Some gardens, by reason of their history and previous owners, will have plants which are of great historic and horticultural significance. Their loss might be a great tragedy but their continued presence can be both a great burden of responsibility and an impediment to the development of the area as a garden.
Gardeners of my generation will recall the “miniature” conifer and heather fashion trend in gardening in the 1970s and will, probably, have also found, like me, that those “miniature” conifers did not always behave to their description. The day comes when the mind is finally steeled and the decision is taken to remove them. They leave a gap and are a loss to some degree, yet they open opportunities for the gardener to plan anew, to introduce new plants and for the garden to remain vibrant and interesting.
However, when the plants in question are historically significant the gardener is faced with a dilemma. It was a visit in the last few days to the National Botanic Gardens at Kilmacurragh, Co. Wicklow, which brought these thoughts to mind. The gardens have an outstanding and historically significant collection of plants. Here we can see plants such as the weeping cedar of Goa, Cupressus lusitanica ‘Glauca Pendula’, planted between 1820 and 1840 and the peculiar ash, Fraxinus excelsior ‘Monstrosa’, a tree which was noted as being 1 foot tall in 1840!
When Thomas and Janet Acton took on Kilmacurragh in 1854 they planted with enthusiasm and with the advice of David Moore of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin furnished the garden with the choicest plants. The association with Glasnevin continued with Sir Frederick Moore and the planting riches of Kilmacurragh continued to expand, especially to give a home to those plants which the alkaline soil in Glasnevin did not suit. Sir Joseph Hooker’s 1849 collection of rhododendron seed in the Sikkim Himalaya, after germination at Glasnevin, were grown on in the suitably acidic soil of Kilmacurragh, and developed into Europe’s most comprehensive collection of rhododendrons from Sikkim, Bhutan and Nepal. Many of these original rhododendrons are still in the garden – the original plants, not subsequent propagated generations, the original plants and so of extreme value for their historical significance and association with such wonderful past generations of Irish gardeners and I wonder if they are a blessing or an impediment to Kilmacurragh’s present day gardeners.
The Broad Walk might serve to consider this thought. It was laid out to the rear of the house by Thomas and Janet Acton in the early 1870s. At the time it was planted with alternate Irish yews, Taxus baccata ‘Fastigiata’, the tall and bright red Rhododendron ‘Altaclerense’ and Rhododendron ‘Cunningham’s White’ which is lower growing. Given the passage of time the plants, especially those of Rhododendron ‘Altaclerense’, are now quite enormous both in height and in width so that The Broad Walk is now not as broad as it once was and here is the quandary: Should the garden plants or the garden design take precedence?
At present, Kilmacurragh has a significant collection of plants but the garden layout has become somewhat overshadowed and overcrowded. We see the same problem with those who are more plant collectors than garden makers; it can be challenging to accommodate a plant collection within a satisfactory garden design.
What will happen at Kilmacurragh? I really don’t know but suspect that, as the present curator is an enthusiastic plantsman, these venerable old plants will continue to be treasured for as long as their good health allows and we may enjoy the garden with them for it would not be the same without them.