What is your favourite Irish plant? And no, you’re not allowed to say shamrock … Instead, I’m thinking of the thousands of wonderful garden plants that have earned the right to be called Irish by virtue of their significant connections to a host of green-fingered Irish gardeners and nurserymen, both past and present.
Some – such as the Irish yew, Taxus baccata 'Fastigiata', discovered growing on the slopes of a Fermanagh mountainside in the mid-18th century by an Irish farmer called George Willis, or the dainty Victorian variety of daffodil known as 'Rip Van Winkle' – are rightfully famous throughout the world. Others, for example the magnificent white-flowering shrub known as the Californian tree poppy or Romneya coulteri, are still widely grown and treasured by gardeners both here and abroad, even if the story of their Irishness isn't well known. Even then, intriguing clues of their nationality often live on in their names. Romneya coulteri, for example, is named after two brilliant Irishmen: Dr Thomas Coulter, the Dundalk-born doctor, botanist and explorer who first collected the plant in southern California almost two centuries ago, and his friend, the Dublin-born astronomer and physicist, Thomas Romney Robinson. It's a similar story as regards the exquisitely silver-leaved but tricky-to-grow Celmisia 'David Shackleton', the favourite Irish garden plant cultivar of well-known Dublin gardener and author Helen Dillon. In this case, its varietal name commemorates the celebrated Irish plantsman whose wonderful garden at Beech Park in Clonsilla was known for its remarkable plant collection.
Other outstanding Irish garden plants, such as Primula 'June Blake', the deliciously scented , floriferous, long flowering variety of primula introduced in 2002 by the Wicklow gardener and plantswoman of the same name, are of much more recent vintage. The same is true of the series of Kennedy Irish primroses raised by Joe Kennedy and developed by Fitzgerald Nurseries in Co Kilkenny, But in each and every case, it took the beadily appreciative eyes of Irish gardeners to spot these plants' unique beauty and garden-worthiness and to introduce them into cultivation.
Of course, not all great Irish garden plants are named after those who discovered them. An example is Galanthus 'Drummond's Giant' – the favourite Irish garden plant of the well-known Laois plantswoman and galanthophile Assumpta Broomefield. This statuesque Irish snowdrop was first discovered by Carlow gardener Stasia O'Neill, who spotted it in Christmas of 1958 as a bowl of exceptionally tall and large-flowered plants for sale at Drummond's garden shop in Pembroke, Co Carlow, and who has grown and shared it with other gardeners ever since.
Nor are such plants always chance discoveries. Take the famously beautiful, award-winning shrubby peony, Peony 'Anne Rosse', whose large, ruffled, lemon-yellow, ruby-stained flowers have been immortalised by a string of botanical artists. In this case, the plant is a deliberate hybrid raised at Birr demesne by the sixth Earl of Rosse in the mid-20th century. Fittingly, it's named after his wife, with whom he shared a lifelong love of gardening, and is the favourite Irish garden plant of his son and daughter-in-law, the present Earl and Countess of Rosse.
Other top-rate Irish garden plants include Bergenia 'Irish Crimson', a particular favourite of Seamus O'Brien, the author, plant-hunter and head gardener of Kilmacurragh Botanic Gardens in Co Wicklow, and which he grows en-masse by its pond. "In cold weather, its elegant, glossy, evergreen oval leaves act as a temperature-indicator by turning the most remarkable shade of brilliant beetroot red, followed in late spring by spikes of rich-pink flowers. It came to me as a gift from Helen Dillon, who got it from the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin. While its exact history is lost in time, Bergenia 'Irish Crimson' was probably raised there at the beginning of the 20th-century from seed collected in Yunnan by the famous Scottish botanist and plant-hunter George Forrest. "
Other great Irish garden plant cultivars commemorate the famous Irish gardens where they were first discovered, having often arisen there as chance seedlings. An example is Primula 'Rowallane Rose', introduced by the famous Slieve Donard nursery (no longer in existence) and named after the celebrated Northern Irish gardens of Rowallane. This charming, long-lived flowering perennial is a favourite of the well-known Irish garden designer, plantswoman and botanic artist, Daphne Levinge-Shackleton, who describes it thus … "Gardening as I do in Cavan, that most water saturated county of Ireland, my choice Irish cultivar has to be a plant which thrives in cold, heavy, wet clay, the candelabra primula, Primula 'Rowallane Rose'. Huge pale green leaves in early summer, with their broad midribs, are as good as many a hosta. Tiers and tiers of salmon pink flowers appear in May/June and you needn't hurry to dead head the spent flowers, as they too look good for ages. Such is its vigor, with me at any rate, that vine weevil are defeated and one plant quickly becomes four."
