Fabulous and exclusive Corfu gardens

Monday 22 – Monday 29 April 2024

Bursary Report by Jackie Hunt

Introduction

British naturalist and author Gerald Durrell called Corfu The Garden of the Gods in the title of his third book, which tells of his family’s life and his explorations of the natural world on the island between 1935 and 1939. Since reading The Corfu Trilogy many decades ago I have always dreamed of visiting this magical-sounding isle.

As a professional gardener with a love for wildflowers, I was extremely keen to join this trip with its busy and varied itinerary. I am very grateful to Mediterranean Plants and Gardens for awarding me a bursary, which made my participation possible. I have learned so much about wild and cultivated plants, both during the trip and through my research for this report.

The tour was based on the publication Gardens of Corfu by Rachel Weaving, with photographs by Marianne Majerus (Impress, 2018). This book has formed an invaluable and inspiring resource for writing this report. Thank you to MPG members Joanna Fortnam for researching the gardens for this trip and Anne Keenan for organising the week, turning the pages of this beautiful book into a reality.

Enormous thanks to the garden owners, garden designers, local guides, the gardeners and their colleagues for their hospitality, generosity of time and knowledge.

As a new MPG member, I’d also like to thank my fellow travellers for their warm welcome and incredible knowledge, in particular to Jane Furse who has kindly helped with plant identifications and photographs for this report. You all made this a very special and rewarding experience for me.

My objectives:

  • To develop my personal and professional knowledge of Mediterranean flora, international gardens and plants suitable for drier conditions.
  • To connect with people with a shared enthusiasm for Mediterranean flora and landscapes.
  • To identify plants that are potentially suitable for cultivation in south-central English gardens by learning directly from gardens and gardeners in Corfu, as one of the greener/winter wet Mediterranean islands. For example, discovering cultivation techniques, aspect, soil conditions, water and nutrition requirements, to enable experimentation with plant introductions at my workplace, Turn End in Buckinghamshire, United Kingdom.
  • To fulfil a long-term ambition to join a specialist horticulture/plant tour.
  • To develop my public engagement experience by sharing my learnings through garden events, online and in person talks and written articles.
  • To utilise my love of research, writing and photography to share the trip with the international audience of MPG membership.

About Corfu

Corfu, Κέρκυρα, or Kérkyra, is the most northerly of the seven Ionian Islands and forms the north-western frontier of Greece. Resembling a scythe in its shape the island measures 65km in length and ranges from 4km to 30km across. The northeastern edge of Corfu lies off the coast of Sarandë, Albania, separated by the Corfu Straits which are 3km at their narrowest point. The island is the exposed crown of a submerged mountain range and was connected to the mainland until 8000 years ago, when sea levels rose. The western coast follows a fault and the sea floor here drops rapidly to over 1000m. The north is mountainous, comprising mostly hard, grey limestones created 240-145 million years ago. The highest point here is Mount Pantokrator at 914m metres. The landscape in the centre is undulating and the south is low lying, where rocks are younger and softer and have developed thick, red soils.

Corfu is the greenest of the Greek islands because it has higher rainfall than any other part of Greece. Typically, over 1.3-1.4 metres of rain falls annually, mostly between October and June. Flora comprises native oak forests, cultivated groves of olive, kumquat and lemon and the distinctive spires of cypress. Our trip was timed to enjoy the spring flowers.

Monday 22 April

Our group was based at the Cavalieri Hotel in Corfu Town, which was built in the 17th century as a noble family’s mansion. It has an excellent location overlooking the Ionian Sea and Old Fort, at the southern end of the old town. Arriving mid-afternoon, I had the opportunity to explore the town before we all met for our first evening meal together.

Corfu Town has origins in the 8th century BCE and is located on a small peninsula on the island’s east coast. Since antiquity it has been a fortified city, occupying a strategic position at the entrance of the Adriatic Sea. The seven Ionian Islands were an overseas possession of the Republic of Venice from 1386 until 1797 and many of the fine multi-storeyed buildings and narrow streets of the Old Town of Corfu date to this time. Venetians constructed forts here to enclose and defend their maritime trading interests against the Ottoman Empire and Corfu’s capital has been officially declared a Kastropolis (“castle city”) by the Greek government. In 1797 Corfu was taken over by the French following the defeat of the Venetian Republic by Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1814 the Ionian Islands became a British protectorate. Corfu and the other Ionian Islands were ceded to modern Greece in 1864 by the British government with the accession of King George I.

The skyline and coast of the Old Town is dominated by the Old Fort which occupies a tall rocky outcrop protruding into the sea. The Old Town is divided from the fort by the Spianada, a large public square, park and esplanade with bandstand and cricket ground. The Old Town is a Unesco World Heritage Site, a charming tangle of narrow streets with beautiful neoclassical buildings and limestone paving worn smooth by centuries of use.

Plants on the rocky outcrop of the Old Fort include Artemisia and Arabian pea (Bituminaria bituminosa)
The streets near the New Fort, Corfu Town

In Spaniarda Square I saw native Judas trees (Cercis siliquastrum), still in blossom. Their pink pea flowers illuminate the island in spring, but most trees that we saw during the week had already flowered unusually early due to a hot spring. The air was perfumed with the flowers of Pittosporum tobira, a dense glossy leaved evergreen shrub native to Japan, China, Taiwan and Korea.

Pittosporum tobira
Cercis siliquastrum

Two particularly memorable trees included a Cercis siliquastrum entwined with a fig (Ficus carica) in Old Port Square. In the Garden of the People is a huge bella sombra (Phytolacca dioica), native to dry tropical areas in Columbia, Brazil and northern Argentina. It was introduced to Europe in the late 18th century.

Entwined Ficus carica and Cercis siliquastrum
Phytolacca dioica
Castor oil (Ricinus communis) reaching tree proportions

We gathered for welcome drinks at the hotel before heading to a nearby pizza restaurant where we enjoyed a evening of introductions and lively conversation.

Tuesday 23 April

We woke to a drizzly grey morning and boarded our two mini buses to head southwards. Battling through the morning traffic of Corfu Town’s suburbs we stopped briefly at the British Cemetery, located on the hill of San Salvatore. Hidden behind high stone walls and wrought iron gates, the cemetery was created in 1814 when Corfu was a British Protectorate (1814-1864). Some existing trees may date to the time of the cemetery’s creation. There are nearly 500 graves, the earliest legible headstones dated 1817. It is still used as a cemetery by Corfu’s Anglican residents.

Graves in the British Cemetery

The cemetery was tended for many years by caretaker and garden manager George Psaila, until his recent death. It was long renowned for providing a habitat for 30 of the 50 species of orchid endemic to Corfu, as well as many garden plants. In Rachel Weaving’s book, George recalls how families used to ask him for flowers from the cemetery for weddings and funerals. He was awarded the British Empire Medal in 1988 for his services to the cemetery.

