Move over shamrocks, here come the Irish primroses

March 16, 2012 § 11 Comments

Seven years ago, I was wandering around the Alpine Garden Show in Dublin, admiring the little gems and rare treasures in their perfectly-presented pots — and feeling that annual mix of awe and envy at the people who grow these impossibly perfect plants.

And then, I was stopped short by a more than usually magnificent sight. It was a long table crowded with primulas: dozens and dozens of them in full flower. Some had a familiar look about them, but others were unlike anything I’d seen before. “New Irish Primrose Hybrids”, proclaimed the sign: “All Bred Over the Past 25 Years by Joe Kennedy, Ballycastle”.

There were several distinct forms: dainty, low-growing flowers,  in pink, white, mauve and palest yellow — not unlike our native Primula vulgaris; and bigger blooms in deep wine, peach and other tones that clustered among robust, deep-bronze leaves. There were also “hose-in-hose” kinds where one flower is improbably stacked inside another, and robustly-stemmed ones with their blooms held proud above the foliage. I had never seen such an array of good-looking, covetable plants.

Primrose breeding was a popular pastime among Irish lady gardeners at the end of the 19th century, and in the first half of the 20th. Mrs Johnson of Kinlough in Leitrim and Miss Winifred Wynne of Avoca (owner, with her sisters, of the woollen mill there) were just two who bred some fine cultivars. But there have been only a handful of new introductions since the 1950s. Many of the vintage varieties have disappeared, and the plants passed around among primrose fanciers tend to be a few old faithfuls, including ‘Lady Greer’, ‘Kinlough Beauty’, and ‘Guinevere’.

Primula 'Guinevere', possibly bred by Mrs Johnson of Co Leitrim

So, the unexpected appearance of a whole clatter of recently-bred, vigorous, handsome Irish primroses was tremendously exciting. (There is something especially winning about a primrose: it is a gentle and unassuming flower, but it hides a steely determination that allows it to bloom in the coldest of springs.)

Alas, Joe Kennedy’s plants were not for sale at that show in 2005. He had created them purely for his own pleasure. They had occupied him since the late 1970s, and when he took early retirement from dentistry in the eighties, they consumed him entirely. Each year, he would breed about 2,000 new plants, and at least 1,900 would end up as “compost for the future”. He kept only those that offered desirable traits for his back garden breeding programme.

His sole raw materials — the ancestors of all his progeny — were “wee pieces” of about twenty old Irish cultivars collected over the years from gardeners throughout Ireland. In the beginning, his pollinating choices were random, but as the years went on, he began to breed for specific attributes: darker leaves, larger blooms, distinct flower shape and colour, and of course, hardiness.

Joe Kennedy's backyard in Ballycastle, Co Antrim

The Kennedy primroses may well have remained a private passion, shared only with a few envious people at plant shows, as their creator is a self-contained person. “I’m a bit of a recluse. I just work here on my own. I have a job to do.” And then, with refreshing candour: “People coming around are only a bloody nuisance.”

Despite this, one brave man managed to break through the reserve, and is now working with our eremitic primrose hero to bring these new Irish cultivars to a wider and international public. Hallelujah. Pat FitzGerald of FitzGerald Nurseries in Kilkenny (which specialises in mass production of garden-worthy, easy-to-grow plants) contacted Kennedy after reading an article by him in Moorea, the Irish Garden Plant Society’s journal. He convinced the breeder to hand over twenty or thirty of his better plants, which were then subjected to a selection process. Finally, two dark-leaved varieties with yellow eyes were chosen to be launched last year: ‘Innisfree’ has red flowers, while those of ‘Drumcliff’ are white, flushed with lilac.

New Irish primroses with very old genes: 'Innisfree' and 'Drumcliff'

FitzGerald has four full-time employees working on the primrose project. Last year, five thousand of each variety were micropropagated at the nursery’s high-tech lab in Enniscorthy. Later they were brought to the Kilkenny division of the nursery on the old FitzGerald family farm to be “weaned” (acclimatised to outdoor conditions).

This year around 50,000 each of ‘Innisfree’ and ‘Drumcliff’ have been been propagated, and within the next couple of years, three new Kennedy cultivars will be introduced. The new Irish primroses are being sold across Europe: in France, Germany, Holland and Belgium; in Japan; and in America, where were launched at last year’s Philadelphia Flower Show. They’re available in Ireland and the UK also, in selected garden centres.

There’s good news too for the venerable old Irish cultivars that provided the genetic material for Kennedy’s new range. These antique primulas are due to be revived in a separate programme (supported by Bord Bia) at FitzGerald Nurseries. Nearly a century after their last heyday, Irish primroses will rule the world again.

This is an edited version of a piece that I wrote for the Irish Times gardening column in 2011

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