by Michael Campbell
(ISBA overseas member)
As beautiful and charming as Ireland is, the weather can be unforgiving.
So it was when I landed in Shannon on May 4, 2015—my fifth trip to my ancestral home. Chilly showers and fierce winds greeted me as I headed up to Doolin, which would serve as my base for a week of researching, and hopefully drawing, the spring wildflowers of the Burren. As part of an independent study project for my diploma in Botanical Art and Illustration at the Denver Botanic Gardens (USA), I was determined to find and record as many examples of these blooming wildflowers as possible in the short week ahead. But, I could tell that “mother nature” wasn’t going to make it easy.
Irish Seed Savers
Before even starting my search, I ventured to Skariff, to visit the Irish Seed Savers Association. This remarkable operation was a revelation. Irish Seed Savers Association exists as a living testimony to the richness and wealth of Irish agricultural history. The Association was founded by Anita Hayes in 1991. The work was initially done on a small farm in County Carlow before moving to Capparoe, Scarriff in 1996.
Most notable to me was the Native Apple Collection containing a unique orchard of over 33 self-rooting varieties of apple trees that require no grafting for propagation. This is probably the largest collection of this type of apple tree in the world. Walking through the blooming orchards is truly amazing! The staff have also established a Seed Bank containing more than 600 rare and endangered vegetable varieties, as well as conducting school children’sprograms. All in all, a really impressive effort.
The Wild Atlantic Way
After getting settled, I headed north on the Atlantic Coast Highway with no other agenda than to look for blooming wildflowers. The clouds had cleared, but the wind was howling. I stopped at the first place I saw where I could safely pull over. With the Atlantic on my left, and the limestone landscape of the Burren on my right, and armed with my copy of “Wildflowers of the Burren” I started wandering. As luck would have it, one of the first tiny flowers that caught my eye were small, brilliant blue blooms holding their own against the side of a rock. The Spring Gentian! I had read that it was rather rare so I checked and double checked my field guide. Yep, it was the Gentian! Soon after I came across a mountain aven, an early purple orchid, and several others that I had no idea what they were. It was amazing to me that these tiny plants could withstand the harsh weather conditions that were currently pummeling me.
After heading up the coast and turning east, I was now in search of the Burren Perfumery. I’d heard good things about it. Although remote and rather difficult for a tourist like me to find, the Burren Perfumery did not disappoint. For those who aren’t familiar, the staff at the perfumery make natural and organic cosmetics by hand from a small facility in the middle of the beautiful Burren. I was especially interested in their selection of locally harvested teas and honey. A very nice herb garden and tea room to boot! Worth the drive, and a good chance to review my wildflower reference book over a steaming cup of tea.
Hiking the Burren
Wednesday was devoted entirely to walking and experiencing the Burren up close. After stopping at the Corofin visitor centre for directions and a map I headed, to the best of my ability, the way they pointed me. Before too long I was at the trailhead and hiked along the “orange” trail, through what looked like a vast pasture. Little did I know how much that would change!
Immediately, I noticed groupings of yellow cowslips, primroses, and the hybrid false oxslips. Scattered on a hillside were dozens of early purple orchids. Further down the trail it turned into lush green, shaded woodland where ferns, sorrel, and a couple of lesser twayback orchids stood side by side. Apparently, this part of the Burren was visited by J.R.R. Tolkein before he wrote the “Hobbit”. I can certainly see why! On the way back to the trailhead I spotted more tiny spring gentians.
Later in the day, along a small gravel road loop leading to the working farm located in the Burren, I spotted a solitary bloody cranesbill, its one brilliant red flower looking up at me. It was gorgeous against all the brown shubbery and rock.
National Botanic Gardens
After what I considered a very successful few days in and around the Burren, on Saturday I headed to Dublin, and the National Botanic Gardens. After the peace and quiet of Western Ireland the chaos and complexity of Dublin was an assault on my senses. So many languages, so much traffic, so much humanity! Fortunately, the nearby Botanic Gardens was an oasis of tranquility. My visit started with a brief tour of the library and a peek at a few of the rare books on botanical painting—one from the 1500s!
Next an introduction to Brendan Sayers, master horticulturist and orchid expert, who showed me a folio edition of Ireland’s Wild Orchids. Such a thrill! Soon after, I had the distinct privilege of meeting and chatting with Susan Sex, Ireland’s foremost botanical artist. What a lovely person and what a huge talent. Seeing her current work in progress left me speechless! After a personal tour by Brendan and Susan, I left the gardens inspired and exhausted.
Go raibh maith agat as na mbronntanas
The entire week I had experienced so much more than I had anticipated and I was filled with admiration and gratitude for all the help I received during my stay. I would be heading back home to Colorado loaded with information, ideas, and a promise to myself that I would be back here soon.
ISBA overseas member Michael Campbell has spent 30 plus years as a graphic designer, art director, and creative director, including a 25 year career at the University of Colorado. He has taught publication design at CU and currently is an adjunct instructor in the Visual Art Department at Regis University in Denver. In 2010 he was awarded a certificate in Botanical Illustration from the Denver Botanic Gardens School of Art & Illustration. He is currently a student in the School of Botanical Art & Illustration Diploma program, and is also participating in the ISBA project Plandaí Oidhreachta.