The National Botanic Gardens in Dublin, where the temperate climate allows for many plant species to grow. Giuseppe Guarneri/Shutterstock

The National Botanic Gardens in Dublin, Ireland, are a treat. Our granddaughter, Brighid (Ratliff) Farrell, took us there when we visited her this month. A bonus was that the walk from Brighid’s apartment to the botanic garden went through historic Glasnevin Cemetery, featured in the Hades chapter of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”

The 48-acre botanic garden was established in 1795 by the Dublin Society, a charitable group, but was taken over by the Irish government in 1877. Admission is free.

The gardens had passed their peak beauty when we visited, but many plants were still in bloom, and the seed heads of the ones that had gone by were attractive. The gardens have many greenhouses, including the massive Great Palm House, a cactus house and an orchid house. They offer plenty to attract and educate visitors.

The outdoor layout was different from most botanical gardens I have visited in the United States in that it includes vast amounts of lawn. The display gardens consist of islands in the lawn, in various shapes, with neat edges. The lawn does allow visitors to wander, going to look at any plants that look interesting rather than having to stick to a path between often fully packed ornamental gardens. Walkers viewing the gardens need to remember that Dublin is an ancient city, highly built up with brick buildings and sidewalks, but most homes have little, if any, garden space. There are parks within walking distance of most homes.

The outdoor gardens contain many plants that would not survive in Maine. Ireland, as an island nation, seldom has extreme temperatures at either the high or the low end of what we see in North America. Its climate is the equivalent of a Zone 9 on the U.S. Department of Agriculture plant-hardiness scale. With that range, the gardens include more than 20,000 living plants.

Nice clear labels were a definite plus at the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin. Photo by Tom Atwell

We didn’t cover all of the gardens during our three-hour tour. All of the plants in the gardens had labels, neat and easy to read, although some of them required a viewer to search under plant foliage. Little is more irritating than walking through what is supposed to be an educational garden, finding a plant you love and being unable to find its name.


Although the gardens were neat, they were not weed-free by any means, with occasional unwanted vines climbing up some of the plants on display. I also was surprised to see some display plants that should not have been there. A small garden of shrubs included a dwarf crimson red barberry, native to Japan and on the do-not-sell list in Maine because it is highly invasive here – as I expect it would be in Ireland. We also saw a few Norway maples growing there but couldn’t tell if they were intentionally planted or just showed up.

The greenhouses were full of plants I had never seen before. Some palms or cacti could be used as houseplants in Maine, but they would not reach the size they did in the greenhouses. Some palms were several stories tall, and cacti were just as huge.

Glasnevin Cemetery, established in 1832 and abutting the botanic garden, had a more severe weed problem. It was planted with trees and shrubs but had no room for garden displays. The cemetery includes 1.5 million grave sites on 124 acres, and the gravestones were packed close together. Other than emergency work on grave markers that had fallen over, they showed signs of little maintenance.

Nothing to do with gardening, but I found it interesting the cemetery had an entire section for miscarried babies and another for babies who died before they were baptized. Brighid also made sure we walked by the grave of James Joyce’s father.

The cemetery had several Norway maples, although that might not be as awful in Ireland because it is closer to Norway than the United States is; in Maine, the trees are aggressive and invasive. The cemetery also had lots of bittersweet and other invasive vines.

One section, though, had an un-mown lawn, with a few wildflowers; a small sign there that said the area was meant to support pollinators.

We visit botanic gardens and public parks wherever we go – Arizona to the Canary Islands. It is always a pleasure to get out, walk through a lovely garden and learn something.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at:

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