Cookies helps us to offer better services. Using our services, you agree to our use of cookies.

Destinations:

guide

cities & villages
northern corfu

sign up now!

action:

for all

sea, mountain, road

Nature activities,
and experiments

sign up now!

glorious past:

history & archaeology

museums, archaeology sites

influences cultures,
heritage

sign up now!
16 Jul
Gardens of Corfu and the landscape that inspires them

Greenest of the Greek islands, Corfu has been dubbed “the garden isle” since Homer’s time. Today it has a little-known but rich garden heritage ranging from ­romantic old estates and colourful ­village gardens to stunning contemporary works by Greek and international designers. The past 20 years on this ­cosmopolitan island have seen a remarkable crop of new gardens created by homeowners from across Europe and beyond.

British garden makers and designers have contributed to this renaissance. Corfu has long held a special appeal for the British, not least because of its welcoming local population. Today nearly one in 10 of Corfu’s 113,000 year-round residents is British, and several hundred more Britons own summer homes here. Many say they have been drawn here by the favourable conditions for gardening given by generous winter rainfall, mild temperatures, varied growing environments, and inspiring natural landscapes and sea views.

A few garden vestiges remain from when Britain administered Corfu in the 19th century, when artist and writer Edward Lear fell under the spell of “gardens dark with orange and lemon groves, their fruit sparkling golden and yellow against the purple sea and the amethyst hills.”

Pleasure gardens at some of the estates boast old specimens of exotic trees that had been recently introduced to Europe and were status symbols when they first arrived. Examples include the magnificent Moreton Bay figs at Mon Repos (built by British High Commissioner Frederick Adam in 1828-1831); cabbage-tree palms and southern magnolias at Afra, strange-looking multi-trunked Phytolacca dioica at Krevatsoúla.

Another vestige of the period is the British Cemetery. Established in 1814, this secret garden of rest is not just a haven in the midst of busy Corfu Town, but also a conservation site for wild orchids and for many exquisite old varieties of garden plants. George Psaíla, a caretaker who is now in his 80s, recalls that in the days before Corfu had flower shops, families planning weddings and funerals would come to him for gifts of cannas, zinnias, and dahlias.

Today the British presence has provided fertile conditions for British garden designers. Mary Keen did path-breaking work alongside members of the Rothschild family, designing the varied gardens at the Rothschilds’ Corfu estate. These include the garden around the pool created by Javier Barba, the Spanish architect. Supremely sensitive to the natural landscape, Keen has written that “here the point of the ‘garden’ is the place” and indeed that “my view on garden making in Corfu is that the place is so beautiful, it is better left un-gardened.”

Given Corfu’s natural beauty, gardens succeed best if they take their cues from the surrounding landscape

Two younger British designers, Jennifer Gay and Alithea Johns, both based in Greece, have been making names for themselves. Each has a distinctive style, but like Keen they have found that, given Corfu’s natural beauty, gardens succeed best if they take their cues from the surrounding landscape. Such an approach first put down Corfiot roots in the garden of Athens-born Cali Doxiádis, a former Mediterranean Garden Society president, and has been spreading in the world’s Mediterranean climate zones. With philosophical links to the “plant native” movement, it tends to rely heavily on native plants, materials, and craftsmanship. Its inspiration stems from a desire to make gardens that feel locally authentic, and also to conserve resources – especially water, which is very scarce in Corfu in summer.

Corfiot plants that translate well

Many of Corfu’s wild plants are the precursors of treasured garden plants. For UK gardeners who yearn for a spot of the Mediterranean at home, or for those who have just watched more northerly natives fail in this summer’s dry heat, here are some suggestions.

For foundation plantings, consider strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo); Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum); white-flowering tree heather (Erica arborea) and laurustinus; yellow-flowering Jerusalem sage (Phlomis fruticosa) and Spanish broom (Spartium junceum); and pink and white varieties of cistus.

For dry shade, try hellebores with wood spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides); flowering colonies of both lighten up Corfu’s woodland clearings in late winter. Bugle (Ajuga reptans) and periwinkle offer good drought-tolerant ground cover in light shade.

Bulbs, corms, and tubers include winter iris (Iris unguicularis); blue Anemone blanda; large-flowered crimson Anemone pavonina, native to open grassland and olive groves; and muscari, of which Corfu has several species. To follow them as the season progresses, try bearded iris, naturalised throughout Corfu; Madonna lily (Lilium candidum), a plant of scrubland and woodland margins; and brilliant carmine Gladiolus italicus – which, unlike its cultivated cousin, is a graceful plant to grow in gravel or unmown grass. For autumn, try yellow sternbergia or dainty pink Cyclamen hederifolium, which colonises Corfu’s olive groves.

Flowering plants grown easily from seed include orlaya; hollyhock; honesty – the local wild kind that lines Corfu’s country lanes in March is Lunaria annua subsp. pachyrriza, with intense periwinkle-blue flowers; honeywort (cerinthe); snapdragon; corn poppy; giant fennel and culinary fennel; many types of verbascum; eryngium, globe thistle (echinops); Mediterranean spurge (Euphorbia characias) and wood spurge.

by Rachel Weaving - Telegraph

Back to top