Primrose-tinted spectacles

 

GARDENS:New varieties of Irish primulas bred by a retired dentist are being released for sale

SIX YEARS AGO, I was wandering around the Alpine Garden Show in Dublin, admiring the little gems and rare treasures in their perfectly-presented pots, when I was stopped short by a more than usually magnificent sight.

It was a long table crowded with primulas: dozens and dozens of them in full flower. Some had a familiar look about them, but others were unlike anything I’d seen before. “New Irish Primrose Hybrids”, proclaimed the sign: “All Bred Over the Past 25 Years by Joe Kennedy, Ballycastle”.

There were several distinct forms: dainty, low-growing flowers, in pink, white, mauve and palest yellow – not unlike our native Primula vulgaris, and bigger blooms in deep wine, peach and other tones that clustered among robust, deep-bronze leaves. There were also “hose-in-hose” kinds where one flower is improbably stacked inside another, and strong-stemmed ones with their blooms held proud above the foliage. I had never seen such an array of good-looking, covetable plants.

Primrose breeding was a popular pastime among Irish lady gardeners at the end of the 19th century, and in the first half of the 20th. Mrs Johnson of Kinlough in Leitrim and Miss Winifred Wynne of Avoca (owner, with her sisters, of the woollen mill there) were just two who bred some fine cultivars.

But there have been only a handful of new introductions since the 1950s. Many of the vintage varieties have disappeared, and the plants passed around among primrose fanciers tend to be a few old faithfuls, including ‘Lady Greer’, ‘Kinlough Beauty’, and ‘Tawny Port’.

So, the unexpected appearance of a whole clatter of recently-bred, vigorous, handsome Irish primroses was tremendously exciting. (There is something especially winning about a primrose: it is a gentle and unassuming flower, but it hides a steely determination that allows it to bloom in the coldest of springs.)

Alas, Joe Kennedy’s plants were not for sale at that show in 2005. He had created them purely for his own pleasure. They had occupied him since the late 1970s, and when he took early retirement from dentistry in the 1980s, they consumed him entirely. Each year, he would breed about 2,000 new plants, and at least 1,900 would end up as “compost for the future”. He kept only those that offered desirable traits for his back garden breeding programme. His sole raw materials – the ancestors of all his progeny – were “wee pieces” of about 20 old Irish cultivars collected over the years from gardeners throughout Ireland. In the beginning, his pollinating choices were random, but as the years went on, he began to breed for specific attributes: darker leaves, larger blooms, distinct flower shape and colour, and of course, hardiness.

The Kennedy primroses may well have remained a private passion, shared only with a few envious people at plant shows, as their creator is a self-contained person. “I’m a bit of a recluse. I just work here on my own. I have a job to do.” And then, with refreshing candour: “People coming around are only a bloody nuisance.”

Despite this, one brave man managed to break through the reserve, and is now working with our eremitic primrose hero to bring these new Irish cultivars to a wider and international public. Hallelujah. Pat FitzGerald of FitzGerald Nurseries in Kilkenny (which specialises in mass production of garden-worthy, easy-to-grow plants) contacted Kennedy after reading an article by him in Moorea, the Irish Garden Plant Society’s journal. He convinced the breeder to hand over 20 or 30 of his better plants, which were then subjected to a selection process. Finally, two dark-leaved varieties with yellow eyes were chosen to be launched this year. ‘Innisfree’ has red flowers, while those of ‘Drumcliff’ are white, flushed with lilac.

FitzGerald has four full-time employees working on the primrose project. Five thousand of each variety were micropropagated at the nursery’s high-tech lab in Enniscorthy. Later they were brought to the Kilkenny division of the nursery on the old FitzGerald family farm to be “weaned” (acclimatised to outdoor conditions). Next year around 50,000 each of ‘Innisfree’ and ‘Drumcliff’ will be propagated, and the following year three new Kennedy cultivars will be introduced.

The new Irish primroses are being sold across Europe: in the UK, France, Germany, Holland and Belgium; in Japan; and in the US, where they have been launched at this week’s Philadelphia Flower Show. They’re available here also, of course, in selected garden centres (you’ll find a list of these and more information on my blog at: onebeanrow.wordpress.com).

There’s good news, too, for the venerable old Irish cultivars that provided the genetic material for Kennedy’s new range. These antique primulas are due to be revived in a separate programme (supported by Bord Bia) at FitzGerald Nurseries. Nearly a century after their last heyday, Irish primroses will rule the world again.

* jpowers@irishtimes.com

Hellebore Days are here again

Today and tomorrow (11am-5pm) at Mount Venus Nursery, Walled Garden, Mutton Lane, Tirbradden, Dublin 16. mountvenusnursery.com

Do you like Spuds?

It’s Potato Day at the Organic Centre tomorrow in Rossinver, Co Leitrim. More than 150 varieties on show, and 15 kinds for sale. Admission: €5 (children free). theorganiccentre.ie