Rare Plants on the Mizen

For a wildflower enthusiast there is nothing better than a day spent with like-minded folk looking for interesting plants under the leadership of a true expert.

At this time of year the buttercups all over the dunes are actually Bulbous Buttercups – if you look under the flower head you will see that the sepals turn down away from the petals

I had the immense privilege of being included in a Rare Plant Monitoring Workshop on Friday the 13th – which also happened to be the day that Biodiversity Week kicked off in Ireland. As you probably all know by now, Nature is in crisis all across the world, and although we may be surrounded by lush hills and boreens in West Cork, there are ominous signs that all is not well with our natural world here as elsewhere. Fewer than ten percent of our native species in Ireland have been assessed for their conservations status – but of those that have been, one fifth (yes – one-fifth!) are at risk of extinction.

Sand Pansy – gorgeous little violas found on the dunes

That’s why counting plants is important – each one is part of the complex web of biodiversity that contribute to the health of our environment and the loss of even one can have knock-on effects on a whole cascade of others. I already monitor two rare plants for the National Biodiversity Data Centre (NBDC), Vervaine and Calamint, so I have an insight into the kinds of threats rare plants can face, from mowing to herbicides to change of land use – all of those have happened to the small populations I monitor.

The location for this workshop was Barley Cove and Mizen Head. Having rendezvoused with Botanist Paul Green and NBDC Scientist Úna FitzPatrick (above, at Mizen Head) we set out across the dunes. I had met Paul before and so I knew that he is unfailingly generous about sharing his immense knowledge. Throughout the day we stopped frequently to exclaim over a plant that one or another of us spotted (like the Bulbous Buttercup) on the dunes or the rocks, and Paul always took the time to stop and educate us about each one.

Thus, along the way, I was introduced to several plants that were entirely new to me. Despite the fact that I have been to Barley Cove on numerous occasions, many of them spent lying in the grass on the dunes (see this post and the wildflower slideshow within it, for example), I had never seen Common Cornsalad (above) nor Early Forget-me-not (below) before Friday.

As our first rare plant, we were in search of Early Sand-grass, the kind of undistinguished little plant that you would walk over unthinkingly, but which is so rare that it only occurs here and in the Bull Island Nature Reserve in Dublin. That’s the distribution map below, courtesy of the BSBI.

Paul found it and we collectively traced its extent across the dunes. This is an area with much rabbit activity and Paul speculated that the bare patches of sand created by the busy bunnies was what had encourage or allowed the Sand-grass to colonise this area. It’s a complex issue – those Barley Cove Bunnies can be destructive to the dunes in some ways, but here we have an instance where their presence has been beneficial – one of those complex interactions that are so hard to predict.

Our next target was an orchid – the Green-winged Orchid. But, on the way, we found another Orchid – the Irish Marsh Orchid (below). It was beautiful and bold and instantly visible in the short grass on the dunes.

In contrast, we almost tripped over the Green-winged Orchid, which upon first glance looked spindly and unremarkable. This is one you have to get close to – can you see them in the grass, below?

Here’s what Zoe Devlin has to say about this flower:

Surely the most exquisite wild orchid in Ireland. . . Green-winged Orchid is a small, erect plant which grows to about 30cm tall in grassland and meadows where grazing occurs. It bears flowers, well separated, in short spikes and these flowers appear in several colours – from snow-white through pink and magenta to deep purple. The three sepals are purple-veined with strong, green lines and these sepals form a hood over a broad, downward folded lower lip which is three-lobed and heavily spotted at its white centre. There is also a stout, slightly-curved spur. These incredible flowers bloom from mid-April to mid-June. The leaves are shiny green, unspotted with the upper leaves sheathing the stem and the lower leaves forming a rosette. 

Zoe Devlin, Wildflowers of Ireland

Can you see all that in these photos? I’m not sure you can, which is one of the things that makes wildflower identification interesting – especially with a family like the orchids where there are quite a few that look similar until you really examine them. 

There were more plants on the dunes – I was amazed to find Field Madder (above), which I always assumed was a plant of arable ground. One of the things we had to get used to was how tiny many of the plants on the dunes were compared to those that grow in less challenging environments – like miniature versions of themselves.

Then there was one of our target species, the Sea Stork’s-bill (above) – really, a flower that only its mother could love, but very rare in Ireland and therefore one of the plants that enable us to chart the conservation of its habitat.

