Heritage Irish Plants Launch – Opening Remarks by Martyn Rix

On November 22 2016 the Irish Society of Botanical Artists and the Irish Garden Plant Society had the great honour of welcoming Martyn Rix to the National Botanic Gardens. Martyn had generously accepted the invitation to come to launch Heritage Irish Plants – Plandaí Oidhreachta. As the time for speeches approached, the crowd of attentive gardeners, artists and guests crammed into the gallery that held stacks of books and catalogues along with the 62 paintings used to illustrate the latest book to celebrate Irish plants and horticulture. As the large attendance inhibited our ability to take in all that Martyn had to say I asked if he would, in the modern sense, put pen to paper for us. And he did.

Martyn Rix at the opening of the Heritage Irish Plants/Plandaí Oidhreachta exhibition in November 2016 at which he launched the book.

Martyn began with by remembering that some of his most enjoyable and formative years were spent at Trinity College Dublin and when reading the introduction to the book he remarked that …

I was interested in the story that Charles Nelson tells about the Provost Mahaffy, a great classicist and fancier and collector of snowdrops. On a visit to Athens in 1884, Mahaffy collected an Autumn-flowering snowdrop which Frederick Burbidge, the director of the Trinity College botanic garden in Ballsbridge, named Galanthus rachelae, after Mahaffy’s elder daughter. It was growing on Mount Hymettus, east of Athens, then covered in spiny Euphorbia acanthothamnos (spiny cushion). Even in classical times, Hymettus was famous for its honey, and the spurge is a great source of honey in early spring.

Euphorbia acanthothamnos pm1

Euphorbia acanthothamnos, Peter A. Mansfeld via Wikimedia Commons

A few years later, Mahaffy visited Mount Athos, famous for its monasteries, and collected another snowdrop, which was named after his younger daughter, Elsa.  This was a dwarf, early-flowering Galanthus reginae-olgae.  Both were planted at Glasnevin but by 1948, even Lady Phylis Moore–Irish gardener and wife of the Director of the botanic gardens at Glasnevin, Dublin–could find no trace of either. 

It was then that we see the logic in the Irish Society of Botanical Artists and the Irish Garden Plant Society desire to have Martyn Rix launch the new book. Martyn Rix is the current Editor of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, the longest running botanical periodical. Through this work and his many other publications he has built an incredible knowledge of the art of plant portraiture. Martyn continued…

Rachel’s snowdrop is, however, preserved as a painting by E.A. Bowles (an early snowdrop enthusiast) in the Royal Horticultural Society’s Lindley Library, and this would be a guide to anyone who might rediscover the original clone surviving in an Irish garden.

Curtis’s Botanical Magazine has been a source of paintings of wild plants in cultivation, since its inception by William Curtis in London in 1789.  Initially most of the flowers illustrated were grown in the Chelsea Physic Garden, or in Curtis’s own botanic garden in South Kensington,  but from an early date, Ireland provided some of the models. Charles Nelson has identified one of the earliest, dating from 1810. This was Leptospermum lanigerum, from the east coast of Australia, grown in the Dublin Society’s garden at Glasnevin, which had been founded in 1795.

In the 1830s William Hooker, then in Glasgow, took over the editorship of the magazine, and again obtained plants from Glasnevin, notably those collected by John Tweedie in the Argentine between 1836 and 1854. Twelve of Tweedie’s introductions are illustrated in the magazine; Tweedie is remembered by Tweedia coerulea, an Asclepiad with flowers of a unique shade of pale greenish blue. It is more correctly known today as Oxypetalum coeruleum.

Oxypetalum caeruleum

Oxypetalum caeruleum By Kurt Stüber via Wikimedia Commons

Tweedie also introduced the wonderfully scented Sinningia tubiflora.

Sinningia tubiflora illustration

Sinningia tubiflora illustration by Swallowtail Garden Seeds from Santa Rosa, California via Wikimedia Commons

A less familiar Illustrator’s name is then introduced to us by Martyn…

One Dublin-born artist has, until now, received little recognition. He is A.F. Lyndon (1836-1917),  who travelled widely in Bermuda and New Brunswick in particular,  before settling in Driffield in Yorkshire, to work for the engraver and publisher Benjamin Fawsett.  Lyndon drew the illustrations for Lowe’s Our Native Ferns, and Beautiful-leaved Plants, as well as the Revd. William Houghton’s British Freshwater Fishes.