Another such example is the charming, blue-flowered wood anemone, Anemone nemorosa 'Lucy's Wood', a personal favourite of Irish Garden Plant Society chairman, the Waterford gardener and snowdrop collector Paddy Tobin, which is named after the woodland copse near Bunclody where it was first discovered.
These examples aside, there are many Irish garden plants that remain stubbornly incognito, their names giving no clue as to their nationality and their stories known only to those with an interest in the history of Irish gardening. One is the widely available Omphalodes 'Starry Eyes', a cultivar of our native navelwort, and the favourite Irish garden plant of Oliver and Liat Schurmann, garden designers and co-owners of Mount Venus Nursery. A very pretty, low-growing, shade-tolerant evergreen perennial, its strikingly beautiful flowers appear in April-May, each one marked with a central, bright-blue star. The plant holds a special significance for the Schurmanns, having been first discovered by Eithne Clarke in her wonderful wild garden, Woodtown, in the Dublin hills not far from the nursery. Very appropriately, the nursery's stock is propagated from the original plant.
The stories of these and thousands of other distinguished Irish garden plants are beautifully told in a series of books by Dr Charles Nelson, the Northern-Irish born botanist and award-winning author. A man with a lifelong interest in the history of Irish gardening, Nelson was recently awarded the prestigious RHS Veitch Memorial Medal. His favourite Irish garden plant is a cultivar of the compact shrubby Irish heath called Erica erigena 'Irish Dusk', whose flowers he describes as "difficult to characterise because they change as they mature. The buds are a beautiful salmon, opening rose-pink. From November through to May, this can be a joy."
First discovered growing on the shores of Lough Carrowmore in Co Mayo in the 1960s, Erica 'Irish Dusk' is yet more proof of the fact that a sharply observant and appreciative eye is often all it takes to introduce a great new garden plant into cultivation. Keeping it there, however, isn't always easy. Of the many wonderful Irish garden plants that I've mentioned, only some are still widely available. Others are becoming increasingly rare, their rarity made more problematic by the fact that they aren't seen for sale in Irish garden centres or nurseries. Instead, like too many others, they owe their survival to individual gardeners, as well as organisations such as the Irish Garden Plant Society, which has played a key role in their conservation. Cheeringly, I've recently been hearing whispers of plans afoot to make this part of our gardening heritage more widely available to a new generation. But in the meantime, it's down to us Irish gardeners to ensure their continued survival by bearing in mind that famous old saying: "The best way to keep a plant is to give it away ..."
THIS WEEK IN THE GARDEN
While the bare-root season is drawing to a close, there’s still just enough time left to make great savings by planting dormant, bare-root trees, shrubs and fruit bushes rather than container-grown specimens. With newly purchased bare-root plants, always protect the vulnerable root systems from frost/drying out until you get them in the ground, ideally as soon after purchase as possible.
Sow hardy annuals either directly into the ground or into trays/modules for transplanting outdoors later
If you were organised enough to sow sweet pea seed in autumn, then the young plants, can be planted out into their permanent positions in the garden later this month. As long as soil conditions are sodden/frozen, now’s a good time make sure to prepare the ground for them in advance, with the addition of well-rotted manure and a dusting of calcified seaweed.
Pot on dahlia tubers this month, for transplanting outdoors later in the season, using a generous sized container (2-3 litre) and a good quality multi-purpose compost. Label, water, and then place the container in a bright, frost-free spot.
Pinching out the growing tips will create a bushier plant, while many gardeners also like to keep no more than five vigorous shoots per plant.