Northern Ireland, Rowallane Gardens

‘Rowallane is one of the foremost gardens in the British Isles… it’s a unique garden, a place to lose yourself” in the woods and meadows of a 52 acre estate, or, as the Irish call it, a’demesne’. So said the brochure for this National Trust property just south of Belfast, near the town of Saintfield.  With that sort of invitation, Rowallane was a definite on our ‘must visit’ list. And what we found was indeed worthy of being called a great garden.

The garden’s history began when the Reverend John Moore began planting here in the 1860s. He continued to develop the garden until 1903 when his nephew, Hugh Armytage Moore, inherited the property. The National Trust took over in 1955 and they have been restoring, maintaining and developing the garden ever since.

As we entered through the gates, we quickly left behind the busy road to drive along an enchanting avenue of trees that gave promise of the woodland walks to come – as detailed in the brochure.. However, that was not to be for us. Why? 
The whole property was totally waterlogged by all of the rain that had tumbled down over Ireland in June. As one young Irishman said to me,”Ireland is a beautiful country – but what it needs is a roof!”   That’s very true, but you can’t have amazing green countryside and lush parks and gardens without rain. What we needed was what every self-respecting Irish person has available in the boot of their car at all times – Wellington boots!  But gumboots, as we call them, we did not have. We had all the rest of the wet weather gear required – but we did not have those essential gumboots! 

The first sight of the garden after coming through that avenue is of a green and lush treed park. What we couldn’t see was the layer of water lying under the grass.  It looked so inviting, but walking here for a closer look at all the conifers, rhododendrons, azaleas, and many other shrubs and trees was just out of the question.

This lingering bloom spoke of the spring that had just been and the promise of the next spring to come. Rowallane is renowned for its spring rhododendron and azalea display with the red flowers of the many lofty tree Rhododendrons and massed banks of lower growing varieties in a wide spectrum of colours. These are probably at their best in May. And with so many deciduous trees amongst the plantings, this must be a spectacular park when in full autumn foliage.

This famous rhododendron collection has been skilfully grouped with other shrubs and trees in the undulating site creating a scene that’s a delight to the eye. This garden is not only for plantsmen but also for the artist within us all.

After the Reverend Moore had transformed the barren hillsides into a wooded parkland and created the walled gardens and ‘pleasure grounds’, his nephew added the skills of a true planstman to develop the garden we see today. His vision was to create an informal garden, one which would be a wildlife-friendly environment, and one which would include plants from all corners of the globe, many of them rare.

He used the landscape of the drumlins to add form to his design.  The drumlins (from the Irish word droimnin meaning ‘little ridge’) are in the shape of an inverted spoon or a half buried egg. They were formed long ago by glacial ice compacting the underlying moraine. So although the climate is wet, the plants have naturally good drainage from these rounded ridges. They add interest and shape to Moore’s plantings throughout the park.

At the time of our visit, it was raining intermittently and the grounds of Rowallane’s large park were just too boggy for walking.  So we missed out on seeing the natural Rock Garden with its plantings of a wide range of alpines, heathers and dwarf rhododendrons and where meconopsis and primula were in full bloom. We also missed out on the meadows where wildflowers and masses of orchids grow. And we couldn’t walk through the farmlands that include higher drumlins that afford fabulous panoramic views over the Down countryside towards the Mountains of Mourne. Nor could we stretch our legs walking along the paths through the woods of mature trees. Many of those trees were planted in the latter half of the 1800s and early 1900s and include many rare trees and shrubs.  Next time perhaps!

In the years after the National Trust took over, one of the foremost consultants for the garden’s restoration was Lady Jean O’Neill, chairman of the National Trust Gardens Committee. This renowned plantswoman was widow of one time Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Terence O’Neill. After her death on July 15th 2008 at the age of 93, her obituary in the Telegraph on 3rd August said of her that she was:

” a passionate plantswoman, capable of identifying everything from a blade of grass to a rainforest liana… Never claiming to be anything but an amateur, Lady O’Neill developed, and retained throughout her life, a photographic memory both for botanical detail and for the overall “look” of a plant; her recall for the latter would enable her to make a swift, positive identification where a professional botanist could only do so on completing a long technical process.

