Just Perfect!

During the week Harold McBride, a gardening friend in Northern Ireland, forwarded a photograph taken at the recent Alpine Garden Society show at Cabinteely, Dublin. The photograph was taken by Paddy Smith of the A.G.S. and was of a plant displayed by Billy Moore, a long time AGS member and perennial exhibitor at the Cabinteely show.

Trillium chloropetalum ‘Bob Gordon’ at the Alpine Garden Society’s show in Cabinteely, 2017. Exhibited by Billy Moore. Photographed by Paddy Smith

Billy’s plant this year was of one of those plants which would stop you in your tracks if you encountered it in a garden or on the show bench. It is, quite simply, both outstandingly beautiful and perfectly grown. Beyond that, it has connection and provenance which all who have seen it and know of it appreciate so very much.

This is Trillium chloropetalum ‘Bob Gordon’, named for Bob, who gardens in Northern Ireland, because it was among some self-sown seedlings in his garden that he gave to Billy. Bob has a form of Trillium chloropetalum in his garden which grows with unbounded vigour and which seeds with abundance in his garden. I have had such seedlings from Bob and they have continued to thrive here with me but I have not been as fortunate as Billy to have one which produced yellow flowers.

Naturally, as we all would be, Billy was thrilled with his new plant and gave it Bob’s name to remember Bob’s kindness and to attach Bob’s name to a truly special plant and that is what is so pleasing – the plant and the man are so well matched. Harold McBride commented, “This yellow form of T. Chloropetalum  is probably the best plant of Irish origin  to emerge for many years .  It also fittingly bears the name of one of Ireland’s most generous and talented  gardeners who was, of course, the raiser” while Margaret Young, of the Scottish Rock Garden Club, added:  “I could not agree more – a truly lovely plant, and it’s “friends and associates” are some of Ireland’s nicest and best- gardeners!”

Trillium 'Bob Gordon' photo Anne Repnow
Trillium chloropetalum ‘Bob Gordon’, photographed by Beryl McNaughton at the joint AGS/SCRC Northumberland Show at Hexham. 

I saw this plant at the 2016 Cabinteely Show and thought it was magnificent but, with Billy’s care, it looks even better this year. He exhibited it at the A.G.S./S.R.G.C Northumberland Show at Hexham where the plant was awarded a Certificate of Merit – a dress rehearsal for Dublin, Billy commented. When exhibited at Cabinteely it was awarded the Farrer Medal, the highest award from the Alpine Garden Society recognising an excellent plant, well grown!

Well done to Billy and to Bob!


Paddy Tobin

To find out more about the Irish Garden Plant Society visit our website or follow us on Facebook

Get Your Snowdrops Now!

Fashion and promotion guide what we grow in our gardens and few plants are more fashion driven or more strongly promoted than snowdrops so it is no wonder that the snowdrops we choose can be more strongly influenced by those who wish to sell them than by considerations of good value and good performance in the garden.

One of the favourite virescent snowdrops: Galanthus ‘Rosemary Burnham’

The present fashion wave in snowdrops is for those which have green markings not alone on the inner segments but also on the outer – virescent snowdrops – and the nearer a cultivar approaches being an all-green snowdrop the more it is valued. It might seem odd that a green snowdrop should be so sought after but it has always been the case that the snowdrop which deviated most from the norm was the curiosity which was most valued. In days gone by, the double snowdrop outshone the single; the one with the larger or different markings outstripped the normal markings; those with yellow markings outdid those with green and on it went in the pursuit of the rare and the unusual or “RUE”s as an old gardening friend used call such plants: Rare, Unusual and Expensive!


It is very appropriate that green is the present favourite as it echoes the colour of money – and “Greenback” will surely be used shortly as a snowdrop name! Commerce is a major driving force in the snowdrop world. Fashion creates demand and demand leads to high prices. I am a very regular user of a Facebook page, “Snowdrops and Galanthophiles” where people post photographs of their snowdrops – no worse than photographs of cats, I suppose – and there is general chat about days out, visits to snowdrop gardens, snowdrop talks, sales etc. The participants are enthusiastic and the chat is light and friendly with regular happy posts of the most recent acquisitions. There will also be posts of the most recent snowdrop introductions – which may not even be available for sale yet – but the enthusiasts love to see what might next grace the sales benches and, possibly, their gardens.


