More Than Just a Pretty Flower

Galanthus 'Castlegar'  (3)

Growing snowdrops has become a particular interest of mine over the past twenty years and while I would not wish to be labelled a “galanthophile” I do enjoy them very much. The term “Galanthophile” when originally introduced by E.A. Bowles meant, very simply, “a lover of snowdrops” while nowadays the term has come to signify one who is quite obsessed with collecting snowdrops and I certainly am not one of those. Despite the widespread use of this term to describe those who are interested in snowdrops its connotations are in fact very inaccurate and unfair. The world of snowdrop enthusiasts has its fair share of the obsessed but has an equally fair share of generous and pleasant kind. Such kindness has led to my growing a large number of different snowdrops in my garden – most received as gifts or through exchange – but despite this number it is the snowdrops of Irish origin which particularly interest me.

Galanthus 'Castlegar'  (4)

There are quite a few snowdrops of Irish origin. The gardens at Primrose Hill in Lucan, the home of the late Mrs. Cicely Hall and her son, Robin, has been the source of many particularly excellent cultivars and might well be described as the home of Irish snowdrops with Galanthus ‘Cicely Hall’ one of the best one might grow. Liam Schofield introduced Galanthus ‘Greenfields’ in the 1950s from the garden of that name and it is still going well and is an excellent garden plant. Galanthus ‘Hill Poe’ which originated near Nenagh in Co. Tipperary is regarded as one of the jewels of the snowdrop world. Galanthus ‘Emerald Isle’ hails from Drew’s Court in Co. Limerick and is treasured for the dainty light green marks on the outer segments. ‘Straffan’ from the house of that name in Co. Kildare is widely regarded as the champion of Irish snowdrops as it grows well and has been grown for over a century. The list goes on and with the particular interest in snowdrops in recent years the list is being added to by enthusiasts on a yearly basis with favourite snowdrops being named and passed around to friends.

Galanthus 'Castlegar'  (1)

While a spread of ‘Straffan’ or, say, ‘Brenda Troyle, or ‘Greenfields’ or the individuality of ‘Hill Poe’ or ‘Cicely Hall’ are all treasured in their season there is another which I especially look forward to each year and that is Galanthus ‘Castlegar’ and I have two reasons for this. One is its season of flowering which is always before Christmas, so very early in the snowdrop season when few other varieties are out and my second reason is its association with the late Dr. J.G.D. (Keith)Lamb, one of our great Irish gardeners.

Galanthus 'Castlegar'

Keith had a very successful career in agricultural science. He took his degree in Reading University and continued his studies at University College Dublin, completing his doctorate in 1949 on The Apple in Ireland, Its History and Varieties and it is for this work that he is so fondly remembered as he can be credited with saving our heritage apple varieties from extinction. His work was especially recognised with the establishment of an orchard of these apples at University College Dublin, The Lamb Clark Historic Apple Collection, in 1997. He worked with An Foras Taluntais at Johnstown Castle in Wexford before moving to the Agricultural Institute’s Kinsealy Research Centre where he later became senior principal research officer. He introduced the commercial growing of blueberries to Ireland, near Portarlington, Co. Offaly, and went on to specialise in plant propagation.

My interaction with Keith was in none of these circles but simply as a gardener on his retirement to the family home at Clara in Co. Offaly. Visiting Keith and Helen was always a great pleasure. Keith delighted in showing his special plants in the garden – and there were many. My particular love were the swathes of trilliums, erythroniums and snowdrops while Keith was always proud to show his own cherry seedling, Prunus x incisa ‘Woodfield Cluster’ and his foundling from The Burren, Dryas octopetela ‘Burren Nymph’, a double form of the Mountain Avens which grow there. Most of all I remember the kindness of Keith and Helen who always made one feel welcome and always had time to chat about gardening matters and always insisted on some treasure as a souvenir to bring home. All these memories are now held by a little snowdrop which flowers before Christmas each year in our garden.

Galanthus 'Castlegar'  (1) (1)

Regarding the snowdrop, Galanthus ‘Castegar’, Keith wrote to me:

“In 1985, Sir George and Lady Mahon took us to see their old home in Castlegar(on the outskirts of Galway City) . It was not a horticultural trip but when I looked out the window I saw snowdrops in flower under a tree and I was given a few bulbs. A year or two later Ruby and David Baker were here and were intrigued by such an early snowdrop. They took specimens to a meeting of snowdrop enthusiasts in England. They wrote back to say that no one knew what it was and that it should be named, hence the name, ‘Castlegar’.”

 Galanthus 'Castlegar'  (3) (1)

Keith would regularly write short articles for the newsletter of the Irish Garden Plant Society while I was editor and here is one which is interesting:


Paddy Tobin


The Splendour of the Tree by Noel Kingsbury. Photography by Andrea Jones.