Immediately catching our attention inside the garden was an orchid tree (Bauhinia sp.) with luscious pink flowers. Much of the site is deeply shaded by cypress trees, redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) and southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) but in open clearings there are splashes of colour from pink Gladiolus byzantinus and hot red bottlebrush (Callistemon sp.).

Orchid tree (Bauhinia sp.)
Gladiolus byzantinus
Replica of Michelangelo’s ‘Pieta’ nestles amongst Trachycarpus fortunei, Opuntia ficus-carica, Zantedeschia aethiopica and Nandina domestica

Sadly our brief stop didn’t allow time to hunt for now apparently rarer orchids, but we did see root-parasitic broomrapes emerging from the leaf litter on a retaining wall.

Orobanche mutelii

Leaving the bustle of the town and heading south it wasn’t long before we reached the historic five-hectare estate at Gastouri. The estate was originally established as a vineyard, then a farm. But war, land reform and social change meant that by the mid 20th Century it had fallen into ruin. In the 1970s it was discovered by Cali Doxiadis, a former president of the Mediterranean Garden Society. Doxiadis fell in love with the 200-year-old farmhouse, located on a hillside high above the sea with views towards Albania and the Greek mainland. Gastouri was also briefly the home of English writer and garden designer Mirabel Osler, author of A Gentle Plea for Chaos: The Enchantment of Gardening, 1989.

Rachel Weaving describes Gastouri as a “transitional” garden, a historic property which has embraced newer ideas in garden design, such as the water-wise planting around the pool. Rachel recorded that Cali Doxiadis wanted to work in sympathy with the natural “aesthetics of our landscape” and “realities of our climate”, but still enjoyed maintaining a small lush and colourful display in the walled garden at the front of the house through regular watering of pots and a bed of annuals.

The estate now has new owners and opened for the day as part of the Corfu Garden Festival. We were able to explore at leisure, from the detailed gardened areas around the house to the olive and citrus groves with native woodland and wildflower meadows beyond. In the walled garden was an interesting collection of mature shrubs including Viburnum lucidum with glossy laurel-like leaves and pots by the house planted with Hydrangea, Fuchsia, Osteospermum sp. and Pelargonium sp. The south-facing garden around the pool has been planted with more drought-tolerant plants including yuccas, lavenders and cycads. Cali Doxiadis was keen on self-sowers, happy to let plants find the place they wanted to grow. A nasturtium and rosemary growing in holes in a gnarly olive tree illustrate this continuing ethos.

The walled garden
The edge of the pool garden
Scilla hyacinthoides in the pool garden
Oenothera berlandii carpets the floor beside the house
Nasturtium and rosemary in an olive tree

Between showers we dispersed to explore the wider estate. Heading downhill towards the sea we found a terrace of wizened old olives growing amongst the scattered boulders and footings of ancient walls, creating a magical and very romantic scene. The floor was carpeted with a multitude of leaf shapes and shades of green including spiny bear’s breeches (Acanthus spinosus) with its ghostly white-veined leaves. Zingy pops of pink came from Gladiolus italicus and acid yellow Smyrnium rotundifolium.

Botanising under ancient Olea europea
Acanthus spinosus
Acanthus mollis on a shady bank
Gladiolus italicus

On the lawn below the house were Serapias ssp. orchids. Beyond the vineyard lie more ancient olive groves, some trees draped with white bryony (Bryonia dioica) and more Acanthus spinosus illuminating the floor amongst the leaf litter.

This was a fascinating garden to visit for its history and blend of productive, naturalistic and intimately gardened areas. As our trip notes described, Gastouri still feels like a gardener’s garden.

Serapias politisii (Photo by Jane Furse)
Serapias politisii
Anacamptis fragrans (Photo by Jane Furse)
Acanthus spinosus and Bryonia dioica under Olea europea

Back on the minibus and we headed north for lunch at Lucciola Garden, a restaurant recommended by our afternoon’s guide, for a delicious lunch. Starting with Manouri cheese and jam, then a flavoursome salad, followed by home-made mushroom ravioli we were fuelled for an afternoon’s ramble.

Eleni Christoforatou is a local herbalist who took us on a two-hour countryside walk up into the hills at Furnia, near Korakiana. Eleni runs classes on herbal medicine, leads herbal walks and harvests plants to make salves, syrups and tinctures. Like much of the island, this area is mostly ancient olive groves. These date to the Venetian period, when Corfiots were encouraged to dig up the native forest and re-plant with olive trees.

Olea europea groves at Furnia

Eleni explained the medicinal use of many familiar and less well known plants and we also spotted a large number of wildflowers.

These are some of the plants that Eleni showed us and explained their medicinal and traditional local use:

  • Plantain (Plantago lanceolata) to treat insect and jellyfish stings.
  • Yellow dock (Rumex crispus) can be mixed with molasses to make a tonic for anaemia. The seeds may be infused in vinegar to make an iron rich infusion.
  • Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum) leaves can be collected and dried, then moistened and wrapped around bread to prevent the crust from burning. The flowers are edible.
  • Blackberry (Rubus fruticosus) leaves are high in tanins and are astringent. They are traditionally used to make a tea to treat diarrhoea in children.
  • Navelwort (Umbilicus rupestris) is the Aloe vera of Corfu and can be used to make a jelly for burns, injuries and inflamed skin problems.
  • Common mallow (Malva sylvestris) is used to treat constipation and can also be stuffed and eaten.
  • Self heal (Prunella vulgaris) is a cure all as its name suggests. It was known as the “Carpenter’s herb”, used to heal cuts. It is anti-inflammatory and antiviral.
  • Dried olive leaves (Olea europea) can be made into a tea for diabetes and high blood pressure.
  • Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo), the name means only eat one, because it causes diarrhoea.
  • Honesty (Lunaria annua) flowers and leaves are edible with a mustard-like taste.
View across the valley at Furnia
Our afternoon ramble with Eleni Christoforatou
Wildflowers under olives near the hilltop
Arum italicum under Olea europea
Anacamptis pyramidalis
Arbutus unedo
Muscari comosum
Ophrys scolopax subsp. cornuta
Pistacia lentiscus (mastic)
A tortoise (Photo by Jane Furse)
Linum pubescens and Allium subhirsutum (Photo by Jane Furse)
Cynoglossum creticum (Photo by Jane Furse)
Anthyllis vulneraria subsp. rubriflora

Wednesday 24 April

I was delighted to wake to bright sunshine and clear skies with a sense of great anticipation as this morning we would visit the famous Rothschild estate, located on two peninsulas in the north-east.