It has struck me on a number of occasions, when somebody obviously relatively new to growing and collecting snowdrops and without any great number of varieties posts photographs of their latest purchases that these are regularly of the latest introductions, those currently the “talk of the town”, so to speak, and, of course, the most expensive. It puzzles me that beginners seem to often start with the most rare and expensive snowdrops and yet may not be growing the tried, tested and reliable varieties which have graced gardens for years and which, more importantly, are more likely to be good performers in the garden.

The latest snowdrop introductions are likely to have been propagated by a method known as “twin-scaling” – the cutting of a bulb into very small segments each of which has a part of the basal plate which will then go on to form bulbils which are grown on until big enough for the process to be repeated until a sufficient number are available for sale and this is often before the bulbs have been trialled as a  garden plant so the purchaser is taking a risk that they may be buying what appears to them an attractive snowdrop but which may not do well in their garden. One regularly reads comments on internet forums along the lines of “I bought that last year but it never appeared this year” and even hear experienced growers comment that a much praised snowdrop simply does not do well, does not grow strongly and is generally a weakling in the garden.  When such comments are commonplace one has to imagine that not all these gardeners are careless or incompetent and that fault lies elsewhere. The constant hype over new introductions entices enthusiasts to purchase and the novice galanthophile is most vulnerable.  Never could the phrase “Caveat emptor” be better employed.

So, here are a few suggestions for good easy-to-grow snowdrops which are not ridiculously priced and which have shown themselves to be good garden plants. I’ll keep it to a very short list because lists have a tendency to grow and grow.

is the common snowdrop and, while “common” might sound a disparaging description, in fact it signifies that this snowdrop grows so well for us that it has become common. For the cost of a cultivar in the mid-price range one could purchase 100 common snowdrops and instead of a spot of white one could have a planting of good garden impact. It has the largest natural distribution of all the snowdrops and is the most widely grown in cultivation and has an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society – recognition of its value, amenity and reliability as a garden plant. It has been in cultivation in England since the 16th century and has become widely naturalised there.

The common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, is quick to multiply and give a good effect in the garden. 
The bulbs of Galanthus nivalis will multiply over the years and it will also seed about and, because it is a species, the seedlings will be like the parents. 
Everybody admires the common snowdrop – even our friendly pheasants!

Another snowdrop with the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Merit is the double form of the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis ‘Flore Pleno’ which has double flower – rather than the three small inner segments and three larger outer it has a multiplicity of segments so that it is a bigger, chunkier flower which gives greater impact in the garden. As with many of the double-flowered snowdrops it does not produce seeds but it is a very vigorous grower and will multiply quickly in the garden. While its origins are not clear it certainly dates to the early 1700s and has been a treasured garden plant for these past three centuries.

The double form of the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis ‘Flore Pleno’ is wonderful to multiply in the garden 
The segments are generally somewhat disorganised in the double common snowdrop but the flowers are large and make a good impact.
I split clumps of the double common snowdrops and spread them about. 

Galanthus ‘Atkinsii’ originated, around 1860, in the Gloucestershire garden of James Atkins, one of the great snowdrop enthusiasts of the time and still remains one of the most elegant, beautiful  and excellent garden plants we could grow. In earlier descriptions it was regularly compared in elegance to the drop pearl earrings of Elizabeth 1 and this, indeed, does capture its beauty. It flowers reliably in January and so will provide interest ahead of the main snowdrop season.