We drove from Barley Cove around to the Holiday Park but were unable to do a count of the Slender Thistle. The land was being grazed by sheep and every access was blocked (above). So we contented ourselves with noting that currently it appears to be abundant, if very localised. I managed a distant shot of this fine head (below) showing the pink flowers but also how spiny it is.

Our final stop was Mizen Head, one of the very few places in Ireland (see map below and the Broom below that) where you can find Prostrate Broom (try saying that fast). This was another exercise in a different kind of counting, since the plant is on sea cliffs and behind fences at the Visitor Centre, so it has to be identified at a distance and the count is an educated estimate. Add in the fact that there are two other yellow flowers gaily blooming around it (Kidney Vetch and Bird’s-foot Trefoil) and you get an idea of the challenge involved.

I have taken on the task of the Early Sea-Grass count. It may bloom as early as February or March, so I’ve made a calendar note to head out to the Dunes next year at that time. Another one of the participants, Damaris, and I will work together on our counts – it’s always more fun if you have a companion and probably more accurate too.

Thank you, Úna and Paul, for such a profoundly educational experience, that also managed to be great fun. 

“Easter” Island!

What better place to spend Easter Day than at the ‘Easter end’ of Long Island? We can see the island – out there in Roaringwater Bay – from our home here at Nead an Iolair. The lighthouse on the end of the island faces us – and winks through the night with the character of 3 quick flashes every 10 seconds. The narrow headland on which it stands bears the name ‘Copper Point’ – and so does the lighthouse.

This aerial view shows Long Island in its context – a part of Roaringwater Bay and its ‘Carbery’s Hundred Islands’. Its neighbours to the east are Castle Island and Horse Island – all in our view – (that’s our view, below).

A closer aerial view of the island, above. It’s accessed by a regular ferry which leaves Colla Pier, a short distance from Schull town. The ferry arrives at Long Island Pier: there it is, on the pier (below).

Our destination on this Easter Sunday was Castaway East – the furthest house on the ‘Easter’ end of the island. We have taken you there before, when we organised a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in July of last year. The hosts there are Tracy and Peter, who served us brilliantly for that occasion, and also for the Wildflower Walks which Finola led last June: the Castaway crew provided a superb picnic for everyone, delivered to us at the island’s western end. This time we decided that we would test Tracy and Peter’s skills by ordering up an Easter Sunday lunch to celebrate a ‘special’ birthday for our good friend, Peter Clarke.

Amanda Clarke, Finola and birthday boy Peter, looking forward to a morning coffee (with delicious Easter treats) after arriving at Castaway East. We had an upstairs room in the Castaway house, with a good view over the island. Before lunch we had an opportunity to explore part of the island we had never been to before, heading down to Copper Point.

Why is it called ‘Copper Point’? Because there was a copper mine close by, one of many such enterprises that were seen in West Cork in the nineteenth century. Explorations on the island were started in the 1840s by the Cornish mining engineer Captain William Thomas: he wrote a Roaringwater Journal post for us a couple of years ago! William sank a trial shaft for 10 fathoms (60 feet) and extended a level south from this shaft for 3 fathoms. No metal bearing lode was found, and the mine was abandoned. Traces of these workings can still be seen not far from the lighthouse. It’s slightly ironic, perhaps, that the name ‘Copper Point’ arrived from somewhere and stuck.

It’s a wild landscape – but very beautiful and imbued with atmosphere. We certainly worked up a good appetite while on our morning walk, and returned to the house with great expectations.

All those expectations were far exceeded when we sat down to our meal. We had a room to ourselves, attractively furnished and comfortable, with a welcome wood-burning stove on the go in one corner. Tracy and Peter have spent considerable time and energy upgrading what was a very run-down cottage, and have used locally available materials with impressive imagination.

Tracy – in charge of the culinary delights – had worked out a menu which was entirely tailored to our various tastes (and dislikes) – and it was brilliant! All the courses were exemplary.

The main was a Sunday roast to make your mouths water… Fillets of pork for the three of us who are not vegetarian, and a miraculous stuffed filo pastry pie for Amanda. The accompanying vegetables were prepared without any meaty elements – so we could all savour them in equal measure.

