Over the centuries, Irish gardeners, nurseries, and estates have contributed a wealth of additions to our gardens. Whether an odd seedling of a different colour, an upright form of a usually tumbling shrub, or a crafted or spontaneous hybrid between two plants, these novelties are part of our horticultural heritage. They are also often accompanied by a unique gardening tale.

One of the first plants with a documented Irish garden association is the now iconic Irish Yew – Taxus baccata ‘Fastigiata’, also known as the Florencecourt Yew. This variety is distinguishable from the usual form of native T. baccata as it is an upright tree with erect (fastigiate) branches and holds its leaves in whorls. As it is a female clone it produces red fruits. This tree is familiar to many as the typical tree lining cemeteries in Ireland and the UK. It originated in Carrick-na-madadh, on the slopes of Cuilcagh Mountain in Co. Fermanagh, not far from the Florencecourt Estate. It was found and collected by George Willis, a labourer, circa 1740. The mother tree – the original yew – still survives in the woodland near Florencecourt. Its appearance however is somewhat dilapidated after years of cuttings being taken! The tree is best grown from cuttings as seeds sown will not always remain true to the fastigiate form.

So how does a new variation come to be recognised as a new cultivar? To be officially recognised, the grower must get the plant registered or provide a reliable description in an appropriate publication. Many Irish cultivars are processed with the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in England who have a record of varieties of garden plants. The RHS is part of a worldwide network of International Cultivar Registration Authorities (ICRAs), which play a vital role in promoting uniformity, accuracy and stability in the naming of cultivated plants. ICRAs are appointed by the International Society for Horticultural Science through its Commission for Nomenclature and Registration. A photograph and a description are sent in and if the plant is of sufficient merit the RHS accept the novelty and provide a certificate if needed.

The National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin has been a repository for many of these varieties and in the past was a great distributor of Irish cultivars. Today the role of distribution and promotion is largely undertaken by the Irish Garden Plant Society (IGPS).

The IGPS was formed in July 1981. The Aims of the Society are listed as:

  • The study of plants cultivated in Ireland and their history
  • The development of horticulture in Ireland
  • The education of members on the cultivation and conservation of garden plants
  • To research and locate garden plants considered to be rare or in need of conservation, especially those raised in Ireland by Irish gardeners and nurserymen.
  • To co-operate with horticulturists, botanists, botanical and other gardens, individuals and organisations in Ireland and elsewhere in these matters.
  • To issue and publish information on the garden plants of Ireland and to facilitate the exchange of information with other interested individuals and groups.

The Society publishes a newsletter three/four times each year advising members of upcoming events, reporting on the Society’s activities and carrying articles of interest. To date, sixteen volumes of the society’s journal Moorea have been published. The newsletter and the journal are free to members as part of their subscription.

The Society has exhibited a number of times at flower shows including Chelsea Flower Show. In 1995, they teamed up with the Gardens to exhibit ‘The Brightest Jewel, Irish Gardens celebrate 200 years of Glasnevin’ at Chelsea. The display featured architectural elements celebrating our historic glasshouses and Irish cultivars, including some bred in Glasnevin.

In 2001, the Society published A Heritage of Beauty – The Garden Plants of Ireland, An Illustrated Encyclopaedia by Dr E. Charles Nelson which lists 5,300 cultivars including many daffodils and roses of Irish origin. This volume gives the background to many of the plant listed – where it originated, who grew it etc. and provides the kind of information on Irish plants which endears them to people – the personal details and histories.

For more on the IGPS see http://irishgardenplantsociety.com/

Since the publication of A Heritage of Beauty, the IGPS took a concentrated and novel approach in pairing with the Irish Society of Botanical Artists (ISBA). In May 2012, at the invitation of the Gardens, a group of botanical artists met and decided to begin the process of founding the ISBA. Their mission statement is:

To facilitate interaction amongst botanical artists in Ireland, and to foster and inspire their creative development.

To date, the ISBA have run three highly successful projects associated with Irish plants and Irish botanical art. The first two were organised with the IGPS and the Botanic Gardens – Aibítir/The Irish Alphabet in Botanical Art and Heritage Irish Plants – Plandaí Oidreachta. The most recent project Éireannach: A worldwide exhibition linking people with plants though botanical art was part of an international project and was run in cooperation with botanical art societies across the world.

