Our local garden club hosted Des Doyle of Lavistown House, near Kilkenny, last evening when he delivered a talk on his favourite plants – a total of forty plants as it turned out! Des showed an admirable reluctance to narrow his selection and I imagine that if time allowed he could have continued to list another forty plants which he loves to grow.
In the course of the talk Des asked us to consider the criteria on which we should select our favourite plant – the most obvious being that it should actually grow for us in the garden! People will have many reasons for their own choices – a favourite colour, a memento of a special day out, a kind gift or a name that coincides with that of a child or grandchild. Immediacy is another influence – what is in flower at the moment is more likely to be favoured that one held in memory or in anticipation.
Some flexibility is called for on occasion: a gardening journalist on a national newspaper once contacted me and asked me to say what my favourite flower was and to write a few lines about it for her. I considered for a day or so and dropped her a line with the information she required. She thanked me but came back the following day and asked if I could make another selection as someone else had also chosen my favourite plant. There is always room for more than one favourite!
Besides the obvious there is one quality which I have found has the greatest influence on my choice of favourites and that is association or connection. Were it an antique or a work of art we might call it provenance – its origins, its history of ownership and how it came into your ownership.
My list of favourites is long; certainly there is a favourite or two for each week of the year but here is a quick selection which has come to mind following Des’ talk last evening.
We started gardening almost forty years ago – marriage, new home and new garden – and our first steps were as often based on best value rather than on best taste. That border which mixed azaleas with dahlias still remains in our minds and we laugh at the incongruity of plants and the clash of colours. However, some memories from those early days are happy ones and are still with us. Two workmates gave us primulas – Primula juliae types – from their mothers’ gardens so we still grow “John Howley’s Mother’s primulas”, all the way from Mooncoin, and “Rosaleen Power’s Mother’s primulas” all the way from Ballyhale. In the great scheme of garden primroses neither of these is special but they have connections to friends, their families and memories of our first steps in gardening. Rosaleen Power’s Mother’s primula, by the way, has crossed with a native primrose, Primula veris, planted nearby to give a pleasant new addition to the garden.
This liking for connection in plants lead to my membership of the Irish Garden Plant Society, a group with a particular interest in plant of Irish connection whether raised or found in Ireland or with a connection with an Irish person. One such, which I grow, is Anemone nemerosa ‘Lucy’s Wood’. It is a light blue variation on our native wood anemone and was found by Evelyn Booth, who wrote a flora of Co. Wexford, in the wood of that name near her home in Bunclody. I also have a pink coloured wood anemone which I found on The Burren that I like very much. For the moment, at least, I refer to it as ‘Burren Pink’.
Orchids had been absent from my garden for many years; I had always been reluctant to grow them as I imagined them to be difficult to please. A friend in east Cork had the native dactylorhiza growing in abundance in her garden and gave me a few some years back. They are now established in grass in our garden and have increased well but have also prompted me to try others and I now have a selection which is thriving. Another was added last evening when local gardening friends, Noreen and Ollie, arrived to the meeting with a pot containing a nice clump of an orchid I had admired in their garden during last summer – another favourite has been added to the garden!
What is now a particularly fine and beautiful specimen of Cyclamen hederifolium came from Lindy, a friend in Borris. It has especially good foliage and the clearest of white flowers – good white flowers are especially valued in this species. Planted close to it is a small corm of Cyclamen cilicium, a kind and spontaneous gift from a gardener at the Villa Balbianello on Lake Como last autumn. Plants, memories, connections – favourites!
Snowdrops have been a particular interest of mine for several years and snowdrops of Irish origin especially so. Few are as treasured as Galanthus ‘Lady Moore’. It was kindly given to me by Miss Rita Rutherfoord and she, in the company of her mother, had received it from Lady Moore herself during the Second World War as they attended a Sale of Work at the Mansion House in Dublin to support the families of those actively involved in the war. It has a wonderful connection with the original grower and was a very kind gift. Galanthus elwesii ‘Keith Lamb’ is a diminutive snowdrop from the garden of the late Dr. Lamb at Clara in Co. Offaly. Again, it was a kind gift and will be treasured for its connection. Harold McBride is a keen breeder of snowdrops, among other choice plants, and his ‘Waverley Little Egret’ is a little beauty he passed on to me in recent years. Good fortune smiled on me when a friend suggested I visit an old garden as he thought there were some interesting snowdrops there. As it turned out, those he considered interesting were relatively common but I came on a small population of yellow-marked Galanthus plicatus. There were three different forms and one is especially good, quite distinct, and waiting to be named.
Finally, for this list could go on and on, I have a beautiful form of Trillium chloropetalum which grows especially well and looks quite fabulous in flower each year. It came from a great and most generous friend, Bob Gordon, in Northern Ireland whom many in Irish gardening circles will know well. This is only one of Bob’s many gifts in our garden for I “blame” him for the large number of snowdrop varieties which we grow.
Plants have a value far beyond their oftentimes fleeting beauty. They recall the kindness and generosity of friends; they connect us with other times and people long gone. This makes them especially treasured and certainly among our favourites.
Just for interest – those other two yellow-marked snowdrop finds.