Horticulture on Garinish

One of the Most Significant Gardens of Europe

Garinish Island, recognised as one of Harold Peto’s finest accomplishments, is a world-renowned garden that combines Arts and Crafts ideas with classical Italianate architecture, set within an informal Robinsonian context. The design makes great use of vistas and views of the dramatic mountain scenery and the sea.

Garinish is one of the most significant gardens in Europe. It has an internationally important plant collection that consists mostly of Southern Hemisphere plants, made possible by its sheltered position and the warming effect of the Gulf Stream. Much of the plant collection post-dates the original creation of the gardens and, being somewhat different to the restrained planting styles usually associated with Harold Peto, can be attributed to Murdo McKenzie and Roland Bryce.

The main formal garden runs west to east, linking the sunken Italian garden, Casita (garden house), formal lawn (originally for croquet and tennis, located on a gradually sinking basin of bog) and walled garden. Parallel to the formal axis is a more informal garden running from the ‘Grecian temple’ through the ‘Happy Valley’; a linear grass glade lined either side with plantings, up a rocky outcrop to the Martello tower. The two axes are linked at each end, and centrally though the informal, shaded ‘Jungle’ with its tree ferns and bog gardens.

Michelia Doltsopa from the Himalyas. OPW.
300-year-old Bonsai Larch. OPW.
Clianthus Puniceus. OPW.

The Classically inspired sunken garden, referred to as the Italian Garden, is one of Ilnacullin’s outstanding features, with beautifully placed and elegantly proportioned colonnades, steps, raised terraces and garden structures arranged around a formal pool and enclosed by clipped Yew hedges. All elements blend ingeniously with the natural setting.

The plants that adorn the Italian Garden are rich and varied. The borders contain selected bedding plants carefully blended with exotic fuchsias and the tender Abutilon and Cestrum, both examples of Central and South American species which grow well in the mild location. A collection of Bonsai specimens adorns the paved area. These include a fine Larix – said to be almost 300 years old. Many fine plants act as a background foil to the Italian Garden. These include leptospermums (Manuka) of remarkable size, camellias, callistemons, myrtles and many scented rhododendrons – notably Rhododendron x ‘Lady Alice Fitzwilliam’.

The path from the Italian Garden to the Happy Valley meanders through richly planted exotic trees and shrubs, including an outstanding specimen of Phyllocladus toatoa (Celery-Top-Pine) from New Zealand, the colourful red and yellow trumpet like flowers of the Desfontainia spinosa (Chilean Holly) and the scented white miniature flowers of the beautiful Osmanthus delavayi. The adjacent bog bed contains many plants with contrasting foliage, notably Pseudopanax laetus creating a tropical effect, and oriental Pieris species and cultivars with their brilliant young red leaves and profuse white urn-shaped flowers. There is also a magnificent specimen of Drimys winteri, an evergreen tree native to Argentina and Chile.

Magnolia. OPW.
Camellia York and Lancaster. OPW.
Embothrium Coccineum: the Chilean flame tree. OPW.

At the west end of the Happy Valley, a flight of steps and promontory lead to the Grecian Temple, a roofless rotunda overlooking the sea with magnificent views of the Caha Mountains. Staddle stones line the path up to the Temple. These mushroom-shaped stones were originally used as supporting bases for granaries and hayricks to protect them from vermin and water seepage. The Agapanthus (African Lily) by the temple give a great show of flowers during the Summer.

The glade drops from the Grecian Temple and, at its lowest point, crosses an Iris pond via stepping-stones. East of the pond, the glade rises gradually, flanked by fine conifers including Metasequoia glyptostroboides (Dawn Redwood) and the exotic Pseudolarix (Golden Larch), towards the Martello Tower, which is located up a flight of stone steps on the highest point of the island.

The Happy Valley has an extensive collection of plants from all over the globe. Near the Grecian Temple, a group of Pinus thunbergii (Black Pine) from Japan provide shelter for a magnificent specimen of the pendulous Lagarostrobos (Syn. Dacrydium) franklinii from Tasmania. This tender tree can only be cultivated in the most favoured gardens. On the north of the glade is the blazing Embothryium coccineum (Chilean fire-tree), Myrtus lechleriana (Myrtle) suffused in cream flowers in May and the evergreen Drimys winteri (Wintergreen). These are all native to South America. There is an exceptionally tall Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Ellwoodii’, planted in 1941, which is quite unusual because in most gardens it is a dwarf conifer. The valley also contains an exceptional Agathis australis (Kauri Pine) from New Zealand. Many fine Rhododendrons thrive in the area, including R. fortunei, R. formosum/R. iteophyllum, R. macabeanum with its giant leaves, and the cardinal red flowered hybrid, ‘Romany Chal’. There are also examples of a miniature Rhododendron, R. yakushimanum from Japan. To the left of the main glade is a diverse collection of trees and shrubs including Eucryphia, Cornus species, oriental spruces and many prized Rhododendron hybrids.

