Palm Pilgrimage

This is the second and concluding part of Barry's 'If you ever go across the Sea...' odyssey to Ireland, to the many mild gardens there, and the wonderful and perfectly grown plants they contain.
Barry Eursman, 36 Hopefield Avenue, London NW6 6BL, UK
Chamaerops No.23, Summer Edition 1996

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Above: Creagh 'Sub-tropical' Garden
Below: Fine specimen of Gunnera manicata, Kells Bay, Ireland

Asking for directions at a local petrol station I located Creagh, the next stop on my tour of Irish 'sub-tropical' gardens, six kilometres out of Skibbereen - on the road to the barnacled and bustling port of Baltimore. Open March to October and at other times by arrangement with the hospitable owner Martin Sherry, Creagh was originally inspired by the paintings of Henri 'Douanier' Rousseau, the French 19th century primitive' artist. On the hot afternoon I visited, amongst the twenty acres of lush vegetation and palate' of different greens, it was easy to imagine being in one of Rousseau's famous canvases 'Exotic Landscape' or 'The Jungle' for example without the marauding lions and long-suffering antelopes that is!

Near to where the gardens slope down to the sea estuary, I discovered a serpentine mill-pond. To accompany the reptilian metaphor, I also found a Gunnera manicata of truly elephantine proportions. Nearby, mature Trachycarpus fortunei sheltered the first of the really gargantuan Dicksonia antarctica I was to find in Ireland. If for you, as for Rousseau, the exotic means a kind of poetry, that is a freedom to arrange everyday reality on the blank canvases or pages of our own gardens, then Creagh with its juxtaposed plantings should provide an inspired verse or two.

I headed south west towards Garnish or Ilnacullin Island, which in Gaelic means 'island of the holly'. The 37 acres are situated near the town of Glengariff, in the sheltered Bantry Bay. Ilnacullin is described as a gardener's paradise, enclosed by Gulf Stream waters and surrounded by mountains borrowed from the elf and hobbit lands of literary mythology. The boat-trip to the island includes sightings of the local basking and barking, grey-seal population. Visiting the island today, it is difficult to visualise the verdant lawns and exotic plantings disguising what was once uninhabited, furze and heather covered rock. The only building an isolated Martello tower built in 1805 to deter the Napoleonic invasion. ilnacullin was bought in 1910 by retired East India merchant John Bryce who quickly realised its potential for growing southern hemisphere plants especially those coming from the same, 50 degree latitude as the island. Bryce hired Harold Peto, the English architect and horticulturist to arrange the transportation of boatloads of fertile, mainland soil and to blast holes in the rock to provide sufficient deep root run for the trees that were to be grown. Peto also designed the Italian Renaissance style garden, pool and pavilion.

Apart from this evocative, Mediterraneaninspired architecture I also discovered a large enough selection of rare and tender plants to keep even a spiky haired 'palm-punk' like myself happy! Abutilon, Dicksonias, Cyatheas, Grevilleas, Olearia, the Californian evergreen tree, Lyonothamnus floribundus asplenifolius, are but a few of the species thriving in the moist island air and soil. There is also a collection of tender southern hemisphere confers - the only recorded New Zealand Phyllocladus glaucous growing out-ofdoors in the British Isles, and at thirty feet, an example of the Dacrydium cupressinum is the tallest growing in Ireland.

Inside the roofless Greek temple, looking back over the sea towards mainland Ireland, I thought Ilnacullin a fascinating place to spend a day. 'A day' in fact, was not enough. The temptation was to miss the evening ferry back and remain castaway in 'Happy Valley' near the lily-pond. I would have been quite content marooned on my 'islandof-dreams', sleeping under the swaying bamboo canes of Arundinaria japonica!

