Some gardens, by reason of their history and previous owners, will have plants which are of great historic and horticultural significance. Their loss might be a great tragedy but their continued presence can be both a great burden of responsibility and an impediment to the development of the area as a garden.
Gardeners of my generation will recall the “miniature” conifer and heather fashion trend in gardening in the 1970s and will, probably, have also found, like me, that those “miniature” conifers did not always behave to their description. The day comes when the mind is finally steeled and the decision is taken to remove them. They leave a gap and are a loss to some degree, yet they open opportunities for the gardener to plan anew, to introduce new plants and for the garden to remain vibrant and interesting.
However, when the plants in question are historically significant the gardener is faced with a dilemma. It was a visit in the last few days to the National Botanic Gardens at Kilmacurragh, Co. Wicklow, which brought these thoughts to mind. The gardens have an outstanding and historically significant collection of plants. Here we can see plants such as the weeping cedar of Goa, Cupressus lusitanica ‘Glauca Pendula’, planted between 1820 and 1840 and the peculiar ash, Fraxinus excelsior ‘Monstrosa’, a tree which was noted as being 1 foot tall in 1840!
When Thomas and Janet Acton took on Kilmacurragh in 1854 they planted with enthusiasm and with the advice of David Moore of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin furnished the garden with the choicest plants. The association with Glasnevin continued with Sir Frederick Moore and the planting riches of Kilmacurragh continued to expand, especially to give a home to those plants which the alkaline soil in Glasnevin did not suit. Sir Joseph Hooker’s 1849 collection of rhododendron seed in the Sikkim Himalaya, after germination at Glasnevin, were grown on in the suitably acidic soil of Kilmacurragh, and developed into Europe’s most comprehensive collection of rhododendrons from Sikkim, Bhutan and Nepal. Many of these original rhododendrons are still in the garden – the original plants, not subsequent propagated generations, the original plants and so of extreme value for their historical significance and association with such wonderful past generations of Irish gardeners and I wonder if they are a blessing or an impediment to Kilmacurragh’s present day gardeners.
The Broad Walk might serve to consider this thought. It was laid out to the rear of the house by Thomas and Janet Acton in the early 1870s. At the time it was planted with alternate Irish yews, Taxus baccata ‘Fastigiata’, the tall and bright red Rhododendron ‘Altaclerense’ and Rhododendron ‘Cunningham’s White’ which is lower growing. Given the passage of time the plants, especially those of Rhododendron ‘Altaclerense’, are now quite enormous both in height and in width so that The Broad Walk is now not as broad as it once was and here is the quandary: Should the garden plants or the garden design take precedence?
At present, Kilmacurragh has a significant collection of plants but the garden layout has become somewhat overshadowed and overcrowded. We see the same problem with those who are more plant collectors than garden makers; it can be challenging to accommodate a plant collection within a satisfactory garden design.
What will happen at Kilmacurragh? I really don’t know but suspect that, as the present curator is an enthusiastic plantsman, these venerable old plants will continue to be treasured for as long as their good health allows and we may enjoy the garden with them for it would not be the same without them.
Because of disease, one of the yew avenues had been removed. It is saddening to see the loss of such significant plants but their removal allows the redevelopment of areas within the garden.
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The beauty of the work of the members of the Irish Society of Botanical Artists was the inspiration for this project which features heritage Irish garden plants. The ISBA is quite a new society but has already made a fabulous contribution to Irish art and to our heritage of Irish plants with its initial exhibition, “Aibitir” which was an alphabet of native Irish plants. Indeed, the alphabet was twice covered and I had the delight of viewing the exhibition at its launch in the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin and again when it came to Waterford.
The Irish Garden Plant Society was founded in 1981 when a group of gardening enthusiasts noticed that many of the old and treasured Irish garden plants were becoming more and more scarce. Dr. E. Charles Nelson, who was the taxonomist at the National Botanic Gardens at the time, gathered a group of like-minded people and set out to redress this situation through the IGPS. Charles’ book, A Heritage of Beauty, one of several he has written on Irish plants, continues to be our standard reference.
We are at present checking on the availability of all the plants listed in A Heritage of Beauty so that those which seem to be slipping from being commonly available can be sourced, propagated and placed in safe-keeping with our members who act as Plant Guardians and also with various large gardens around the country which have shown a particular interest in our Irish Heritage Plants – Blarney Castle Gardens is a good example and their garden trail of Irish heritage plants will be of interest to visitors.
