Caher Bridge Garden is most certainly on the rocks! It is located on The Burren, a vast area of exposed expanses of limestone pavement, one of the most beautiful places in the country and an area which hosts an intriguing and exquisite selection of wild flowers. Here we will find plants which we might more normally expect to encounter on The Alps or within the Arctic Circle. Even a walk along many roads here will present an astonishing selection of orchids while in some areas they can be found in great numbers which will astound and delight the visitor.
It is an old adage of garden design that one should take account of the spirit of the place – the “genius loci” – when planning one’s garden so that what develops “fits in” with its location. This all sounds remarkably easy, and for most of us it is, but when one’s surroundings are so dramatically peculiar and outstandingly beautiful the challenge could very well be daunting and even off-putting. However, Carl Wright has embraced the challenge of his surroundings with enthusiasm because, quite simply, he truly loves the place.
Some people might comment that their garden is on limestone but for Carl his garden is limestone with the limestone pavement of The Burren literally the surface on which he has to work. This might sound an impossible task, to garden on bare rock, but The Burren is very deceptive in this manner and the often heard quotation from Edward Ludlow, one of Oliver Cromwell’s general’s was very misplaced. He said, “After two days march, without anything remarkable but bad quarters, we entered into the barony of Boireann, of which it is said, that it is a country where there is not water enough to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him.” However, in fairness, he continued, though it is not often added to the quotation, “and yet their cattle are very fat; for the grass growing in turfs of earth, of two or three foot square, that lie between the rocks, which are of limestone, is very sweet and nourishing.”
Carl discovered the truth of this latter comment for, while the bare limestone might lead one to believe little would grow there, his garden, as he found it, was a dense impenetrable copse of hazel which he had to clear by hand before gardening could even begin. It has been the work of many years, undertaken piece by piece, as a little more of the plot was converted to garden and, while most of the hazel has been cleared, discretion proved the best course on some occasions and a few specimens of considerable size have been allowed remain and maintain the spirit of The Burren.
Growing on the bare limestone would be an impossible restriction for the keen plantsperson – and Carl is undoubtedly one of those – so he has built many walls and raised beds which have allowed him to hold soil and provide planting locations for his eclectic selection of plants. The soil has had to be brought in from elsewhere though this has brought problems on occasion as some deliveries have brought with them pernicious weeds, builder’s rubble and other undesirable content so that Carl now sieves each delivery before putting it into his raised beds. Working with stone seems not only to be a great love for Carl but is an area where he displays wonderful skill and taste and the quality of wall construction and features is one of the great strengths of the garden.
These beds hold a collection, several collections, of choice plants which Carl pursues with a single-mindedness and determination and enthusiasm that only a plant lover would understand. There is a significant selection of snowdrops for the early season, an expanding collection of daffodils of Irish origin follow and the number of hostas, many pot-grown, continues to expand. Other special favourites for Carl are Brunneras and ferns and, of late, hawthorns and hydrangeas. I’m sure other plant groups will be introduced as he progress up the hill, clearing further areas of hazel and creating more and more planting situations.
While a visit to The Burren is a fabulous experience it is fair to say that a visit to Carl’s garden certainly adds to the experience and I recommend you seek it out should you be in the area. We were on The Burren last week and dropped in for a flying visit but will be back again.
Nomenclature in the Genus Libertia – from Stephen Butler
When I first started work in Dublin Zoo there were considerable numbers of various waterfowl, particularly geese, which I soon found ate everything – even the bark from young saplings in winter can be stripped. Trying to get any grass established was virtually impossible, all we ever managed was a thin skin, a veneer of green, on muddy, puddled – and over fertilised – soil.
One plant – at goose height – seemed immune. A large clump of what we then called Libertia grandiflora not only survived, it thrived, and I was soon saving seed and growing on hundreds more. With a small plastic fence to keep geese off for a year or two to let young plants get established, we soon had a green ribbon, looking good when in flower, around our lake, and behind that we could get better grass too as the geese had less access. For a simple planting it worked very well.
I then became involved with Plant Heritage (National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens as it was then) and started thinking ‘which plants could I justify collecting in the zoo’? Libertia came to mind, it seemed a small enough number of species, readily available, shouldn’t be too much work or too hard…Seldom have I been so wrong in an assessment!
The garden books seemed to list only a few species, L. caerulescens, chilensis, formosa, grandiflora, and ixioides. Several more were listed in the Plant Finder. L. chilensis was listed as a synonym of L. formosa. I could see no difference between what I had bought as L. chilensis, formosa, and grandiflora. When I sourced L. caerulescens it did not look like a Libertia at all. I was given seed from a plant labelled L. breunioides, but could find no listing for it; no description either. The same for L. procera, nothing found on where the plant came from, or what it would do, and it looked like what we had as L grandiflora on steroids.
So I started collecting, deliberately sourcing several accessions of the same named species to see what different nurseries were selling, and also getting seed in where I could from the countries of origin – mainly Chile and New Zealand. But after asking for L. tricocca and receiving a packet with L. chilensis crossed out, and L. tricocca written in instead, I did not have much faith in that batch or that seller!! After several years I applied for and received National Collection status from Plant Heritage, and I started going on about the names being a mess, and a review would be in order.
