Each spring, I take my gardening class to visit the National Botanic Gardens to see what’s looking good and we typically enjoy the first signs of spring from bulbs to early flowering shrubs and if we’re lucky we might find the cherry trees in bloom. Alas, this time round it was not to be due to the delays brought about by the recent snowfall and of course the fact that we landed on one of the wettest days of the month. Some might just load up on delicious treats in the restaurant and brave the elements on the journey home, but I decided to take a different tack this time and concentrate on the indoor collections housed in the fabulous Palm House, Curvilinear Range and the Alpine House. As it was, very little was happening around the garden, so it was a great opportunity to show the class the fantastic, exotic collections which populate the houses, hailing from all corners of the world.
Our walk started in the Alpine House which really comes into its own at this time of year. Packed with spring flowering bulbs and bonsaied cherry blossoms, it is sure to inspire even the greenest of gardeners and help to form ideas for the humble suburban garden. I explained to the class that this collection rotates so there are always fresh specimens on display and the collection on the day did not disappoint. We met daffodils, anemone and of course the primula display which always shines at this time of year. The display in the centre of the house was particularly eye-catching with mixes of saffron-orange and pale lilac crocuses interspersed with the inimitable, upswept flowers of cyclamen commonly known as sowbread as it is said they are particularly popular with pigs. Displayed on the benches around the house, we found some superb saxifrages, hyacinths and the delicate blossoms of the star flower (Ipheion uniflorum ‘Wisley Blue’).
Dodging the downpour, we dashed up to the walled garden to see if we could steal a peek at the fruit trees growing in the lean-to glasshouse and had a gander in the side door like peeping toms as the house was all shut up. Whilst there, I took the opportunity to point out the fig tree growing alongside the glasshouse and explained how this fascinating plant is pollinated by wasps who lay their eggs inside the fruit and in many cases perish inside once that task has been completed. No need to despair though, as by the time the fruit is ripe and ready to harvest, the insect has been broken down by an enzyme known as ficain, and her eggs once hatched go on to pollinate another fruit, such is the circle of life.
Next stop was the Curvilinear Range, a spectacular example of the work of world-famous iron founder Richard Turner. Built in 1848, this structure is counted amongst some of the most impressive works in Turners portfolio which include the Palm Houses at Glasnevin, Kew Gardens and the Belfast Botanic Garden. Constructed from wrought and cast iron, these structures are a testament to the fine workmanship that he is renowned for and have stood the test of time. This house is definitely one worth exploring with a wonderful array of plants from fiery-orange Rhododendron to the impressive Dicksonia antarctica tree ferns with their solid trunks and curious unfurling fronds.
In the centre of the house, there are super examples of plants which are revered for their economic importance including the coffee plant, taro and avocado to name a few. In the east end of the house we find an assortment of plants native to the southern hemisphere. These gems include the bird of paradise (Strelizia reginae), native to South Africa and the striking Protea which comes all the way from Australia. One little known secret about this structure is how well sound travels around the curved glass walls so it’s always best to be kind to your neighbour in case the whispers travel!
After taking in all the beautiful flora from the southern hemisphere, we ambled over to the Palm House, starting with the wonders of the Cactus House. We admired the selection of cacti from the mound-shaped Mammillaria to the prickly pear Opuntia and enjoyed the variety of succulents which included members from the Aloe family to the jade plant (Crassula ovata) which was in bloom and is said to bring good luck moneywise to those who own it. This brought us into the welcome heat of the centre of the Palm House which is home to such exotic specimens as bananas, palms and bamboos. It always amazed me just how fast the collection filled the space and hit the roof once it had been replanted after its restoration back around 2004. The collection is fabulous and really conjures up a tropical feel especially when the misting units are switched on and your glasses start to steam up!
Over in the other wing we find the orchid collection. The house is not only home to orchids from across the world, it also hosts a fine selection of bromeliads including the Tillandsia or air plants. These are a fascinating genus, which are epiphytic, meaning they are typically found growing on the surface of other plants and gain their nutrition and moisture from the air, rain and decaying matter that falls from the tree canopy. Tillandsia are unique in so far as they do not tend to have roots so are a great starting point for those who are not blessed with green fingers!
During our visit, we were treated to a nice variety of orchids including Cymbidium, Phaphiopedilum and Pleione. Just before we left the orchid house we were intrigued by the collection of carnivorous plants which included pitcher plants and our own native Pinguicula or butterwort which can be found on bogs across the country. If you find yourself at a loose end and want to fill an afternoon with floral delights I cannot recommend the National Botanic Gardens highly enough. This garden always has something to offer and the houses are full to the brim with the most exquisite collection of plants from across the world. It is definitely on the top of my list for gardens worth visiting.
Weekend Gardening Course
This April I am running a weekend gardening course at the Trinity College Botanic Garden each Saturday for four weeks. During the course I will show you how to take cuttings, how to divide herbaceous perennials and grow vegetables and cut flowers from seed. I will also take the class on a guided tour of the National Botanic Gardens and show you all the goodies you could be growing in your garden. Places are still available so contact me on 086 393 8467 or email@example.com for further details.
Happy Gardening Everyone!