 2012.
Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens
Bullers Way, Abbotsbury, Dorset
9 miles west of Weymouth on B3157 to Bridport
Tel. 01305 871387
Open: March-Nov, daily, 10am-6pm; in winter until 4pm
Self serve restaurant; shop
Insider Tip: Allow at least a half day to fully enjoy the garden and all it has to offer. Combine the day with a trip to Abbotsbury Swannery. Chesil beach is only a few miles away.