It may seem a long way from S. Africa but the distance has not stopped a native South African from putting down roots in Ireland, Great Britain and elsewhere in Europe. The crocosmia, originally referred to as montbretia, became a very popular garden plant. Between 1880 and 1900 Victor Lemoine, a nurseryman based at Nancy in France, raised over forty crocosmia cultivars. In England a number of gardeners, typically those working in the large private gardens, produced numerous cultivars.
In 1895, George Davison, head gardener at Westwick Hall in Norfolk, named his first crocosmia cultivar after himself and to this day Crocosmia ‘George Davison’ is to be found in most garden centres. Davison, now thought of as the father of British crocosmia breeding, went on to develop another eleven cultivars. Norfolk seems to have been a centre for crocosmia breeders as J.E. Fitt in the period 1910 – 1930, George Henley in the period 1910 – 1920, and during the 1960s and 1970s Alan Bloom, owner of the famous Bressingham Gardens in Norfolk, bred a number of good cultivars. One of these, Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ raised by Alan Bloom, puts in a regular appearance at most garden centres today. Alan’s grandson, Jason, who runs the family nursery at Bressingham introduced another superb cultivar this year, Crocosmia ‘Bressingham Flare’.
Ireland, both north and south, has not been slow to add to this plant family. Turning to Dr. Nelson’s ever useful texts, Daisy Hill Nursery Newry (Nelson and Grills, NIHGC, 1998) and Glory of Donard – A History of the Slieve Donard Nursery (Nelson and Deane, NIHGC, 1993) we find that Daisy Hill Nursery listed three crocosmia cultivars in its catalogues two of which C. ‘Daisy Hill’ described as a large orange yellow flower with a dark zone and C. ‘Newry Seedling’ described as a rich yellow with a dark ring round the centre were raised at the nursery. The Donard lists only one crocosmia, namely Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora ‘James Coey’ which was raised in Norfolk at Earlham Hall and named for James Coey who became the owner of The Donard in 1912. Dr Nelson’s other excellent text A Heritage of Beauty lists another fifteen crocosmias which were introduced from other sources.
The gardens of the great and good – members of the Irish aristocracy and well-to-do families – provided such sources. C. ‘Castle Ward Late’ (Crocosmia paniculata x C. aurea) comes from one of the family homes in Co. Down of Lord and Lady Bangor. On the eastern shore of Strangford Lough we find Mount Stewart. Originally called Mount Pleasant, the demesne land was purchased in 1744 by Alexander Stewart. The estate has remained in the family ever since, the gardens becoming prominent under the care of Edith, Marchioness of Londonderry. Subsequently, the gardens were offered to the National Trust which accepted them in 1957. C. ‘Mount Stewart 1’ and C. ‘Mount Stewart 2’ come from the gardens of the Londonderry family.
Other Irish gardens gave rise to yet more crocosmias. Covering some 40 acres overlooking Dublin Bay Fernhill Gardens was established by Mr Justice Darley and his descendants. The property came to the Walker family in the mid-1930s and C. ‘Fernhill’ – sometimes written C. ‘Fern Hill’ – comes from this old garden. This cultivar is described as a form of C. masoniorum with orange flowers with a yellow eye.
Mount Usher in Ashford, Co. Wicklow was designed by one of the Walpole family in the mid-1880’s then came into the possession of the Jay family in 1980. The gardens contain many wonderful collections but our interest focusses on C. ‘Mount Usher’ a beautiful crocosmia with small pale yellow flowers. We obtained our initial specimen of C. ‘Mount Usher’ during a visit to the gardens when we were given some corms by a member of staff.
Not to be outdone the gardens at Rowallane just outside Saintfield in Co. Down produced three fine crocosmias. This garden was created in 1860 by the Reverend John Moore and further developed by his nephew Hugh Armitage Moore – a famous plantsman – who took over the garden in 1903. At least one of the Rowallane crocosmias, C. ‘Rowallane Yellow’ is well known and widely available in the horticultural trade and C. ‘Rowallane Orange’ can be found in certain select nurseries. The third member of the family, C. ‘Rowallane Apricot’ described as a soft apricot orange form with a long inflorescence, appears to have resulted from a cross between C. ‘Rowallane Orange’ and C. ‘Rowallane Yellow’. This third Rowallane cultivar will prove a challenge to hunters of Irish cultivars but it is well worth the hunt.
