Into the Woods

Pools

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!

Teaching 2: Guelder Rose

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.)

Howard Fox

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.

Strawberry tree

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 reflected

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.

Myrtle grove

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.

Bog Myrtle

Bog Myrtle

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 Montbretia and blackberries

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.

Holly Flowers

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.

Royal Fern

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.

filmy ferns

Filmy Ferns

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.

Meadow

The meadow

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.

Guelder Rose Flower, June

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.

Still and Moving stream

Thank you to the Ellen Hutchins team for yet another fascinating botanical adventure!

By the stream

Ellen Hutchins: The Short and Remarkable Life of Ireland’s First Female Botanist

Ballylickey House, Home of Ellen Hutchins. Although the burned down, it was rebuilt exactly as the original.

Ballylickey House, Home of Ellen Hutchins. Although the house burned down, it was rebuilt exactly as the original

In West Cork, we have been celebrating the short but extraordinary life of Ellen Hutchins who died 200 years ago this year. Acknowledged in her lifetime as one of the most knowledgeable and accomplished botanists in the British Isles, she contributed specimens and drawings to the great collections in Glasnevin and Kew and kept up a lively and learned correspondence with some of the leading botanical scientists of the day. When she died, aged only 29, her name had already been memorialised: several plant specimens bore the title hutchinsia.

Looks and character

It’s been a fantastic week of lectures, guided walks, exhibitions and demonstrations. Jointly organised by the Bantry Historical Society, the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Hutchins family, the week has been a marvellous success, with all the events well attended and everyone eager to learn more about Ellen. For a program of what was available, take a look at the excellent Ellen Hutchins website and the Facebook page.

Dublin Botanic Gardens

While many of Ellen’s specimens ended up in Kew Gardens, some went to what has become the Dublin Botanical Gardens

The website contains biographical data about Ellen, her accomplishments, her family and her place in the scientific community, and a links and resources section leading to much more information. Ellen Hutchins was born in Ballylickey, near Bantry, in 1785 and spent most of her life there. During schooldays in Dublin she lived with family friend Dr Whitley Stokes who introduced her to the discipline of botanizing. She became an avid and scholarly collector of plants and seaweed, annotating, sorting and cataloguing as she went, and an expert illustrator of marine and terrestrial specimens.

Ellen identified new species of seaweeds on the shores around Bantry Bay

She roamed freely around the shores of Bantry Bay and took her family’s boat out to Whiddy Island. She also climbed (we’re not sure how) to the top of Knockboy, the highest mountain in Cork at 700m, identifying new species of plants right at the top. We followed her footsteps last weekend, led by Wildlife Officer Clare Heardman of Glengarriff Nature Reserve, botanist Rory Hodd, writer Kevin Corcoran, and Madeline Hutchins, great great grandniece of Ellen, who has been uncovering all kinds of new material on her ancestor.

group botany

What a day we had! It was warm and dry until we got to the top, where we were subjected to a hailstorm for form’s sake before the sun re-emerged. It was an insight into what gets botanists excited – tiny plants, apparently, with subtle variations from other tiny plants.

We were in awe of the knowledge on display, and the boundless enthusiasm of all the plant experts in the group. The highlights for them were finding some of the species that bore Ellen’s name, although Rory and Clare were particularly pleased to find a dwarf willow at the summit that had originally been identified by Ellen over 200 years ago. Along the way, we also learned a lot about the characteristics of that kind of high mountain environment, with its burden of boggy moss and highly acidic environment.

Kevin Corcoran demonstrated the properties of sphagnum moss, and showed us how soft the bog underneath us was, by probing with his staff

Knockboy descent

We felt on top of the world on Knockboy. We drove up to Priest’s Leap and only climbed the final 300m.  But how did Ellen get up there, with her long skirts and her intermittent poor health?

In Bantry House we viewed Ellen’s drawings, beautifully framed and presented and on loan from their permanent homes in Kew Gardens, Trinity College, Dublin and elsewhere. Her drawings were used by other botanists to illustrate books and were considered to be superior in their exactitude.

The Bantry Library hosted an exhibition about her life. This was curated by Madeline Hutchins and here we came closer to appreciating the woman herself, of whom no portrait exists. We learned, through her letters, of the struggles of a home life dominated by an ailing mother, a disabled younger brother and two bitterly feuding older brothers. She suffered from intermittent ill health, which often prevented her from collecting, but when she was strong her delight in her outdoors pursuits was palpable. One of her greatest pleasures was her correspondence with fellow botanists, among whom she earned true respect, especially Dawson Turner.

Dawson Turner

Dawson Turner: Although they never met, he thought of Ellen as a beloved sister and was devastated when she died

Although we were not able to join the group tour of the Ardnagashel Arboretum, we ventured down there on our own and were shown around the east section by the gracious Arethusa Greacen, herself a Hutchins on her mother’s side. The arboretum was started by Ellen’s brother and was maintained and added to by succeeding generations of Hutchins – the botany gene was obviously strongly embedded in the family!

Myrtle Woods Path

Ardnagashel colourMyrtle groves and colour at Ardnagashel

The enormous contribution made by Ellen Hutchins to science has languished in obscurity for two centuries, known only to a few experts in the field (a bit like that other West Cork woman of science, Agnes Clerke of Skibbereen). All that changed last week. West Cork, and Bantry/Ballylickey in particular, has celebrated and honoured Ellen Hutchins in style. There is talk of future events, perhaps even a summer school.

Ellen Plaque

A new plaque has been erected on the wall of the old ruined church in Garryvurcha graveyard, final resting place of Ellen Hutchins

Well done to the hardworking organisers of this exceptional festival! Thank you to them for illuminating the life of this remarkable woman and to helping us appreciate, in the most hands-on and interesting way, her enormous contributions to science.

Madeline Clare Angela

The team behind the Ellen Hutchins Two Hundred Year Celebration: Madeline Hutchins, great great grandniece and biographer of Ellen; Clare Heardman of the National Parks and Wildlife Service; Angela O’Donovan of the Bantry Historical Society. This photo was taken from the Ellen Hutchins 200 Years Facebook Page, with appreciation

Don’t forget to check out the website Ellen Hutchins: Ireland’s First Female Botanist for so much more detail than I could give you in a blog post.