Peter was delighted with every aspect of his celebratory meal – we all were! The choux bun dessert was unbelievable; not a morsel was left behind. The riches never stopped: for our after-dinner coffee we went outside to the terrace-with-a-view and enjoyed home-made fondants and biscuits.

I think you’ve got the message… Sunday lunch at Castaway East is a very special experience indeed. Combine it with a good walk on a beautiful and atmospheric West Cork island and you will have a day you will always remember. If you want the experience for yourselves give Tracy and Peter a shout: they will be delighted to organise it for you.

Contact Tracy & Peter Collins on +353 872966489 or email simplytracy@icloud.com – They also have a campsite!

One Acre – Four Years On

Since I decided to try to grow a wildflower meadow, I’ve been documenting the wildflowers on my one West Cork Acre each year. You can chart my progress by taking a look at One Acre, One Acre – One Year On, and One-Acre Three Years On. (Hmmm – what happened to Two Years on?) 

I’ve found new flowers and learned something new each year and this year was no exception. I’ve set aside a portion of my garden as a perennial wildflower meadow. My strategy, based on my reading of best practice, is not to cut it until the autumn, and then cut and rake it once everything has more or less finished blooming. The raking is important, since leaving the cut grass fertilises the soil, and what you want in a wildflower meadow is soil that is as impoverished as possible.

A perennial wildflower meadow is what happens when you provide minimal intervention – just sit back and let whatever comes up, some up. But when a lawn has had years of cutting, and the grass is thick, one intervention that is recommended is to scatter the seeds of Yellow Rattle (above and below), a native wildflower that helps keep the grasses sparse, allowing other flowers to gain a foothold among those thick, tough roots.

This year, the meadow flourished. The Yellow Rattle had seeded itself very successfully last autumn – so much so that I was wondering if I now needed to thin it a bit – oh the irony. Along came my young friend Niamh and patiently harvested as much of the seed as we thought she should. Some of it went to her house, and the rest I scattered an area of the meadow I seemed to have missed before. 

The other thing that happened was that I discovered that bracken had invaded part of the meadow (above). Left unchecked, bracken will take over and choke out everything else. It’s an important plant in its natural habitat and provides food and shelter for several invertebrate species – but it’s vital to manage it in a situation like this, if you can. Niamh pulled out what she could and stamped down the rest. I will need to keep on top of this or my meadow will drown in bracken.

The wildflower meadow is only small one part of our One Acre. For the rest, I try to cut as little as possible and just about every day I wander around, trying to record what’s coming up. I was so entranced at what was happening in May that I made a little slideshow called Lying in the Grass. Here it is again – every single flower was photographed in one week in May this year, all on my one acre .

The months of June and July are the height of the wildflower season and all parts of the acre sprout flowering plants – the lawns, the stone walls, the hedges, the gravel driveway and the boreen that our neighbour uses to get his cattle across the top of our property – it’s where the Chamomile grows.

I continue to be delighted at what comes up all over our acre – the colour and variety is amazing, and I feel like I am doing my part for our pollinators. But mostly it’s just – beautiful!

Seaweed and Sealing Wax

Finola has been involved in the Ellen Hutchins Festival since it began in 2015 – the 200th anniversary of the death of Ireland’s first female botanist. This year she was asked to help organise and MC an outdoor event, and has had a very busy time – together with her collaborators – leading up to this. On the day – last Friday – I went along to see the culmination of their hard work, and I thought I would share the experience with you.

The weather forecast for that day was atrocious! Heavy rain and thunderstorms were predicted for the duration, and we set out for Ballylickey with some trepidation. However, as is often the case in West Cork, the weather forecasters were confounded. Nevertheless, the Festival team had prepared for all eventualities and we arrived in time to contribute to the setting up of a shelter made from a silk parachute and a number of wooden poles. The transformation of an empty area of lawn in the gardens of Seaview House Hotel into an impressive performance space in a very short time was quite remarkable – and a visual treat – as the swirling mass of silk was tamed by our team, directed by Seán Maskey.

Watching (and, indeed, participating) in this constructional triumph, I was taken back to the days when I lived in Cornwall and followed the escapades of two theatre groups there: Kneehigh Theatre and Footsbarn. Both started out as small troupes of travelling players who took their performance spaces with them and incorporated the action of creating and erecting their transitory auditoria into their shows: all part of the visual entertainment. Both those groups have evolved and travelled far away from their roots, but the evanescent nature of their early shows has stayed with me, to be pleasantly awakened by the happenings at Ballylickey.