The road north takes a beautiful route along the coast, with views across to Albania on our right and the precipitous hills that dominate the north of Corfu to our left. The land seemed so lush and green. Stone walls retained multiple terraces on which silvery olives grew, while native trees smothered the hillsides until rock faces became too steep for them to grow. The verges were smothered in wildflowers. We looked down over multiple small coves and all along the coast clusters of white- washed houses emerged from the dense vegetation.

After many twists and stomach-churning hairpin bends, we arrived at the Rothschild estate at Kanonas and Strongilo. At a discreet wall and gate we were met by Estate Manager Andy Belton. Andy explained how, 54 years ago, Lord Rothschild was sailing past and saw the ruined building at Kanonas. He decided to buy both it and the headland, on which to make a house for his mother Barbara Hutchinson and her husband, the celebrated artist Nikos Ghikas. They renovated the farmhouse and extended it and Ghikas designed a series of pebble-paved courtyards. The pebbles apparently originated on the island but Andy said they have never found anything as colourful in their searches. Nearby is a small, shaded swimming pool.

The famous pebble court by Nikos Ghikas

We moved on to visit the house, with its salmon-pink walls and colonnaded verandas that surround a large, ornately paved terrace with statues and other artworks, a fountain and a sunken seating area overlooking the cove below. On the other side of the house is a long terrace with beautiful views over meadows that fall steeply away towards trees and the sea beyond. The terrace, with dining table and benches, is shaded by a metal pergola over which climbs a huge wisteria. Andy explained the hot spring weather, with temperatures reaching an unusual 28°C, caused it to flower early. Other than a border of lavender, this area isn’t gardened and the house sits lightly in its rural landscape. Indeed, Lord Rothschild’s aim was for the landscape to speak for itself and the estate is a local leader in the responsible management of olive groves and conservation of the wild landscape.

The house courtyard at Kanonas
Terrace for dining at the house at Kanonas

To the side of the house is a striking area of limestone pavement. Originally only a few rocks protruded through the soil but Lord Rothschild asked the area to be cleared. Andy says they excavated it by hand with pick axes, a job that took a whole winter to complete.

Limestone pavement beside the house

From here an informal path leads into olive groves. This area was completely magical, with the sun illuminating the grasses and wildflowers under the trees. As if it couldn’t become any more beautiful, the path led downhill and we could start to see the blue of water through the trees. At a small rocky headland we stopped in awe of the magnificent views and azure sea. Following the public coast path, we reached a beautiful bay where the Rothshchilds have a jetty.

Meadows with yellow Malabaila aurea and strappy leaves of Drimia (syn. Urginea) maritima
Olives and meadows by the coast
Agaricus augustus (Photo by Jane Furse)
Lupinus pilosus
Peninsula with the Tower at Strongilo
The cove between the two headlands

Behind the beach is the productive garden. Lemon trees were dripping with fruit. A small cliff and stone gully once had a cascade but the water was turned off when the team found it became a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Stone columns lead the eye to the Pink Tower, built as a small house for guests. A stone well head is used as sculpture. Andy explained its enormous weight made it a challenge to install in this remote location. But Andy and his team clearly have a can-do attitude.

Following another path we climbed uphill though more trees and swathes of wildlfowers. The stone path here is constructed of narrow stone blocks from a local quarry, cut in situ and beautifully laid. At the crest of the hill we walked through a slab of stone and entered what was previously a limestone quarry, but has been made into a magnificent swimming pool, designed by Javier Barba. Water cascades over the sheer rock faces causing the pool here to froth and foam. The other end is calm, with shallow, wide steps leading down into the pool from a summer pavillion. We walked along a path with cloud-pruned rosemary and other native plants, so designed to mirror the hills of the far coastline. Carved capitals of stone columns and huge, scalloped shells of giant clams adorn the terrace.

The path to the pool
Wildflowers under olives
The cascade and pool
View from the summer pavillion by the pool

A generously proportioned pavillion with shaded seating made a wonderful spot to enjoy the views. Andy’s colleagues met us here and offered us welcome refreshments, but all too soon it was time to leave this breathtaking and memorable place. Passing through a beautiful courtyard with potted citrus and a small fountain, then up steep steps lined with pots of Pelargonium ‘Attar of Roses’ we reached a miltary-style building with a crenellated tower, commissioned by Lord Rothschild as a second residence. Huge slabs of stone were brought in to create a vast terrace on which sit canons, a table adorned with cacti and a sculpture by Nikos Ghikas.

Andy Belton talking to the group at the Tower at Strongilo

Walking back through more meadows, Andy explained that a major job soon will be strimming them, which they do once a year to reduce the fire risk, as is practiced widely across the island. Back at the entrance we gave enormous thanks to Andy and his colleagues for a truly fabulous morning.

It was just a short walk to Kerasia beach where we had a picnic of delicious pies, cakes and fresh fruit. Some of us opted to walk along the coast path to our next garden, the rest took the mini buses. I was delighted to take the coastal walk as we passed many stunning small coves and saw masses of flowers. We even saw a Balkan green lizard basking on a rock.

Kerasia beach, the perfect spot for our picnic lunch
Loncomelos narbonense
Anacamptis pyramidalis
Balkan green lizard
Coast path, looking towards Kouloura
The beach at Houhulio

Our afternoon visit was to the Kouloura estate. The white-washed house with defensive towers dates back to the 16th century, when it was first created as a fortress by the Quartano family, who came from Venice. Perched right on the coast, it was traditionally accessed by boat and is a landmark from the sea. An iron gate in the garden wall opens to a landing spot on the tiny horse-shoe shaped harbour, from which Kouloura, meaning coil or circle, takes its name. Beside the house is an 11th century church.

Looking down over the church and garden

Kouloura was owned by the Quartano family until 1986, when it was purchased by the Italian Agnelli family. Originally a steep hillside with cypress trees, the Agnellis commissioned Dominic Bernier to design the garden and he created a series of narrow parallel terraces connected by stone staircases. Since 2020 Kouloura has been owned by an Australian couple, who asked Australian landscape architect Paul Bangay to reimagine the garden. Whilst we visited we could see the construction work being finalised, including a new pavillion beyond the pool.

The lower terrace and house at Kouloura

We were very lucky to be shown around by the head gardener, Claire Abery, who is an MPG member. Claire worked for many years at Sissinghurst Castle Garden in the United Kingdom, then started a new adventure working abroad, finding a special connection with Greece. She has worked at Kouloura since 2020 and has help in the gardens on some afternoons.

Claire took us on a tour, starting with a courtyard garden protected from the sea by high walls. Claire has painstakingly disentangled, pruned and trained the mature climbers including jasmine and Tecoma capensis and planted agapanthus in the narrow raised beds at the base of the walls. The north-facing high veranda above the courtyard remains shaded, with wonderful views over the harbour. The Quartano family coat of arms adorns the wall, depicting grapes, a blade of wheat and a flower which represent spring, summer and autumn. Borders just outside the courtyard are planted with Trachelospermum jasminoides which has been carefully trained as dark green groundcover.

