Peony “Anne Rosse”- the human story behind the plant.

Peony “Anne Rosse”, Paeonia “Anne Rosse”.

Peony “Anne Rosse” – behind every cultivated plant there lies a human story.

This week I promised to write more about Birr Castle, Co. Offaly, Ireland, and it’s place in plant collecting history. For this purpose I post my botanical watercolor illustration Peony “Anne Rosse” from the series I painted for an exhibit in Birr Castle’s Visitor Center. I choose this peony not only because it is a beautiful Irish ‘cultivar’ (cultivated variety) but also because it’s story is central to Birr Castle’s horticultural legacy.

Countess Anne Rosse.

Anne Rosse, for whom the peony is named, was Countess Anne Rosse, wife of Michael Parsons, the 6th Earl of Rosse. The Parsons family has lived at Birr Castle in the Irish midlands for almost 400 years and it was Michael’s father, the 5th Earl of Rosse, who laid the foundation for the extensive plant collection for which Birr demesne is now known. However, it was under the careful guidance of Michael and Anne that this foundation was built upon and developed.

A shared passion for plant collecting and gardening.

The couple were very well matched. Anne Rosse, neé Messels, came from a strong gardening background and as the daughter of Leonard Messels of Nymans, a well-known garden in the south of England, she had “a profound devotion to gardening” (Birr Castle website). Michael, the 6th Earl of Rosse, was an experienced plant collector and undoubtedly their choice of China as a honeymoon destination in 1935 was the result of this shared passion. While there the Earl arranged for the first major plant collecting expedition to be undertaken by a Chinese.

6th Earl and Countess Anne became very well known for their horticultural introductions.

Many other expeditions to the Americas and eastern Asia were sponsored and subscribed to by the Earl. As a result of all this exploration and subsequent plant propagation the 6th Earl and Countess Anne became very well known for their horticultural introductions, including Peony “Anne Rosse”. This tree peony, a cross between Paeonia lutea var. ludlowii and Paeonia delavayi, is the result of two different plant collecting trips to eastern Asia by the Rosses: one by the Earl to Tsang-Po Gorge, Tibet before his marriage and the other by the couple to Yu, China in 1937(Birr Castle website).

A giant facsimile of Countess Anne’s plant journal.

The botanical watercolors I painted for this exhibit are used in a giant facsimile of Countess Anne’s plant journal. There are 24 botanical illustrations in the series: two for every month of the year. As I painted this beautiful peony named for her it was not difficult to imagine Countess Anne walking around Birr demesne delighting in the latest bloom, busily sorting through new plant specimens just arrived from China or designing a new planting scheme.

The human story behind the plant.

Behind every cultivated plant there is a human story. Many of these stories start with a solitary plant collector, usually male, braving the elements in foreign lands to find new and rare plants. The story of Peony “Anne Rosse” is different. Here is the story of a husband and wife sharing a life long passion for plant collecting and gardening. I picture them working as a team, side by side, complementing each other’s skills and I can only imagine the delight and pleasure they must have experienced seeing the first Peony “Anne Rosse” bloom.

Aislinn Adams

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