One of Lyndon’s illustrations for British Freshwater Fishes by Rev. William Houghton

It is then that the setting of the National Botanic Gardens for the launch and as a ‘home’ for both Societies is broadened…

While the Hookers, father and son, were directors of Kew for the last 70 years of the 19th century, the reign of the Moores at Glasnevin lasted 84 years, from 1838 until 1922. The elder Moore is remembered in Crinum moorei, introduced from Natal, and illustrated in Curtis’s magazine in 1863.  Large clumps of the original plants still thrive at Glasnevin.

Crinum moorei from Brendan Sayers. 

The last of the Moores was Lady Phylis Moore, much younger than her husband, who died in 1949, and who was still spoken of in hallowed terms by gardeners in Ireland in the 1960s, though, sadly, I never met her.

W.E. Trevithick (1899-1958) contributed around 60 plates to Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. He was born when his father was head gardener to Lord Headfort in his great garden near Kells. The white, scented Rhododendron headfortianum was painted from the garden, as well as Lilium formosanum and Tsuga chinensis. His son, also William Edward, was a gardener at Headfort from the age of 13, then at Glasnevin, and finally at Kew, where he worked in the herbarium.

It is not only the mention of orchids, a particular favourite plant family of mine but also the move to more recent history that made me even more attentive to Martyn’s words…

Orchids were a particular favourite of the younger Sir Frederick Moore, and I remember the wonderful display in the glasshouses at Glasnevin in the 1960s, when I came to Dublin to read botany at Trinity under David Webb. Another speciality were the hanging baskets of Dampiera, formerly Clianthus formosus, with silver leaves and striking red and black flowers.

In these years Lord Talbot de Malahide was building up his collection at Malahide Castle, and was a friendly host for lunch on Sunday, followed by a tour of the garden and tea upstairs in the drawing room, presided over by his sister Rose. Many of his plants came from the Malahide estate in Tasmania, and were the models for paintings by Margaret Stones, the great Australian flower painter, in the Endemic Flora of Tasmania. He also grew plants from other areas, and I collected seeds for him in Turkey and Iran, with Gillie Walsh-Kemmis and Michael Walsh in 1968 and, with Audrey Napper from Loughcrew, in 1969.

Wendy Walsh and her family were also great hosts, as well as being very artistic.  It was when Michael was working in Kiribati, in the South Pacific, in 1970, that Wendy visited him and began painting flowers again.  As well as her paintings for Irish postage stamps, she painted several plants for Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, including Iris lazica, which Michael had collected in Turkey, and Deutzia purpurascens ‘Alpine Magician’, collected by Reginald Farrer in Burma in 1919, and preserved at Glasnevin.

Wendy’s main work was published in a series of beautiful books in co-operation with Charles Nelson, on Irish plants, both native and cultivated. These will be her most lasting legacy.

And to round it all off…

It is great to see this theme being carried on in the present exhibition by young botanical artists at work today.  Deborah Lambkin is now a regular contributor to Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, specialising in exotic orchids, and Susan Sex has recently painted native species for the Magazine.  Lynn Stringer is also a regular contributor, painting new introductions grown by Séamus O’Brien at the National Botanic Garden at Kilmacurragh, Co. Wicklow.

It was a great honour to be at the podium alongside Martyn Rix. We, the Irish Garden Plant Society and the Irish Society of Botanical Artists, owe him a great debt of gratitude in his acceptance to launch the book and open the exhibition but also for his generosity while visiting. As often happens, events will go by and in the excitement of it all some details will be forgotten. I am happy to say that this will not happen to Martyn Rix’s words of the day.

Brendan Sayers


Helen Dillon – An Inspiration to the Irish Gardener

The Dillon Garden  (11)

A visit to the Dillon garden is always a treat for the senses. Helen, who created the garden along with her husband Val, describes May as the ‘deadest month’ of the year but the dreaded May gap would seem to be a thing of fiction in this garden, with so many plants in full flower.