My next stop however was to be the bracing, slap-in-the-face air of the Bean Peninsula - a contrast to the seductive, cordylined lushness of Bantry Bay. I soon discovered that the Beara was unfortunately not the 'Brahea armata Peninsula', A long spit of land, it juts out towards the Bay of Biscay and distant lands of France and Spain. The Beara was the only place in Ireland where I did not see a Cordyline, Trachycarpus or Dicksonia. This is because many Spanish trawlermen, especially from Viego in Galicia, drop anchor at the port of Castletownbere, having braved the rigours of the Bay of Biscay, EEC fishing quotas and the ever vigilant Irish Fishing Protectorate vessels! Lack of palms on the Beara to photograph and enthuse over was to the relief, I might add, of my travelling companions. Their patience with my limitless enthusiasm for stopping to take yet another photograph of a Cordyline or Trachy more 'palm-like' than the previous two dozen, was wearing as thin as horticultural fleece that had seen one too many a northern winter. To my relief and their dismay I did hit the brakes on discovering a Medusa-like cluster of Phormium tenax by a roadside cottage. In Ireland but especially on the Beara, Phormiums are not primarily decorative but essential as a windbreak against the fierce, Atlantic winds.

The road dipped, twisted and curved, as only Irish roads know how, towards the lush County Kerry and Derreen Sub-tropical Gardens - a contrast with the wild, desolate beauty of the Beara I had left behind. Reassuringly near Derreen, I spotted the fronds of a three metre high, Dicksonia antarctica growing like a privet hedge, behind the wall of an ordinary roadside front garden. Perhaps in the moist Kerry air I would find my first, large grove of Tree ferns? After all, my guide-book to Derreen promised, 'mature sub-tropical gardens .... with a profusion of rare fern trees from New Zealand ' I could hardly wait!

Open April to October, Derreen was described by its first owner, Sir William Petty as, unprofitable.. .waste land... in one of the loveliest situations in western Ireland.... indeed in all of Northern Europe.' Luckily, the 5th Lord Lansdowne carried out an extensive planting programme. Like Ilicullin, this dramatically transformed the bare rock and scrub-oak into the luxuriant woodland of today. Lansdowne, like Bryce, realised the potential for growing exotic plants in the soft, frost-free climate of Kerry, with its annual 70 or 80 inches of precipitation. Planted in 1870, a Tasmanian blue gum tree, Eucalyptus globulus, is now reputed to be one of the tallest in cultivation as is a Cryptomeria japonica elegans, which tilts across across the 'Rock Garden Walk' at an eccentric 45 degree angle. If there was a problem with Derrreen, it was one that I have never unfortunately encountered in my own back-garden of stubborn, London clay. That is, the plants grew so fast that one hundred Rhododendron arboretum hybrids had to be felled as they crowded each other out and excluded the precious Irish daylight.

However for me, I remember Derreen for its forest of Dicksonia antarcticas - the tallest of these planted nearly a hundred years ago. Not surprisingly the fronds of these old fellows have begun to 'droop', as they have not put on much growth for the last thirty years. The most majestic Dicksonias are planted in the aptly named, dank and muddy walk called the King's Oozy. The Dicksonias love the damp, mild conditions and spread themselves by hundreds of self-sown spores. These little 'dicksonitas' crowd into the walkway's dark drainage channels, which then become blocked - hence the mud and I suppose, the 'oozy! The tightly packed adult Dicksonias - fronds oscillating gently in the mild sea-air - are completely at home in Derreen. In the shade of the giant blue gums and large clumps of rampant bamboo, they make a truly exotic and unforgettable sight.

Waving a 'frond' farewell to Dereen I headed towards Kenmare town. I turned left outside Kenmare and onto one of the most famous drives an all of Ireland - the Ring of Kerry. Driving 'the Ring', bitter experience taught me, keep your eyes off the Cordylines and open for the squat, tourist buses that hurtle around the bends as fast as the hunting-dogs of legendary Celtic chieftains chasing the hare! Ten kilometres from Kenmare as Tahilla Cove Hotel. From the terrace bar I enjoyed magnificent views of the cove and also examined excellent examples of the ubiquitous Cordyline australis, Spanish Bayonets, Phormiums and an astounding example of Gunnera manicata. Leaving the cove, travellers can save themselves a fruitless diversion down a long, narrow track by not following the sign for 'Rosoden Pier'.

