Glengarriff Woods – serene, beautiful and incredibly diverse
The second (now annual) Ellen Hutchins Festival has just concluded in West Cork. We wrote about this exciting new festival last year in the post Ellen Hutchins: The Short and Remarkable Life of Ireland’s First Female Botanist. This year there were all sorts of events and activities once again but we were able to participate only in one, a guided walk through Glengarriff Woods. Robert and I agree that we learned more about plants in that three hour walk than we had in most of our lives to date!
Padraig pauses in front of the Guelder Rose (see below for more on this species)
Our guide and educator was Dr Padraig Whelan, a former Chief Scientist at the Charles Darwin Research Station on the Galapagos Islands, and now with the School of Bio, Earth and Env Sciences at UCC. Erudite and encyclopaedic in his understanding of individual species and in the interactions between the living organisms in the woods, Padraig’s talk was riveting. Nothing was above our heads, everything was explained in the simplest terms, but we came away with something approaching a profound appreciation for biodiversity. (Padraig is also camera-shy – I am honouring his request not to use full photographs of him.)
Dr Howard Fox, the lichen expert
Along on the walk also, and contributing on the way, were Dr Howard Fox of the Office of Public Works, who had earlier given a sold-out two day workshop on Lichens, Algae, Fungi & Bryophytes (mosses and liverworts), as well as Clare Heardman, a Conservation Ranger with the National Parks and Wildlife Service, and Madeline Hutchins, great great grandniece and biographer of Ellen.
St Patrick’s Cabbage – there are three varieties of it here
The talk started with an outline of what makes Glengarriff Woods such a special habitat. It’s the rain, of course, combined with a mild climate, that leads to the perfect conditions for a temperate rain forest. We learned that these woods are home to many Lusitanian species that are mysteriously only found here, or on the Iberian Peninsula. One of these is St Patrick’s Cabbage, a member of the Saxifrage family. The attractive flowers had finished, but you can see what they look like here. In Irish they are called Cabáiste an Mhadra Rua, or Fox Cabbage. Nobody yet knows how plants that grow in Spain and Portugal managed to flourish in the south west of Ireland, skipping France and Britain entirely on their traverse, but it’s probable that they arrived after the last ice age.
Another Lusitanian tree we encountered was the strawberry tree, which apparently is a member of the heather family, but grows to tree height in our West Cork climate. There was some discussion about the edibility of the fruit – it’s supposed to taste fig-like, but only one person present had tasted it and wasn’t recommending the experience. The examples we saw hadn’t ripened yet – it really does have the hue of a strawberry once fully ripe.
Walkers are reflected in the stream that flowed along our route
A second theme of the walk was ‘alien’ species – those non-native plants that have colonised the area as a result of importing activities. In this regard, the Glengarriff Woods are facing a double whammy – the botanic gardens at Garnish, and the arboretum at Ardnagashel, ironically started by the Hutchins family. Padraig pointed us to a young myrtle tree as an example of just such an alien intruder – they belong in Chile and Argentina, not in Ireland.
The Myrtle Grove at Ardnagashel
The culprit, of course, is the famous Myrtle Grove at Ardnagashel, which we visited last year and where myrtle trees imported by a Hutchins ancestor flourish. In Glengarriff it was threatening to take over all the available space for trees and measures had to be undertaken to limit them, as they create so much shade that little can grow underneath them. It was painstaking work, but there are now very few growing actively in the Woods and they can be eliminated more easily.
Interestingly, there is a native myrtle – the Bog Myrtle, an aromatic shrub. We passed around crushed leaves to inhale the woodsy scent. According to my favourite wildflower source, Bog Myrtle was used to flavour beer before the advent of hops.
Fuchsia and Montbretia (or Crocosmia) flourish in the West Cork Hedgerows, but are actually alien species
Ironically also, the colourful and attractive wayside flowers that we think of as quintessentially West Cork, Fuchsia and Montbretia, are introduced species. Rhododendron was introduced in the 19th century and is considered a terrible threat to native species in Kerry. The same is true for Gunnera (that giant rhubarb disaster that has colonised vast tracts of Connemara), and Griselinia (ubiquitous for hedging). None of them would have been known to Ellen Hutchins. As Clare Heardman pointed out, Ellen recorded over a thousand plants, with no mention of them.
Ivy is just on the brink of flowering – we found one open bud after much searching
A third theme was the inter-dependence of species, both floral and faunal. About now, ivy starts to bloom, just as other flowers finish, and the ivy flower becomes an important food source for bees, moths, butterflies and other insects, such as hover flies. Unfortunately, ivy gets a bad rap for its habit of covering and damaging archaeological sites, such as medieval castles and churches and I wouldn’t have been sympathetic to it before our walk. Now I look at it in a whole new light. Pollinators also depend on holly, and the berries can also be a food source for field mice.
The Royal Fern – an unusual native fern
There are a huge number of native plant species in Glengarriff Wood, and the conservation work that goes on there is of national importance. Padraig pointed out the filmy ferns that grow here and are rarely found in the rest of Ireland. He also showed us the native Royal Fern, which is unusual in that the spores grow not on the underneath of the fronds but on separate stalks.
Howard introduced us to a macro-lichen that, because the underneath bears a resemblance to lung tissue, was once tried as a cure for breathing ailments. Lichens, of course, are normally microscopically tiny, so an enormous one like this is rare, and exciting to visiting lichen-specialists. Like ivy, I gained a new appreciation for lichens – up to now, my normal emotion in regards to lichen has been frustration, since it functions to obscure rock art and stone carvings.
Large lichens like this one are very unusual, but Glengarriff Woods provide perfect conditions for them
Glengarriff Woods has preserved meadowland as well as woods. Important species use this habitat, such as the hairy wood ant and frog species that may be specifically Irish.
There was more, much more, but I will mention only one – the Guelder Rose tree. The dense and intensely red berries provide winter food for birds, but the flowers make it an attractive shrub in the early summer. There are some growing wild in the hedgerows just below us here along the Fastnet Trail Rossbrin Loop. I hadn’t been able to identify it until now. Pointing out that it would make a wonderful and ornamental garden plant, Padraig made a plea to us to insist on such native varieties when we develop our own gardens.
A Guelder Rose tree found near our house in early summer
Throughout the walk, we meandered by the river that runs through these woods. It’s an important factor in the lush growth here, carrying high acidity levels from the bogland above. It’s also beautiful, serene and musical, adding immeasurably to the pleasure afforded by a walk in this woodland national treasure.
Thank you to the Ellen Hutchins team for yet another fascinating botanical adventure!