If You Ever Go Across The Sea...
...to Ireland of course! And if you do,
you could do worse than follow in B. W. Fursman's footsteps to some
palmy places. Fab!
B. W. Fursman, 36 Hopefield Ave., London
NW6 6LH, UK
Chamaerops No. 20, published online 23-07-2002
on this article:
Click here to read them or to add your own.
Now thats what I call a Cordyline...Mature
specimen at Timoleague.
In the words of the Caribbean song, Ireland may
well have been an 'island in the sun', especially after the long,
hot summer of this year. However, does the Emerald Isle have more
in common with the Caribbean than just a shared history of slavery,
immigration, a love of music, brightly painted houses and an equal
claim on the parentage of Bob Marley? In other words, does the 'island'
of Ireland have palms? My roots, perhaps like the palms', are Irish.
On previous visits, I had been intrigued by the crimson hedge-rows
of South American Fuchsia magellanica and the banks of vivid orange,
tubular flowered, African Crocosmiiflora - better known as Montbretia.
Not to mention the numerous spiky 'palm-trees' I thought I had seen
outside pubs, banks and the occasional Garda (police) station.
The folk ballad, 'Give Us Back Our Teddy's Head',
compares the shape of Ireland to a small bear. Therefore the hind-legs
- counties Cork and Kerry - stick out and 'paddle' in the equatorial
currents of the Mexican Gulf Stream This gives Ireland an important
advantage over other parts of Northern Europe - an almost total
absence of severe frosts and snow. Winter temperatures averaging
5 to 7¾C (40 to 42¾F) and in summer, 15 to 17¾C. (60 to 65¾F) Allowing
for this summer's exceptional sunshine, a normal, Irish 'hot' day
goes up to 25¾C (80¾F). Despite this, the familiar expression 'The
Emerald Isle', was penned by the dry-wit, William Drennan, for a
very good reason - rain! Thankfully, Irish rain like the whiskey,
is softer, more aromatic and has less 'bite' than the Scottish variety.
Often a talcum powder of mist sprinkled over the land the rain,
unlike the whiskey, rarely turns into a hard downpour! Consequently,
"It's a soft day today," is a euphemism often heard leaving
the lips of smiling Irish landladies. Describing as it does, the
rain-sodden landscape awaiting the unsuspecting tourist beyond the
steamy window of the B & B.
To compensate, Ireland, even this summer was lush
and green compared to mainland Britain; a land which bore a striking
resemblance to the Kalahari Desert during an exceptional drought.
To quote Fodor's 'positive thinking' guide to Ireland, 'The rain
brings the flowers there are tropical islands or equatorial jungles
where flowers grow in more splendid profusion and variety.... but
I disbelieve it'.
The mild climate, rainfall and fertile soil, make
it reasonable to ask whether conditions are conducive to cultivating
some species of exotic plants that would not normally survive in
more frost-prone parts of Europe. It was even rumoured that whole
forests of Dicksonia antarctica thrived in the damp, mild climate
of southern Kerry. To visit Ireland again was the only way to find
out if this was true. Furthermore, what better time to palm-hunt
in Ireland than during the hottest summer the country was experiencing
since records began. I had packed a couple of very useful publications
before starting out. One was entitled 'Gardens of Ireland'. The
other, 'Leisure Map - Ireland', showed the location of 'subtropical
gardens'. I also took along an umbrella, a good singing voice and
a sturdy pair of walking shoes - I would recommend them to anyone
planning a 'palm safari' in the Emerald Isle.
My own quest for the exotic started with the prosaic
- the boat from Fishguard in Wales to Rosslare, County Wexford,
supposedly Ireland's 'Riviera' and also its driest region - weather-wise
that is! Stepping out of the ferry terminal at Rosslare, the visitor
is immediately confronted by the ubiquitous Cordyline australis
- the plant I innocently mistook for a 'palm' on previous visits.
The Stars and Stripes, the Republic's green, white
and gold tri-colour and the blue EEC flag are to be found everywhere
in Ireland. Likewise, Cordylines in bizarre shapes and sizes, rustle
in the breeze outside nearly every pub, hotel and shebeen. Rosslare,
the resort-town not the ferryport, is easily missed by many visitors.