Her wide knowledge won the admiration of (many in the horticultural elite of the time). Jean O’Neill was also greatly interested in the history of plants, particularly of those which arrived in the British Isles from the New World.”

What better person than this to lead the restoration of Rowallane in keeping with Hugh Armytage Moore’s vision. It’s good to know that in the capable hands of the National Trust’s gardeners, the maintenance of this great garden will continue for many years to come for the pleasure of all. And for this alone, it is worth being a National Trust member, as we are.

On our day at Rowallane, one of the few dry areas was the old stone and brick stables, built by Reverend Moore.

The soft earthy colours of the stable wall makes a good background for the plants in the larger walled garden.


Even the stones themselves provided horticultural interest with ferns, mosses and lichens finding a niche to grow.


A different patterning of the stones and bricks was used to build the outer surrounds of the outer walled gardens.

Another of the Reverend Mooore’s projects was to improve the house. During 2012, it has again been under renovation, to provide better offices for the National Trust’s regional headquarters and better facilities for visitors and conferences.

In 1903, when the ‘demesne’ of Rowallane was inherited by Reverend Moore’s nephew, Hugh Armytage Moore, the garden itself inherited a very knowledgable and keen plantsman. Not only is his name well respected in Irish horticulture but also, in 1942, the Royal Horticultural Society of Great Britain awarded him the ‘Victoria Medal of Honour’. He raised many of the plants in this garden from seeds collected from various parts of the world, particularly in China and the Himalayan regions, by such well known plant hunters as Ernest Wilson, George Forrest and Frank Kingdom Ward. He established important connections with Botanic Gardens throughout the world particularly in Edinburgh,Scotland and Kew, London.  And throughout his years cultivating plants, he gave many new cultivars and hybrids the name ‘Rowallane’ such as the Candelabra Primula ‘Rowallane Rose’.

This is the original Viburnum plicatum var. tomentosum ‘Rowallane’, grown by Hugh Armytage Moore from seed collected in the wild by Ernest Wilson in Eastern Asia where viburnum originates. This tree is just one of many in the gardens that bear witness to the horticultural skill and expertise of this great plantsman.

Unfortunately, we saw this special Viburnum just at the end of flowering – the petals, somewhat damaged by rain.

But we could see how these flat-topped pure white flower clusters are made up of an outer ring of large, sterile florets surrounding a central mass of small, fertile flowers.

Although the boggy conditions meant that we did not experience all that this great garden has to offer, we were able to spend a lot of time in the two excellent walled gardens. Our trigger fingers were kept busy photographing some fascinating plants and flowers – some of them with that real ‘wow’ factor.  In my next journal, we’ll look at some of the plants that attracted our special attention that day.  It was so pleasing to see that these walled gardens are kept in excellent condition by the National Trust gardeners.  We know that many gardens are not being well maintained in these times of economic downturn, but Rowallane has kept up its very high standards. We recommend it highly.

Photography © JT for jtdytravels

Northern Ireland, Rowallane’s Lower Walled Garden

One of the things I really love about exploring gardens is the wonderful variety of plants that gardeners use to express their vision of their garden – for no two gardens are alike. They invariably express something about their creator.

And of the plants themselves? Some are old friends that I have enjoyed seeing many, many times: some are variations of those old friends. And some are completely new to me. And I am impelled to learn more about them – to learn their story. I am not a plant expert with botanical names at the tip of my tongue like my horticulturist friends. Neither do I know in what conditions and with what care many plants should be grown. What I love about plants is their colour, their texture, their shape, their form. I love to look deep inside a flower, to see how it’s made.  And I love the tiny ones just as much as the big, blowsy ‘look-at-me’ types. I enjoy looking to see how each gardener puts all those traits together – for that is the art of garden design. And my photography aims to express the ‘essence ‘of each garden and explore the character of flowers.