In the meantime, with reviews published in New Zealand covering their native species – and naming several more – I reckoned I had sorted out some of the names, but was still thoroughly confused with the grandiflora/chilensis/formosa/procera accessions. Plants sold as L. caerulescens were always either L. sessiliflora (the only blue Libertia), or, more often, Orthrosanthus laxus a different genus entirely. L. breunioides turned out to be L. cranwelliae, which I had grown from seed supplied from New Zealand. L. procera had turned out to be a most vigorous plant (procera means tall), with larger flowers, flower stems to 6ft, and it seemed hardier in very cold winters. The 2 severe winters of 2009/10 and 2010/11 hit most of the Libertia hard, especially L. sessiliflora, but they all came back, though we needed to spend ages removing dead leaves.
In 2013 the Royal Horticultural Society contacted me with a request to assist with a review of the genus, and I happily supplied pictures and herbarium specimens of all those I had. Preparing the specimens, with some initial assistance from the National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin – I had not done this since a student at Kew – was a very time consuming task, but it was instrumental in getting the review successfully completed. Each pressed specimen was not only mounted, but had pictures, and a detailed sheet attached, with colour and dimensions of leaves, roots, flowers, even pollen colour can be useful.
The review was published in The Plantsman (RHS) in June 2015, Volume 14 Part 2, with detailed botanical descriptions as needed. I’ll give a less detailed account here, but generally follow the order in that review, leaving out the more obscure species that are unlikely to be found in our gardens, with a brief list of confused names first:
L. breunioides – see L. cranwelliae
L. elegans – see L. chilensis
L. formosa – see L. chilensis
L. grandiflora as commonly grown in gardens – see L. chilensis
L.procera – see L.chilensis
L. caerulescens – see L. sessiliflora
Libertia cranwelliae – found under the name L. breunioides, a name not recognised and no one seems to know how, when, or where it was named. I sorted this out by the simple expedient of ordering seed from New Zealand, and when L. cranwelliae grew it was identical to L. breunioides. The leaves are a brownish colour unless in shade, the plants spread by orange coloured stolons, readily forming a dense colony. Large white flowers produced after at least 2 years from seed, are held at half the leaf height, and the large round seed pods are held tight shut until the following spring (with us anyway).
Libertia chilensis – this is the complicated one, a very variable species, widespread in Chile, and the commonest species in cultivation. It is usually grown under the names L. grandiflora, or L. formosa, and sometimes L. elegans and all are technically incorrect. The confusion stems from a description in 1856 by Philippi, who was unaware that the specific epithet grandiflora had been already used in New Zealand in 1810 for a different species (but under the genus name Renealmia). The formosa and elegans epithets come from a description in 1833. The chilensis epithet was published first in 1810, but under the name Strumaria chilensis. L.procera is a name not recognised – it means tall and it is – and again the origin of this name is not known. You can see why I was confused, and had to have botanical taxonomy assistance! All flowers are white; green leaves vary from 35cm to 75 cm depending on group below. No stolons produced.
With so much variability this species has been split into 3 groups as below.
chilensis Elegans Group. A shorter plant than usual, with a more open umbellate inflorescence. It is not that often found in cultivation, but has been found as an escapee in the UK.
chilensis Formosa Group. This is the commonest form, very widely grown and very variable in flower size, bud colour, and stem colour. If propagated vegetatively you get a clone that is distinctive and there are a few listed. I have seen plants grown from seed collected in Chile that, within 6 seedlings, had 6 slightly different plants, proving the variability was inherent in the natural population.
chilensis Procera Group. The tallest most vigorous grower, with larger flowers that look me in the eye and I’m 6ft 2in. We regard this at Dublin Zoo as L. chilensis on steroids, and if we want more plants we use this as seed source now.
Libertia grandiflora – the true species – is very seldom seen in cultivation, but I do have some at Dublin Zoo, kindly donated by Pine Lodge Gardens in Cornwall as L. paniculata, and very kindly transported here by an Irish family returning from holiday as the nursery did not do mail order, which key out to the true L. grandiflora. This is a much shorter plant, green leaves to only 25cm at most, 1 – 6 white flowers per panicle, more open than the usual L. chilensis above. It is self-infertile, so it is harder to get seeds for increase. The flowers are white but it is shy to flower.
Libertia ixioides is distinguished by stiff leaves that are not green but quite brightly coloured, with yellow, orange and reddish brown shades, and therefore popular with nurseries as they sell well on looks alone. No stolons are produced. Several cultivars are in the L. ixioides Tricolor Group, produced in New Zealand. The specific epithet tricolor comes from a specimen named first as Sisyrinchium versicolore in 1863 and renamed L. tricolor, also in 1863. The flowers are white.
Libertia peregrinans is commonly grown, and easily recognised by vigorous stolons, quickly forming an open colony of fans of leaves. The leaves are green in shade, but a distinct copper colour in sun. There are cultivars with slight differences in leaf colour.
