Spot the bloomer

Historical and geographical horticultural inaccuracies are rife in movies, and they make good yarns for the new audio guides …

Historical and geographical horticultural inaccuracies are rife in movies, and they make good yarns for the new audio guides at the Botanic Gardens, writes JANE POWERS

PLANT PEOPLE, anoraks that we are, take great pleasure in noticing and pointing out (loudly, to the person sitting next to us) the horticultural inaccuracies in movies. For instance: we just can’t keep our mouths shut during those period films that show comely lasses and their swains frolicking in the “Victorian” rose garden. “See that rose bush over there with the white petals? That’s ‘Iceberg’. It wasn’t even introduced until 1958. Pah!”

Well, I’ve just heard of another kind of cinematic horticultural howler that I can’t wait to share with you. You know those Hollywood films about the north Africa campaign during the second World War? Sahara, with Humphrey Bogart was one such movie; and The Desert Fox, with James Mason was another. The battle scenes were shot under a piercing sun, in a sandy, dry and hot landscape populated with fierce and spiny plants. To the untutored eye it looked just like the deserts of Africa.

But for the plant pundit, it presents yet another opportunity for bringing some superior knowledge out for an airing. Those “Saharan” plants are so obviously Californian cacti, and not the euphorbs of Africa. True, the two different families of plants have similarly aggressive profiles, with swollen stems, modified leaves, and spines – but they are not remotely related. They have evolved in entirely separate parts of the planet, but have developed the same defences against extreme drought, heat, high light levels, and grazing animals. For my part, I can’t wait to see Sahara or Desert Fox again (and I advise you to sit nowhere near me).


I learned of these cinematic inconsistencies in a new series of three audio tours of the National Botanic Gardens that have been created by Mary Mulvihill of Ingenious Ireland. Mulvihill is – among other things – a contributor to this paper, and a superbly accessible science writer and broadcaster. The tours (which can be downloaded as podcasts, see below) are written and narrated by her, and the director of the gardens, Dr Matthew Jebb, and they feature orchid expert Brendan Sayers and wildlife guide Glynn Anderson. The recordings are designed to be listened to while walking through the gardens, but – and I speak from experience – they work equally well as little horticultural vignettes, to be listened to while drifting off to sleep.

They bring the Botanic Gardens – all 20 hectares of it – to life through its history, its people and its plants. The gardens, we learn, were founded in 1795 by the Royal Dublin Society (RDS) with funds provided by the Irish Parliament. Their principal use at that time was for furthering the study of agriculture, so there were animals and hay meadows, as well as plant collections. In 1800, members of the public were admitted to stroll through the gardens, but before long, there were complaints of “idle persons who had caused much mischief” and “nursemaids accompanying children using language that caused the gardeners to blush”. A year later the gates closed to all but members of the RDS, and to those who were accompanied by the head gardener. Nowadays, assures the director, the public – including both idle persons and children – is warmly welcomed.

The glasshouses are like the ornate treasure chests of Glasnevin, and they contain many jewels. In Turner’s long and graceful curvilinear range (which is more than 100 metres long), the smell of lemons, Turkish delight and tea tree oil pervades the east wing. Here are aromatic plants such as eucalyptus and scented pelargoniums. Their leaves are full of resins, gums and pungent oils: a mechanism to prevent attacks from insects and fungal diseases. Here also are members of the Puya genus from the Andes: spiky plants which can send up 10-metre flower stalks. Their barbs are inward pointing so that, in the wild, birds and animals (even sheep) become entangled and die. Their grisly remains eventually decay to provide food for the plant. The glasshouse, which was built between 1843 and 1868, and restored in 1995, was manufactured at Richard Turner’s Ballsbridge foundry, and assembled here. Unusually, the structure is wrought iron, which means that the elements can be finer and thinner than if they were cast iron.

The gardens’ other large glasshouse is the 20-metre-high Palm House, built in 1884, and restored just a few years ago. Its most famous plant is a 100-year-old cycad, Encephalartos woodii, renowned because there are no females of this species known in the world, and all the males are clones of a single individual. This plant, and the other cycads growing near it, date from the Jurassic period, and would have been grazed by dinosaurs – a fact that will delight the gardens’ youngest visitors. This and many other tasty pieces of information are included on the Ingenious Ireland recordings. Go forth and listen.

Plug in, get walking

The Ingenious Ireland audio tours of the National Botanic Gardens can be downloaded at and from There is also a link to download a free app for Android phones (iPhone link available soon). An audio player with a compilation of some of the tour tracks can be bought at the Botanic Gardens for €5.

The RTÉ 1 TV series

Super Garden returns next Tuesday (April 26th) at 8.30pm. Designer Mary Reynolds will mentor the five fledgling designers, and a team of three garden professionals (Tim Austen, Gary Graham and Paddy Gleeson) will sit in judgment. The winning entrant will recreate their design at this year's Bloom garden festival in the Phoenix Park (June 2nd-6th).