Trinity’s botanic gardens are a hidden gem

The gardens through the eyes of those who work in them

Established in 1687, Trinity’s Botanic Gardens have existed in one form or another through most of the College’s history. The gardens were originally located on campus, possibly in the area now known as Botany Bay. Although Dr. Stephen Waldren, the current curator, points out that its exact original location remains a mystery.

In these initial stages the gardens served primarily as a herbarium for the faculty of medicine, keeping plants which were of medicinal interest. In the 1700s, as the natural sciences developed, there was a greater need for additional space for plants, and so a new location was sought out to allow for this expansion. The gardens were very briefly housed in Harold’s Cross before being moved to Ballsbridge, where they stayed for over a century. The land on which the gardens were kept in Ballsbridge was being used on a leasehold basis, and so when land value in the area increased dramatically in the mid-20th century, the decision was made to relocate the gardens to Dartry. This became the location we all know as Trinity Hall and this is where they remain to this day. While the smaller plants were transferred to the new site, most trees, some of which had been planted a century earlier, were left behind in the Ballsbridge site. Bearing witness to these days of vast botanical wealth are centenary oaks and strawberry trees among others, which can be seen to this day along Lansdowne Road on the premises which now houses the Ballsbridge and Clyde Court Hotel. A truly impressive achievement was the successful transfer of a 25 foot Ginkgo tree to the Dartry gardens. This species of Ginkgo is the final survivor in an ancient lineage of non-flowering plants and so the decision to transfer this tree was easy to make.

At the time of the relocation, land in Dartry was still relatively undeveloped and affordable but most importantly, the location was close enough to College to serve its purpose as a research and teaching collection. Indeed, at the time of the relocation a part of the Trinity Hall site spanned Temple Square behind the current gardens and this area remained an empty field for some years. However, by the end of the 20th century the Botanic Gardens in Darty were facing the same problems as those in Ballsbridge as pressure mounted to have the land repurposed for developments. The extent of the Botanic Gardens began to dwindle as sections of land were sold for private housing and more student accommodation was developed on the site.

Today, although the gardens are only a fraction of their original size, they still cover a substantial amount of land and they retain a wide range of botanic wonders for anyone who decides to visit. The various greenhouses, which were built in the 1960s, are home to their own assortment of plant types which give each a unique atmosphere. The greenhouses which house exotic plants maintain the climatic conditions from their native ranges. As you enter the tropical greenhouse you are introduced to the warm, humid conditions typical of a rainforest environment. Succulent plants are native to areas with arid climates are instead kept in the Long House where the air is warm and dry.

The staff at the Botanic Gardens ensure that everything runs smoothly so that the gardens can fulfill their purpose as a collection for teaching and research. In the past, when the gardens were bigger, there were as many seven or eight groundspeople working full-time. However, budget limitations have led to a situation where it has been difficult to recruit new staff. Currently there are two groundspeople who are responsible for the day to day maintenance of the gardens, namely Michael McCann and Elizabeth Bird. Both have worked at the gardens for many years, with Michael being there for over 30 years and Elizabeth working there for over 20 years. 

Having started working at an early age in a local flower shop, Michael was always interested in the natural world and so when he came across a job listing for a position at the gardens he decided to apply, encouraged by his father who worked at the College library. Having got the job, Michael says that it has been a great way to make a living as he is doing something he truly enjoys and it doesn’t even feel like “work” to him in the conventional sense. The quiet and tranquil nature of this work, away from the hustle and bustle of the city, gives him time and space to think. A few years ago he even began to write poems based on reflections he has pondered throughout the day.

Elizabeth studied horticulture in London and worked there at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. She then moved to Cambridge for several years and then finally to Trinity. Among her duties, she brings specimens to campus whenever they are needed for teaching in labs. Michael and Elizabeth share the workload between them, with each responsible for various greenhouses and outside sections of the garden. Their enthusiasm as they speak about the collection, is testament to their passion for the gardens and their role in caring for them.

“Many people, even those who are local to the area, have no idea of the existence of the Botanic Gardens but when they do discover them they are amazed by the scope of the collection”

Dr. Michelle Murray is the most recent arrival at the Botanic Gardens, joining the team last year. In the newly formed role of Outreach Fellow, she is responsible for the establishment of new connections within the College community as well as with external groups. Since her arrival, she has sought to increase awareness of the gardens’ existence as a facility available to all those who are interested. Last September, for the first time, the gardens hosted an evening event as part of the Culture Night initiative which was attended by Trinity’s botanists and members of the public. Every second year, the gardens participate in the Open Gardens event organised by the Rathmines Initiative on the first Sunday in June and they also hosted a fundraising plant sale last May. Events such as these open up facilities, and the science they promote, to people who would otherwise never get the chance to experience them. Many people, even those who are local to the area, have no idea of the existence of the Botanic Gardens but when they do discover them they are amazed by the scope of the collection. The way Dr. Murray sees it, establishing a strong media presence and organising more events which encourage participation on the part of both the College and local community, will be key to ensuring that the gardens continue to serve their purpose in teaching and research as well as a place for inspiration. 