Besides having an unspoilt, six mile beach, it was there I encountered
my first, 'Celtic' Chusan Palm Trachycarpus fortunei, toasting hardy
fronds beneath the merciless Wexford sun. Outside an hotel I also
discovered four Agave americana variegata. With the ever present
Cabbage palms - Cordyline Australis - in both the gardens and roads
of the small resort, the effect, if not the botanic classification,
was truly exotic.
Leaving Rosslare, I travelled directly south, following
the road that leads to the Ballyhack Passage East car-ferry. This
crosses the Waterford harbour estuary and is the easiest way of
shortening the journey, which otherwise has to be made by road further
west. Passing through Waterford (of crystal glass fame), my destination
was Fota, nine miles east of Cork city. Fota was an island now joined
by bridge to the mainland. It contains a Wildlife Park and an arboretum
with a world-famous collection of trees and shrubs.
Before reaching Fota, I stayed overnight in the
harbour town of Dungarvan. There, I discovered the owner of my overnight
accommodation (Cairbre House, Tel: 058 42338), had lived for years
in Kuwait. He was now interested in growing sub-tropical plants
in the large garden that stretches down to the waterfront. As evidence,
a Fatsia japonica sat in the entrance hall and two cacti - in containers
- basked in the mellow afternoon sun at the front of the ivy-clad,
two hundred year old building.
Next morning, I drove to Fota along the N25. This
is the best way to approach the aboretum, as it avoids Cork City
one-way system. There is no doubt in my mind that this was specifically
designed to test the patience of saints - of which Ireland has many.
At Fota I may as well have been lost in Cork for all the time I
wasted in trying to locate the aboretum. Do not make my mistake
and pay the hefty entrance fee to the Wildlife Park, perhaps enticed
inside by the sight of two healthy Phoenix canariensis, the Canary
Island Date Palm, in large pots, by the turnstiles. If you do, you
will spend a frustrating hour trudging between giraffe, zebra and
pink flamingos and even pinker parents accompanied by bawling, overheated
children, hoping to spot a Musa basjoo, Chamaerops or even a trusty
old Trachycarpus fortunei. Take my advice - there ain't none - turn
around for Dicksonias or Washingtonias!
The Arboretum is on the other side of the car park,
absolutely free to enter and wonderfully deserted on the mid-August
day I visited. Comprising 780 acres of mild and sheltered microclimate,
it includes a Fernery, Orangery, Water and Walled Italian Garden
and even a small temple. The Arboretum was planted in earnest in
the 1840's and with Fota House formed part of a Regency estate.
It is also home to plants from all over the world - species from
China and South America proliferating and growing to great heights
in the benign climate.
Today, this microclimate has resulted in whole avenues
of mature, 'mop-topped' Trachycarpus lining the paths. An added
bonus at Fota is that each plant is labelled giving its country
of origin, planting date and height in 1966 and 1984. In the Fernery,
I encountered my first grove of rather parched looking, Dicksonia
antarctica tree ferns. It was hot, and their dry condition reminded
me of the thirsty punters described in the song, 'The Pub With No
Beer'. Leaving the Fernery, I came upon the spectacular sight of
two fully mature Phoenix canariensis, Canary Island Date Palms.
These be-whiskered, old gentlemen - relics from a colonial age -
stood eternal sentry duty each side of the dilapidated summer-pavilion'.
However, on reading the labels, I found the Date Palms were only
planted in 1966. Then they stood 5.5m tall to the crown centre.
When measured in 1984, they reached the height of 8m. Today, their
lofty fronds would do justice to 'County Cairo' let alone County
Nearby, clustered two extremely large, bushy clumps
of the hardy Chamaerops humilis the Mediterranean Fan Palm. Away
from the old pavilion, I also spotted the luminous, billowing green
paddles of the root-hardy Musa basjoo. It was tucked snugly up against
a protective, stonewall and was my first sighting of an 'Irish banana.
Optimism, like good humour, friendly people and
rain is never in short supply in Ireland, and I was therefore not
surprised to spot an adolescent Cotton Palm - Washingtonia filifera,
planted near the Musas. Following the path leading to the walled
Italian Garden, I passed yet another of the many Trachycarpus that
had been planted in 1916 - ironically, the year of the Easter Uprising.
