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A Noah's Ark for threatened plants

Reporter David Medcalf and photographer Paul Messitt gaze in wonder at the trees as they are shown around the National Botanic Gardens in Kilmacurragh by head gardener Seamus O'Brien, who hails from Baltinglass

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Seamus O’Brien, head gardener at the National Botanic Gardens, Kilmacurragh, talks to reporter David Medcalf

Seamus O’Brien, head gardener at the National Botanic Gardens, Kilmacurragh, talks to reporter David Medcalf

The National Botanic Gardens at Kilmacurragh

The National Botanic Gardens at Kilmacurragh

Seamus O’Brien, head gardener at the National Botanic Gardens, Kilmacurragh, with one of his favourites – a giant Rhododendron

Seamus O’Brien, head gardener at the National Botanic Gardens, Kilmacurragh, with one of his favourites – a giant Rhododendron

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Seamus O’Brien, head gardener at the National Botanic Gardens, Kilmacurragh, talks to reporter David Medcalf

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Seamus O'Brien has his dream job. A gardener by profession, he lives and works in one of the best-known gardens on this island.

His good fortune really hit home earlier this year when the Covid lockdown came into force and no one was allowed up the drive to join him in Kilmacurragh. For a few days, before staff returned to work and the public was re-admitted, he was sole lord of all he surveyed.

He had his own little slice of earthly paradise all to himself and it reminded him how lucky he is. Of course, now that things have returned to some semblance of normality, he is happy to welcome one and all once more. He is proud of the fact that since he took over as head gardener in 2006, visitor numbers have almost trebled.

The caterers in the café can take some of the credit for this increase in popularity, it has to be acknowledged. But at the heart of the attraction are the plants, from massive redwood pines to the mass of flowers in the herbaceous borders.

As autumn takes hold, and the leaves on the deciduous trees begin to turn from green to brown, Seamus shows no sign of going into hibernation. There are plans to be laid, seeds to be sorted, papers to be written, new attractions to be added. He bristles at the notion that the grounds of Kilmacurragh House, just off the Wicklow to Redcross road, is a public park, with its well-kept lawns, its beautiful pond and its picnic tables.

'It is an old heritage garden with a remarkable collection of trees and old plants, so it needs much more care than a park.'

The truth of this is readily evident to anyone going for a stroll around the 50 acres open to all. They will soon notice that helpful signs have been erected beside many of the plants, giving Latin names, common names and places of origin.

The range is bewildering - Mountain Cottage Tree, Butcher's Broom, Giant Burgloss, Chilean Myrtle, Curry Tree, on and infinitely on. Hundreds of these black signs with their white-lettered prints are in place, not just in the main garden, but also scattered around the grounds. They help make sense of this diverse collection of trees - the emphasis is on the trees - from all parts of the world in all their many shapes and sizes.

Each tree here is not just a delight to behold but also a scientific specimen, measured, logged and assessed. Seamus cites the acronym C.A.R.E. to explain his approach to Kilmacurragh as a satellite of the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin. C for conservation. A for amenity. R for research. E for education.

Now 49 years of age, he began his own gardening career in the most modest way imaginable, growing pretty nasturtiums at the family home near Baltinglass. The house was set in the midst of a cattle farm but young Seamus had no time for livestock.

'Plants were always my thing,' he reminisces. 'I cannot remember a time when I was not gardening.' His mother Mary is a gardener, as were both his grandmothers, so there is clearly something in the genes.

After attending school in Baltinglass, he took a one-year horticultural course at Multyfarnham in Westmeath. Then he spent three years studying at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin. Once qualified, he landed a job in Kerry as head gardener on the old estate at Glanleam in Valentia, notable for its frost-free, sub-tropical microclimate.

This was followed by move to Dublin for a stint at Beech Park in Clonsilla, tending the Shackleton collection of herbaceous plants. In the year 2000 he returned to Glasnevin to oversee several projects, creating a Chinese display and re-organising plants so that they were exhibited in their correct families as established by modern science. Wet days were spent in the seed room, directing the dispatch of seeds from Dublin across a worldwide network of 2,000 botanical gardens.

