Masters of the floral art

An illustrated book and an exhibition recognising some of Ireland’s new garden plants will be launched this year

As the wife of a professional garden photographer, it’s not unusual to find myself standing in a stranger’s garden grumpily harrumphing while my husband waits patiently for that elusive moment when the quality of light (not too bright, not too dark), the weather conditions (not too sunny, not windy, not foggy, certainly not raining) and the plants (ideally at their leafy, floriferous best) finally collude to give him the shot he’s looking for.

Just as well, then, that I’m not married to a botanical artist, a vocation that requires vast reserves of patience and a painstaking approach to the creation of each art work involving many hours of research and countless preparatory sketches. Speed, too is required; there is only a finite amount of time to study a plant’s delicate blossoms and tender foliage before fragile petals begin to fade and soft leaves begin to wilt.

Which is not to overlook the artistic talent, observational skills and craftsmanship also needed to bring a plant to life on a page.

Because at its best, botanical art achieves something that even the most powerful camera macro lens can’t, which is to give a kind of uber-real sense of a plant by condensing its different seasons of interest while somehow telescoping different views of its various botanical parts.


And so I am full of admiration for Plandaí Oidreachta, the collaboration between the Irish Society of Botanical Artists (ISBA) and the Irish Garden Plant Society (IGPS) that will provide a combined visual and written record of some of Ireland's newest garden plant introductions in a book to be published later this year.

Helping to steer the project is Brendan Sayers, the National Botanic Gardens' orchid specialist and glasshouse foreman, who is a well-known author himself, as well as a founder member of both organisations. The task, he admits, has been hugely inspiring, but complex and challenging. There was, for example, the not-so-small matter of sourcing the plants themselves.

“It’s one thing to sit down at a desk and compile a shortlist. But supplying the artists with the plants – we had to be absolutely certain that they were correctly identified and came from a reliable provenance – was another thing entirely.”

Similarly, finding the best people to write the accompanying text was crucial; there will be written contributions from many of Ireland's most distinguished horticulturists and plant breeders, including daffodil breeder Brian Duncan, sweet pea breeder Chris McAleer and primula breeder Joe Kennedy.

More than 70 uniquely Irish cultivars have made the shortlist, compiled by a committee that includes author and horticulturist Dr Charles Nelson (also a contributor), IGPS chairman and Waterford-based galanthophile Paddy Tobin (also a contributor), and botanical artist and ISBA founding member Jane Stark.

The final list of plants includes Galanthus 'Longraigue' (a fine Wexford snowdrop), sweet pea varieties 'Bridget McAleer' (from Dublin breeder Chris McAleer) and 'Florencecourt' (from Northern Ireland breeder Sydney Harrod), and Dahlia 'Darragh's Delight' (from Irish breeder Alick Branigan).

A clutch of Kilkenny nurseryman Pat Fitzgerald’s primulas are there too, as is Cornus capitata ‘Kilmacurragh Rose’ (introduced by Kilmacurragh’s head gardener, the plant explorer and author Seamus O’Brien).

The lovely bearded iris, Iris ‘Killiney’ also made it to the list, much to the delight of Jane Stark who spent last year making preparatory studies/sketches of the plant in preparation for the finished painting, which she says will now take “many hours of work” to complete. Giving a sense of the flower’s almost translucent delicacy will be, she says, the most difficult part.

As for all of the other 70 or so ISBA artists currently working on paintings for the book and exhibition, the deadline for completion (late spring) looms large. This is especially true for those artists working on spring-flowering plants such as snowdrops, daffodils and primroses, which are emerging earlier than usual due to the recent mild weather.

Alongside her own artwork, Stark’s other important contribution to the publication is in the role of graphic designer, which is her other profession. And so every time a completed piece of artwork arrives on her desk, she feels a rush of excitement as she contemplates how best to integrate it into the finished layout.

The fact that some of the artwork will be winging its way to her from ISBA artists living as far away as South Korea (Soyoung Sin), Newfoundland (Margaret Walsh Best), Oregon (Aislinn Adams), Vienna (Gretta Pertl) and Switzerland (Loredana Geninazza) only adds to the sense of comradeship that has defined this project. "From the moment that we put out the request to people to help write and illustrate it, we've been met with complete enthusiasm," says Brendan Sayers, "which I think is a wonderful reflection of how Irish gardeners and botanical artists feel about Irish plants."


For details of

Plandaí Oidreachta


both the book and the exhibition, see and The soft-back book, which is being published with the financial support of Bord Bia, will be available to order in late spring/early summer for a pre-publication price of €25.