Rowallane’s walled gardens are those of a dedicated plantsman, Hugh Armytage Moore, a collector of a rich variety of plants and seeds originating from all corners of the globe.  So I expected that a walk in these two walled gardens would be something of a ‘world tour’ of plants and I was not disappointed in that. We found plants growing happily side by side that came originally from places as far apart as Africa, Chile, Asia, the Himalaya and across Europe.

We began our wander in the smaller, lower garden.  It wraps around the larger rectangular walled garden in an L shape.  The shorter side is flat and shaded with a pond as the focal point. The longer side rises up a slope allowing for plants that need a warm, sunny but sheltered place against a wall. And here there are glimpses of the woods beyond.

The path from the stable area leads across the ‘foot’ of the L shape.  This was once the nursery area and one can really imagine Hugh Armytage Moore and his gardeners working in here on their plant cultivation and propagation. Many of the plants seen in the gardens today are the result of their untiring efforts. (For his story, read the previous journal entry which relates to the history and development of the garden.)  The first plant that caught our eye was the yellow flowered Phlomis in the very foreground of this photo. Neither of us had seen it before.

Phlomis sp.

This close up of the Phlomis flower buds emerging shows the prickly ‘encasement’ whirl, the ones at the top unfurling first.  With their sweet nectar, these flowers attract birds, bees and butterflies, insects and ants – like the one above.

Phlomis sp.

This group of Phlomis plants certainly ‘grabs’ attention. The tubular flowers, arranged in tiered whirls, are spaced out along stiff upright stems which rise above the mass of deep green foliage. It certainly is a show stopper, accentuated by the softer leaved, pale mauve flowers in the background.

Further along, the garden was a vision of green set off by the variegated leaves on the right hand side and by that touch of red/orange in the background towards the left beyond the tree.  When I see this touch of red in a green ‘landscape’, I’m always reminded of that famous English artist, John Constable, who often used small brush strokes of red paint to direct the eye through the landscape and to emphasise the intensity of the greens and browns. It always works!

The plants in the small pond area are all green. Here the white urns are used to relieve the greens. A skilful blend of the textures and shapes of ferns and grasses take the eye in a circular motion around the pond. In the background, the old grey stone wall is softened by an espaliered tree. In the fore ground are the very different, softer, more rounded leaves of one of the lovely Alchemilla species, or Lady’s Mantle, growing over the edging rocks.


One of the benefits of ‘walking in the rain’ in a garden like this, is to enjoy the beauty of raindrops on Lady’s Mantle leaves. Maybe that’s why in rainy Ireland, this plant is so often used as rock covering and path edging in gardens! The origins of most species of Alchemilla is Europe, but not Ireland, with only one species being native to Antrim in Northern Ireland.  I delighted in this plant when I lived in Switzerland and was pleased to find it here – as an old friend.

Several leaves in this area made perfect receptacles for jewel-like ‘crystals’ of rain. How perfect is this one?


That dash of red amongst the greens in an earlier photo was this clump of Primula bulleyana , better known to most as Candelabra primula. They originate in China and the Himalaya and enjoy woodlands, damp or even WET places. They had found a perfect home here!  The softness of these flowers was in perfect contrast to the great, architectural leaves of Gunnera behind them. Most large leaved Gunnera, a genus named after the Norwegian botanist Johann Ernst Gunnerus, originate in South American countries like Brazil, Chile and Columbia.  Gunnera is sometimes called ‘giant rhubarb’, although it’s not for the dessert plate!  It also likes to live in damp conditions, so these two very different types of plants, from two different continents, two different hemispheres, live happily together in this ‘global’  garden.  

Another plant used to make a textural statement in this area is a Hosta, with leaves that also catch those rain drops. Hostas originate in China and Japan and were introduced to Europe in the mid 19thcentury. More recently, some species have been discovered on the Korean peninsula.  Although there are about 45 species of Hosta, it’s estimated that there are over 3,000 varieties available to gardeners because of hybridization among the many species.  No wonder they are so popular with gardeners in so many parts of the world. The red on these leaves are the fallen petals from the tree above – another example of a touch of  red highlighting green.

The tree in question is the delightful, Crinodendron hookerianum.  Its botanical name comes from the Greek: krinon meaning lily and dendron meaning tree. It’s common name is Chilean Lantern Tree and, yes, it is endemic to Chile.