One Irish cultivar has created an air of ‘mystery’ – perhaps ‘mystery’ is too strong a term but read on and see what you think. It appears that the well known Irish horticulturist Frederick James Nutty, generally known as Fred to his friends, introduced this cultivar from his nursery at Malahide. Initially mis-identified as C. ‘Comet’ this name has been retained by some. However we obtained our first specimen from Alan Bloom while staying with Alan in the 1990’s. Alan had this labelled as C. ‘Malahide’ and we were given to understand that he had obtained it from Milo Talbot of Malahide Castle during one of Alan’s tours of Ireland. Subsequently we obtained a second specimen labelled as C. ‘Malahide Castle’ from Michael Wickenden of Cally Gardens. It appears that this cultivar is in circulation under a variety of names – C. ‘Comet’, C. ‘Malahide’, C. ‘Malahide Castle’, C. ‘Fred Knutty’s’ (note the misspelling of Nutty), and C. ‘Jim Reynold’s’. Hunting for this cultivar (listed as C. ‘Comet’ Knutty) will be problematic. The RHS Plant Finder lists seven suppliers but only three offer mail order and of these none have the plant listed in their current catalogues. It is worth keeping an eye on Elmlea Plants at Old Minnigaff in Newton Stewart in Dumfries and Galloway (www.elmleaplants.co.uk) as they have this plant is stock sometimes – this is a favourite stop for us on our visits to Scotland as they always have something good on offer.
The good news is that the interest in breeding and introducing crocosmia cultivars did not stop but continues to this day in Ireland.
If ever a star had to be awarded for introducing crocosmias in Ireland then it must go to Gary Dunlop of Ballyrogan Nursery in Co. Down who, to the best of my knowledge, bred and named over forty crocosmias. Rather than try to list and describe all of Gary’s plants here seek out a copy of the book Gary co-authored and enjoy reading about crocosmias in all their glory (Crocosmia and Chasmanthe, Goldblatt, Manning and Dunlop, RHS Plant Collector Guide, Timber Press, 2004).
In 1999 another Irish horticulturist, Shelia Harding, introduced three cultivars all having the forename ‘Irish’ – these are C. ‘Irish Dawn’, C. ‘Irish Flame’, and C. ‘Irish Sunset’. We have grown two of these plants – C. Irish Dawn’, and C. ‘Irish Flame and found them to be handsome plants.
Most recently Paul and Orla Woods of Kilmurry, Co. Wexford are raising and introducing a fine range of Irish plants including C. ‘Kilmurry Orange’.
In terms of cultivation we have found these plants relatively easy to grow. We grow ours in good garden soil or in large pots, in a sunny, or partially shaded position. We would feed them after flowering with a general purpose fertilizer. We believe that some growers like to feed with a fruit and flower enhancing fertilizer once the flower spikes start to show but we have not tried this. In terms of growth we divide our crocosmias into two very crude divisions – the clumpers and the runners. As the name suggests clumpers tend to form clumps of increasing size which can be lifted and divided every three or four years. C. ‘Jenny Bloom’ is a good example of a clumper – the last time I lifted and divided a clump I was able to pot up one dozen sets of corms for distribution and to have three good sized clumps left for replanting in the garden. C. ‘Lucifer’ is a good example of a runner. Given its head it will spread out over time and happily occupy a border. This expansion is controlled easily by the use of your spade to lift and move corms to form new colonies elsewhere. Alternatively plant some in a large pot and enjoy the wonderful red flowers that way.
Many of these crocosmias can be found with relative ease. As mentioned above C. ‘Kilmurry Orange’ can be bought from Kilmurry Nursery – they offer a mail order service (www.kilmurrynursery.com). Now that Gary Dunlop’s Ballyrogan Nursery has closed some of Gary’s cultivars (e.g. C. ‘Apricot Queen’, C. ‘St. Clements’, C. ‘Tangerine Queen’, etc.) can be bought from Holden Clough Nursery in Lancashire (www.holdencloughnursery.com) – again this nursery offers a mail order service as does Trecanna Nursery in Cornwall (www.trecanna.com) who offer Gary Dunlop’s beautiful C. ‘Ballyrogan Sundown’. Shelia Harding’s plants C. ‘Irish Dawn’, and C. ‘Irish Flame’ can be found at Holden Clough Nursery.
So we end with our usual plea – go out and buy some of the many fine Irish crocosmias, old and new, and enjoy these wonderful plants in your gardens.
Note: This article was originally published in the IGPS Newsletter and lead to an interesting discussion on crocosmias of Irish origin. We will publish some follow-up material in due course.
Drs Nicola and Peter Milligan, now retired, garden at Mount Stewart on the shores of Strangford Lough in Co. Down. Both are past members of the IGPS Northern Committee and Peter was chair of the committee in the late 2000’s.