Galanthus ‘Atkinsii’ is an easy and obliging garden plant which is healthy and vigorous and quickly makes good sized clumps. 
Before the flowers open in Galanthus ‘Atkinsii’ you can see  why they were compared to the drop pearl earrings of Elizabethan times. 
Galanthus ‘Atkinsii’ – a beautifully marked and elegant flower

Those snowdrops which are still grown and admired over a century after their first introduction certainly have a good track record and have earned their place in our gardens.  Galanthus ‘Magnet’ dates to the garden of James Allen in the late 19th century, was described glowingly by the enthusiasts of the day, and still remains a darling garden snowdrop. Besides growing with ease, a good healthy plant, it also has attractive features which are very pleasing to the eye bring joy to the garden and gardener. The flower is large, certainly twice that of the common snowdrop, and it is held on a long pedicle – that small “stem” holding the flower – so that the flowers swing and sway in the breeze.

Galanthus ‘Magnet’ quickly builds up to a good number and, with the long pedicles, the flowers wave about in the breeze in a very attractive manner. 
Galanthus ‘Magnet’ showing the flowers swinging on the long pedicle 

A relatively more recent introduction – compared to those above – is Galanthus ‘S. Arnott’. Very little is known of its origins other than Samuel Arnott, a provost in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, sent bulbs to Henry J. Elwes at Colesbourne Park who distributed it as “Arnott’s Seedling”. It was exhibited by The Giant Snowdrop Company in 1951 and the name ‘S. Arnott’ was applied shortly afterwards. It is a tall, strong growing and elegant plant with a large flower which has a faint fragrance of honey – best enjoyed in the warmth of the house.

Galanthus ‘S. Arnott’, a strong, large and elegant plant for the garden. 
Along with its flower display, Galanthus ‘S. Arnott’ also has a beautiful fragrance

This selection will bring interest and colour to your garden in late winter and early spring and will, most likely, begin you on a search for more of these delightful plants. However, I advise that you pursue those plants which have been tried and tested and not rush to the most recently introduced and as yet untested.

A final word of advice: Snowdrops bought as dry bulbs are not the best. They regularly fail to thrive in the garden. It is better to purchase growing bulbs or those offered “in the green” (lifted from the garden while the foliage is still green and quickly replanted). Two good sources near to me are Robert Millar’s Altamont Plant Sales at Altamont Gardens in Co. Carlow and Guy de Shriver’s “Field of Blooms” for mail order sales.

Have fun!

Post Scriptum: If you really must have a snowdrop with green markings on the outer segments –  well, we all like to be, at least, in touch with modern trends and fashions – I will recommend Galanthus ‘Viridapice’ to you for it has proven itself to be long-lived, healthy and a good garden plant – and it is, like the others above, not expensive. It was found near an old farmhouse in northern Holland by Mr. J. M. C. Hoog of the Dutch bulb family.

Galanthus ‘Viridapice’ makes an excellent and attractive garden plant 
Galanthus ‘Viridapice’ showing the attractive green tips to the outer segments and the large spathe above the flower. 
The danger with snowdrops is that there is always another one which catches the eye and which one  simply must have! 

Paddy Tobin

To find out more about the Irish Garden Plant Society visit our website or follow us on Facebook






Going Home to Cork – Brownea x crawfordii

William H.  Crawford (1812 – 1888) was one of a set of enthusiastic gardeners in Cork in the 19th century. William Edward Gumbleton and Richard Beamish were two others of this group.  Crawford inherited ‘Lakelands’ on the shore of Lough Mahon and, as with Gumbleton’s ‘Belgrove’ and nearby ‘Fota’, the garden was situated in an area which allowed the owners to grow many tender plants outdoors. To this day, Cork gardeners enjoy the facility of growing many plants outdoors which simply will not survive outside elsewhere in Ireland

The names of the Crawford and Beamish families will be familiar to many through their brewing business – Beamish & Crawford and the Crawford name continues in the Crawford Municipal College of Art and the Crawford Municipal Technical Institute as he was a generous benefactor to many good causes in Cork.