Dr. Stephen Waldren, the curator, also has a long history with the gardens, having been initially appointed as administrator in 1991. Among those who previously were in charge of the gardens are significant figures in Botanical research such as James Mackay, who in 1836 published the first book of Irish flora with the help of other botanists. Another notable figure was the 19th century botanist Steve Burbidge whose expeditions to Borneo greatly improved our understanding on its native flora. More recently, Prof. William Watts who was head of Botany and administrator of the collection went on to be elected Provost of the College.

There are thousands of plants in the collection, originating from all over the world. Some plants were collected by Trinity botanists over the years while doing research abroad. Dr. Waldren himself brought back many Polynesian plant species having done research there for several years. In the outdoor section of the gardens, plant beds are categorized by plant groups, which facilitates their use as a teaching collection to make comparisons between the distinguishing traits of the various groups. Although most of these plants are not native to Ireland and lack specific adaptations to our climate, the sheltered nature of the gardens, with the surrounding walls and the large trees, act as a protective barrier against extreme spells of weather. The biggest practical challenge is the removal of weeds growing in these plant beds. However, most of the intervention carried out by the groundskeepers is done manually and herbicide use is kept to a minimum. In order to serve their purpose as a teaching collection all year-round, many plants are kept in conditions which induce early growth ahead of the normal season. An example of this is the sundew, a carnivorous plant native to Ireland’s boglands which in the wild would sprout in spring but at the gardens is grown in wintertime so that it can be used to showcase some of the adaptations which carnivorous plants have evolved in order to be able to catch and digest insects. 

Parts of the collections are used for research purposes as well. Although most of this research is carried out by academics and students at the Botany Department, some is carried out by other sections of the college. For example, the Department of Engineering has been conducting experiments to evaluate the effectiveness of willows in the treatment of sewage effluents in areas where septic tanks cannot be built due to the negative effects they would have on soil permeability.

“It is clear that although relatively small, the gardens act as a wildlife refuge”

Beehives are also kept in the gardens by a private beekeeper, and this relationship is mutually beneficial for both parties since, bees are given access to a large amount of floral resources in winter, while the gardens benefit from pollination services. More generally, it is clear that although relatively small, the gardens act as a wildlife refuge. Even in January, before Spring has started, the wide variety of plants present in the gardens means that for pollinators who emerge early, there are flowers which they can feed on. For example, a large strawberry tree in the back section of the gardens, has already begun to attract dozens of queen bumble bees who have emerged early and require enough nectar to produce eggs for when spring comes around. What is most revealing about the ecological wealth of the gardens is the presence of breeding sparrowhawks in the summer. As birds of prey, their consistent return to the gardens is indicative that there is sufficient food, a suitable habitat for them in the area, and that there is a healthy network of ecological interactions overall. 

The way Dr. Waldren and his colleagues see it, the gardens have a promising future ahead of them. By engaging with both the college community and the public at large to underline its importance now and into the future, the hope is to attract investments which will be able to future-proof the facility so that its role as a teaching and research collection can be further built upon and its full potential reached. By working with the Head of Botany and Gardens Director Prof. Jennifer McElwain, Dr. Waldren is hopeful that plans for this renewal can come to fruition. The primary goal is to make the gardens more sustainable by installing modern greenhouses which would reduce water usage and could make the facility carbon neutral through reduced heat loss. Another enhancement which they hope to see is the addition of dedicated teaching space in the new development which is to take place in Halls. Together with Dr. Murray’s efforts to make new and important connections in various sectors, and the launch of an updated website on which they can post updates on the gardens’ activities, it is clear that all those involved will do their part to ensure that these gardens, which have for centuries formed an integral part of the College, will continue to do so for generations to come.

Not only are they home to a rich cultural heritage, invaluable for teaching and research but they also provide a safe haven for local wildlife which in the ever-developing suburban surroundings is to be cherished and protected as we seek at a societal level to integrate sustainable development in the city. For those interested in seeing the gardens for themselves, Dr. Waldren says that visitors are more than welcome since the gardens are, after all, also there for the college community to explore and enjoy.

Ciarán Ó Cuív

Ciaran Ó Cuív is the Deputy SciTech Editor of Trinity News, and a Senior Sophister Zoology student.