independent

Friday 22 February 2019

Seamus gets to root of Kilmacurragh's many exotic species

Seamus O’Brien, head gardener at the National Botanic Gardens at Kilmacurragh
Seamus O’Brien, head gardener at the National Botanic Gardens at Kilmacurragh

Myles Buchanan

The National Botanic Gardens in Kilmacurragh and Glasnevin have been closely associated since 1854 and Kilmacurragh's head gardener Seamus O'Brien has worked in both.

Born into a farming family in Baltinglass, Seamus underwent his formal training at Glasnevin and holds an International Diploma in Botanic Gardens Management from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

'I just think I was born with an interest in plants,' he said. 'I don't ever remember not gardening. It's something I have had a passion for for as long as I can remember'.

Kilmacurragh's milder climate, higher rainfall and deeper, acidic soils means all the species contained in the historic garden are thriving.

The Kilmacurragh Estate has a long and varied history, starting from its monastic beginnings, through to the arrival of the Acton family in Ireland in Cromwellian times, and continuing on to the building of Kilmacurragh House in 1697.

'Everyday I am outside which really suits me as I am a real outdoors person,' said Seamus. 'I hate being cooped up in an office. I am lucky that my role is real hands-on and means you spend the majority of your time outdoors.

'The work is very much based around the seasons. Propagation and the sowing of seeds generally has to be done in the winter. A great deal of my work would involve conservation as well. The main focus was on restoration and management plans when I first moved to Kilmacurragh. Phase two was more about long-term replanting, such as exotic species we are gathering'.

His position also takes him on expeditions to locations such as China, Taiwan, the Indian state of Sikkim, Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania. He collects the seeds of different plants on his travels, with Kilmacurragh the main beneficiary.

Seamus has also published many articles and books, including one on Irish botanist Augustus Henry. In the nineteenth century, Henry led expeditions to China where he collected over 7,000 new plant species.

Seamus visited the valley where Henry collected many of his plants back in 2002 just before it was due to be flooded.

'He was a fascinating and very interesting character. He was virtually forgotten about so I wanted to highlight his importance. He used to visit Kilmacurragh on a regular basis and was instrumental in establishing Avondale to develop forestry in Ireland'.

He released his latest book 'In the Footsteps of Joseph Dalton Hooker - A Sikkum Adventure' in October.

Explaining the motivation behind the book, Seamus said: 'At the turn of the 20th century Kilmacurragh and the Acton family had the largest collection of Himalayan rhododendron species in Europe, and this vast collection was initially based on the 1848-89 collections of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, who was to become Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London, and who was Charles Darwin's closest friend and adviser.

'I have spent the past several years bringing expeditions out to Sikkim and Nepal to retrace his route and to see Kilmacurragh's rhododendrons on Himalayan slopes and the Royal Botanic Gardens. I'm very fortunate in that I get to visit some very interesting places'.

Near the end of last year, Seamus was bestowed with the honour of receiving a Gold Medal of Honour from the Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland, joining a glittering list of past recipients.

'It was very unexpected,' said Seamus. 'Normally the award is presented to someone in their 70s or 80s so it was nice that an exception was made and it was awarded to someone a bit younger. I was honoured to have been chosen.'

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