Brownea x crawfordii – photograph from Carlos Magdalena

Crawford’s arboretum contained Himalayan and Andean plants, including Rhododendron falconeri, R. thomsonii and R. dalhousiana along with Berberidopsis corallina, Dacrydium franklinii, Podocarpus andinus, Cordyline indivisa all growing out of doors when, at the time, they were generally considered conservatory plants. The Himalayan Magnolia campbellii also grew there and flowered there for the first time in the British Isles. It was also grown in Gumbleton’s ‘Belgrove’ where the original tree still exists.

Brownea x crawfordii – photograph from Carlos Magdalena

Crawford was best known for his collection of Brownea species which are native to Central America and the West Indies and are too tender for outdoor cultivation in Ireland. The species are trees or shrubs which produce very showy red inflorescenses. He grew his collection in a glasshouse and in 1876 he reported that they threatened to outgrow the greenhouse and rather than cutting the plants back he had an addition of several feet in height made over the whole house, later removing the lower roof.

Brownea x crawfordii – photograph from Carlos Magdalena

Numerous reports of his collection were published in The Gardener’s Chronicle and in The Garden between 1873 and 1888. Among the collection was Brownea macrophylla which was painted by M. Hill and this illustration appeared in The Gardener’s Chronicle. In 1878 this plant was in flower over a two month period and bore over 100 inflorescenses.

One of Crawford’s preoccupations was the hybridisation of Brownea species and succeeded in raising several hybrids. One of these,  Brownea grandiceps x Brownea macrophylla, was named Brownea x crawfordii. He sent a plant of this hybrid to Kew in 1888 very shortly before his death and it flowered in 1891. Another plant sent the Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin flowered in 1890.

Brownea x crawfordii – photographs from Carlos Magdalena

Carlos Magdalena who is the chief propagator at Kew Gardens in London is presently propagating plants of Brownea x crawfordii and asked me recently if I thought some Irish gardens might like to grow it again and, already, we have made arrangements that one will go to the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin and another to Blarney Castle Garden in Cork. It will be good to have William H. Crawford’s plant back in Ireland again and, especially so, to have it back in Cork.

Isn’t it wonderful that the plant – for this is a direct descendant and a vegetative propagant from the original – that William H. Crawford raised, grew and sent to Kew will be returning to Ireland. Many, many thanks to Carlos for his kindness and generosity and for the thoughtfulness that this plant would be appreciated in its home place.

The background and historic material for this article was taken from “Irish Horticulturists. I: W. H. Crawford” by T. Crawford and E. C. Nelson in Garden History, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Summer, 1979), pp. 23-26. Published by The Garden History Society.

All photographs are courtesy of Carlos Magdalena.

Paddy Tobin

To find out more about the Irish Garden Plant Society visit our website or follow us on Facebook

My Favourite Plant

Our local garden club hosted Des Doyle of Lavistown House, near Kilkenny, last evening when he delivered a talk on his favourite plants – a total of forty plants as it turned out! Des showed an admirable reluctance to narrow his selection and I imagine that if time allowed he could have continued to list another forty plants which he loves to grow.

In the course of the talk Des asked us to consider the criteria on which we should select our favourite plant – the most obvious being that it should actually grow for us in the garden! People will have many reasons for their own choices – a favourite colour, a memento of a special day out, a kind gift or a name that coincides with that of a child or grandchild. Immediacy is another influence – what is in flower at the moment is more likely to be favoured that one held in memory or in anticipation.

Some flexibility is called for on occasion: a gardening journalist on a national newspaper once contacted me and asked me to say what my favourite flower was and to write a few lines about it for her. I considered for a day or so and dropped her a line with the information she required. She thanked me but came back the following day and asked if I could make another selection as someone else had also chosen my favourite plant. There is always room for more than one favourite!

Besides the obvious there is one quality which I have found has the greatest influence on my choice of favourites and that is association or connection. Were it an antique or a work of art we might call it provenance – its origins, its history of ownership and how it came into your ownership.

My list of favourites is long; certainly there is a favourite or two for each week of the year but here is a quick selection which has come to mind following Des’ talk last evening.