To see where Ballylickey fits in to the story of Ellen Hutchins, have a look at Finola’s post from 2015. Ellen was born in 1785 in Ballylickey House and lived much of her short life there. Seaview House – now the Hotel – was built partly in the grounds of the Hutchins family home, so it is a fitting venue for Festival events, as we know that we are following her own footsteps as she became interested in the world of plants and seaweeds which she discovered all around her as she was growing up.

. . . Ellen was a pioneering botanist who specialised in a difficult branch of botany, that of the non-flowering plants or cryptogams. She discovered many plants new to science and made a significant contribution to the understanding of these plants. She was highly respected by her fellow botanists and many named plants after her in recognition of her scientific achievements.In addition to being an outstanding scientist, Ellen was also a talented botanical artist. Botanical drawings serve science in a very important way . . .

Ellenhutchins.com

That’s Finola (above) introducing the subject of the day: the correspondence that passed between Ellen and Dawson Turner of Yarmouth, Norfolk, who had become a recognised authority on botany in early 19th century Britain, even though this was always a leisure pursuit: professionally he worked for his father, who was head of Gurney and Turner’s Yarmouth Bank and took over his role on his death. Dawson wrote numerous books on plants and got to know the leading botanists of the day, including Ellen. Amazingly, one hundred and twenty letters between her and Dawson survive. Those from Dawson Turner to Ellen are held by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and those from Ellen to Turner are at Trinity College Cambridge. Friday’s event was a reading of a selection of these letters. On Finola’s right, above, is Karen Minihan, an actor and drama director who lives in Schull: she read the letters from Ellen. Moreover, it was she who selected and organised the extracts – which were the heart of the performance.

Above are the two other performers: on the right is Mark O’Mahony from Cappaghglass – he is a part-time actor, and here he reads the letters from Dawson. On his right is Carrie O’Flynn. She is a historic re-enactor and researcher: she appeared as Ellen, in authentic period dress, and provided really illuminating interpolations between letter-readings, informing us about the act of letter-writing itself in the early 1800s – the ink and quill pens; the postal service; Ellen’s probable appearance and dress (there are no surviving portraits of her) and the difficulties which Ellen would have had to face in pursuing here chosen interests, especially as she was herself quite frail and was for many years the carer of her own mother. Her achievements in the light of all this are truly remarkable, and Carrie succeeded in bringing this out with her contributions. Below she shows us the brass microscope that Ellen used – an essential item of equipment for her work.

As the reading of the letters progressed it became gradually obvious that a deep friendship was developing between the two botanists, and the language reflected this. Particularly telling (and this was drawn out in the selection of the letters) was the way the missives were framed as time went on. From a simple, almost curt formality in the earliest, we begin to read how their shared interests extended beyond the botanical; they exchange newly discovered poetry; Dawson tells Ellen that he has named his newly-born daughter after her; they imagine how they would like to meet each other and walk their favourite landscapes together. Each sends the other packages containing examples of the plants and seaweeds that preoccupy them, and their greetings at the top and tail of every page become increasingly warmer. We, the audience, open our imaginations as to how a happy fulfilment could ever metamorphose – West Cork and Norfolk are as far apart as any two place could be in early 19th century Britain. Poignantly, we learn that they never met: Ellen – always in poor health – died in 1815 at the age of twenty nine. We can only imagine that Dawson, remote in Norfolk, was desolate.

Important to our day – apart from the presenters and actors – were Madeline Hutchins (above – showing us some of Ellen’s drawings of seaweed), great great grand-niece and a co-founder of the Festival; and – behind the scenes but essential – the team, including Clare Heardman, co-founder of the Festival and a Conservation Ranger at the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Here’s Clare in action setting everything up – and running the Festival shop:

We had a further treat in store for us after the show: we were taken on a guided tour of some of the environments which Ellen would have known and explored during her life at Ballylickey. This felt really special, and brought us close, again, to the extraordinary young woman whose short but productive life we now celebrate here in West Cork.

