Plants need to be able to tolerate everything the local climate has to throw at them, says Peter Dowdall.
The importance of using plants in our gardens which are, if not native, then at least adapted to growing in local conditions, is something which should not be overlooked.
Plants grown in Ireland, outside in nurseries throughout the country, stand a much better chance of establishing themselves and thriving than those grown under artificial conditions half a world away.
They will travel shorter distances too, which is also important as we constantly need to be thinking of how our actions are affecting the greater environment.
I was enjoying part of the beautiful Wild Atlantic Way recently up around Mayo and Donegal and this is where the need to have plants that will tolerate what the local climate throws at them becomes really evident. It’s one of the nicest corners of our country, but horticulturally challenging to say the least. However, challenging doesn’t mean uninteresting or even limited.
A quick look at flora on the western coastline and you will see Armeria, Saxifraga, Scabiosa and other beauties clinging to the soil from where they will brighten up the landscape in a few weeks. The sea thrift, Armeria maritima, is a tuft or mat-forming perennial, rock garden plant which grows wild on our coastal areas and cliffs.
You will see it growing it the smallest crevice on a rock exposed to the harshest of the elements and during late spring and early summer it will produce masses of delicate-looking pink flowers on top of upright slender stems.
Cultivated forms like A. m ‘Splendens’, which has taller flower stems and is more bright pink in colour, ‘Alba’, which has white flowers, and ‘Rubrifolia’, with very attractive copper-coloured leaves, are also available.
These will thrive in Irish gardens provided they have full sun and very well-drained soil. They are free-flowering and require pretty much zero maintenance, announcing the onset of summer each year with their pretty pink or white flowers.
Saxifraga rosacea is native to Ireland, but is very rare. It can be found in the Burren and parts of north Kerry. It is currently classed as “near threatened”. However, many of its relatives have made themselves at home in Ireland and, if not native, would certainly be classed as naturalised.
The mossy types, S. x arendsii, in particular, are another real favourite plant of mine.
They grow as mat-forming perennials and create the effect of very low-growing cushions. Every spring they produce a wonderful display of delicate-looking pink, red or white flowers which completely obscure the foliage beneath, such is their number.
You would be forgiven for thinking that this is the only type of Saxifraga that exists, but there are actually over 400 species of this plant. S. x urbium is more commonly referred to as London Pride or St Patrick’s Cabbage and looks nothing like the mossy forms except for the fact that it, too, is a low-growing, spreading plant.
Its foliage is waxy and glossy and the white flowers are produced in sprays rather than individually on stems, reaching about 15cm or more in height.
Not all the species are native nor suited to growing outdoors in Ireland. S. stolonifera is a beautiful semi-evergreen houseplant in this part of the world. This is a plant with rounded, green, slightly hairy leaves which produces stunning tall panicles of white flowers about 30cm high.
S. paniculata cultivars do grow outdoors here and they are referred to as the encrusted saxifrage. Rosettes of tough, stiff leaves each have a silvery-white margin which gives them this encrusted look. Similar to the mossy types, these too will flower in spring in various shades.
S. fortuneii ‘Black Ruby’ is a real treasure to keep an eye out for. It is different in so many ways that you would be hard-pressed to realise it’s a saxifrage.
The first difference is its foliage — it has waxy, very dark burgundy red, nearly black leaves about 10cm wide. It flowers in late summer to late autumn, which also marks it apart from its spring-flowering cousins.
It likes a slightly acid soil, unlike many of the other species which prefer slightly alkaline. One similarity it has is its preference for well-drained soil.
All saxifragas dislike soils that hold too much moisture and if they don’t have free draining conditions, they will simply rot in the ground, so add plenty of grit when planting.
All of the plants mentioned above, though not native, will be available in garden centres, having been grown in Irish nurseries, making them suitable for conditions in Irish gardens.
The other big problem with garden centre plants is the plastic pots in which they are all grown. The black coloured pots aren’t recyclable but the industry is slowly changing to the more widely recyclable coloured plastic pots. More on this anon.