Quartano family arms
Walled courtyard

We headed back to the lower terrace outside the church. Erigeron karvinskianus, Convolvulus sabatius and Salvia rosmarinus tumble from small planting pockets against the house walls. In a large bed Jacaranda mimosifolia trees were just coming to leaf but still retained their large round seed pods. Climbing up the steep steps of the terraces we passed water cascading into a pool. Claire explained the water has been dyed black to create reflections and mask the pump system. About half way up is the main terrace, with a lawn leading to another shady veranda by the house. The lawn was an essential part of the design, for the owners’ grandchildren to play on. A large rainwater storage tank has been built underneath it. Paul Bangay identifes that balance and form are important elements of his work and across the terraces he has created a boldly symmetrical design with clipped balls of evergreens such as Salvia rosmarinus, regularly spaced cypress and a generous display of terracotta urns.

Erigeron karvinskianus and Convolvulus sabatius
The upper terraces

The garden continues to the side of the house with a series of paved areas around the pool, parallel the cliff. The views here are spectacular, immediately looking down onto a shallow clear sea and beyond to the Albanian coast. Claire explained that directly opposite is the Butrint National Archaelogical Park which has extensive Greek, Roman & medieval remains. Opportunistic plants have colonised this narrow, rocky cliff face including yuccas, aloes and Tamarix sp.

View across to Albania

More steps lead on to even higher terraces, planted with rows of Rosa ‘Iceberg’, Nerium oleander, Lavandula spp, Pittosporum tobira and Nepeta sp.

Steps to upper terrace

Taking shade in the main terrace veranda, Claire and her colleague Sara served us afternoon tea with a delicious local tart, which is made with filo pastry and orange syrup. It was a delightful way to end an active day. Very many thanks to Claire and Sara for their hospitality.

We heard that the Olympic flame was in Corfu Town today and a ceremony had been held. What a bonus to see it glowing on a stage in the cricket ground when we headed out for dinner that evening.

The Olympic flame in Corfu Town

Thursday 25 April

We returned to the north-east of the island today to visit the Kassiopia estate for a tour of the gardens with the owner. Walking down the steep driveway it was immediately clear why the family fell in love with this rocky headland, as we were presented with amazing views across the Corfu Straights to the Albanian coast and mountains.

The estate comprises two villas built from Corfiot stone designed by architect Dominic Skinner, set amongst 16 acres of gardens by landscape designer Jennifer Gay.

Olea europea and Vitex agnus-castus frame the view. Shrubs include Salvia rosmarinus, Phlomis fruticosa and Teucrium fruticans.

Descending towards the larger villa called Cassiopeia, the steep slope is terraced with retaining walls, built from stone quarried from the site. Particularly striking here were a series of trailing rosemary plants, which cascaded with great exuberance over the walls, contrasting in form to several pencil cypress trees (Cupressus sempervirens ‘Stricta’).

Stone walls with trailing rosemary

At the heart of this villa is a cloistered courtyard. Shaded by two four-century-old olive trees, with two water troughs and planted around the perimeter with lush green climbing plants including Trachelospermum jasminoides and plumbago, this space felt cool, tranquil and protected.

The central courtyard of Cassiopeia house

Out onto the main terrace we were presented again with that magnificent view of the deep blue sea, distant mountains and a vast sky. The terrace sits high above the garden below and we looked down over a tapestry of phrygana-inspired planting. Phrygana is the Greek name for garigue, a community of scrubland plants that are typical of the Mediterranean. Jennifer Gay designed this planting to provide a variety of texture, form, scent and colour, incorporating both existing vegetation and introducing other native species. Weaving through this are multiple narrow paths constructed from local stone, tempting you to descend from the terrace and immerse yourself amongst the plants.

The phrygana-inspired planting viewed from the main terrace
Pathways through olives and low shrub planting

The first work in creating the garden was disentangling the existing trees including kermes oak (Quercus coccifera), Mediterranean buckthorn (Rhamnus alaternus) and mock privet (Phillyrea angustifolia) from a smothering of brambles and Smilax aspersa. To create a framework and provide further screening, new trees and evergreen shrubs were planted, including strawberry tree (Arbutos unedo), mastic (Pistachia lentiscus), Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum) and carob (Ceratonia siliqua).

We started our tour on the north-east, exposed side of the headland, where the plants need to be tolerant of sub-zero temperatures. Low, mounding shrubs smother the undulating hillside here, including rockrose (Cistus creticus), Jerusalem sage (Phlomis fruticosa), tree medick (Medicago arborea), rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus), Ballotta acetabulosa and shrubby germander (Teucrium fruticans), with tall spikes of palmate-leaved chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus). The paths are bordered with wispy Mexican feathergrass (Stipa tennuissima), Tulbaghia violacea, thyme and oregano. Olives (Olea europea), fig (Ficus carica) and pomegranate (Punica granatum) are used to punctuate the shrubby layer and frame but not obscure the views. Particular care was taken to thin out previously dense branches of the ancient olives to reveal their sculptural beauty.

Stone paths weave through woodland

We progressed into small areas of woodland, where carefully pruned multi-stemmed trees cast dappled shade onto clumps of glossy-leaved butcher’s broom (Ruscus hypophyllum). A beautiful old wild pear is encircled by a terrace of stone paving. We emerged back into the sun of the gardens and meadows surrounding the smaller guest house called Atolikos. Here the sheltered, south-facing aspect and dramatic rocky backdrop enables more tender plants to grow such as Bougainvillea glabra, Plumbago auriculata, Melia azedarach and agapanthus.

Indian bead tree (Melia azedarach)
Milkwort (Polygala sp.), originating from South Africa
Norfolk Island hibiscus (Lagunaria patersonii). Seed pods follow star-shaped pink flowers

The owner is a keen gardener and continues to develop the planting for seasonal colour and interest, for example new pergolas with climbing roses and wisteria, a pathway lined with Russian sage (Salvia yangii), small groves of citrus trees and herb gardens for use in the kitchens of both houses. She also composts garden waste to mulch the naturally thin soil and rainwater is collected for irrigation. Olives are harvested from the trees to produce organic olive oil.

After a fabulous morning tea including cakes and ice cream, we explored the garden again ourselves. The garden becomes progressively wilder away from the houses, with areas of meadow dotted with tall stems bearing green marble-shaped seeds of asphodels and the broad, dark green leaves of giant bulb sea squill (Drimia maritima, syn Urginia maritima). Steep, stepped paths lead down to two separate rocky coves and a crystal-clear sea.

