Blarney’s top gardens

ADAM Whitbourn’s mission statement when he took over as head gardener at Blarney Castle was that he wanted ‘to make the gardens as famous in their own right as the castle’.

Blarney’s top gardens

It’s nice to set a target.

Like everybody from Cork I had visited as a child on a school tour and, bar maybe visiting with American friends when in town, I had never really paid much attention to Blarney Castle or the gardens until I visited again recently.

My first encounter with Adam was through Facebook — I’d seen his posts and some wonderful photographs of the work that he’s doing. Loving the plant pictures and getting a feeling that this was a man passionate about what he was doing, I decided it was high time to meet in real time.

Blarney Castle gardens are of significant historical importance and like any garden, if they are left untended and not constantly developed, they fall into disrepair very quickly and less welcome visitors like brambles and scrub would take over.

Indeed this is exactly what had happened in several parts of the estate and Adam was faced with the challenge of breathing life into these glorious gardens once again.

The oldest part of the grounds, believed to be the Druid’s Rock Garden — said to be an old Druidic site —his now home to features called the Witch’s Kitchen, the Wishing Steps, Fairy Glade the Druid’s Cave and the Sacrificial Altar is the most impressive Dolmen you are likely to see at close quarters.

One of the areas recently reclaimed from the marauding brambles and sycamores is the Pinetum.

Originally developed in the 1960s, it had lain in neglect and now has over 200 new conifers planted. Many are of horticultural note, such as the 30 Podocarpus salignus taken from cuttings in Fota Arboretum and which are now endangered in the wild. The Wollemia nobilis (Wollemi Pine), believed to be the oldest tree species in existence, was thought to be extinct until it was discovered by David Noble in the Blue Mountains in 1994. The oldest known fossil of this species dates back 90 million years.

But it is possible that you may walk past these without realising as your attention will immediately be taken by the stunning Pinus montezumae ‘Sheffield Park’. It is so showy it nearly doesn’t look real, beautiful blue needles that are so long you have to do a double take.

There is so much to see in these gardens it is difficult to take it all in but thankfully there are information signs in many of the more significant trees and plants of interest.

This garden, like any old garden, has gone through many different phases of development and it’s only when you are amongst these trees, some of which date back as far as 600 years, that you get a real sense of your own mortality. Many of the trees have lived through all the major events in Irish history and you are connected to the toils of so many generations of gardeners who have gone before, and in the true sense of being a living entity we just get to enjoy a fleeting glimpse of this living wonderland.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s much of the parkland trees were planted. These would have come from Botanic gardens around Europe and from collectors, as was typical of estates such as this at the time. During the 1970s the famous English horticulturist, Harold Hillier, visited regularly. Trailers full of trees would arrive at Blarney and these can be seen growing in many of the green areas around the castle. Many are unusual forms of common trees with variety names long forgotten if they were ever known. Do keep an eye out for the Liriodendron tulipifera (Tulip Tree), some lovely Aesculus indica (Indian Horse Chestnut) and the stunning Davidia involucrata (Handkerchief Tree).

The owner of Blarney Castle, Charles Colthurst has a strong attachment to the gardens as he grew up here and helped to plant many of the trees along the way and is proactive in improving the gardens.

The most visited garden in the grounds is the Poison Garden and it is hard to believe it’s only four years old — Adam’s target could well be met. This is an educational garden illustrating the uses of plants in the positive and negative.

Traditional and modern medicine owes so much to the garden andmany modern day drugs are still extracted from plants; for instance, Digoxin from Digitalis, (Foxglove), Atropine from Atropa belladonna and Taxol from Taxus (Yew). The only Poison Ivy in the country is grown here with permission from the Dept of Agriculture, but do admire from a significant distance. Other plants of interest include Rhubarb, (poisonous leaves), Ricinus (castor oil plant) which produces the toxic Ricin and Laburnum.

I could fill the whole newspaper writing on these gardens but I must stop and I haven’t even mentioned the borders, beds, Fernery, or the lake.

What is being achieved in these gardens is important and if you never visit the castle you should make it your business to have an enjoyable day out in the grounds. Season tickets are available and allow you to visit as often as you want. Creating gardens as famous as one of the most famous castles in the world is as big a challenge as you can get — but Alan Whitbourn just might get there.

More in this section

Lunchtime News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up