We started gardening almost forty years ago – marriage, new home and new garden – and our first steps were as often based on best value rather than on best taste. That border which mixed azaleas with dahlias still remains in our minds and we laugh at the incongruity of plants and the clash of colours. However, some memories from those early days are happy ones and are still with us. Two workmates gave us primulas – Primula juliae types – from their mothers’ gardens so we still grow “John Howley’s Mother’s primulas”, all the way from Mooncoin, and “Rosaleen Power’s Mother’s primulas” all the way from Ballyhale. In the great scheme of garden primroses neither of these is special but they have connections to friends, their families and memories of our first steps in gardening. Rosaleen Power’s Mother’s primula, by the way, has crossed with a native primrose, Primula veris, planted nearby to give a pleasant new addition to the garden.

John Howley’s Mother’s primula – a form of Primula juliae
Rosaleen Power’s Mother’s primula with the native Primula veris on the right and a seedling between the two in the middle.

This liking for connection in plants lead to my membership of the Irish Garden Plant Society, a group with a particular interest in plant of Irish connection whether raised or found in Ireland or with a connection with an Irish person. One such, which I grow, is Anemone nemerosa ‘Lucy’s Wood’. It is a light blue variation on our native wood anemone and was found by Evelyn Booth, who wrote a flora of Co. Wexford, in the wood of that name near her home in Bunclody. I also have a pink coloured wood anemone which I found on The Burren that I like very much. For the moment, at least, I refer to it as ‘Burren Pink’.

Anemone nemerosa ‘Lucy’s Wood’ – found by Evelyn Booth near Bunclody, Co. Wexford
A pink-flowered form of Anemone nemerosa found on The Burren.

Orchids had been absent from my garden for many years; I had always been reluctant to grow them as I imagined them to be difficult to please. A friend in east Cork had the native dactylorhiza growing in abundance in her garden and gave me a few some years back. They are now established in grass in our garden and have increased well but have also prompted me to try others and I now have a selection which is thriving. Another was added last evening when local gardening friends, Noreen and Ollie, arrived to the meeting with a pot containing a nice clump of an orchid I had admired in their garden during last summer – another favourite has been added to the garden!

A native orchid now settled in grass in the garden.

What is now a particularly fine and beautiful specimen of Cyclamen hederifolium came from Lindy, a friend in Borris. It has especially good foliage and the clearest of white flowers – good white flowers are especially valued in this species. Planted close to it is a small corm of Cyclamen cilicium, a kind and spontaneous gift from a gardener at the Villa Balbianello on Lake Como last autumn. Plants, memories, connections – favourites!

A particularly fine form of Cyclamen hederifolium
A small plant of Cyclamen cilicium from Villa Balbianello, Lake Como, Italy.

Snowdrops have been a particular interest of mine for several years and snowdrops of Irish origin especially so. Few are as treasured as Galanthus ‘Lady Moore’. It was kindly given to me by Miss Rita Rutherfoord and she, in the company of her mother, had received it from Lady Moore herself during the Second World War as they attended a Sale of Work at the Mansion House in Dublin to support the families of those actively involved in the war. It has a wonderful connection with the original grower and was a very kind gift. Galanthus elwesii ‘Keith Lamb’ is a diminutive snowdrop from the garden of the late Dr. Lamb at Clara in Co. Offaly. Again, it was a kind gift and will be treasured for its connection. Harold McBride is a keen breeder of snowdrops, among other choice plants, and his ‘Waverley Little Egret’ is a little beauty he passed on to me in recent years. Good fortune smiled on me when a friend suggested I visit an old garden as he thought there were some interesting snowdrops there. As it turned out, those he considered interesting were relatively common but I came on a small population of yellow-marked Galanthus plicatus. There were three different forms and one is especially good, quite distinct, and waiting to be named.

Galanthus ‘Lady Moore’, a treasured snowdrop
Galanthus elwesii ‘Keith Lamb’
Harold McBride’s Galanthus ‘Waverley Little Egret’
Found in an old garden, a yellow-marked Galanthus plicatus which is presently under the unflattering name “PT01” Friends have suggested “Pacman” as a possible name because of the shape of the marking but I feel something more Irish or to connect with its origins would be more appropriate.

