Exploring one of Ireland’s largest collections of trees, dedicated to the memory of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, President of the United States from 1961 to 1963.

JOHN F Kennedy, President of the USA, visited his ancestors’ farm in Wexford, Ireland, on 26 June 1963. He was killed in November of the same year and the idea of establishing an arboretum in his honour quickly developed with a site near New Ross chosen. Works began in 1964 and the arboretum was opened by Eamon De Valera, the Irish President, in May 1968.

It grew in size and now encompasses 252 hectares (622 acres), which includes a hill with great views over the Wexford countryside – a patchwork of fields. County Wexford is known as the sunny south east and has a rainfall of 1,000 mm (40 inches) a year.

Forestry Journal: Examining Abies magnifica.Examining Abies magnifica. (Image: eA/EW)

The arboretum is not really well known. I only heard about it a couple of years ago and had been keen to visit ever since. With another Bangor University graduate (Alan Goodman) I took a trip on 29 June last year, not knowing that we had just missed the 60th anniversary, when another ceremonial tree planting event took place (grandchildren and the like plant trees here every 10 years). We were shown around the site by gardener Ray Higginbotham and visitor manager Gerry O’Neill.

The arboretum is on a huge scale and was funded mostly by Irish-American money. There had been a national desire to create it. The National Botanic Gardens in Dublin were founded in 1790, but its 19.5 ha site was considered small, so the Irish government was happy to develop and maintain this new arboretum.

Forestry Journal: Large areas of grass, once mown, are now wildflower meadows. (L-R) Ray Higginbotham, gardener, Gerry O’Neill, visitor manager, and Eamonn Wall.Large areas of grass, once mown, are now wildflower meadows. (L-R) Ray Higginbotham, gardener, Gerry O’Neill, visitor manager, and Eamonn Wall. (Image: eA/EW)

The arboretum is a mixture of a plant collection and forestry trial plot site, but on a large scale. The main part of the site was farmland to which the 58-ha summit of Slieve Coillte (Hill of the Woods) was added in 1978 to give the total area of 252 ha.

Soils are brown earths over slate and shale. The main limiting factor for establishment was exposure, and shelterbelts were initially planted 40 m apart to protect young specimens. These shelterbelts comprised Japanese larch, grand fir, Lawson cypress, western hemlock, beech and red oak. 

Forestry Journal: This carving explains the story behind the tribute.This carving explains the story behind the tribute. (Image: eA/EW)

The arboretum has five objectives, comprising demonstration, education, research, conservation and recreation. It has numerous paths and trails and two large vistas, 1 km by 30 m wide. The original buildings were designed and built to a high standard and are still in use today, even if they do look a bit like a crematorium. There is a general display area about trees and another about JFK himself. Outside the visitor centre is a huge Persian ironwood which must look magnificent it its autumnal colours.

Approximately 4,500 species and cultivars are represented here. The 190 forestry plots are 0.1–0.4 ha in size. The shelterbelts are being removed as they become superfluous to give space to the planted specimens. A 5-ha ericaceous garden has more than 1,000 different species and varieties. The main species are rhododendrons, azaleas and heathers.

Forestry Journal: Pond with gunnera plants.Pond with gunnera plants. (Image: eA/EW)

Specimen trees have been planted throughout and Avondale Forest, which was established by the state in 1904, donated seeds for 14 plots. The best examples are Macedonian pine, Serbian spruce and Western hemlock. 

Between the shelterbelts, three specimens of each species are planted at a final tree spacing. In contrast to specimen collections, which cover 125 ha, the forestry plots cover 61 ha with about 200 species. An international phenological garden is situated near the main building and is one of four still in operation today in Ireland. The tallest tree on site is 41 m, a Eucalyptus regnans. About 137,000 people visit annually.

Forestry Journal: Conifer conservation planting area.Conifer conservation planting area. (Image: eA/EW)

Recently, a 10-ha area has been planted with conifers for the International Conifer Conservation Programme. 1,300 trees were planted covering 22 species within a rabbit-fenced area. Luckily, in Ireland, roe deer do not exist. Over the years, some research was carried out into elms and 80 Sitka spruce provenance trial plots established. 

It is well worth a visit and a bicycle would be a good way to get around as it is so large. Thanks to Ray and Gerry for showing us around in their electric buggy.