Rowallane: North Ireland
Milton V. Walker, M.D., Eugene, Ore.
This spring, my wife and I planned a trip to Great Britain, our purpose being to visit Rhododendron gardens exclusively, and to study the outstanding species being grown there. The question arose, "Should we include North Ireland in our plans"? Like a great many Americans we had enjoyed the lake country around Killarney, in the Southern part of the Emerald Isle, but we really knew nothing about North Ireland. Fortunately for us, we were urged to visit some of the very fine old gardens there, which are well worth a visit. All the people we met were most hospitable, and through them we learned about the National Trust of North Ireland, and its efforts to preserve places of beauty and interest.
For those readers who, I hope, may some day be tempted to visit North Ireland, I might suggest that one good route is by way of Stranraer, on the West Coast of Scotland. A very short ferry ride from there, takes you across to Larme, about twenty miles north of Belfast. The ferry leaves at seven o'clock in the morning, and it is both convenient and inexpensive, to sleep can board ship.
Information Center Helpful
When we arrived in Belfast, we went directly to the North Ireland Information center. There we found the most helpful and friendliest service we had ever experienced. Since we had not been able to make any previous arrangements, we were especially grateful to Mrs. Featherstonehaugh for finding us a comfortable hotel, and making arrangements for us to visit two outstanding gardens near Belfast - Rowallane, and Mount Stewart. Both of these gardens are under the care of the National Trust of North Ireland.
We spent the first afternoon at Rowallane, and while it may not be the most extensive and spectacular garden, to our minds it is one of the best. It is our kind of garden, not too big, yet big enough to adequately display fine groupings of hybrid Rhododendrons and an occasional fine species specimen. Of course by American standards it is quite large, but does not compare with the magnificent acres of Mount Stewart nearby, nor with Bodnant in Wales, nor Leonardslee in Sussex. However it has been carefully designed, and best of all it is being cared for by a man who loves every plant growing there, and keeps them all in beautiful condition.
Rowallane is under the direct charge of the Honorable Mrs. Terence O'Neill, who is also Chairman of the Garden Committee of the National Trust. Mrs. O'Neill is not only a very busy person with many activities, but she also happens to be the wife of the Prime Minister of North Ireland. It was her office in Belfast that arranged for our trip to Rowallane. To our amazement, we received a telephone call from Mrs. O'Neill the morning after our arrival in Belfast, expressing her regret that prior commitments would not permit her to conduct us on the tour of Rowallane herself, and inviting us to visit at her home some thirty miles north of Belfast. We regretted that time did not permit us to accept her gracious invitation, so typical of the warm hearted Irish.
But to return to Rowallane. It seems that a curious custom was evidently prevalent many years ago in Ireland. The owners of large estates discouraged even their head gardeners from knowing the names of the plants they were growing. John Hanvey, Sr., who is now the head gardener at Rowallane has worked there for over twenty years, but only recently has he been able to learn the plants in the garden. He is now making up for lost time, and has a very considerable knowledge about most of the fine specimens which are like heirlooms under his watchful care.
Some Outstanding Species
We find that the Rowallane plant of R. pseudochrysanthum turns out to be probably the oldest and largest of its kind to be found in all of Great Britain. It is a superb specimen, measuring 10' - 12' in diameter and about 5' tall. The stiff, ovate, dark green leaves are quite characteristic. The flowers are dark pink in the bud and make it a most attractive garden plant.
The general layout of the garden itself is very attractive with broad areas of well mowed lawn, leading to bold masses of Rhododendron hybrids, many of them 12'-18' high. The hybrids make an impressive sight when massed together in clumps of up to one half an acre in extent, and in full bloom, as they were at the time of our visit. The garden has moderate differences in elevation making for added interest, so there are many spots where one can look for miles across the valley some hundreds of feet below. Altogether, it's very beautifully situated.
The species of rhododendron are scattered throughout the whole garden, and so it was a never ending series of surprises to come suddenly upon a fine form of a species in full bloom, as was the case with R. albrechtii. The color of several of the plants of this species at Rowallane was as good as any we had seen in other gardens. There were a few forms of a pale color, but Mr. Hanvey was 'selfing' the good forms, and some day will have enough of the deep shade to mass them in one large bed that will be simply breath taking. There was a very dark red R. chaetomallum vividly displayed on a bank above eye level. A curious but very attractive orchid pink R. hippophaeoides took our eye, as it was a color we had not seen before in this species. Another very good species that we coveted was a truly yellow R. hanceanum nanum, -- not the creamy, light yellow flower we are accustomed to seeing, but an honest to goodness sulphur yellow. Many other species were excellent forms. We noted a very deep royal purple R. russatum; a small but well grown R. mallotum; and beautiful R. crassum with glossy dark green leaves very much larger than ours in the United States. R. caloxanthum, Forrest 937, was just coming into flower and the large bush was completely covered with orange-scarlet buds. Here again we admired the delicate pink tubular bells of R. glaucophyllum var. tubiforme which grows so well in the British Isles.
Rowallane has been carefully designed so there is no monotony in the plantings, and vistas are constantly opening up, allowing a view of the distant quiet countryside, or close at hand an unusual species of conifer, hardwood tree or rhododendron. Such a view was of a tremendous R. arboreum sub species cinnamomeum. To Americans it was a thrill to walk under the spreading branches of this ancient tree rhododendron.
At one time there must have been a very fine Rock Garden at Rowallane, but the years took their toll and I guess it was pretty well rundown. Since Mr. Hanvey has taken charge of the gardens he has completely rejuvenated and replanted the old Rock Garden, and it was our pleasure to see it just a few weeks before it was to be officially opened. He has done a tremendous job of laying out new beds, rearranging paths, and generally making it very neat and attractive.
This project exemplifies the policy of the Garden Committee of the National Trust, which is to take care of what they have at Rowallane before expanding into new areas with plantings. They have an extensive program of pruning and thinning of plants that are overcrowded. Best of all they seem to realize the importance of constantly replanting and rejuvenating the garden by propagation of their best forms for planting out. This policy we most heartily applaud, and what has been accomplished so far at Rowallane is living proof of the wisdom of the Garden Committee.