Dreaming of far-off shores where plant perfumes waft on the evening air

Peter Dowdall is dreaming of holidays on far-off shores where glorious plants perfume the warm evening air.

Picture: Augustus Binu / www.dreamsparrow.net / Wikimedia Commons

Balconies dripping with Bougainvillea blooms, sunshine and summer holidays. Every time I think of trips to the holiday destinations of Portugal and Spain I immediately think of the flora and in particular Bougainvillea.

How many times have I admired it enviously just dreaming about what if we had better summers at home here in Ireland, what if we could depend on our summer months to provide sunshine and high temperatures, what if... But of course this is Ireland and I was doing just that, dreaming.

Much and all as we may wish to grow our own piece of the Mediterranean they will not grow successfully in our climate. They most likely will survive but they won’t thrive. 

You may yearn for masses of purple leaves surrounding the small white blossoms but what you will most likely get is weak, small, spindly green shoots reluctant to grow in our damp, cold environment.

No, unless you have the luxury of a conservatory or sunroom then you will have to, like me, admire these beauties in their natural environment. Nowadays when nearly everything is available to everyone at every time and what the consumer wants, the consumer gets, it’s pretty cool that the natural world doesn’t feel the need to play ball. 

Sure we can get strawberries in December, they taste of nothing but we can get them, but you still won’t grow a Bougainvillea outside in Ireland.

Those holiday balconies are also filled with scent — Oleander, Stock Roses and Heliotrope to name but a few of the lovelies that create this romantic musky aroma. 

But again bear in mind our climate; of course, we can grow roses and stocks over here and perhaps even manage to get some Oleanders and Heliotopes through a winter or two but Ireland isn’t Portugal or Spain, our evenings are not like those in the south of France or Italy and thus those evocative balconies cannot be effectively recreated.

For me it would be wrong to even try and create a garden in Ireland using these types of plants, I just don’t think they look right over here except in a conservatory. 

I always try and advocate using the right plant for the right place and that if we can get that much right in our gardens then maintenance will be kept very low.

Similarly, if you decide upon a plant that wants high temperatures and low amounts of rainfall and you want to position it in damp soil where it will be exposed to rain and wind then you have just created a maintenance issue by continuously trying to keep it drier and protected. Here in Ireland plants more suited to our environment are required.

That’s not to say that all plants should be native. A lot has been written and spoken about over the last number of years regarding native plants and their importance to our green environment. 

Of course, natives are essential, they will thrive here obviously and they will play host to dozens and sometimes hundreds of species of wildlife. But what is a native plant and just how important are these varieties?

Not every plant in our garden needs to be native, the world would be a bit dull and uninteresting if we didn’t welcome foreign species with open arms, surely the world would stagnate if we only grew the same plants now that were grown here in gardens for thousands of years? 

Just how fussy are the Irish wildlife and foraging insects that depend on our gardens for their survival? 

Well, the answer would seem to be that they are not as fixated by the need to use native plants as we humans.

Much of the wildlife in Ireland is a relatively recent introduction and will find food and shelter from a broad range of plant species. 

We should strive for diversity more than exclusively ‘native’ plants but still they need to look right so I look more at plants that thrive in our conditions and give a long period of interest in terms of flower colour, foliage interest, winter berries etc.

Many of the more common plants in our gardens are not truly native but naturalised. Some of our garden favourites are from as far away as New Zealand, Australia and South Africa but they fit in here because they have become part of the Irish landscape and look well. 

Camellias, Rhododendrons, Phormiums, Hebes, Choisya, even some of our favourite hedging plants such as Griselinea and Beech, are all aliens who at this stage have earned a green card, a right of residence.

Why do they work in an Irish garden but Bougainvillea doesn’t? 

Quite simply because they will thrive in Irish conditions, our soil, our climate, and they will fit into the surrounding landscape.

The Bougainvillea is best enjoyed on holidays, which gives me an idea....


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