Meadows at The Kassiopia Estate
The coastline at The Kassiopia Estate

Next we travelled to the foothills of Mount Pantokrator to visit the abandoned stone village of Paleá (Old) Perithia, which dates from the 14th century and is now a Heritage Protected site. We were met by Alex Ashcroft, one of the founder directors of the Durrell School of Corfu, and David Ashcroft who was managing director of the school. David took us on a nature and history walk and he shared with us tales about the village and the Durrell family. Thanks to Sue Bennison, a participant on this tour, for having introduced us to the Ashcrofts.

Old Perithia

There is evidence of settlement at Old Perithia dating back 2000 years. At its peak 1500 people lived here, with 130 houses and eight churches. Houses were extended many times, sometimes accommodating 30 people. Originally these remote villages were built as lookouts and hideaways from pirate attacks, because it was possible to see the sea but not be seen. With the boom in tourism in the 1960s the inhabitants drifted back down to the coast and the village was deserted. Renovations to the village began in 2010 and some houses are now permanently occupied or let as holiday residences.

Walk with David Ashcroft, fire damage on hills beyond

In 2023 a fire spread rapidly all across this area and David said many local communities had to be ready to evacuate. We could still see the scorched trees. The regeneration is being monitored. Bracken is growing back with vigour, but it will be many years before the oak forest returns. David said butterflies were first to return, then birds and praying mantis. But he fears for the loss of many ground-dwelling animals such as snakes, lizards and tortoises. As in much of the world, David is witnessing a sharp decline in biodiversity on Corfu. Particularly noticeable at this time of year is the reduction in the number of swallows and house martins due to a crash in insect populations.

Sunny bank of wildflowers

We were saddened to hear that the village shepherd lost his house and some of his sheep in the fires. Just a small flock now grazes these hills. The fire did spare the home and brightly painted hives of a local beekeeper and we purchased summer blossom honey and chestnut and thyme honey.

Bee hives, decorated using spare paint!
Wildflowers by the village
Tragopogon porrifolius
Asphodelus ramosus subsp. ramosus
Fumaria capreolata
Ophrys ferrum-equinum
Crepis rubra
Morea sisyrinchium

After David’s fascinating walk, we had a long, late and absolutely fabulous lunch at O Foras, the first taverna to re-open in the village ruins. Dish after dish emerged from the kitchen, including meatballs, famous horta (wild greens, a staple of Greek cuisine since antiquity) and the most wonderful dolmades in a creamy lemon sauce.

Friday 26 April

We returned to the north coast near Avlaki beach to visit a collection of four luxury villas at Cavo Alkyoni, which means Kingfisher Point. The project began in 2006 when the owner purchased the three-hectare site, which had been previously cleared to construct a caravan park. He commissioned architect Robert Turner to design two linked villas just above the sea cliff, called Amalthea and Pelagia. The gardens of both villas were designed by Alithea Johns of Skopos Design. Later, in 2018, two new villas, Erato and Tugela, were constructed just above the original pair. The gardens for these were designed by Athens-based landscape architect Nikos Rigas, who met us on site.

Work on Erato and Tugela villas started in 2019 but COVID-19 delayed work. Nikos said this had some benefit in giving more time to the project. The villas are hidden behind a high rendered wall. A few plants here, such as olive, orange trumpet-flowered Cestrum aurantiacum, wispy Stipa tenuissima and stately stone pine (Pinus pinea) give a taster of the gardens beyond. Nikos explained his idea was for the gardens to appear as if they had been made many years ago and that natural vegetation has invaded the site, rather than filling it with special-looking plants.

We entered the garden of Tugela villa and my first impression was of a very special place. Inspired by Islamic gardens the entrance courtyard has an aquamarine-painted alcove, framed by palms, from which water flows into a rill and circular pool. Simple but bold planting here includes clipped box balls and groups of Festuca glauca, the blue leaves picking up the colour of the water feature. From here a complex series of connected secluded courtyards and open terraces on many different levels encourage exploration and discovery.

Tugela villa’s entrance court

The first, upper-level garden has fabulous views over the pool below and out to sea. Raised beds intricately built from local stone by Albanian stonemasons, large boulders, a dividing wall with carved wooden screens and a boules court provide varied such as carob (Ceratonia siliqua) and narrow-leaved Spanish broom (Spartium interest in the hard landscape. Plants here also take multiple forms, such as upright cypress, cascading rosemary and coral plant (Russelia equisetiformis), large, screening shrubs junceum).

Upper level garden
Russelia equisetiformis
Young stems of Ceratonia siliqua

Also on this upper level is a large dining terrace deeply shaded by a reed roof. From here a wide, outward tapering staircase makes a striking feature and leads down to the main terrace. The stunning infinity pool is the significant feature here, but there is much to investigate with paths and steps leading to different levels, carefully positioned sculptural boulders and planting pockets in the stone paving. Shrubs, trees and grasses give texture and form, with occasional flowers such as Oenothera lindheimeri. Nikos has specified how and when to trim plants to maintain the different forms. The gardens have been designed for a maintenance regime when time in summer is very restricted due to lettings, so most gardening work is undertaken in winter.

View onto Tugela’s pool terrace
Different forms and textures in Nikos’ plantings at Tugela villa

Walking through to the adjacent gardens of Erato villa there is an impressive poolside pavilion, further secluded areas with built-in seats and more sculptural and intriguing plants such as Ziziphus jujube, a spiny deciduous fruit-bearing tree from China.

Erato’s pool terrace and pavilion

Below the two pools is a steep bank planted with many trees and shrubs including Arbutus unedo, Pistacia lentiscus, Pistacia terebinthus, Quercus ilex and Quercus pubescens. Only four olive trees were here originally, the rest were planted in Nikos’ design to look as if they have been growing here forever.

The bank of trees below Tugela’s pool

We then visited the original villas, Amalthea and Pelagia. Beyond large oak doors Amalthea has an entrance passage with curved pink-rendered walls. This leads to an upper terrace shaded by a huge climber-clad pergola which looks down onto the pool terrace. With spectacular infinity pools and fabulous sea views, Alithea Johns, the landscape designer here, chose to create a bold and unified planting scheme. This includes sculpted box balls, blocks of silverberry (Eleagnus x ebbingei) and long, low hedges of cloud-pruned rosemary and other native evergreen shrubs. Large areas of strappy-leaved agapanthus and upright spikes of Phormium tenax provide different forms. Curtains of Trachelosperum jasminoides are used as fragrant screens between seating areas outside the ground floor bedrooms and hot pink Bougainvillea brightens the walls.

Amalthea villa’s entrance
Buxus sempervirens balls, cloud-pruned hedge and 40 metre pool at Amalthea villa
The pool at Pelagia villa

Below these villas paths lead down a low cliff with mature Arbutus unedo trees to two rocky beaches. Thank you to Nikos for spending considerable time explaining his design ethos for the project and for sharing his plant list with us.