Botanically, the flowers are urceolate in shape – shaped like a pitcher or urn – though in this case upside down.  And the shiny dark green leaves are alternate and described as llanceolate, long and narrow with a pointy tip – lance shaped.

It’s not just the flowers that are fascinating but the dagger-like seed heads are interesting, too. It’s a difficult plant to photograph. To begin with the flowers are red – always a problem, and the rain makes the waxy petals and leaves even shiner, throwing back the light. It’s another plant in this garden that is far from its original home – half a world away.

The Crinodendron (left) shelters in the corner of the garden where the old stone wall meets a newer stone and brick wall. Beyond the wall is a glimpse of the woods. Those trees not only provide a delightful background to this garden, but, and very importantly, they provide shelter for the tender plants in this garden from the worst of the weather.

Martagon Lilies, Lilium Martagon var. Alba

Turk’s cap lilies always make a statement in a garden. These white ones are Lilium Martagon var. Alba.

The Martagon lily is common in Europe especially in the Alps where it’s generally found in meadows up to an elevation of 2100 m (7000 ft.).  There are several white forms in cultivation, like L. martagon var. Alba, which has been grown as a garden plant since the 16th century. It received a First Class Certificate from the Royal Horticultural Society as long ago as 1889.  It’s a very stately plant with up to twenty flowers on stems that are strong enough to withstand wind.

Lilium Martagon var. Alba

The clear ivory white flowers with their perianth segments rolled backwards are complemented by the orange anthers. Many of the other  lilies had been spoiled by the rain – but not these beauties. They were enhanced by the rain drops.


Another plant to catch the eye in this part of the garden was Astrantia, an herbaceous plant native to central, eastern and southern Europe and the Caucasus.  The name comes from the Greek word for star – an obvious reference to the flower.   Their common name is Great Masterwart – not to be confused with Masterwart, Peucedanum ostruthium. It is this sort of confusing common naming of plants that makes it so important to refer to their botanical names.

This beautiful flower, in close up, shows just how complicated a seemingly simple flower can be!

We were to see Astrantia used in many gardens. It’s a compact plant with many flowers that  works well in boarders.

It was delightful to spend time in this peaceful garden. We had it all to ourselves – maybe a plus for a  rainy day!

But we still had the larger walled garden to explore, so it was time to wander back by the pond and find the arch that would lead us into the main garden. And the plants we found in that garden will be the subject of my next journal.

Photography  ©  JT of  jtdytravels

Rowallane is just south of Saintfield on the Belfast to Downpatrick Road. It’s a National Trust Garden.

Northern Ireland, Rowallane Main Walled Garden Continued

Today’s gardeners, if they have the right conditions, can grow plants that came originally from all corners of the world.  That’s thanks in large part to visionary, pioneer plantsmen like Hugh Armytage Moore of Rowallane. This garden is his legacy and to wander here, is to take a world tour of plants!

A quiet space in Rowallane’s walled garden

The walled gardens are large enough to have trees that form a gracious backdrop to the smaller plants. It’s a garden to take your time in, to wander and to sit and contemplate the amazing variety of plants. That seat did look inviting.. but, unfortunately, a to sit there was not possible in the rain!

The lawn area framed by plants.

The central lawn area gives this garden an openness, a space. It allows you to not only enjoy each flowering plant up close, but also to see them further away in their setting against the trees.  And looking through these spaces is an invitation wander along more paths, to explore further.

Rogersia sp.

There are so many plants that captured the eye like these Rogersias with their panicles of flowers rising above strongly veined leaves.

Rogersia sp.

Rogersia leaves are as photogenic as the flowers themselves!

Rogersia sp.

The flowers of Rogersia come in various shades from red to pink, and cream to white except for Rogersia nepalensis which are a greeny yellow. This is yet another plant that comes originally from eastern Asia, most species being found in China, Tibet and Nepal. In their native habitats they thrive in soil that never dries out, growing by streams and in shady moist woodland. No wonder they grow well in Ireland!