Swathes of sweet rocket, alliums, honesty, Irises and bluebells give the borders a predominantly purple appearance at this time of year, a sort of calm before the explosion of colour that is to come. However also in bloom are Roses, with Rosa ‘Bengal Crimson’ a particular delight, Trollius, the last of the tulips to flower, Tulipa sprengeri, Camassia, Clematis, Aquilegia, Paeonia, dark Astrantia, bright red and orange Geums, double flowered Welsh Poppies, Cerinthe – the list goes on – not to mention many other choice oddities and exotics.

The Dillon Garden  (13)

As I leave Helen to converse with garden visitors who are anxious to speak to Ireland’s gardening royalty, I hear howls of laughter from various locations in the garden as Helen entertains and educates her visitors simultaneously. Whether she is commenting on the Oedipus complex playing out in the canary cage, the sad passing of Mr Reginald, the dog, or singing the praises of Allium ‘Globemaster’, the visitors appreciate the individual attention and sharing of knowledge. And visitors come from all over. An Italian could be heard exclaiming ‘Meraviglioso!’ everytime he rounded a corner.

The Dillon Garden  (5)

I imagine that if Helen has a mental list of all plants, they would be divided into two categories, ‘ghastly’ and ‘darling’. When asked about a wish list she refers to the desire to travel, to Mongolia and Far East Russia. As for which plants are on her wish list she said she doesn’t have a wish list, but that she would like to grow what she has better. This is hard to fathom when plants must view this garden as the holy grail of places to grow with her husband Val’s ‘dynamite for plants’ compost and Helen’s incredible understanding of plant needs. However, believe it or not, there are some things that Helen cannot grow. “There are lots of woody things that are desirable but not suitable. I’m riddled with honey fungus” she says “not me, the garden!”

The Dillon Garden  (6)

She laments the trend for gardens to be viewed solely as an outdoor room rather than a place for growing plants, where the barbeque supplants the border and decks and paving supersede trees and shrubs. She believes we should be marketing gardening as everything else is marketed. We need to sell it. Gardening can be a lifesaver when coping with the ups and downs of life. “How comparatively serene one feels after a day in the garden compared to a day in the office” she says.

She subscribes to the idea that ‘the best way to keep a plant is to give it away’ and is delighted that now, with the internet and Paypal, anyone can have almost anything. Although this does make it difficult to choose especially seeing as here in Ireland, we are blessed with a damp, generally benign climate which adds to the range of plants that we can grow.

The Dillon Garden  (8)

There is no shortage of rare and exotic plants in the Dillon garden but often the more arresting features are things that are in her own words ‘common as mud’ but that are celebrated and used imaginatively. Tulips in dustbins, a bramley apple that has been pruned to look as though it overlooks a Mediterranean village rather than a Dublin suburb are just two such elements.

Helen’s approach to gardening changes regularly, according to what works for her. She might once have advised us to make holes in the bottom of plastic yoghurt cartons with the tip of a lit cigarette and while her borders were once colour themed, now she goes more for a zingy kaleidoscope of colour. She has compared the more recent planting style in the borders to throwing a box of Smarties up in the air.

Over 10 years ago the “bully” of the garden, the lawn, was dispensed with and replaced with imposing Kilkenny limestone which shows off the borders beautifully. Visitors generally gasp as they get their first glimpses of the garden from the house, and I’d warrant some might actually faint as they emerge onto the balcony such is the ravishing scene before them.

The Dillon Garden  (7)

Dr Charles Nelson, one of the founders of the Irish Garden Plant Society, recalls that Helen was  active in the IGPS during the 80s.  “She supported the IGPS from its beginnings in different ways, as did other plantsmen like Molly Sanderson, David Shackleton and Rosemary Brown to name just three. I am delighted the IGPS is to make her an honorary member.”

The Dillon Garden  (10)

One of the IGPS activities Helen was involved in was the annual IGPS plant sale. Carmel Duignan recalls one year buying a plant of Hebe ‘Headfortii’ from the late David Shackleton who accompanied Helen Dillon as she presided over the Rare and Special Plant stall, a post that these days is presided over by Carmel herself along with Stephen Butler.

Mary Davies, well known for her involvement in the Irish Garden Magazine actually started her garden related publishing activity in the Irish Garden Plant Society Newsletter. Mary was the third chairperson of the IGPS and remembers fondly activities from the 1980s that she was involved in with Helen Dillon. The two grandes dames of gardening had great fun as co-editors of the IGPS newsletter. “Our compilation time involved a mixture of desperation, drink, last minute brain waves and much hilarity” they confess in a piece they wrote for the 100th edition of the newsletter in April 2006. In the 80s the articles came in hand written and had to be typed up on a typewriter, a laborious job by today’s standards. Little wonder there was the odd drink involved.