The Jungle area, between the Happy Valley and the more formal gardens, has heavily shaded woodland conditions. These conditions provide a suitable environment for woodland shade plants such as the giant tree ferns from New Zealand, the tree-like Rhododendron falconeri, varieties and species of Camellia, Rhododendron, Pittosporum, and the rare and tender Schima khasiana from China.

The Martello Tower, located on the island’s highest point, is reached via a long set of natural shale steps, originally built using stone quarried from the island. The British War Office built it around 1805 as a defence against a feared Napoleonic invasion. Like other Martello Towers in County Cork, its walls are vertical rather than sloping as is usual elsewhere. The tower is in an excellent state of preservation and offers fine panoramic views. A viewpoint south of the Martello Tower affords views of Bantry Bay and Whiddy Island. It was in this area of Ilnacullin that John Annan Bryce had initially planned to build his residence. The residence, of a huge scale, was to incorporate the Martello Tower. The nearby garden viewing point offers a panorama of Ilnacullin’s formal gardens and setting, including the Walled Garden with its clock tower; the Casita by the Italian Garden; and expansive views of the Caha Mountains and Glengarriff harbour.

Cyathea Dealbata: the New Zealand silver tree fern. OPW.

The walled garden is an unusual shape, possibly because of the island’s topography and presence of bedrock that required blasting. The boundary walls are buttressed on the outside, enabling the inside to support an exceptional collection of climbing plants, notably Clematis species and hybrids, including well known cultivars such as C. ‘Lasurstern’, C. ‘Nelly Moser’, C. ‘Marie Boisselot’ and the petunia-red C. ‘Ernest Markham’. On the south facing wall on the right a rich collection of rambling roses, notably Rosa ‘Chaplins Pink’ and R. ‘Francic B Lester’ provide richness of colour throughout the summer months.

Originally, the walled kitchen gardens were used to grow vegetables, potatoes, fruit and cut flowers were grown for the residents of the island. Peto’s designs incorporated a potting shed and heated glass houses for a range of plants including early and late grape vines, muscats, early and late peaches, flower houses, orchid houses and frames. The walled gardens are now home to a range of spectacular ornamental plants.

A fine double-sided herbaceous border runs through the middle of the walled Garden, backed by espalier fruit trees (apples and pears) which would have provided screening and shelter for the vegetable plots. Careful blending of herbaceous and bulbous plants, with specimen shrubs as a background foil, makes this one of the outstanding horticultural features of Ilnacullin. The borders include varieties of Aster, Centaurea, Delphinium, Erigeron, Euphorbia and spectacular dahlias.

The gardens contain a highly ornate roman marble sarcophagus, dating from the Byzantine period, which bears many fine sculptures. A magnificent specimen of the rare Michelia doltsopa / Magnolia doltsopa (Sweet Michelia) from the Himalayas is located to the left of the sarcophagus. This tender species flowers in spring and will only survive outside in particularly mild situations.

Celery Pine. New Zealand. OPW.
Myrtus Lechleriana. OPW.
Drimys Winteri. OPW.

The open lawn area and gravel seating area were originally laid out as croquet and tennis lawns and a hardcourt. Historic photographs indicate the presence of clipped hedges with topiary birds. The lawn was created on an area of bog that is gradually sinking.

Today, the borders contain such plants as the tender Beschorneria yuccoides and the graceful Viburnum plicatum ‘Lanarth’, backed by fine specimens of Magnolia, Leptospermum, Azara and Ceanothus. The borders include Pieris ‘Murdo Mackenzie’ in addition to many varieties of Rhododendron, Camellia, Hydrangea and Fuchsia.

The lawn border contains fine specimens of Crinodendron (Chinese lantern Tree), Piptanthus (Evergreen Laburnum) from Bhutan, and the exotic Acradenia frankliniae. A profusion of colour from many varieties of Ceanothus, Olearia, Magnolia, Pieris and the handsome Melianthus major ensure the lawn border is interesting and varied over a long season.

A centenary garden to the north of the lawn marks the 100th anniversary of the acquisition of Garinish Island by John Annan Bryce.

Extensive shelterbelts surround Garinish Island. The shelterbelts cover an area of over five (5) hectares and have a reasonably varied age structure, with evidence of self-seeded trees of a range of ages in available spaces and openings. The predominant species are pine, notably Pinus radiata and Pinus sylvestris, with occasional use of cypress, fir and spruce species. The mature trees have shed their lower branches (typical of the species) and shelter at the lower levels is now reliant on stands of the evergreen Griselinia. Additional shelterbelt planting was carried out in 2014/15 in the centre of the Happy Valley following the loss of several large, mature trees in winter storms. The new planting consists of Pine and Olearia species.