Rogersia sp.

Grouping different colours of Rogersias together makes quite a show. They are indeed a very handsome plant.

Giant Knapweed,   Centaurea macrocephala 

Another plant that I hadn’t encountered before is the Giant Knapweed, Centaurea macrocephala.  These are rather tall plants, up to one and a half meters, with flowers on ram rod stiff stems. They are very hard to miss!   The shaggy-headed, yellow, thistle-like flowers emerge from their bracts in early summer through to late summer.  In the wild, the many species of this genus, Centaurea, are found only north of the equator and mostly in the Eastern Hemisphere, particularly in the the Middle East.

Giant Knapweed, Centaurea macrocephala

Although the yellow flowers were fascinating, it was without doubt, the balls of  sculptured, glowing bronze balls of bracts that really attract attention. They add such an interesting textural component to the garden and, I’ve no doubt, look very good dried in flower arrangements. The species name of this particular Centaurea is macrocephala and that’s derived from two Greek words:  makros meaning ‘large’ and kephale, meaning ‘head’. Very apt.

When researching this plant in the horticulture literature, I learned that the botanical name for this plant, Centaurea, comes from the name of a noble mythical Centaur, Chiron. I searched further.  It appears that, in Greek mythology, this centaur, half- man and half-horse, taught music, horse skills, hunting, martial arts and medicine to several of the great Greek mythical heroes.  He is credited with inventing medicine. And in one story, Chiron cured a festering arrow wound, in one of said heroes, by covering the wound with the flowers of a plant from this genus.  And for that, the genus not only got its name, Centaurea, but also its reputation for having great healing properties.  I wonder if modern medicine has discovered this!

Centaurea montana

There are many species of Centaurea. Another one growing in this garden is the lovely blue cornflower-like Centaurea montana, with its solitary fringed blue flower with a reddish centre.  The natural habitat of Centaurea montana is, not surprisingly, in mountain areas, particularly in the more southerly mountain ranges of Europe where I have seen it in the wild. It has also become established in the wild in the UK, Scandinavia and North America, but in those places it is as a ‘garden escapee’. It has several common names, including perennial cornflower, mountain cornflower, bachelor’s button, montane knapweed or mountain bluet, so once again, the botanical name is the most useful descriptor.

It’s very similar to the more commonly known and grown blue cornflower, Centaurea cyanus.   The difference is that Centaurea montana  is an evergreen, perennial plant that has a reddish centre and just a single flower head (rarely three).  By contrast, Centaurea cyanus has many flower heads, is blue in the centre and is an annual. The blue cornflower, once a common sight in cornfields, hence its common name, is now, as a result of modern farm practices, rarely seen in the wild although it is widely grown as a garden plant.  In this garden of uncommon plants, Centaurea montana prevailed.

Another garden view of the old stables tower

The tower of the old stables is always a focal point in this garden. The yellow flowers bordering the path here are Golden Garlic,  Allium moly.

A border of Golden Garlic,  Allium moly

That bright yellow of Golden Garlic, Allium moly,  made quite a statement bordering the main path back to the bottom entrance arch, yet another focal point in the garden.   This perennial plant, also sometimes called Lily Leek, is primarily found in Southern France and Spain.

This was another plant in the garden that had a ‘name plate’ with information notes.  From that we learned that the bulb of Allium moly is edible and is used for some medicinal purposes. It is used in this garden as a long-lasting, wonderful sunny border. It is easy to grow and naturalizes quickly, increasing happily in the sun in most garden soils. So prolific are these plants that the gardeners here deadhead the flowers before the seeds set – a most necessary measure to help control its spread to parts of the garden where it is not wanted!  The golden flowers make excellent cut flowers.

Golden Garlic, Allium Moly

Another mythical story refers to this plant. One of the greatest Greek storytellers was Homer and in his epic, ‘The Odyssey’, moly was the name of the drug used by Hermes to help Odysseus to become resistant to Circe’s magic spells.  She had planned to turn Odysseus into a pig, as she had already done to some of his men. As with many good stories, once Circe realised that Odysseus was resistant to her magic, she fell in love with him and released his men from her spell.

