Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland couple create stunning sea of 100,000 sunflowers

Karen McAllister in her field of sunflowers at Portglenone which is open for visitors to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Care
Karen McAllister in her field of sunflowers at Portglenone which is open for visitors to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Care
Karen and her son Ryan
Visitors Therese McErlean and daughter, Eimear (5)
Mark Bain

By Mark Bain

A Co Antrim couple have created a splash of colour to brighten up the summer by turning a two acre field into a sea of sunflowers.

Over 100,000 of the flowers, most standing 6ft tall, have come into bloom as planned by Damian and Karen McAllister near their Portglenone home.

And for the second year in a row, the beauty of nature they've crafted in the Northern Ireland countryside is attracting visitors from far and wide.

As an added bonus this year, the winding pathways through the blooms lead to Damian's latest colourful creation, a dazzling meadow filled with wildflowers which he affectionately calls his "butterfly hotel".

Officially opened to the public last week, the meadow has already attracted bus loads of visitors to Gortgole Road along the banks of the River Bann and they've been joined by photographers from across the country as they rush to use the picture-perfect scene as a backdrop.

Damian sowed the seeds at the end of April using an old-fashioned seed fiddle and, after the success of last year's crop, it seems the traditional methods are the best.

"We were surprised at how it all took off last year," he said, when the couple raised almost £10,000 for their local church funds.

"We were only planning on opening it to visitors for a weekend but when we saw how popular it became so quickly we kept it going," he said. "Everyone in the town said we should do it again and, while you're never quite sure how it's going to turn out, it's all come up wonderfully again. The businesses in Portglenone are delighted as it's brought a lot more people into the town.

"It doesn't take that long to sow the seeds," said Damian, who works at the local DLF Seeds company and knows what it takes to bring the field to life.

"It was just a couple of hours of walking up and down shaking the fiddle, but after that it's out of your hands as to whether everything comes good."

This year Damien and Karen, with their three children Cara (14), Ryan (13) and Therese (7), have crafted another masterpiece. Visitors are greeted by scenes reminiscent of a Monet impressionist painting with a touch of Van Gogh, all on the edge of Seamus Heaney country.

"We live in a very green country with lots of rolling meadows, but people seem to like a splash of colour too. It's different and we like to think it's a very romantic setting," said Damien.

"We had three marriage proposals in the field last year, wedding parties coming for photographs, plenty of fashion photo shoots, buses stopping off on tours of the country and, of course, plenty of photographers. There were also a couple of music videos filmed.

"The families who have come along are getting back to nature. It's so good that people are getting out into the fresh air and appreciating natural beauty. Kids are running around the path spotting butterflies."

That's an added bonus this year, with a neighbour lending an extra acre-sized field where Damian has created the perfect haven for butterflies, and when work commitments allow, he is only too happy to take visitors on a guided walk through the wildflowers.

"It's worked so well," he said. "We're getting plenty of guests!

"We've seen some of the rarer types, like painted ladies and peacocks. You'd almost think they were looking at you as the patterns on the wings resemble eyes. It's lovely to see them coming into their natural habitat.

"Obviously we're relying a lot on the weather, but it's been warm enough so far this year to allow the sunflowers to come out. They are a tropical plant, so heavy rain can take it's toll, but they've survived so far and if we can manage to get a couple of decent sunny days, even more of them should come out. We're at around 60% right now, and they thrive on direct sunlight."

Karen and her kids, plus an army of young people from the town, have all been roped in to keep the meadow in tip top shape, and she expects the field to be open to the public for the next few weeks.

"Obviously there's a limited time span for when the sunflowers are in bloom, so if anyone does want to take a stroll through, forget all about everyday life and lose themselves in a natural world, the next two to three weeks will be the best time to experience it," she said.

"In the meantime, we're only too happy to have people as our guests, bring a picnic or a flask of tea and enjoy it while it lasts."

This year, Damien and Karen are raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support. Entry is £2 or £1 for 5 to 18-year-olds. Under 5s go free. The field is open Monday to Saturday, 10am-8pm and Sunday, 11am-6pm.

Belfast Telegraph


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