Lukesland – Dartmoor’s romantic gardens filled with exotic flowers and historic shrubs

Set in a steep valley just below Dartmoor, Lukesland Gardens, in Ivybridge, Devon, are romantic woodland gardens filled with exotic trees and flowering shrubs, many of historical significance. Caroline Donald paid a visit; Photographs by Mark Bolton.

If only propagation counted towards becoming a UK champion tree, the Magnolia campbellii in Lukesland, a former hunting lodge above Ivybridge and two fields below Dartmoor, it would qualify well: its branches reach an impressive 95 feet across. Unfortunately there is one on Edge Hill in West Sussex with a wider trunk girth so he gets the credit, but in the end what’s in a title? In full bloom in March, the Lukesland magnolia is a magnificent sight. Although, says Rosemary Howell, such a display is a rare treat in a garden 600 feet above sea level: “Most years the flowers start to come out and then it freezes over.”

However, good things come to those who wait, and Mrs. Howell has witnessed the magnolia display many times. She has known Lukesland since the 1950s, when she came to camp on Dartmoor as a Cambridge university friend of Brian Howell, whom she would later marry. Her parents, Howard and Muriel, had bought the farm in 1930: ‘It was the Depression, so there were a lot of farms that were pretty cheap. They decided on this because my mother-in-law wanted to hunt on the moor,” explains Mrs Howell, who moved into the Victorian Gothic house in 1975 with her husband. He died in 2003 and she still lives there with her son, John, and his wife, Lorna.

The Victorian Gothic house rises above a profusion of rhododendrons. Lukesland Gardens, Ivybridge, Devon. ©Mark Bolton

The Addiscombe stream runs from the moor through a steep valley below the house in a series of romantic pools and waterfalls made by successive owners, the slopes thickly planted with exotic trees and flowering shrubs. ‘People who have a flat garden envy us for having running water; you can’t go wrong if you make a nice garden,” observes Ms. Howell.

Many of these homeowners have been plant enthusiasts, so Lukesland reads like a horticultural history book, each chapter demonstrating the plant and labor availability of the day – Mr Howell recently discovered, for example, that a late Victorian head gardener was a friend. from Veitch’s famous nurseries in Exeter, so they would have had access to the newest and most exotic plants from him. He believes that at least one gingko, some of the rhododendrons, and a tall and somewhat incongruous trachycarpus palm date from that time.

Five of the Best Rosemary Howell Early Flowering Plants in Lukesland

  • Cornus kousa var. chinensis
    A striking small tree with white/pink bracts in spring and red/orange leaves and strawberry-like fruits in autumn.
  • rhododendron burmanicum
    An unusual rhododendron, a small to medium species in need of some protection. The greenish-yellow flowers are scented.
  • rhododendron falconeri
    A large rhododendron with peeling dark red bark and huge dull green leaves, which can reach over 1 foot in length with a dark rusty red coat underneath. Creamy white to pale yellow to pink flowers in large clusters in mid to late spring. The bark looks magnificent in the winter months.
  • rhododendron fragrantissimum
    As its name suggests, this rhododendron is highly scented, displaying delicate white flowers, touched with pink, in May. Very easy to propagate from cuttings.
  • sasanqua camellias
    These bloom before Christmas and many are scented. They like a sunny and sheltered position.

When Howard and Muriel Howell arrived, the variety of plants in the nurseries was much greater; Legacies of his time include the Magnolia campbelliimore rhododendron hybrids, a handkerchief tree (davidia involved), which is much admired by visitors, several splendid Japanese aceres, and some of the azaleas. However, World War II marked the beginning of a decline. ‘After the war, my father-in-law was getting old and losing momentum. It was a disaster,” says Ms. Howell.

One of many romantic places to sit and enjoy the views. Lukesland Gardens, Ivybridge, Devon. ©Mark Bolton

When she and her husband took over, much of their early work involved cutting down overgrown trees and shrubs, as well as cleaning out the pond, which had almost filled up. Howell, like her Canadian father, was a ranger: he was one of the founders of the Fountains Forestry management and the forestry adviser to the late Queen’s Sandringham estate in Norfolk.

He made a new pond at the top of the garden and started a pinetum in the 80s in a high area: a picea farreri from China is a rarity and one of Mrs. Howell’s latest additions is a Wollemi pine. She also revamped the beech grove by the Victorian driveway, where the understory is a carpet of bluebells in May.

The Addiscombe Stream runs through a series of ponds and waterfalls. Lukesland Gardens, Ivybridge, Devon. ©Mark Bolton

Many more camellias and trees were planted in the valley garden and Howell was great friends with Leo de Rothschild who lived in the famous Exbury Gardens in Hampshire, so Exbury hybrids and bigleaf rhododendron, like R. falconeri, R. sinogrande and R. macabeanum, are a particular feature. However, the couple was so busy planting that most are unlabeled and their names remain a mystery.

“It hasn’t been that kind of garden,” says Ms Howell, who has opened Lukesland for the National Garden Scheme since 1992. “It’s very much a family garden.” Her son adds: ‘It’s a ‘garden of evolution’.’ Near the house is a rhododendron which they can easily identify, however: ‘Brian Howell’, who grew up in Exbury and was recently given to the family as a gift by the head gardener there. It first flowered last year and has pale pink buds with creamy flowers.

The deep pink ‘Cornish Red’ rhododendron, which can reach 60 to 80 feet in height. Lukesland Gardens, Ivybridge, Devon. ©Mark Bolton

After more than 40 years in Lukesland, Ms Howell can witness the ripe fruits of her labor and is still very much involved; she walks through the garden every day to keep an eye on things and plan new plantings. Meanwhile, Lorna has taken an RHS general horticulture course (she’s introduced summer color to a long herbaceous border) and John is a genius at maintaining and adding structures, like bridges and dry-stone walls, when he’s not at home. job. he works daily as a soil scientist. The family also has a team of four part-timers to help them, as Lukesland is open two days a week for its spring and fall showings.

The 1930s Dipper Boy was swept away by a flood in 2012, but survived, buried in silt. Lukesland Gardens, Ivybridge, Devon. ©Mark Bolton

Nature has often influenced how things have played out, with 35 trees toppling in the 1990 storm, leaving vast gaps; or floods, like the one in 2012, which broke two bridges.

But this is a family that doesn’t rest on its Victorian laurels (those are long gone), so to speak, and where there’s space there’s opportunity: a cedar that had been potted against a wall and taken root in the earth finally died and has been recently cut down. She left a sunny new corner where, last year, Lorna planted an herb garden. Another chapter has been opened.

Lukesland House, Ivybridge, Devon, open spring and autumn — 01752 691749;

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