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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Primrose-tinted Spectacle

March 12, 2011 § 7 Comments

Over in my weekly column in the Irish Times today, I wrote about the primroses that Joe Kennedy has been breeding in his back garden in Ballycastle, Co Antrim, and which have been introduced to the market this spring. He’s had an avid interest in plant breeding for decades: “rhododendrons, auriculas and all sorts: I can’t pass a stigma!”

He settled on primroses in the late 1970s, and using a gene pool of about twenty old, old Irish cultivars, he gradually produced his own distinct lines of Kennedy primulas. He didn’t sell them, and didn’t look for publicity for them. He mounted spectacular displays at flower shows, where they were seen (and much admired) by other gardeners. But, because of the specialist nature of such events, only a few hundred people would see his plants per year.

His cultivars got more and more refined as the years passed — and they continue to do so, as he is still working on them. Of the thousands that he raises annually, he keeps a hundred or so possibles, casting the others onto the compost heap.

Backyard breeding operation

Then, about five years ago, Pat FitzGerald of FitzGerald Nurseries contacted Joe, and offered to bring his primroses to the public. After a rigorous selection process, two were chosen to be launched this year: ‘Drumcliff’ and ‘Innisfree’. More will be released in 2013: the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s visit to Ireland. It’s not that Joe Kennedy is related to JFK (that I know of), but Pat FitzGerald has a grand nose for a marketing opportunity. And this one is too good to be missed — especially since the primroses bring the Kennedy and FitzGerald names together in a useful coincidence. And, God bless Pat FitzGerald, sure didn’t he manage to bring Yeats into the mix as well, with the names of this year’s introductions. ‘Innisfree’, as you know, is the lake isle where the poet would “arise and go now”, while ‘Drumcliff’ honours the Sligo village where his mortal remains are laid to rest.

Unnamed primrose bred by Joe Kennedy

But, believe me, these little touches will make the primroses more marketable in the United States, which is where Pat FitzGerald is right now — with the aforementioned beauteous Kennedy cultivars. After being launched at the Philadelphia Flower Show, they will be available as plants from Burpee, I believe. When I get more details on that, I’ll post them here.

In the meantime, if you’re Irish, you can buy them from the following garden centres. If you are travelling far, do phone first, just to make sure they’re still in stock.

Arboretum Garden Centre, Leighlinbridge, Co Carlow (059 9721558)

Ardcarne Garden Centre, Lanesboro Road, Roscommon, Co Roscommon (090 6627700)

Bandon Garden Centre,  Glaslyn Road, Bandon, Co Cork  (023 8842260)

Beech Hill Garden Centre, Montenotte Cork, Co Cork (021 4643254)

Blackwater Plantsplus Garden Centre,  Kinsalebeg, West Waterford (024 92725)

Canning’s Home & Garden, Sligo., Co Sligo (071 9160060)

Carmel’s Garden Centre, Kilworth, Co Cork (025 27276)

Clonmel Garden Centre, Glenconnor, Clonmel, Co Tipperary (052 6123294)

Coolaught Gardens, Clonroche, Co Wexford (053 9244137)

Dunsland Garden Centre, Glanmire, Co Cork (021 4354949)

Fernhill Garden Centre,  Cornamagh, Athlone, Co Westmeath (0906 475574)

Greenbarn Garden Centre, Inchiquin, Killeagh, Co Cork (024  90166)

Haggardstown Garden Centre, Co Louth (042 9337627)

Horkan’s Garden Centre, Bundoran Road, Sligo (071 9138870)

Horkan’s Garden Centre, Turlough, Castlebar, Co Mayo (094 9031435)

Johnstown Garden Centre, Naas, Co Kildare (045 879138)

Jones’ Garden Centre, Swords Road, Donabate, Co Dublin (01 8401781)

McGuire’s Garden Centre, Rossduff, Woodstown, Co Waterford (051 382136)

Nangle’s Garden Centre, Model Farm Rd Carrigrohane Co. Cork (021 4871297)

O’Driscoll’s Garden Centre, Mill Rd, Thurles, Co Tipperary (0504 21636)

O’ Meara’s Garden Centre, Mullingar, Co Westmeath (044 9342088)

The Secret Garden, Aghaneenagh, Newmarket, Co Cork (029 60084)

Northern Ireland

Craigville Garden Centre, Sligo Road, Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh BT74 5QR (028 6632 6004)

Glenavy Garden Centre, 26, Main St, Glenavy, Crumlin, Co Antrim BT29 4LW (028 9442 2826)

Joe Kennedy's primroses at the Alpine Garden Society show in Dublin

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