This work is being lead by Stephen Butler, Chairperson of the Leinster Branch of the IGPS and Chief Horticulturalist at the National Zoological Gardens, and there is group of others working with him to source these threatened plants, propagate and distribute them. This work is at the centre of the hopes and aspirations of our society and raising awareness of the richness of our plant heritage runs alongside.
We could not previously have hoped for nor imagined a more marvellous way to show people the beauty of our Irish plants than this joint project with the ISBA. It has thrilled and delighted me to be involved and I feel the exhibition and book will appeal to a great many people and will highlight the rich heritage of Irish gardening and Irish plants.
It is significant and noteworthy that both of our societies, the ISBA and the IGPS, had their origins in the National Botanic Gardens. The IGPS has always had very active members from the Botanic Gardens and, to this day, there is still practical support, advice, exchange of information and plants without which the society would be all the poorer. It was Brendan Sayers, an IGPS member of many years, who mooted the idea of a society of botanical artists and he is central to this project, coordinating the various branches very effectively and he is assisted in this work by another of the Glasnevin personnel, Alexandra Caccoma of the National Botanic Garden’s library.
The project has grown a little since its inception and approximately seventy Irish heritage plants have been selected for the artists to paint. Many of the paintings have been completed while others – those to flower this spring, primulas and snowdrops for example – are being done at present. The selection will include a number of daffodils, iris, dahlias, sweet peas and snowdrops with a bias towards plants which have been introduced since 2001 when A Heritage of Beauty was published.
Of course the paintings will all be beautiful but there are some which I look forward to especially. The snowdrops are a particular interest of mine and a number growing in my own garden have been sent to artists – Galanthus ‘Lady Moore’ which remembers that great Irish gardener, wife of Sir Frederick Moore, Keeper of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin; Galanthus ‘Ruby Baker’ remembering a wonderful galanthophile in the U.K. ; Galanthus ‘Cicely Hall’, perhaps our most beautiful Irish snowdrop and Galanthus ‘Longraigue’, a recent foundling from Co. Wexford. It is a delight to see Agapanthus ‘Kilmurry Blue’ and ‘Kilmurry White’ included as Paul and Orla Woods have always been such enthusiastic supporters of Irish plants.
Pat Fitzgerald of Fitzgerald Nurseries in Stonyford, Co. Kilkenny, has raised the profile of Irish plants internationally with his launch of the Kennedy Irish primulas a few years back and these will feature. Seamus O’Brien’s Cornus ‘Kilmacurragh Rose’ – a fabulous plant – and his Iris Chrysographes ‘Thomas O’Brien’, named for his brother will both be included. A wonderful birch, Betula ‘White Light’ will be there and will always remind me of the generosity of John Buckley of Birdhill Nursery in Co. Tipperary who bred it and who very kindly gave me a plant. I am delighted that Rhododendron ‘President Michael D. Higgins’ will be included for several reasons: it is a beautiful plant, it honours an outstanding Irishman and it was bred in Mount Congreve Gardens by Michael White, the garden curator, so it is very local to me and very special for that reason.
I could go on and on. The list of beautiful plants which will be included in this book is simply fabulous and especially so because they are our plants; they are Irish raised plants, part of our heritage and to be treasured for that and “heritage” is not a nebulous term when we talk of plants because these plants bring Lady Moore, Cicely Hall, Ruby Baker, President Higgins, Seamus O’Brien, Kilmacurragh, Pat Fitzgerald, John Buckley and all those others into my garden where I can enjoy them year after year.
I believe the work of the artists of the ISBA – and I have seen some of the early work for this project – will be a delight to all who see it and that the accompanying book will allow people to bring this beauty into their own homes. The book will feature a collection of articles related to the plant groups and will be illustrated by the work of the artists. Jane Stark who was a founding member of the ISBA and who has had a career in publishing is designing the layout of the book and organising all ready for printing.
While we have been working away on this project in relative privacy, Fionnuala Fallon’s article in the Irish Times Magazine, 16th January, has put it out in the public eye and her comment that further information was available on the IGPS and ISBA websites has rather pushed me to write this article but it is a pleasure to share it with you as I believe it is a wonderful project and that you will enjoy it later in the year when the book is available and the exhibition is launched.
To find out more about the Irish Society of Botanical Artists visit their website: ISBA
To find out more about the Irish Garden Plant Society visit our website or follow us on Facebook