A Bit of China Planted in Ireland

Ireland may not be the home of any Chinese pandas but it does have a collection of rare Chinese trees and they are not in Dublin but in an estate in Birr.

The 5th Earl of Rosse began what was to prove a lengthy family connection with China when, in 1908, he contacted a fellow Irishman, Augustine Henry, then working in western China for the Imperial Chinese Customs Service. Augustine had qualified a doctor and in 1881 was sent to Yichang to investigate plants used in Chinese medicine to see how the West could benefit from them. By 1885 he was sending back seeds to Kew Gardens in London for classification and soon became a world recognised expert on trees and China itself.

The Earl of Rosse benefitted from the contact and today over 40% of the trees in the magnificent Rosse gardens in Birr are from China, many of them with the title ‘Champion Tree.’

This interest in Chinese trees sparked off a three-generation relationship between the Earl’s family and China, with younger members going there to study and work.

However this close connection is not evident to the casual visitor at Birr Castle. The only clue is that the alternative language on the welcome signs is Chinese. Also one remote section of the garden is labelled ‘Yunnan’ (the province from which many of the trees came.)

A visit there may not spark off a lasting fascination with China for you but with Henry it all began with an interest in the medicinal value of plants and with the Earl it was the development of his own garden. In both cases it led to life-long learning and a personally enriching experience.

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