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Ghosts of Gardeners Past
by Helen Dillon
by Helen Dillon


'Like some of her beloved plants, Helen Dillon blossomed late in life. Now her cut-glass tones and impish face are familiar to garden lovers all over the country But the journey to her present oasis of serenity has not been without its difficulties'...Patricia Deevy

Helen's garden is wonderful and a stop on our garden tours to Ireland when we are in the Dublin area. Visit her site at

and see why it is so popular!

October 30, 2005

hderyngium.jpg (14871 bytes)
Eryngium giganteum, known as Miss Willmott's ghost.
Photo supplied by Helen Dillon

Was that a soft footfall? Or only the rustle of a leaf? You can never be too sure. Garden ghosts abound, never more so than at Christmastime.
Only the other day, I was about to dig up a sempervivum, when I thought I heard 'Don't touch that', the words coming from just over my left shoulder, accompanied by a whiff of tobacco. The plant had been given to me in the 1990s, by Miss Otway-Ruthven, the late professor of medieval history at Trinity College, Dublin, without doubt one of the most formidable women of Irish horticulture. I could almost see her standing there, resplendent in one of her tweed suits of the exceptionally itchy Harris variety - I don't think she ever wore anything else. A vivid streak of orange in her otherwise white hair bore witness to the fact that she was a dedicated smoker - this much we had in common. I remember going to have tea with her - a proper, old-fashioned tea, you understand, with scones and cake and thin bread and butter, brought in by the maid. We sat by the fire, me on the edge of the chair. Conversation was limited. Miss Otway-Ruthven was not a believer in small talk, and I was desperate for something intelligent to say about medieval history. The agonies of tea over, we withdrew outside.
In a garage at the end of the garden, seeds from obscure horticultural societies the world over were sprouting on the dimly lit, cobwebby windowsill of a Rathgar garage, in yoghurt pots, margarine cartons and other assorted containers. Miss Otway-Ruthven, albeit the most formidable woman I've ever met, complete with intimidating bulk and growling voice, had a passion for rare seeds. I've now changed my mind about digging up the sempervivum, so vividly does it recall that afternoon.
The second ghost I never actually met in the flesh. Miss Ellen Willmott is well-known for Eryngium giganteum, known as Miss Willmott's ghost. But you may not know Potentilla nepalensis 'Miss Willmott', a modest plant with cherry-red flowers still in bloom. Such innocence belies its name, for Miss Willmott was, by all accounts, thrustingly ambitious and rather unpleasant. She was known to inspect the trugs of her less experienced gardeners, picking out anything she didn't consider a weed. She is also accredited with the damning remark (made after a visit to a garden she considered poor): 'It is most fortunate that the owner is so completely satisfied with it.' Botanists now say she had no right to name the potentilla after herself, as it's only a variant of the species. Just another attempt at self-promotion.
The shade of Miss Jekyll is ever present. I hear the scrape of her boot behind me whenever I'm planting. Whispered on the wind I hear 'Quite the wrong colour,' or 'It won't do here,' followed by the tap of a disapproving stick. But some of the exalted lady's recommendations have proved more like those of her alter ego, Miss Hyde. For example, she was fond of the blue lyme grass, Leymus arenarius, a dangerous coloniser, with the intemperate instincts of scutch grass. The spiky leaves are indeed a beautiful light blue (and it makes an excellent stabiliser for sand-dunes, for which nature intended it), but I would only dare to grow it in a bottomless dustbin, sunk to the rim in the soil.

From On Gardening, Copyright © Helen Dillon 1994 Visit her site at

Permission graciously given to reproduce on website


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