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Intrepid traveller and a master storyteller


Valerie and Thomas Pakenham at home in Tullynally, Co Westmeath

Valerie and Thomas Pakenham at home in Tullynally, Co Westmeath

Valerie and Thomas Pakenham at home in Tullynally, Co Westmeath

Sometimes one picks up a book with a touch of apprehension and a slightly heavy heart. You know that feeling, when you cannot help but think, this is a book I know I really should read but do I want to?

I have a fear of 'coffee table' books that can contain marvelous photographs but little in the way of text to enlighten us. So it was when I first opened Thomas Pakenham's most recent work The Company of Trees. How wrong can one be?

Three hours later, despite many other relatively urgent tasks that needed my attention, I was still reading and could not put it down. This is a delightful book, a story of a lifetime spent collecting and planting tree species from all over the world.

It is also a diary, covering 12 months partially spent in the author's marvellous estate at Tullynally in Co Westmeath while at the same time describing his travels during that period and over previous decades. It is a personal story, full of humanity and contains fascinating details about his family, both past and present, while all the while, keeping the reader in touch with the numerous species he has planted at his home estate.

It is also a history book, slipping easily from the present to the past to relate some exciting story or other about how some species of tree was first discovered centuries ago in China or Tibet, or more recently in a hidden canyon in Australia.

Many exciting tales of the intrepid plant hunters of previous centuries and the dangers they underwent to bring new plants back to Europe are interwoven throughout the chapters. In that sense it is almost an adventure story and Pakenham himself is no mean plant hunter having travelled to many wild and dangerous spots including one visit to the Himalayan mountainous regions in Tibet where during a blizzard he got separated from his group at an elevation of 14000 feet.

Happily he lived to tell the tale. On other trips he crosses through wild gorges, over raging rivers with only slippery fallen trees as bridges and up steep and frozen mountainsides to continue his quest for some elusive plant or other.

It was comforting to read how when he began planting new areas of Tully nally, he had, like most keen gardeners, many disappointments and came to the conclusion that the only way to get good trees was to grow them oneself from seed.

Now that is clearly the right way to do it although it obviously adds a few years of waiting before one can enjoy the fruits of ones labours.

He relates how the late Ambrose Congreve, having made a fortune in business decided to retire at the age of 65 and spend his remaining years enhancing the wonderful and exotic gardens and woods at Mount Congreve in Co Waterford.

Ambrose was particularly fond of Magnolias and rather than purchasing a small number, he ordered 500 large plants.

This was of course hugely expensive but his excuse was that at his age, he didn't have time to wait. Happily he lived for another 40 years and Mount Congreve is yet another of those places I now have on my list to visit.

There is almost a full chapter devoted to the Gingko and Thomas is clearly fascinated by it for given that its origins go back 200 million years, it must be one of the strangest trees still thriving today.


Geological records show that the Gingko was at least 50 million years old before the Alps or the Atlantic were formed and it was the only living thing to survive the atomic bomb that wiped out Hiroshima.

Its seeds may have been spread by dinosaurs when it began to gradually colonise large sections of the earth from Siberia to Tasmania.

Successive ice ages and global climate change reduced its territory but now it is a prized specimen in many gardens that can supply the necessary warm temperate conditions.

I foolishly planted three in a rather cold spot near my home where they have struggled for years. I now realise I must move them.

The Gingko trees at Tullynally are thriving along with an astonishing range of other exotic species which are testament to a lifetime's work by this equally astonishing man.

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This is one of those books all gardeners and tree lovers must have. Give it to a special friend for Christmas and then borrow it back. They may not see it again.

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