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Rare and Historic Northern Irish Plant Varieties at Hillsborough Castle and Gardens

Date: 28 June 2024

Author: Claire Woods

Northern Ireland is home to a rich variety of rare and historic plants, and this diversity is reflected in the gardens of Hillsborough Castle. Claire Woods, Gardens Manager at Hillsborough Castle and Gardens, looks at the fascinating history behind growing these plants, why it’s important to conserve them, and how to spot them in the castle gardens.

A short history of garden plants in Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, we have a rich history of raising garden plants. Nurseries such as Daisy Hill and Slieve Donard grew a wide range of trees shrubs and perennials in the 20th century, and Dickson’s and McGredy’s were experts in cultivating roses.

Sadly, they are no longer in operation. However, today we still have growers like John Gault, who specialises in Rhododendrons, as well as several esteemed daffodil breeders.

Plant varieties in a garden

Image: Rhododendron ‘Rosealind Slinger’ and daffodils N. Barnesgold, N. Goldfinger and N. Gold Pipe on display in Hillsborough Castle's gardens. © Historic Royal Palaces 


Why is it important to conserve garden plants?

Many of the plants raised on these nurseries and others across Ireland, as well as those that have arisen in private gardens, are worth saving and conserving. The Irish Garden Plant Society was set up over 50 years ago to study cultivated plants in Ireland and their history, and to research and locate garden plants considered rare or in need of conservation.

The society works with large gardens, including Hillsborough Castle’s gardens, to conserve these plants. Last year we planted Zelkova carpinifolia ‘Glasnevin’: one of five plants propagated by horticulturist Jan Ravensburg from the mature specimen in the National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin, Dublin.

What plants can you find in Hillsborough Castle’s gardens?

At Hillsborough Castle and Gardens, we actively work to develop our collection of Irish-bred plants or those with a link to Ireland. You will find plants of interest in every area of the garden and every season.

Daffodils, Roses and Apple Trees in the Walled Garden

The Walled Garden is home to a collection of Irish-bred daffodils planted under the medlar trees and the best time to see these is in April. Later in the season Aconitum ‘Newry Blue’, thought to have been raised at Daisy Hill, makes a fine display at the back of the long borders.

Pavillion in the Walled Garden.

Image: The Walled Garden at Hillsborough Castle. © Historic Royal Palaces 

These are interspersed by obelisks with the ‘Narrow Water’ rose, an old variety grown before 1900 and possibly first planted at Narrow Water Castle in County Down. We're also growing Irish-bred apple trees throughout the Walled Garden on the espalier frames and in the orchards.

Varieties include ‘Echlinville’ from Portaferry, dating back to around 1820 and ‘Ballyfatten’ which has been recorded as early as 1802.  

The garden is also home to small plants such as Primula ‘Lady Greer’, a pale yellow polyanthus-type (known for their bright colours) which you can find in the shade bed behind the Shell House.

The plant was raised in County Leitrim at Kinlough by Mrs Johnston and named after Lady Greer, an active member of The Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland.

Flower displays in the Glen and Lost Garden

As you cross the stream in the Glen in May, the pink bell-shaped flowers of Rhododendron ‘Rosealind Slinger’ make a stunning display, while in June the bronze-coloured new foliage is very attractive. This was a chance seedling found and raised at the Slieve Donard nursery by Leslie Slinger and named after one of his daughters.

In the Lost Garden and along the path ahead, you will find newly planted Rhododendrons raised by John Gault. Look out for the late pink bloom of’ ‘Christine’ and ‘Binevenagh’: the latter is a creamy yellow flower with red petioles (leafstalks) and was the latest plant to be named in 2023. These picturesque plants flower in late June.

Yew Tree Walk looking west towards Lady Alice's Temple, 5 June 2018. Lady Alice's Pond is just seen at the end of Yew Tree Walk.

Image: Yew Tree Walk looking west towards Lady Alice's Temple. © Historic Royal Palaces

The Historic Yew Tree Walk and perennial plants in Granville Garden

The most well-known of the Irish trees are the Irish yews Taxus baccata ‘Fastigiata’, which line the Yew Tree Walk and the Jubilee Parterre garden.

These were planted in the gardens in the mid-19th century and are clones of the original tree, which is still growing in Florence Court, County Fermanagh.

One of the best known perennial plants (which live for more than two years and regrow every spring) is Hesperantha ‘Mrs Hegarty’, a deep rose-pink river lily that arose in County Galway sometime before 1919.

You can find it here on the South Terrace (overlooking the Jubilee Parterre) and in the Granville Garden, flowering in November and sometimes into the New Year.

The future of plant conservation

These are just a selection of the Irish plants on display at Hillsborough Castle and Gardens. In the future, we will work to add to our growing collection, providing a safe haven for their conservation and the enjoyment of future generations.

Claire Woods
Gardens Manager, Hillsborough Castle and Gardens

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See if you can spot one of our rare and historic plants on a visit to Hillsborough Castle's gardens.

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