Finally, for this list could go on and on, I have a beautiful form of Trillium chloropetalum which grows especially well and looks quite fabulous in flower each year. It came from a great and most generous friend, Bob Gordon, in Northern Ireland whom many in Irish gardening circles will know well. This is only one of Bob’s many gifts in our garden for I “blame” him for the large number of snowdrop varieties which we grow.

Trillium chloropetalum from Bob Gordon
Trillium chloropetalum from Bob Gordon, an outstanding plant

Plants have a value far beyond their oftentimes fleeting beauty. They recall the kindness and generosity of friends; they connect us with other times and people long gone. This makes them especially treasured and certainly among our favourites.

Paddy Tobin

To find out more about the Irish Garden Plant Society visit our website or follow us on Facebook

Just for interest – those other two yellow-marked snowdrop finds.








Naming those Libertias

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:

  1. L. breunioides – see L. cranwelliae
  2. L. elegans – see L. chilensis
  3. L. formosa – see L. chilensis
  4. L. grandiflora as commonly grown in gardenssee L. chilensis
  5. L.procera – see L.chilensis
  6. 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 cranwelliae, note flowers below leaf level, and stolons produced
Libertia cranwelliae – note flowers below leaf level and stolons produced


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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 chilensis Elegans Group, note leaves generally a lot shorter than L.c. Formosa Group
Libertia chilensis Elegans Group: Note leaves generally a lot shorter than L. c. Formosa Group
Libertia chilensis Formosa Group - this is the most frequently grown, but usually under the wrong name L. grandiflora
Libertia chilensis Formosa Group: This is the most frequently grown but usually under the wrong name of L. grandiflora 
Comarison picture
Comparison picture: Centre: L. chilensis Procera Group – note the larger flowers. Left and right are L. chilensis Formosa Group, showing the range of stem colour 

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 ixioides: note the open flower panicles and compare to Libertia ‘Amazing Grace’ which has inherited this aspect

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 sessiliflora, good dark and poorer pale forms
Libertia sessiliflora showing good dark and poorer paler forms 

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!

1 Libertia umbellata 20070068
Libertia umbellata: Note the more pendant foliage, subtle blueish tint to the leaves. It is less floriferous than L. chilensis and has less upright flower stems. 

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.

Lib x but Amazing Grae
Libertia x butleri ‘Amazing Grace’ is a hybrid of garden origin between L. chilensis and L. exioides

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. 

The Darling Sophie North

We are approaching the twentieth anniversary of the Dunblane School massacre (13th March 1996) when a man entered a primary school in Dunblane, near Stirling in Scotland, and murdered sixteen children and their teacher, injured others and devastated the lives of innumerable families and sent ripples of upset and fear far and wide.

Sophie North, one of the children lost at Dunblane 

At the time of this horrific event I was the principal teacher (headmaster) in a small rural school in Bigwood, Mullinavat, Co. Kilkenny.  It is so hard to imagine today but then our front door, and our back door, was always open.  It was never locked. In summer it was left wide open and parents, neighbours and even strangers were free and welcome to enter the premises.

Immediately after Dunblane we had big meeting of all the parents at the school. Even at our distance and with no personal connections the level of upset, sympathy and sadness was extraordinary and it brought with it an unprecedented level of worry and concern for the safety of their own children – and mine, as mine attended the school also. Locks and a pushbell were fitted to the doors and a time of confidence and of feeling safe had passed forever. How petty in comparison with the trauma suffered by the people in Dunblane but it serves to illustrate the impact of these horrific event even at our remove.

Dr. Evelyn Stevens gardened in Sherriffmuir near Dunblane, a garden where Meconopsis featured as she held a national collection, but she also had naturalised snowdrops in a woodland area of the garden and it was here that Galanthus ‘Sophie North’ originated. Jim Jermyn showed it at an RHS show in Westminster in 1996 where it attracted a great deal of attention and admiration and Dr. Stevens named it shortly afterwards for Sophie North, one of the children who was killed in the school in Dunblane. It has since been grown not alone for its intrinsic beauty but also for its connections.