'Bayonets' were also in mind on next encountering the sharp shoots
of the Spanish Bayonet, Yucca aloifolia. In the Italian Garden,
I rested from the uncompromising, mid-afternoon heat. On the lawn
in front of me, stood the statuesque bush-shapes of some of the
most mature Cordyline australis I had ever encountered in northern
Europe. Behind, some more Musa basjoos - while to my left, over
the old, stone wall, waved the feathery fronds of the Canary Island
Date Palms - as if transported from an Arabian souk. Open daily
from 1st April until 30th October - 10.00 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays
at 11.00 a.m., a visit to Fota Island Arboretum should be an absolutely
essential item on any palm enthusiast's itinerary.
With regret, I left Fota behind and pointed the
car further southwards - towards Kinsale the other side of Cork
City. Kinsale is noted as the 'gastronomic capital of Ireland' as
well as having historic links with France and Spain. Although a
real treat for the taste buds - if not those of a botanical nature
- I was soon on the road to Timoleague Castle Gardens in Timoleague,
County Cork. Situated eleven miles south west of Kinsale, these
are open to the public 'most days' - as they say in Ireland however
phone (023) 46116 just to check. Like Fota beforehand, I found the
entrance to the gardens difficult to locate - no wonder - it was
late Sunday and the sign had been taken in as the gardens were closed
for the evening. At least by the time I went back on Monday, my
geographical knowledge of the local countryside had certainly improved!
At the entrance to Timoleague, the lucky visitor
encounters an almost luminescent stretch of lawn leading up to the
'new' house, built alongside the thirteenth century Barry Castle.
'The Lawn' as it is referred to, was reclaimed from the sea and
laid out in the 1870s when it provided courts for the first Lawn
Tennis Club of Ireland. At this end of the lawn is the shrubbery,
created on the site of the old Timoleague House, burnt down in 1920
during the 'Troubles'. Some interesting plants are to be found here
such as spring flowering azaleas and magnolias as well as nearby,
my first 'spiky' of the day - a Spanish Bayonet, Yucca aloifolia.
Also worth noting was a mature example of a plant that had greatly
impressed me at Wisley with its exotic foliage the jungle-like,
Paulownia tomentosa or Foxglove Tree.
Walking up towards the Castle from 'The Lawn', the
path leads towards the sunken Valley Garden. This once formed part
of the castle moat defences. Nowadays, its formal beds and lily
pond are dominated by four fully mature Cordyline australis - their
massive, fragrant, creamy-white panicles flowering in early June.
The garden has a tranquillity, and yet a gentle vibrancy that reminded
me of Monet's garden at Gierverny, outside of Paris, that is - 'sans
From the Valley to the Lower Garden is a short walk
up steps overhung by a fine lime-arch and guarded by pots of razor-edged,
Agave americana variegata. At the far end of the Lower Garden, there
is a long range of greenhouses. These were once heated in three
sections at different temperatures for growing exotic plants. The
greenhouses have recently been renovated but, according to the guide,
'have long since ceased to house the more exotic specimens'. I did,
however, notice (and taste!) the first black grapes I had seen growing
in Ireland. Potted Musas, Agaves, Phormiums and Cordylines are also
grown for sale in the Lower Garden.
Leaving the greenhouses, I made my way towards the
River Garden and orchard being developed on the banks of the Argued
River. This tranquil walk is partly on the track of the former Timoleague
and Courtmacsherry Light Railway. In the orchard, I was pleased
to note two young yet sturdy examples of Trachycarpus fortunei amongst
the old apple trees. Timoleague is a place that permeates the thoughts.
Maybe it was the heat haze or the effects of the afternoon 'pint-of-plain'
but I think I saw my first glint of the giant, 'potted-palm-of-gold'
beneath the rainbows created by the lawn sprinklers on that historic
lawn. After visiting the gardens, I recommend Lettercollum House
(0230 46251) as a relaxing stop-over in Timoleague The old nunnery,
now hotel and haute cuisine restaurant, also has some attractive,
southern European 'Irish Strawberry Trees', Arbutus unedo. I stayed
at Lettercollum before venturing on to Creagh - more Trachycarpus
and many more Dicksonias - and the next stop on my tour of Irish,
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