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At Killyon Manor in Co Meath, foraged flowers showcase the beauty of native blooms

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by Sarah Macken
13th Jun 2024

If tradition gives us anything, it’s carte blanche to rewrite the rules. A transplant from Oxfordshire, via Tanzania, Zoe Purcell breathes new life into floristry at Killyon Manor in Co Meath with her ethereal wildflower creations.

Zoe Purcell has, as she puts it, a penchant for a beautiful mess. Her home, at Killyon Manor in Co Meath, is flanked by an average of 75 native Irish wildflowers – spilling from stone walls and sprouting in gauzy, tall meadows – which she forages for her one-of-a-kind floral pieces. A conservationist and something of a renegade florist, Zoe believes in observing, rather than cultivating (or controlling) the beauty that surrounds her. Even if it’s not everybody’s cup of tea. “What some might look at and call a mess is what I celebrate,” she says.

Ironically, that “mess” that she leans into with Bowerbird Florals is an aesthetic with growing cachet, thanks to Instagram and an increasing awareness of biodiversity. At the rewilded Killyon Manor – a Georgian estate which Zoe, and her husband Roland, inherited in 2007 – the grounds have been left to go “feral”. The result is a jamboree of nature. Or, as she puts it, “shapes, twists and turns; the craziness that happens when nature is left to do its own thing”. Sixty acres of land have become, sans chemicals or pesticides, a sanctuary for native flora and fauna.

Namely, those plants us uncultivated folk struggle to quantify: weed or wonderful? The answer is, likely, both. Think buttercups, nettles, dandelions, cow parsley, rosehip, oxeye daisies and ivy. Then there’s a frothy white flower called meadowsweet – a favourite for bouquets. Much like the weave of an Irish blanket, the sum of the parts lends itself to a striking whole.

Originally from Oxfordshire, Zoe was in media before founding a safari camp in Tanzania with her husband – working to preserve one of the world’s largest known populations of chimpanzees. A sojourn in floristry came via formal training with Shane Connolly, the high-profile florist behind the blooms at the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding in 2011. Out of the blue, Killyon Manor landed in the couple’s lap as an inheritance. It wasn’t necessarily a happy surprise, as it was the result of a death. Relocating to Meath, their son and daughter in tow, was a gear-change. Initially, they were perplexed.

“We were a family of four rattling around this manor, desperately trying to keep it all going, but we weren’t sure what for,” she explains. Soon after, they launched Another Love Story, the music and arts festival held on the grounds of the Manor each August, now in its eighth year. The festival, much like the rewilding of the land, has contextualised Killyon for the new generation. “We’re not a family that’s been here for generations – we can break a few rules, we don’t have to do things in the same way,” Zoe says.

We’re not a family that’s been here for generations – we can break a few rules

The history of Killyon Manor is largely anecdotal – a story patchworked together from locals and their respective family histories. Although, it is known that it dates back to the 11th or 12th century, and was originally a defensive tower, before expanding into a farmhouse: it received a facelift in the 1700s which resulted in the structure seen today.

One delightful bit of history is that the laundry room used for drying out flowers – another one of Zoe’s passions – was originally the flower room some decades back, when the house had formal gardens. “It’s a nice bit of circularity,” she says. Lumps of box hedging are often stumbled upon, remnants of the house’s former imperial glory. She wonders if the owners of the past would approve of the house’s new verve. “I think they’d be pretty appalled if they saw what we were doing with it now,” she laughs.

The present, however, is just as decadent. When Zoe hosts parties in the big hall, it’s a floriferous affair. “I want flowers to entertain, to tell a story, give people something to talk about,” she says. Guests dine under a chandelier-cum-discoball created by visual artist Aoife Banville, embellished with costume pearls foraged from an old suitcase belonging to Roland’s grandmother. Decorations major in high drama, undoing the grandeur of the old house.

She recalls a favourite autumn tablescape where wheelbarrows of leaves were poured onto the table with apples. Another saw antique medicine bottles, each one displaying something bucolic – a feather, a flower, a sliver of dried bracken. In spite of all the whimsy, she does follow one rule: “Never allow table arrangements to come between guests. Keep things low and spread out.”

What inspires her? Anything from Sydney-based artist Lisa Cooper (@doctorcooper) to buying cut flower seeds from Bell Meadow in Co Carlow; a trip to Hunting Brook Gardens in Co Wicklow refills her cup. Now’s the time to revisit native plants, Zoe says. It helps that rewilding has penetrated the collective consciousness – from initiatives like No Mow May to shaking wildflower seeds on even the most micro of gardens, every little helps. Climate change, a cost-of living crisis and a scarcity of foreign produce mean it’s never been more apt to lean on all things indigenous. It’s a quantum leap from the splashy show of exotic flowers and far-flung foods we’ve become accustomed to; items which rack up thousands of air miles. With native flowers, there is a sense of coming home. Zoe puts it rather romantically: “It’s like rediscovering old friends.” 

Photography: Shantanu Starick

This feature originally appeared in the spring/summer 2023 issue of IMAGE Interiors. Have you thought about becoming a subscriber? Find out more, and sign up here

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