For more on the ISBA see http://www.irishbotanicalartists.ie/

The joint project Heritage Irish Plants – Plandaí Oidreachta highlighted, amongst others, new primroses, daffodils, dahlias, and sweet pea of Irish origin. The following facts may come as a surprise to some: Ireland plays a major role in daffodil breeding, there are two bespoke Irish origins for primroses and sweet pea, and new introductions in dahlia breeding currently sweep the awards at shows run by the prestigious Royal Horticultural Society.

Although Irish cultivars are scattered throughout the collections at Glasnevin a new set of beds have been designed and will be developed as the Irish Cultivar Garden. With a pathway shaped like a St Brigid’s cross, the accompanying beds hold individual cultivars with an Irish association.

As we move through the seasons we will post about some of the remarkable and attractive plants in our collections at Glasnevin.

Lathyrus ‘Lauren Landy’ is a wonderful sweet-smelling pale pink sweet pea. It was first raised by Sydney Harrod of Cooltonagh Irish Sweet Peas. He named the cultivar in memory of Lauren Landy, who had bravely suffered and died from bone cancer. Income from sales of ‘Lauren Landy’ go to the Bone Cancer Research Trust (a British and Irish charity). It now flowers happily in July/August in the East Border in Glasnevin.

Lathyrus ‘Lauren Landy’. Photo by Koraley Northen

Dahlia ‘Aggie White’ is notable for its enormous orange-bronze blooms which are at their best in September, when flowers can measure up to 38cm in diameter. Bred by Christopher White, it is named for his mother Aggie. This giant won prestigious awards at competitions including the Dahlia Show organised by the Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland and at the RHS Harrogate Flower Show. It first became commercially available in 2017. Christopher White designed the dahlia bed at our sister OPW site, Áras an Uachtaráin (added to the gardens at the special request of President Michael D. Higgins). Like our own at Glasnevin, the Áras display contains many Irish cultivars, including Dahlia ‘John Markham’.

Dahlia ‘John Markham’, a purple pompon-type dahlia, was registered as a distinct variety by Irish dahlia breeder and president of the Irish Dahlia Society Alick Branigan in 2013. Alick named the dahlia for his friend John, who made a significant contribution to horticulture in Ireland. Before trying his hand at dahlias John was a prize-winning vegetable grower. Given his penchant for tubers such as potatoes, a friend gave him some dahlia tubers to plant. Soon John had almost a hundred dahlia varieties growing in ruler-straight rows in his Greystones garden. He regularly exhibited them and became a National Dahlia Society (UK organisation) approved judge, a distinguished role. He judged at many horticultural shows around Dublin.

The first dahlia cultivar which Alick Branigan propagated was one he named in honour of his father Jim ‘Lugs’ Branigan, who was a very well-known member of An Garda Siochána in Dublin. That dahlia was seedling of the year in 1981 in the Dahlia Society’s centenary year in England. Dahlia ‘Jim Branigan’ has 25cm heads of spiky petals in bold red. You might call it blood red. James Christopher Branigan, better known as Lugs Branigan or Jim Branigan (1910 – 1986), was also well-known as an Irish boxer and boxing referee. He has been described as a “legend and part of Dublin mythology”. Branigan joined the Gardaí in June 1931. He was known for using physical force against petty criminals, which he admitted to doing to avoid excessive paperwork. Branigan sometimes acted as an unofficial social worker, as he was close to people on his beat. His individual heavy-handedness, strength, and fearlessness drew much attention to Sergeant Branigan, his personal notoriety growing over the years. An oft-repeated story has Detective Branigan giving culprits either the choice of a ‘box to the face’ or a day in court. Dahlia ‘Jim Branigan’ is a rather fitting tribute to the man as following his retirement he settled down to a peaceful life tending to his budgerigars and crops in Summerhill, Co. Meath.

A downside of some of the more highly bred and showy dahlias is that their central disk (where pollen and nectar are produced) is almost inaccessible to pollinators. Dahlia ‘Matt Armour’ is more pollinator-friendly as it is a simple single-flowered variety, useful to bees, butterflies and hoverflies. Introduced in 1933, ‘Matt Armour’ is named for the gardener who raised it from seed in Glenveagh Castle Gardens in Donegal.

Dahlia ‘Aggie White’. Photo by Charlotte Salter-Townshend

On Saturday 22nd and Sunday 23rd September we host the Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland’s annual Dahlia Show. This is the perfect opportunity to see prizewinning Irish grown dahlias, including many Irish cultivars.

For more information on where to find these plants please contact us or visit the information desk in the Visitor Centre. Follow the IGPS, the ISBA, and this website for future posts on Irish cultivars.

Brendan Sayers and Charlotte Salter-Townshend