Arbutus tree is a native of the Killarney Valley
The woodland is the essential element of the lush richness that is the hallmark of Killarney. It has over 1,500 acres of the most important native oak woodland in Ireland.
The two great concentrations are at Tomies/Glena along the eastern shore of the lower lake and Derrycunnihy on both sides of the road south of the upper lake. "These two areas are probably descended from our native oak woodland, but it has been cropped and worked extensively since the 1600s for barrel making, ship building and iron smelting. As a result, a lot of the oak we see now is less than 200 years old", said Cormac Foley, who works for Duchas locally.
Oak can live for over 500 years and one of the biggest in Killarney is the Royal Oak on the shore of the lower lake. It was already a fine specimen when Queen Victoria was brought to see it and had a picnic there in 1861. During that royal visit there was a ceremony of planting of five or six trees now called the Queen's Oaks. Three of these can still be seen about 300 yards north of Muckross House.
There are a number of other fine 300-year-old specimens. The 80 acre yew woodland on the Muckross Peninsula is one of the three largest natural yew woods in Europe. The others are in the south of England and in Denmark. The Muckross yews are the biggest in Europe.
Cormac Foley explains that the yew has a very extensive root system and it collects nutrients from the surface of the rock. There is also a theory that the yew suppresses other vegetation around it by exuding a chemical from its root system. The yew may even be suppressing the regeneration of further yew.
"You rarely see young yew seedlings in the yew wood", he said. There's a theory among tree experts that yew woods on a specific location are a one-off phenomenon - that the trees in the wood live their lives and then the wood dies out and a new yew wood establishes somewhere else.
The biggest yew tree by bulk in Killarney is a few hundred yards north of the Arthur Young trail and Killarney's tallest yew is probably the one in the centre of Muckross Abbey, generally believed to be about 550 years old and only approaching the prime of life. There are also two very large yews known as Adam and Eve in the grounds of the Dunloe Castle Hotel, which were regarded as very large trees when Ludlow captured Ross Castle in 1652.
Another extensive area of significant woodland in Killarney is the wet woodland with vast tracts of native alder, willow and birch. The trees in the wet woodland are short-lived but regenerate very rapidly.
The arbutus only grows in the wild in a few places in Europe further north than the South of France or Northern Spain, but it is a native of the Killarney Valley and is particularly common on rocky headlands on Ross Island and on the Muckross Peninsula, between the lower and middle lakes and especially near Brickeen Bridge.
In Spain and Portugal, arbutus is a quite small bush , but in Killarney heights of 30 to 40 feet are quite common and some trees are up to 60 ft tall. The 17-acre arboretum south of Muckross House and gardens planted in 1972 shows how ideal the Killarney valley is for tree planting. In the past 28 years it has achieved average growth rates of up to 2.5 ft a year compared to a national average of about a foot. The arboretum has a lot of trees from New Zealand, Tasmania and South America.
In the great era of planting in the 18th and the early part of the 19th centuries, beech trees were introduced to Killarney and the conifers introduced from the north west United States in the middle of the last century are now some of the biggest trees in Killarney. The 140 ft giant sequoia in the field south of the pedestrian entrance to Muckross Abbey is one of the largest trees in the area.
Douglas fir is the other great introduction from Oregon in North America and one tree exceeds 155 ft high, making it the highest of its species in Ireland and among the highest in these islands and is the tallest tree in the Killarney area.
Cormac Foley was highlighting the woodlands of Killarney in the current issue of Where Killarney, a magazine published periodically by Frank Lewis Public Relations, which features eating, entertainment, maps, shopping, sightseeing and what's on. It is endorsed by Killarney UDC, Killarney Chamber of Commerce, Killarney of the Welcomes, Killarney Tourism and Killarney Hotels.