The Dillon Garden  (9)

When asked to describe Helen, Mary Davies says “Helen is an incomparable gardener and a witty and spontaneous lecturer and writer. Ireland is lucky to have her.” Although Helen is Scottish, many Irish gardeners would see her as a national treasure. And so it is with great pride that the Irish Garden Plant Society is inviting Helen Dillon to become an honorary member of the society, in recognition of her support and inspiration not just to the Society but to gardeners all over Ireland and beyond.

Text and photos by Ali Rochford.

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

By Coincidence – Two Irish Plants go to Cornwall and Back.

Plants with variegation in their foliage give colour and interest at this time of year when flowers are rather scarce in the garden. Two presently catching my eye are both of Irish origin, Griselinia littoralis ‘Bantry Bay’ and Luma apiculata ‘Glanleam Gold’. Peculiarly, neither has showy flowers so it is a testimony to their attractiveness as garden plants that they are popular despite what  might generally be regarded as a disadvantage.

Griselinia littoralis 'Bantry Bay'  (2)

Griselininia littoralis, a species with plain green foliage from New Zealand, is commonly used as a hedging plant and is valuable as a wind-break plant by the seashore, given its tolerance of salt-laden winds.  As a hedging plant it is fast growing and easily maintained and generally came through our recent particularly harsh winters unscathed. The variegated form was spotted by Murdo McKenzie in the garden at Ilnacullin, Glengarriff, Co. Cork, in 1950 growing as a sport on the species. He removed the green shoots over time, leaving only the variegated sport and transplanted it to the garden at his cottage where it grows to this day, now to a height of more than 20 metres. It was named Griselia littoralis ‘Bantry Bay’.

Griselinia littoralis 'Bantry Bay'  (3)

The leaves have attractive cream patches in the centre with light green and darker green outside. This gives the shrub a bright and attractive appearance in the garden, something especially valued in the darker days of winter.  I have noticed over the years that there is an inclination in this shrub to revert to green shoots following pruning when is occasionally necessary as this is a strong-growing plant. However, these are very easily rubbed out and do not dominate the variegated growth.

Griselinia littoralis 'Bantry Bay'  (1)

Those who grow Luma apiculata (syn. Myrtus apiculata), the common myrtle native to Chile and Argentina, will know how prolifically it self-seeds in the garden. Among innumerable seedlings in the gardens of Glanleam House on Valentia Island in Co. Kerry Peggy Uniacke, wife of Colonel Richard Uniacke who had purchased the property from the Knight of Glin, spotted one which was variegated. The leaves had creamy yellow margins, tinged pink when young, and it made a very attractive plant for the garden. The flowers are small, practically insignificant, and the shrub carries red berries through winter. It also has the attraction of colourful peeling bark and in time forms an attractive small tree which would suit the smaller garden very well.

Myrtle 'Glanleam Gold'  (2)

Cuttings were distributed to various nurseries among them that of “The Glen o’ the Downs’ in Co. Wicklow, who quickly put their name to the plant,  Myrtus apiculata ‘Glen o’ the Downs’ , however the name was not to last as cuttings had also been given to Neil Treseden of Treseden’s Nursery in Truro, Cornwall, and he had already applied the name Myrtus apiculata ‘Glanleam Gold’ and this name had precedence and is used to this day.


Neil Treseden had also received material of the variegated Griselinia from Murdo McKenzie and had suggested they use Murdo’s name for the plant but he declined and left the naming to Neil who settled on Griselinia littoralis ‘Bantry Bay’.

So, in the oftentimes peculiar wanderings of plants, two Irish plants went to Cornwall and came back to us to be grown and treasured in our gardens. Both are reasonably common plants and you should have no trouble sourcing them for your garden.

 Paddy Tobin

You can read of these and many other Irish heritage plants in “A Heritage of Beauty”, written for the Irish Garden Plant Society by Dr. E. Charles Nelson. It is for sale here on our website: A Heritage of Beauty

For more information on the Irish Garden Plant Society, to get information on the society, upcoming events etc,  visit our website at irishgardenplantsociety.com/