I had hoped to visit another 'island garden' called Garinish - not to be confused with the island of the same name in Bantry Bay. However, according to the knowledgeable owner of the Kenmare Garden Centre, this 'Robinsonian' inspired, exotic garden is definitely 'privately owned'. Joe Public or even 'Pete the Palm Addict' not standing a chance of seeing its Dicksonias, eucalyptus groves, the bottle-brush plant, Callistemon or even receiving the usual, warm Irish 'Cae Mille Failte' welcome! Undaunted, a few kilometres further on rubber hit gravel as I turned down the fine, Cordylined drive-way of the 5 star Parknasillia Hotel. Not surprisingly, it was omitted from my wellthumbed, second-hand copy of the Rough Guide to Ireland! If the weather is fine it is worth sitting out on Parknasilia's 'boat-deck' terrace, enjoying your favourite vintage and the excellent views of Kenmare Estuary. Otherwise, stroll for free through the gardens beneath the open-air Jacuzzi admiring the azaleas, Phormiums, Yuccas and ever present 'vintage' Cordylines.

Leaving Parknasillia, my final destination on the hunt for the ultimate, Celtic Chamaerops was to visit the most westerly 'sub-tropical' garden in Europe - Glaneam House Subtropical Gardens, These are situated on the aptly named Valentia Island - spelt with a 't' and not 'c' as in Spain. Valentia is a seven by three mile island with a resident population of 700 people and, after a quick 'fond-count' - an estimated 700 Phormiums! I reached the island by road-bridge from the fishing village of Portmagee, 11 kilometres from Caheriveen on the Ring of Kerry. The gardens are situated on the north eastern side of Valentia and are open daily with accommodation available on request. Dating from the 1830° they were first developed by Sir Peter Fitzgerald, 19th Knight of Kerry. He again, like Bryce and Lansdowne was aware of the potential of this almost frost-free, sea-side microclimate. Sir Peter set about creating one of the first 'subtropical' gardens in the wild-garden, Robinsonian style This farsighted, 19th century 'exoticist' was also an early pioneer in plant acclimatisation, managing to plant an extensive collection of exotics imported from the southern hemisphere.

Many species survive today including the strikingly, orange-suede barked Myrtus appiculata, the Chilean Fire-Bush tree, Embothrium coccineum and magnificent avenues of Dicksonias antarcticas with trunks as stout as military flag-poles. Besides the Killarney Strawberry Tree, Arbutus unedo, the Musa basjoos and the many Trachys, recent additions to Glaneam include the Mexican Blue palm, Brahea armata and the hardy Argentinean Jelly Palm, Butia capitata. I even found a Sago palm, Cycas revoluta growing amongst the aloes, sempervivums and Opuntia cacti. It will be interesting to observe how these survive or seed themselves in the mild, moist climate of the island? In fact over the years, some of the earlier plantings at Glanean have escaped 'over the wall' and successfully seeded themselves on Valentia. A feature of the island today is the richly coloured Fuschia ricartonii covering the hedgerows. Other descendants of the nineteenth century 'escapees' are Phormiums growing wild along the Valentia's roadsides, Enticing, wavering, serpent-shaped creatures, some clusters are magnificent enough to distract your attention from the road - that is until an abrupt noise from the suspension announces your descent into one of the large pot-holes' Valencia Island is also famous for!

My journey had taken me in a half-circle 'loop' of some of the many, Irish 'sub-tropical' gardens. From Rosslare, down the south eastern coast of Ireland and back up again towards Valentia Island - the edge of Europe and the wild, Atlantic West Coast. Thankfully there, instead of a Leprechaun and a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow I had found Trachycarpus, Mexican Blue palms, Jelly Palms and the incredible 'plantations' of Dicksonia antarctica, The last before Newfoundland, only 1,900 miles away and therefore the last in Western Europe - that is - unless the lost city of Atlantis has any submerged, sub-tropical gardens?! I was returning to England with one of those Irish Dicksonias trussed like a Christmas turkey, to my roof-rack, I had bought this as a memento from the Vogels, a German family, who grow these and many other interesting plants, at a nursery in Kells Bay near Valentia island. Like my own ancestors beforehand, this little fern was emigrating to 'put down roots' in London's less than free-draining soil. In reality my Dicksonia antarctica should be more than merry planted out in half a whisky barrel filled with compost mixture. Finally, to paraphrase the old Bing Crosby ditty, '...'if you ever go across the sea to Ireland,' you may well expect, with a little Irish luck, .... to see the sun go down on a 'palm-fringed' Galway Bay!'

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