When I lived in Ireland, decades ago, every few months I would ride south from my home north of Dublin Airport to the garden at Mount Usher in County Wicklow. Ride on a battered old motor bike, I should say, not cycle: it was 38 miles (61 Km).
One of the first articles I ever wrote was about Mount Usher, for The Irish Garden magazine, which is still going strong. I criticized the maintenance at the garden and was then myself severely criticized for doing so – most of the angry responses, I seem to recall, assumed that I was criticizing the garden itself when in fact it was the lack of care: I was dismayed to see wild brambles growing out of ornamental grasses.
So, naturally, the first chapter I looked up in this splendid new book, The Irish Garden by Jane Powers, was on Mount Usher and I was delighted to discover how well it still thrives – and it certainly seems to be well looked after (although a local spy tells me this may not be the case). I remember it especially for its quietly compelling atmosphere and the fact that, then, you could cross so close over the river and streams. I also remember it for its rare South American evergreen shrubs, including Crinodendron and Desfontainea, and for its impressive Eucryphia collection. It now contains, Jane tells us, over two dozen trees which are champions of all Britain and Ireland.
Having visited many of the gardens featured in the book, mostly long ago, I was very pleased to discover elements of familiar gardens that were new to me as well as to have remembered enthusiasms rekindled. It takes four hundred pages to cover almost sixty gardens from an island the size of South Carolina (America’s tenth smallest state) and this and the very large format allows the expansive photography by Jonathan Hession space to make a real impact and the essays space to be reflective as well as descriptive.
This is both a book for the far away voyeur and a before-you-visit book. If you never visit Ireland you’ll enjoy this book anyway. If you intend visiting Ireland, all the gardens are open to visitors and their websites listed.
The Irish Garden by Jane Powers, with photography by Jonathan Hession, is published by Frances Lincoln at £40/$60.
In recent years, Barnhaven Primroses, originally from Oregon and now in France (via England) have been branching out. Nothing dramatic, but alongside primroses they’ve been expanding their choice of other primulas and also added hellebores to their range.
One exceptional, and much underrated, plant they’ve been championing is Primula sieboldii and they’ve recently announced the availability of some lovely forms from Japan, including the double-flowered ‘Flamenco’ (above). They’ve been quietly been building up stock for some time.
This is an exceptional species, with fresh looking, bright, divided leaves and a flurry of up to ten spring flowers held on upright stems. Sound like a polyanthus? Yes, but so much more delicate and stylish.
In the wild, it’s a woodlander creeping through wet woods in Japan, Korea, China, Russia and, as the canopy closes, the foliage fades away. In summer I find it will take drought, although it’s worth remembering that the plants dislike lime. And it’s very hardy: USDA Z4, RHS H7.
The only problem is that with no sign of it above ground from late summer until mid or late spring, it’s easy to forget precisely where you planted it and attempt to plant something else in its space.
Our plants here in Pennsylvania came from the late and much lamented Seneca Hill Nursery in upstate NY and I always pick a few stems to bring indoors from the expanding clumps. Some of the clumps have expanded so much that they’ve escaped the borders, meandered under the boards supporting the raised bed and emerged on the path.
Lazy’s Farm now seems to have the best choice in the US but, in Europe, always start at Barnhaven. They have seventeen varieties of their own raising, including ‘Trade Winds’ (right, click to enlarge) and twelve Japanese varieties available as plants, including the lovely ‘Flamenco’ (top) and some delightful forms with white picotee edges to the flowers. Nine more varieties are available as seed.
Barnhaven will send seeds, and also plants, to the US, with a phytosanitary certificate at a cost of 11.43 euros. If customers have a small seed lots permit there is no phyto charge for sending seeds. [After six months I'm still waiting for my small seed lots permit...]
Perhaps people are disconcerted by the fact that the plants disappear for much of the year, or perhaps the intolerance of too much lime puts people off. But considering how easy they are to grow, we really don’t see them enough. They’re much easier to keep over the long term than the special varieties of primroses and polyanthus which so often seem to fade away after a few years.
In Japan, the heyday of Primula sieboldii was from the beginning of the 17th century to the mid 19th century but now Barnhaven and others are re-inventing them after so many varieties have been lost over the centuries. And it’s not as if they need careful cossetting and conditions it’s tough to provide. They’re easy… give them a go.