Please note that Ballylickey House today is private property, and visitors should not seek access. There is plenty of the natural environment that Ellen would have been familiar with around Ballylickey and on the shores of Bantry Bay – well worth an exploration. And this link to the Ellen Hutchins Audio Trail is invaluable, especially to anyone who was not able to be at Friday’s event.

Particular thanks, of course, to all who participated – and attended – the event. It was a great success! Thank you to the weather Gods. And many thanks to Seaview House Hotel for providing the venue

Gardens at Kilquade

Wicklow is the Garden County of Ireland. Whenever we visit, we are impressed by the exuberance of the verdant landscapes and woodlands, and outstanding gardens abound. Do you remember our exploration of the Kilruddery Estate a few weeks ago? Here’s another venue well worth a visit: Kilquade Arboretum, formerly the ‘National Garden Exhibition Centre’. The modest 5.2 acre site is billed as the perfect escape from the stresses of everyday life – and rightly so. Not only can you wander through a collection of inspirational gardens, formal and informal, which were designed by a number of highly experienced horticulturists, but also you can eat and drink in superb outdoor dining settings: everything is well maintained and efficient. And – if you are a gardener yourself – there is a great shop to supply your every need!

As you can see, you never know what might await you as you traverse the grounds, moving from one creative vision to another. At the height of this Irish summer – which is unmatched, so far, in its brilliant weather – you are guaranteed shady nooks and surprises, and plenty of places to rest and contemplate. You will happily spend half a day or more at Kilquade, and come away satisfied in body and mind! Here’s an enigmatic sculpture by Fiona Coffey:

Water is used refreshingly within the gardens – at times you have the feeling of wandering beside a mountain stream; at others you can just find a spot for contemplation by a cool pool.

You can be methodical in your walks through each of the garden areas or you can, like us, wander haphazardly, not taking any particular straight line. If you do this, you are sure to miss something – but that’s good reason for a return visit. We are keen to come back when the autumn is setting in: the colours will be a treat. But we will return before then anyway: the excellent coffee and snacks are calling!

I haven’t mentioned the profuse planting that veers between formal and – as you can see – naturally wild. Finola is particularly pleased to see the latter: she firmly believes that wildflowers have a big part to play, nowadays, in any established garden: have a look at our post on West Cork’s Bantry House Gardens, here. Allowing nature to contribute to established planting schemes will ensure that good habitats evolve to support our pollinators and a balanced eco-system.

One of the things that struck us on our visit to Kilquade was how easy it is to get away from the crowds! We saw others walking through the gardens but we often had each little designed space to ourselves. Possibly the unbelievable (for Ireland) weather (temperatures approaching 30 degrees) meant that many visitors were sweating it out on the beaches. We were calm and cool, and felt safely tucked away from ‘the madding crowd’. All in all, the experience was exceptional.

Wandering the Boreens

One of our goals in writing Roaringwater Journal is to say – Look what we have here! And one of the things we have in abundance in West Cork is a flourishing wildflower population. There is nothing so good for the soul as wandering our boreens and enjoying our amazing floral heritage. This little movie will show you what I mean, although it’s only a tiny selection of the richness. 

Like Lying in the Grass, all the flowers are native, and all photographed within the last two or three weeks in West Cork – that is, late June and early July, 2021. Both posts are a testament to our biodiversity – always under threat. The music is the same, too – Turas go Tír na nÓg by the incomparable Michaeál O’Suilleabháin from his album, Templum, available here.

Here’s the list of all the flowers in the video:

Foxglove – title slide +2

Ragged Robin X2

Sheep’s-bit (the blue one) X3

Oxeye Daisy and Common Vetch

Cat’s-ear, Oxeye Daisy, Bedstraw

Mostly Cat’s-ear

Dog-rose X3

Field-rose X2

Blackberry X2

Tutsan (a type of St John’s-wort) X3

Tufted Vetch (blue) and Meadow Vetchling (yellow)

Tufted Vetch X2

Honeysuckle X2

Hedge Woundwort X2

Purple Loosestrife X2

Foxglove and Meadowsweet

Meadowsweet X2

Wild Strawberry (consumed after photograph taken)

Upright Hedge-parsley X2

Hedge Bindweed (white)

Field Bindweed (pink and white)

Chamomile X2

Common Centaury X2

Oxeye Daisy

Ringlet Butterfly

Bell Heather X2

Spear Thistle and Fuchsia (Fuchsia is not native) X2