Then 14 years ago came the opportunity to return to his native county and take command of Kilmacurragh. The mature trees here are a legacy from the Acton family who built the big house in the 19th century. Their great conifers and oaks, along with smaller trees, shrubs and alpines, have fared better than the building, which has been an unsightly ruin since a fire in 1983.

The property was run by Coillte until the forestry company passed it on to the National Botanic Gardens. So now Seamus O'Brien finds himself caring for and extending the collection of trees, developing an informed interest in his charges.

'That's a banana!' he exclaims pointing to a plant nuzzling up against the brickwork of the old walled garden as he guides your reporter to a bench where the newspaper interview is to be conducted out of doors. A banana? It turns out to be nothing that might be put in a packed lunch. Resembling a corn cob, it is actually a banana flower which will never produce fruit and the plant is native to China and Japan.

This one was imported, not from the Far East, but was picked up instead during a trip to the Eden Project in Cornwall. Expeditions to England are only the start of it as Seamus has ventured in the past also to India, China, South Africa and Chile, to name only some. He is particularly enthusiastic about his travels to Tasmania, the island state of Australia, and a tree called eucalyptus morrisbyi (or Morris's Gum). Poor old Morris's Gum has been afflicted by global warming which has encouraged insects and possums to attack: 'We drove through this landscape of dead trees,' he recalls.

Ideally conservation takes place on the ground where threatened species occur naturally but this is not always practical. In this case, the Irish applied for seed to raise eucalyptus morrisbyi in County Wicklow: 'We now have more of the plants here than there are in Tasmania.'

The scope for conservation work is endless as, according to Seamus, three-quarters of all conifer species are under threat: 'This was once the Actons' back garden but now the place has to pay its way,' he muses, 'a Noah's Ark for growing plants of threatened species.'

The programme is by no means confined to exotics, with the head gardener taking an informed and active interest in Irish hedgerows. His mission is to identify ditches where the flora is descended from forebears which took root in the 1500s or maybe earlier. Most field boundaries were laid down in the 19th century with stock often imported from Britain but some older examples do exist.

So, he has been known to scour ditches at the junction of Wicklow, Kildare and Carlow for seeds which are then grown in Kilmacurragh. Beech, he dismisses as an invader but he is an enthusiastic fount of knowledge about native Irish trees such as birch, oak, ash, holly, the strawberry tree, mountain ash, alder and whitebeam.

Seeking disease-resistant yews, he has come across one growing in Valleymount, West Wicklow which is at least 400 years old. He has collected acorns from the ancient oak at Tullynally Castle in Westmeath, which has also stood the test of centuries.

Seamus is concerned that commercial nurseries generally source their sapling trees via Holland. It is the job of botanic garden specialists such as Seamus to ensure that Irish genetic variations are preserved.

He remains a very practical gardener while also active on the academic front, writing regularly for the learned 'Curtis's Botanical Magazine'. His articles in the publication, which was first issued in 1787, appear alongside the wonderful illustrations created by Lynn Stringer, resident of nearby Newcastle. He has also penned a couple of historical books on past botanical giants - legendary plant collector Augustin Henry from Derry and Joseph Hooker of Kew Gardens in London.

The head gardener reports proudly that there are several European champions among the trees in Kilmacurragh, not to mention a world champion - a podocarp conifer. Among the thousands of plant and hundreds of species, he confesses to having one special favourite tree.

It is a magnolia campbellii, notable for the saucer-sized flowers which it puts out each spring, visible four miles away across the valley. He loves it not only for its floral prowess but also for its past as it has been blooming here since 1907. Collected as a seedling in Darjeeling during the 1870s, it came this way via Kolkata, Kew Gardens and Glasnevin.

'The trees here are full of history,' says Seamus, who hopes to offer yet more for the public to enjoy with the opening of the deer park due in spring.


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