A beach at Cavo Alkyoni

A short drive away was Avlaki beach, where we stopped for a picnic lunch, a paddle and a quick swim for some! Then we drove high up into the hills above Kassiopi to visit Villa Zetouna and Rachel Weaving, the author of the book Gardens of Corfu, who spends part of the year here with her husband.

Avlaki beach
Glaucium flavum on Avlaki beach

Rachel told us how they chose the site for the view rather than suitability for a garden. Certainly, the vista was much admired by our whole group. When planning the garden at Villa Zetouna Rachel spent considerable time talking to people about their gardens on Corfu and it was this research that led her to write the book.

The view from Villa Zetouna
Colourful containers on the main, pool terrace

In her design process, Rachel firstly considered the factors affecting creation and maintenance of the new garden. Corfu receives around 1.3 metres of rain per year, twice as much as London. Summers are usually dry with temperatures up to 35°C, but increasingly hotter. Winter rain can be heavy and last for days. Situated in an old olive grove, the hillside here slopes steeply, therefore terraces were needed to reduce soil erosion. The soil here is red clay over limestone, thin but fertile. Rachel learned that local gardeners cope with these factors by growing native plants, by storing water and by planting trees that are drought tolerant and provide shade.

New and old stone walls terrace the steep slope
Shady patio by the house

When creating the garden, the family left most of the olive groves intact, under which grow wild Cyclamen hederifolium, crocus, Serapias spp. orchids and anemones. Local stone was used to build new walls, continuing the tradition of ancient terracing walls on the site. A new paved terrace was created to wrap around the house, with an infinity pool looking out across the magnificent view. A dining area here is shaded by a wrought iron pergola covered in white wisteria. Further intimate patios on the other sides of the house are shady and cool, with interesting detail provided by containers of colourful plants. On the lower terraces Rachel hoped to evoke agricultural patterns, with rows of lavender and fruit trees on one terrace and citrus planted in a grid on another. The citrus required excavation of individual planting holes by pickaxe! Rachel included pithoi as focal points because they are widespread in villages as well as aristocratic gardens across the island.

Serapias cordigera (Photo by Jane Furse)
Lentisc or mastic (Pistacia lentiscus) domes on a narrow terrace below the villa
Bearded iris is favourite plant, Rachel has over 50 varieties
Intimate and detailed garden near the house
‘Fields’ of Lavandula dentata, L. angustifolia and L. stoechas

Rachel has discovered a tension between trying to create a good-looking design and what will realistically grow where. They mow the meadows under olives in early June before the grass dries out. Rachel did try to use grazing animals, but they ate too much of the ornamental garden!

Meadows under the ancient olives

When creating the garden 18 years ago Rachel had to source plants from France and Italy, but now she can order more plants from mainland Greece. The tree poppies (Romneya coulteri) came from Burncoose Nursery in Cornwall via family in the United Kingdom and the hellebores from Washington. Many other plants have been collected on travels.

They collect rainwater in a large storage tank under the main terrace. Rachel has reduced the amount of irrigation over time. She mulches with olive leaves from a local press to keep soil cool and reduce evaporation. These rot down over winter, although Rachel said that mulching isn’t frequently practised on the island.

Rachel has clearly thought deeply about gardening in Corfu and amended her practice over time. Lessons she has learned include closely managing introduced soil. Only poor silty soil and strongly alkaline clay was available when they made the garden, to which Rachel added compost and goat manure. She would also advocate living with pests (here, brown rats, pine martens, grasshoppers and moles) and finding scientific reasons for successes and failures.

The group really enjoyed this personal and considered garden. Thank you to Rachel and her husband for their open, honest and informative introduction to the garden at Villa Zetouna.

Saturday 27 April

Having seen the gardens designed by Alithea Johns yesterday at Cavo Alkyoni, today we would meet her in person and visit her former family home and garden at Villa Velanidi, in the north-east of the island. Claire Abery from Kouloura Estate also joined us and it was great to have her expert plant knowledge on hand!

Alithea, who spent much of her childhood in Corfu, and her husband, New Zealand architect Marcus Warren, practice together as Skopos Design. They bought this long strip of land in 2007. It was once used for growing lentils and when they purchased it there were only two olive trees and the ground was smothered in brambles and smilax. They started construction in 2014 and it was a two-year build. Alithea and Marcus have since sold the villa and the new owners were particularly drawn to the property because of the garden.

We entered through a stone pavilion that screens the property from the road. One of the first things we admired was the path, beautifully laid without mortar joints. Alithea said when freshly quarried locally the stone is bright and near white, but darkens to grey with time.

Beautifully constructed stone path

The garden leading to the house consists of a curving bank of earth, which was created from excavations for the house. The house was designed to fit around one of the old olives and is built to Passivhaus standards, one of the first in Greece. Plants here include mastic (Pistacia lentiscus) trimmed into round domes, along with new olive (Olea europea), apricot (Prunus armeniaca), pomegranate (Punica granatum) and loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) trees. We had seen loquat fruits for sale in Corfu Town and Alithea encouraged us to try them.

The garden in front of the house, with lights in old milk containers

The plot is bounded on the left by holm oaks (Quercus ilex) and the couple carefully raised their crowns to open up views towards the coast, whilst still retaining shade and screening. Whilst we were there two local gentleman, who Alithea often works with, were using an impressive machine to clear and shred more areas of bramble and smilax from the plot to the right, which the current owners have recently purchased. They will then carefully prune out dead wood from the olive trees and hopefully wild flowers will thrive here in time.

The shrubs below Quercus ilex mirror the shape of distant hills

The path rises to meet a veranda and the front door of the house, which is on the first floor. Following a balcony around to the far side, Alithea showed us the ‘Louvretec’ roof over a terrace. The electronically controlled slats can be sealed tight in winter and opened for partial shade in summer.

From the house we could look down over the rear garden where Alithea’s use of bold landscape shapes, plants used for texture and form and unity from repetition was clear. The stunning swimming pool tapers to make it appear longer. It has a lining called ‘PebbleTec’ which Alithea and Marcus discovered in New Zealand. It is a render containing small aggregate, applied by hand, which provides pleasing rounded edges and water colour reminiscent of the sea around Corfu. To the right is a long, rectangular raised terrace with a pergola made from laminated pine, hung with Moroccan lanterns. Sun loungers are usually laid out here. Beyond, deep planting surrounds a curved terrace in which a mulberry tree is planted as a natural shade umbrella.

Terrace with vine-clad pergola
Poolside terrace with bold, textural planting and mulberry tree for shade.