Libertia sessiliflora is easy to distinguish as it is the only blue flowered species! As the name says the flowers are sessile, no stalks, and form a very tight bunch and are less, to my eye, ornamental for that. There are different shades of blue available and the darker one look better as the pale ones can look washed out. We find they suffer more in a really cold winter, with almost all leaves going black. Plants have been sold as L.caerulescens for many years but any I have bought have been either L. sessiliflora or, worse, actually Orthrosanthus laxus! This has 6 petals, rather than the usual 3 for Libertia, of a most exquisite blue but we find the plants are short lived after flowering well for a year or two.
Libertia umbellata is again easy to distinguish, as it is the only white flowered species with only green leaves (with a slight pale sheen) that produces stolons, gently forming a dense stand. The flowers are to my eye more decorative, held slightly more loosely than L. chilensis in any form. Julian Shaw sent me a scan of a herbarium sheet from 1871, from a Chilean collection, asking if I had this one. In the scan the stolons were very visible; it had a delicate flower head and was very easy to recognise, but it was labelled as the New Zealand species L. ixioides, and was assumed at that time to be a cultivated introduced plant there!
Libertia x butleri – I suppose I have to include this! If you cross L. chilensis and L.ixioides you get variable hybrids – one in the trade is named ‘Amazing Grace’. These arise spontaneously and we have several at Dublin Zoo now which we have noticed are a little bit different. They had come from seed collected either by ourselves or a plant producer we know and grown on for us, about 2000 or so, so there is no sure way of tracing back the crossing. Julian Shaw needed to put a name to this garden hybrid, and mine was handy, and I’m told recognises the amount of work I’ve put into the collection.
To conclude, if I had not decided to gather enough Libertia to form a National Collection I would never have seen the range available and certainly would never have realised the naming issues. Like many others I bought plants under the wrong name many times. I’m told this is the general chorus from all National Collection holders. If you have an interest in a particular genus, why not start collecting; it can become addictive, be warned, but ultimately worthwhile and, dare I say, rewarding!
Stephen Butler is the Curator of Horticulture at Dublin Zoo, Phoenix Park, Dublin 8, Ireland and you may correspond with him on this topic via that address should you wish to do so.
This is a topic I have discussed with people on many occasions but it has jumped to my attention again in the last few days.
We are a small country, with a small population and a gardening community where everybody more or less knows everybody else so when writing about a garden we have visited it can be difficult to balance the need for honesty and accuracy against the desire to not cause upset or offense
For a number of years I edited the newsletter of the Irish Garden Plant Society and members would submit accounts of group visits to various gardens. They would always be pleasant and written with an air of gratitude to the garden owner who very kindly allowed the group visit. At times the praise could be more than deserved, even wildly flattering, and I found this didn’t lie well with me. While I didn’t wish the author to condemn a poor garden in blunt and unkind terms I certainly didn’t want to see a poor garden praised undeservedly.
It is important to distinguish between gardens we visit as guests and those where we pay for admission. As guests we should be grateful for the generosity of the garden owner and acknowledge that and in our comments be nothing but kind – which reminds me of many years as a school principal teacher and both writing and reading letters of reference. It was always the practice to never write anything negative about a person so the skill in reading such references was to note which areas were not mentioned. With garden reviews where we were guests it is always best to be kind and avoid mentioning the faults we may have noticed.
On the other hand, those gardens which open to the public and charge for admission deserve a more honest appraisal. There has been somewhat of a trend in England where reviewers seem to be taking a pride in being almost brutal in their assessments and I find this unpalatable and unacceptable. We have our own garden here at home; we have no thoughts that it is the greatest garden in the world or that it is perfect but it is ours; we made it ourselves and we take a pride in it and I have no doubt that if somebody wrote about the garden in a rude and hurtful manner we would be offended. Although people may charge for admission they are still perfectly human and deserve to be treated with respect and kindness. So, a great deal of tact and diplomacy is necessary and should be employed. We are not writing about a soulless corporation but, very often, of the work of an individual or family who are simply sharing their joy of gardening with other enthusiasts.
I am easily vexed by low standards in gardening and regularly feel disappointed and annoyed after visiting some gardens. Perhaps this is because of my age but more likely simply because I can be a grumpy old git but I genuinely feel there are many occasions when these feelings have been perfectly justified, where an admission charge was exorbitant, where the gardener might have been better advised to keep the garden private or where the hype and publicity far outshone what was met on the ground.
There is a parallel in reviewing books and, for the most part over more than ten years, I have avoided causing offense. This is in the main because I only request books from publishers which I imagine I would enjoy and which would be of interest to Irish gardeners. So, I start with a good chance of having books to hand which I will review positively. However, it has happened on a very few occasions that I have been especially critical of books – two stand out in my mind for the long list of factual errors they contained – and pointing this out upset the authors. It is understandable that such criticism stung for they had put in quite an amount of time and effort and, even if the books had their flaws, having them pointed out obviously still rankles. One can only do it in a manner which does not aim at adding hurt or offense, I suppose.
Despite the dangers, as I have outlined them above, there is, I believe, a need for more candour and honesty in comments on the gardens we visit. They are not all wonderful, not all perfect, not all worth a visit but we must spread this word gently for they are still loved by their creators.
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