Crane’s Bill, Geranium sp.

A plant much used in the Irish gardens that we visited is the Geranium, commonly called Crane’s Bill.  With a mounding growth habit, interesting cleft leaves and often beautifully veined flower petals, Geraniums are a wonderful addition to any garden. With something over 400 species to choose from, gardeners can add a touch of colour and beauty with these plants that originate mostly in the eastern part of the Mediterranean.

The name of this plant causes some confusion with another plant commonly called Geranium, the Pelargonium… the type that is grown in such profusion in window boxes in places like Switzerland and Austria. It appears that Linnaeus, the man who gave us the binomial way of naming plants, originally included both of these types of plants in the one genus, Geranium. In 1789 they were separated into two genera but still in the family known as Geraniaceae.  But the common name geranium stayed in usage for both.   Confusing?  Yes. But there is a difference if we look at the flowers.

Geranium flowers, as in the photo above, are radially symmetrical with five very similar petals. The next photo of a species in the pelargonium family, shows flowers that have two upper petals very different from the three lower petals. The flowers do look quite different, it’s just the name that confuses.

Pelargonium sp.

In this garden the true Geranium species are grown in the garden beds… the Pelargonium species were grown in pots by the stables.

Peony sp.

A little further along the main path were a group of peonies, those wonderful flowers that look like they have put on diaphonous party dresses and are just waiting for a handsome prince to take them to a royal ball, there to waltz the night away!  It was not a surprise to me to learn that the genus Paeonia is rather unique in that it is the only genus in the flowering plant family of Paeoniaceae, a name first used by Friedrich K L Rudolphi in 1830. I think he must have been a romantic at heart and fell under the spell of these beautiful flowers, just as I always do. They are unique. Peonies are native across much of the northern hemisphere in Asia, Southern Europe and Western North America but have now been bred to grow in many parts of the world, including our own garden in Canberra.

Peony sp.

Another beautiful peony, staying out of the worst of the rain under an its ‘umbrella’ of foliage.

Peony sp.

And another. They are just so lovely.

And here’s another flower-related Greek legend, this one is associated with the name Peony or (Paeony). The story goes that Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and healing had a pupil named Paeon. But Paeon must have been a little too bright for his teacher’s comfort and Asclepius became very jealous. However, before Asclepius could take out his wrath on the young Paeon, the great god Zeus stepped in and turned Paeon into a peony flower. And, interestingly, Peonies have long been used in traditional medicines of Korea, China and Japan.

Comfrey, Symphytum sp.

And while mentioning the medicinal properties of plants, Comfrey, Symphytum sp,  has been cultivated and valued for it’s medicinal uses for over 2,000 years by various cultures in its native areas of Europe and Asia.  It is said to have been used as a blood coagulant, a treatment for maladies of the lung, and as a poultice to aid in the healing of wounds and broken bones. Consumed as a tea, comfrey is said to treat a variety of internal ailments. I just love its beautiful blue bell-like flowers that are even more lovely when touched by the rain… again, that bonus of walking in a garden in the rain.

Campanula sp.

Another favourite genus of mine, grown in many gardens these days, is Campanula. And there are many stories associated with these delightful blue bell like flowers… especially in places like Ireland where they are connected to ‘the good folk’ – the fairies. It is said that people did not dig them out of their gardens – just in case they should offend the fairies who may sleep in these bells or use them as goblets to collect the dew. And in North America, the Haida Indians cautioned their children not to pick these flowers, or it would rain. Perhaps the Irish should start to pick these bells to STOP the rain!

Raindrops on Delphinium sp. flower buds.

And rain it certainly did, while we visited this beautiful garden of Rowallane.  As the rain grew heavier, we had to finally give up, take one more photo of raindrops on petals, this time on Delphinium buds, and make a quick retreat to the car.

It had been a fascinating morning in a garden that is not only a wonderful legacy to Hugh Armytage Moore, but also a tribute to the gardeners of the National Trust who maintain this important garden with such care and diligence – and I daresay, with a great love for the plants they grow.

Photography © JT for jtdytravels