Alithea took us down into the garden. To the right of the pool, under the holm oaks, is a long, raised bank. The evergreen shrubs here are clipped to mirror the undulating distant hills. Beyond the pool the land gently slopes downwards and a gravel path weaves through clipped Lavandula spp., Pittosporum tobira, Westringia fruticosa and Teucrium fruticans, which Alithea uses as a backbone plant. She likes to prune it after flowering. We all admired Scabiosa cretica, with a shrubby habit and lavender-pink pincushion flowers.

The rear garden with clipped shrubs and Cortaderia selloana

The garden is only irrigated in July and August, using rain run-off from the roofs and terraces that is collected in a 300 cubic metre tank with silt filters. Alithea advised that watering is vital to establish new plantings, but that plant death may occur from long-term overwatering.

Walking back, Alithea shared her extensive knowledge of gardening in Corfu. Prostrate rosemary is regularly used because it is less prone to rosemary beetle. Traditional Corfiot gardens are full of colourful pot plants, fruit and vegetables. She and a couple of other designers take a different approach, using native and drought tolerant plants, with many people imitating their styles.

Back at the entrance I spotted a beautiful tree which Alithea and Claire identified as Schinus molle, the pink pepper tree, and both suggested it could be worth trying in cultivation in the UK.

It was time for lunch and I was discovering how meals are always a highlight of MPG trips! At seaside restaurant Maistro we tucked into fabulous octopus and calamari. Again, the beach was nearly deserted, with just one gentleman leisurely wading up and down in the shallows.

Beach at Acharavi

It was delightful to meet herbalist Eleni Christoforatou again that afternoon, for a riverside walk in the valley below the village of Nymfes. Located in the centre of the north of the island, Nymfes is famous for its waterfall, where fairies or nymphs are said to bathe. Sadly, the waterfall now suffers from litter. Instead, Eleni led us along a quiet section of the river, sharing with us again her extensive knowledge of the medical and traditional use of plants.

The Nymfes Valley

To reach the river we passed smallholdings growing loquat, lemons and the famous Corfu crop of kumquats. These small, bright orange olive-sized “kam kwat” (“golden fruit”) trees were introduced to the island by British botanist Sidney Merlin in the 19th Century. They thrived in the verdant Nymfes Valley, where the fertile soil, abundant water and mild climate mimicked the tropical valleys of southern China where kumquats had been grown since ancient times. Corfiots embraced this new crop, turning the bitter pulp into marmalades, Turkish Delight type sweets and a popular vivid orange-coloured liqueur.

Loquat (Eriobotrya japonica)
Kumquat trees

Our walk took us up into the shaded valley. The small river snaked around and tumbled over smooth rocks, occasionally forming shallow pools. Many different wildflowers grew in open glades, whilst ferns, hellebores, euphorbias and Ruscus spp. enjoy the cool, damp shade of steep banks. The path was wet and puddles had formed in places. As we passed, we disturbed tiny frogs who had been basking in the sun and they plopped into the muddy water. Nearby, a small lagoon in the river writhed with tadpoles.

Walking the shaded path under elm trees
Tadpoles
Frog hiding in a puddle

Some more interesting knowledge from Eleni:

If in doubt, use nettles! They are rich in iron and good for treating anaemia. The root can help with enlarged prostate.

Chamomile can ease intestinal pain. This can be taken as fresh leaf tea, or a stronger effect is obtained when drying, which breaks the cell membranes to releases the constituents.

The ripe seeds of wild oats can release a milky sap, good for the nervous system.

Comfrey can be used for broken bones that can’t be set. Applying a poultice can speed recovery.

Geranium brutium
Veronica persica
Prunella vulgaris
Campanula ramosissima

Returning to Corfu Town we joined David Ashcroft again for an early evening walk exploring the history and wildlife of the capital. On the high walls overlooking the Old Fort we searched in vain for a non-native species of lizard, which arrived on a boat and has made these walls their home. We stopped at the nearby Durrell Garden, created on a previously neglected area of park, now planted with colourful bedding and displaying the much-touched bronze busts of Lawrence and Gerald.

Heading into the narrow streets of the Old Town, at 7pm the bell in Saint Spyridon Church was being rung. We watched in amazement as a man climbed into the bell tower, the tallest on the Ionian Islands, to push the bell by hand! The church was built in the 1580s and houses the relics of Saint Spyridon. A ceremony was taking place inside because the next day was Palm Sunday, one of four days in the year when a huge procession takes the revered saint’s remains through the cobbled streets.

Bell ringers in the tower of Saint Spyridon Church

David explained how most of the multi-storey buildings date back to the Venetian period. In the Jewish Quarter we heard harrowing stories of homes destroyed by German bombardment during the Second World War. Of the 2000 Jewish residents of the island deported to concentration camps, only 180 returned alive. Many of their former homes remain empty.

Exploring streets in the Old Town
Edward Lear, artist, author and poet, lived here 1863-64
The Liston
Garden of containers on a street in the Jewish Quarter

Sunday 28 April

Our final day of garden visits and the hottest day yet! Today we would meet landscape designer Jennifer Gay at two of the ten gardens she has designed on Corfu. We previously saw her work at the Kassiopia Estate. Jennifer trained in Sheffield, in the United Kingdom, as a landscape architect, then spent a year at Rosemoor Garden to develop her plant knowledge. She received a scholarship to the Jerusalem Botanic Garden and was the first garden assistant at the MGS’s Sparoza garden, near Athens.

Agnos House was originally a small farm, which was in use until the 1960s. It comprises the main house, which had fallen into disrepair, an olive press and a bracken house for storing animal fodder and bedding. The current owners purchased the ten-acre site in 2002, after a long-term dream to own a property on Corfu. The first phase of work to create the garden began in 2003-4, but Jennifer took over the project in 2013 with a brief to create more areas to sit, to better connect the various parallel terraces to each other and to blend the garden into the wilder hillside.

Agnos is located at 400 metres above sea level, again with magnificent views over the Corfu Straights. Rainfall here is 1.2 metres per year, concentrated into an average of 60 days. Temperatures range from minus 5°C to 40°C. Jennifer said pests can be problematic on the island due to high humidity and these are becoming more prevalent, such as scale insect and boring beetles in pomegranate.

Entering through ornate wrought iron gates, we climbed a grand sweeping staircase. This is bordered by block plantings of Pittosporum tobira and Teucrium fruticans, which date from the first phase. Looking down from the roofed but open-sided bracken building and out to sea, Jennifer explained that much dead wood and many broken branches were removed from the olive trees below. The tops are kept pruned to maintain the view.