G. 'Sophie North'  (1)
Galanthus ‘Sophie North’ 
Galanthus 'Sophie North'  (1)
Galanthus ‘Sophie North’ 
Galanthus 'Sophie North'
Galanthus ‘Sophie North’ 

Paddy Tobin

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Algerian Umbrellas are all the fashion at the moment.

Opening an umbrella in the house is considered bad luck but if we are following the suggestion of Vita Sackville West we might be excused.

Some flowers defy the logic of the seasons and open their blossoms when all others are in winter rest. No doubt they have their reasons but it does not always seem to be the most sensible of habits. It coincides with the worst of our weather and with the season when our slugs and snails may have little else to tempt their palates. I speak, of course, of the Algerian Iris – Iris unguicularis (formerly I. stylosa) – which flowers intermittently from November to February. “The erratic flower production” E. A. Bowles wrote “is actually a clever ploy to avoid weather damage – although the buds are frost-proof, the flowers are not.”

Iris unguicularis 'Mary Barnard'
Iris unguicularis ‘Mary Barnard’, one of the more commonly available cultivars of the Algerian iris 

Not only has this beautiful plant the peculiar habit of flowering through the winter it is also oddly named for, while it does indeed grow in Algeria, it also grows in Tunisia, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel yet these receive no recognition. This is because it was first introduced into cultivation from Algeria by the Hon. William Herbert (1788 – 1847), a British botanist, botanical illustrator, poet and clergyman who also served as a member of parliament for Hampshire from 1806 to 1807. He also assisted James Rennie to edit The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne.

Iris unguicularis 'Walter Butt'  (3)
Iris unguicularis ‘Walter Butt’ 

Iris unguicularis occurs naturally in hot and dry countries and to grow it successfully in our gardens we must try to replicate these conditions as best we can. They need the hottest, driest and leanest position in the garden. Traditionally, they have been grown in beds built of the rubble of the foundations against house walls where the overhang of the roof shelters them from rain and the reflected heat from the wall provides warmth. I grow them in a raised bed in full sun where the compost is comprised mainly of grit so the drainage is as perfect as possible.  Vita Sackville West wrote, “Kindliness, so far as the Algerian iris is concerned, consists in starving it. Rich cultivation makes it run to leaf rather than to flower. What it really enjoys is being grown in a miserably poor soil, mostly composed of old lime and mortar rubble and even gravel: a gritty mixture at the foot of a sunny wall, the grittier and the sunnier the better. Sun and poverty are the two things it likes.” E. A. Bowles commented, that “the older a clump grows the better it flowers” – the best displays of flower are usually to be seen on congested clumps in old gardens”

Iris unguicularis 'Kilbroney Marble'  (2)
Iris unguicularis ‘Kilbroney Marble’, a cultivar of Irish origin. 

In the garden the plant grows to 30cm high with narrow foliage which is evergreen though often tatty in appearance. The flower colour of the species varies from light lilac to purple while the yellow markings on the falls are very attractive.  The flowers grow on especially long perianth tubes, 20cm long, and when gathering flowers it is best to slip one’s fingers to the base of the tube and pull rather than cut. Although the plants are perfectly hardy in our gardens the flowers are vulnerable to damage by high winds and heavy rains and are, obviously, nibbles of the most delectable taste for slugs and snails so are best rescued and brought into the house. Vita Sackville West suggests, “You should search your clumps of the grass-like leaves every day for possible buds, and pull the promising bud while it still looks like a tiny, tightly-rolled umbrella, and then bring it indoors and watch it open under a lamp. If you have the patience to watch for long enough, you will see this miracle happen.”

And so, we have Algerian umbrellas in the house – and a fragrance of warmer climes.

Iris unguicularis in vase  (1)
A vaseful opening wide in the warmth of the house. 

Paddy Tobin

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