This book could well be compared to a box of the most luxurious and delicious liqueur chocolates. It presents 100 tree species with each account so rich in information, so interesting in content and so delightful in illustration that it is better to approach reading the book as one would the box of chocolates – no more than a few at a time – for ease of digestion, for best enjoyment and for deepest appreciation. In the plant world trees are surely the champions; they impress us by their sheer size; they are the backbone of our gardens and of the most pleasant scenes of our countryside; their lifespan dwarfs that of man; they have provided material for our homes, food for our tables and items of use in our everyday lives; they have been objects of veneration but above all have been a source of great beauty in our world. It is difficult to imagine our world without them or not to be in awe of their might, wonder and beauty. the splendour of the tree It is with this sense of wonder, awe and admiration that Noel Kingsbury writes about his selection of trees. Each entry is a celebration of that particular species, a happy sharing of his knowledge and delight in that tree and it is infectious. Throughout the entries there is a common thread of what great value these trees are to us as people; how important they are to the world but expressed in a mood of celebration rather than the more common approach of the reader being almost scolded to take care of the trees or great disaster will surely come our way.  This book is one of pure joyous celebration and is a pleasure to read – though, be warned, to be read at ease, little by little. The trees are presented in six groups: “Antiquity” considers the immense age of some species and individuals – some dating back to the dinosaurs. “Ecology” sees them as members of plant communities and their relationships with other trees, plants and animals. “Sacred” looks at those trees which have had important spiritual or mythological roles. “Food” well, that’s obvious. “Ornament” deals with those we have selected to add beauty to our cities, parks and gardens. This grouping of the trees was, I felt, little more than a device to break up the entries and to give the reader an occasional break in format. The photographer for the book, Andrea Jones has a trail of beautiful books behind her and her work is widely admired and praised. Of immediate relevance is that she has just (November 26, 2014) been awarded the prize “Book Photographer of the Year” for her work on this very book, The Splendour of the Tree, and her photographs are certainly both a perfect accompaniment to  the text and a collection of beautiful images in their own right. This is a book where we have an excellent writer – I do so enjoy reading a book which is well written – and where we have fabulous photographs to accompany the text and where Frances Lincoln, the publishers, have designed and put it all together so wonderfully. I have enjoyed it immensely and recommend it unhesitatingly. Treat yourself for Christmas or start dropping hints now! [Frances Lincoln, 2014, Hardback, 288 pages, £25] Buy the book here at Frances Lincoln or at Amazon Paddy Tobin

Make Room for Sculpture in Your Garden – Matthew O’Connell of Doolin Garden and Nursery

Doolin Garden and Nursery sit on a half acre site surrounding a house built in 1995. The house was designed by Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell of Grafton Architects and won an Architectural Association of Ireland award in 1995. Their brief had been to design a simple contemporary two storey house based on vernacular architecture and, up to a point, the house dictated the design of the garden.

Lonely Man
                                                Lonely Man

I have been gardening since I was six years old but have no formal training in horticulture; my training was in Art and Design. Since my retirement the garden, and particularly the nursery, have grown. Basically I grow everything outdoors from scratch. There is little or no shelter as the site is close to the sea. This means all my plants for sale (about 250 varieties) are totally hardy and have all survived 17C below.

The Catcher
                                                             The Catcher

The garden is designed to look very simple but, moving around it, you begin to find “hidden” pathways leading to other sections or mini gardens. The main thrust is two long grass runways which meet at a focal point. These are traversed by stone and gravel pathways which lead in and out of other areas. To a certain extent, you could call them show gardens as most of the plants you see are for sale in my nursery. It’s good to be able to see mature plants of what you are buying. Like the house, the garden is fairly contemporary though there are some hidden traditional sections, such as a circular area enclosed by box hedged and planted with white lilies and roses planted over four arches. Favourite plants are Astrantias, Heucheras, Lysimachias, Euphorbias, Perovskia, Geraniums, Scabiosas, Sisyrinchiums, Daisies and now Roses (the latter I think is an age thing).

Saw Fish
                                                                                          Saw Fish

I have always liked sculptures in gardens – they seem to do something that a plant cannot. Since I don’t have the resources to buy any more sculptures, I decided to put on a sculpture exhibition last August (2014). This was a group show of 25 pieces. It had a very good response, sold well and gave me lots of pleasure for the month. In a sense, I borrowed them for a month.

Egyptian Man
                                                              Egyptian Man

Following this, I decided to put on a winter exhibition which runs from now until the end of January. This is a one man show by an Ennis Artist Jerry Cahir. There are 34 pieces which can be seen throughout the garden, some of which are semi hidden but this of course is part of the adventure of sculpture in any garden. Jerry’s work is made from recycled materials such as stones, wood and rusted steel objects which Jerry collects all along the way and then reinvents them. He works under the Japanese ethos Wabi Sabi. Wabi connotes rustic simplicity, freshness and quietness. Sabi is beauty and serenity that comes with age. These are made for the outdoors but can of course be used indoors also. Prices range from 170-550 Euro.

Gráinne Mhaol
                                                              Gráinne Mhaol

The Garden Exhibition runs daily from 10am-4pm (closed Mondays, 24th, 25th & 26th December)

Doolin Garden & Nursery, Ballyvoe, Doolin, Co Clare.


Facebook: Doolin Garden and Nursery


Tel: 0879147725

Matthew O’Connell, December 2014