Staircase to the bracken building
View over the olive press to Albania and northern Greece

The central area of the garden is the most detailed and complex. This long, wide terrace has various “rooms,” with long vistas, frames and focal points. Firstly, an area of brick paving with mounds of dark green and silver-leaved shrubs of every shape and size including lavender and Jacobea maritima, framed by stone columns and standard mulberry trees. Beyond is the Green Room with gravel paths and square beds. The lawn is planted with fragrant ground-cover plants rather than grass, including Phyla nodiflora var. canescens, Achillea crithmifolia and eight varieties of thyme. Jennifer is greatly inspired by French plantsman Olivier Filippi and borders here are filled with drought-tolerant plants from his nursery. Further on are fruit trees and an avenue of tall cypress, with an old mill stone as a sculpture. Stone staircases lead to upper and lower terraces, ornamented with planted containers and urns. Informal paths weave up into wilder olive groves.

The main terrace
The Green Room garden
Fruit and cypress avenue

Around the pool Jennifer replaced the original crazy paving with local stone. Steps were rebuilt with her much-used, comfortable dimension of 40cm wide and 12cm high, over which spill Salvia rosmarinus var. repens and Salvia rosmarinus (Prostratus Group) ‘Boule’, clipped to give a sense of calm. Jennifer also recommends Corsican rosemary, ‘Ile de Beauté’.

The pool garden
Paths lead up above the house into wilder areas

Outside the olive press, now a charming one-bedroom, open-plan house, is a green roof with edible plants including globe artichoke, vegetables being a feature of every village house in Corfu. Around shady steps to the side of the building is a semi-circular seating area. This is surrounded by lush, textural planting of ferns, Pittosporum tobira, Ficus carica, Helleborus argutifolius, Hakonechloa macra and Erigeron karvinskianus.

Shade tolerant planting by the old olive press

Jennifer shared with us much detail about her design and management approach. Agnos has 400 cubic metres of rainwater storage, collected from all the hard surfaces. Her ethos is to water deeply and infrequently, about every two weeks, ideally just in May to start plants growing well. This is preferred to commencing irrigation in July when water is scarce and in much demand across the island. Trimming of shrubs into domes, back to below the wilting point, is used as means of reducing transpiration. This is done by hand because Jennifer feels is gives plants more soul. Jennifer is trying to promote mowing of meadows with just pathways and a strip along boundaries, rather than cutting back completely. Inputs are low here, trying to be organic, just using ‘Savona’ fatty acid insecticide. Jennifer lives in the Cyclades archipelago, where drought tolerant plants that turn brown and grey in summer are more widely accepted in horticulture. Here on Corfu there is expectation for gardens of luxury villas to remain lush.

Verbena lilacina on the green roof
Scarce swallowtail (Iphiclides podalirius) on Tulbaghia violacea

After a picnic lunch, Jennifer took us to another of her projects, the Rou Estate. Located high up in the hills at an elevation of 500 metres, it is only accessible via narrow, winding lanes. Some 200 years ago the village was built and lived in by stonemasons, using stone from local quarries. Demand for stone buildings gradually fell into decline and the residents moved away 50 years ago to the nearby village of Porta when it became connected to a mains water supply. The houses then remained abandoned until 2005 when architect Dominic Skinner and his wife Claire, who had only been looking for one property, fell in love with this hilltop hamlet and began renovating the houses. To fund the project, they invited people to buy plots. Today the 14 houses can be rented as holiday lets.

Jennifer joined the Skinners to develop a private garden for each house, the linking pathways and landscaping around the communal pool. They discovered birds, insects and reptiles thrived in the overgrown flora and they wanted to ensure the estate merged into the wild landscape beyond. So, they retained as much as they could, including mature olive, cypress and almond, various oaks, Mediterranean hackberry (Celtis australis) and turpentine tree (Pistacia terebinthus), gently pruning to create a sculptural framework for the new gardens. More trees were added, such as pomegranate (Punica granatum) and quince (Cydonia oblonga). Ferns were left to colonise crevices, along with pockets of wildflowers. Jennifer recalls how she divided and spread a few clumps of existing Acanthus mollis, which have now spread widely. They added native shrubs such as Phlomis fruticosa, large drifts of bearded iris which are naturalised on Corfu, along with plants that will extend the flowering season, including South African agapanthus and Tulbaghia violacea. Jennifer was delighted that seventy per cent of the plantings are original.

Pittosporum tobira and Tulbaghia violacea alongside entrance steps into the estate

We started our tour in the communal parking area, surrounded by wildflowers and native shrubs. The four-hectare estate is located on a very steep hillside and narrow stone paths and steps descend between the houses. Near the top of the estate is the original main street, now an allée with a pergola covered by wisteria. Colour is continued by Allium stipitatum ‘Mount Everest’, Agapanthus praecox subsp. orientalis and Plumbago capensis. Further paths lead off from here, from which doors open into the individual house gardens.

Wisteria pergola on the main allée

As we explored further downhill, we passed a viewpoint with seating, once an animal shelter. Towards the bottom of the estate there is an area of woodland growing amongst craggy rocks. The crowns of the existing oaks here were lifted and the area underplanted with spiky woodlander butcher’s broom (Ruscus aculeatus and Ruscus hypophyllum), glossy Acanthus mollis and sculptural prickly pear (Opuntia ficus carica).

Viewpoint with seating
Trifolium stellatum
Ferns occupying crevices
Evergreen and ever-grey shrubs and sculpted old trees in one garden
Path through shrub planting, including Phlomis fruticosa and Cistus sp.
The woodland near the pool

The pool was built in a former limestone quarry, taking inspiration from the famous one at the Rothschild estate. Every house has its own plunge pool, but Jennifer said this area is always very popular. The view here is incredible and we all spent some time in the shade, watching birds and insects dart over the water and enjoying Jennifer’s tales of the hard work and reward to transform this steep and challenging, yet unique and special site.

Our group resting by the pool
Spectacular views to Albania from the pool

The last garden we toured with Jennifer is the largest on the estate, terraced on many levels. Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii spreads enthusiastically under the canopy of old trees. This garden was aimed at keen gardeners and Jennifer sourced many plants from nurseryman Olivier Filippi. Spending the day with Jennifer, who was so generous with her knowledge, was a fabulous way to end our week on Corfu.

The plant-rich largest garden

End note

I have summarised the extensive information provided by Eleni Christoforatou and readers should seeking further information before using any of the plants and remedies listed.

I am now researching the suitability of some of the plants observed on this trip for cultivation in southern England and plan to experiment growing a selection in the dry garden at Turn End. Any suggestions are very welcome!  Email: turnendgarden@gmail.com  www.turnend.org.uk

Sources and Further Reading

Gardens of Corfu Rachel Weaving and Marianne Majerus, 2018, Impress, London

Plants and People on the Island of Corfu: An Ongoing Relationship  E-book by Eleni Christoforatou https://corfuherbs.com/en/home/

Flora Ionica https://floraionica.univie.ac.at/

Corfu Garden Festival https://www.corfugardenfestival.com/

Article by Jennifer Gay about gardens at the Kassiopia Estate, with photographs by Clive Nichols https://www.kassiopiaestate.com/gardens.html