The Turning Year in Rossbrin

We are fortunate to live in a rural idyll: our immediate environment is immersed in the natural world. In fact, I suppose it is ‘Nature tamed’ – as we have pasture all around us as well as banks of gorse and rock: even a few trees which manage to cling on to the shallow soil all through the winter gales and (occasional) summer droughts. As the years go by we feel we become more closely entwined with the cycle of everything around us – we get to know personally the fox, pheasants and rabbits that pass by our window, and the myriad of birds that feed here, forage in the Cove or just show themselves to us on memorable occasions – Spioróg the Sparrowhawk is so handsome when she is resting on our terrace wall while on her deadly missions, and our choughs frequently perform wild dances in the air to entertain us. This year was special for me because, for the first time, I saw a hare amble around the house, alert with erect ears, before loping off into the next door field.

I have written about Rossbrin Cove many times before: look at A Moment in Time, Tide’s Out and Words on Roaring Water, for example. That sheltered natural harbour and the old mine road up on the hill above probably give us the most pleasure because we visibly see the year change and turn every time we walk there. Just now the days are rapidly shortening, and the autumnal influx of wading birds is returning. One we keep a particular eye out for is the curlew – a threatened breeding species here in Ireland. We see many on and close to the water, particularly at low tide, but these are probably migrants rather than resident breeders.

The year is turning – from late summer into early autumn, and the colours are changing from rich reds and purples – fuschia and heathers – to the more sombre yet equally attractive yellows and browns of furze and fern. Finola has closely followed the wildflowers right through from the spring – she is still finding and identifying every imaginable species – it’s a complete world of its own!

We have been seeing some exceptionally high and low tides here in Rossbrin. I’m always fascinated to see the mud-flats revealing bits of discarded history, while I am convinced that the huge remnants of dressed stonework on the north-east shore are the vestiges of once-busy quays, dating either from the medieval period, when Sir William Hull and the Great Earl of Cork owned the lands around here and set up thriving fish-processing ‘palaces’, or – at the latest – when the copper mines were active up on our hills and on Horse Island in the nineteenth century.

The real turning point comes at the end of October – Samhain – when the old calendar enters the ‘dark year’ (the ‘light year’ begins on May 1st –  Bealtaine). We know we have long, dark nights to come – time to huddle down by the stove – but there will be bright days as good as any in the year for walking, exploring and breathing in the Atlantic breezes. And the Rossbrin sunsets will be magnificent!

“The Wildest and Richest Gardens” – West Cork Bog Soaks

Henry David Thoreau, philosopher and naturalist, might be called the patron saint of swamps. He was in love with them. I know how he feels. Hope and the future for me he said, are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swampsthe wildest and richest gardens that we have.

Top photo and above: Derreennatra Natural Heritage Area

Thoreau was talking about American swamps, but he could just as easily have been talking about an Irish bog, marsh, or wetland. I have two within easy walking distance of my home in West Cork and I am drawn to them like a magnet. One is tiny – a pond in the middle of a boggy area at the highest point in Foilnamuck townland. The other is more extensive – Derreennatra Bog, between Ballydehob and Schull.

Foilnamuck Bog Soak

A bog is a highly acid environment, and some plants, such as heathers, are specially adapted to deal with this habitat. The mineral-rich pools that form in the bog – technically known as bog soaks – are fed by groundwater and rain. Nutrients are more available in these patches of open water, they provide a less acidic environment and support a variety of plant life different from that of the surrounding bog.

Rare Slender Cottongrass on Derreennatra Bog – one of the reasons for its designation and protected status

Derreennatra Bog has been recognised as a very special habitat of the lowland bog type. It has been designated as a Natural Heritage Area and is under the protection of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. While there are several reasons for its special status, the main one is that it is home to Slender Cottongrass, an extremely rare form of Bog Cotton that only grows in a few places in Ireland and Britain.

Marsh St John’s-wort, above and below, in its watery habitat

Derreennatra Bog has other uncommon species, but they are hard to photograph without a really good long lens. The one I did manage to get close to was Marsh St John’s-wort. I had to go back several times and wait until the flower opened before I could figure out what it was. It was worth the wait – a very beautiful native wildflower.

Another reason to hang out at Derreennatra Bog is that the lovely, native, White Water-lily flourishes here. It’s an exotic beauty that been here, apparently, since soon after the last ice-age.

The soak in the bog at Foilnamuck is far less extensive – just a tiny wet patch – but it’s reliably present all the time, probably because it’s bounded by a natural amphitheatre of slightly elevated rocky ground. Here is where I was able to photograph Bog Bean for the first time, although not without getting my feet wet. It’s a fascinating plant – it sits in the water and holds the flower head well above the surface. The flower heads are pink before they open but inside the petals are pure white and fringed with long hairs.

The “regular” Bog Cotton, more correctly called Common Cottongrass surrounds the little soak and mingles with the Bog Bean.

The other plant that loves the environment of this little soak is the Round-leaved Sundew. Sundews are carnivorous – the sticky liquid on its hairy round leaves trap unwary insects, which are then digested by the plant. It’s a marvellous adaptation to the lack of soil nutrients in its habitat.

The spikes carry the flowers, not yet open in this shot, but it’s the leaves that do all the work in this plant

The other flowers of the bog – the heathers and asphodels, the mosses and mints – are equally beautiful and interesting, but I will leave them for another day.

Trish Punch – remember the workshop day I spent with her? She’s gone from teacher to friend and she’s into the wildflowers, just like I am! 

Now so, why don’t you wander on over to your local bog/swamp/fen/marsh soak and see what you can see! Just don’t fall in!

 

The Lusty Month of May

The month of May was come, when every lusty heart beginneth to blossom, and to bring forth fruit; for like as herbs and trees bring forth fruit and flourish in May, in likewise every lusty heart that is in any manner a lover, springeth and flourisheth in lusty deeds.  For it giveth unto all lovers courage, that lusty month of May.

–  Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur 

One of our local roads is lined with Ragged Robin

Walking the boreens in May there is a sense of potency, urgency even, in the landscape. We’ve been asleep long enough, the flowers are saying – it’s high time we put in an appearance.

Another one has pignut on both sides. Pignut? Yes, there is such a flower – it’s widespread and the rounded roots which are said to taste like hazlenuts were a food source for pigs, and sometimes for humans too

After a long dry spring, everything is early this year in West Cork this year – and earlier than in the rest of Ireland too, thanks to our southerly location and mild climate. The big flowers are happening – the irises and the foxgloves in all their boldness and drama, as well as the tiny ones that are peeping out along the hedgebanks.

Glimpsed along the way: Yellow Iris is a bold native plant that likes damp places; St Patrick’s Cabbage grows extensively around the Cork and Kerry Peninsulas; this Spotted Orchid was one of several at the Heron Gallery Garden; Red Campion grows just across from my house

The Big Event in May for us was the launch of the Wildflower Trail, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. The launch was lovely – it was a great honour to have Zoë Devlin come and declare the trail open, and then lead us in a wildflower walk. The brochure is now in the Tourist Centres and already people are picking it up and wandering the boreens.

Zoë had participants spellbound – she just knows SO much!

For me it was a special opportunity to learn from Zoë when we walked the course before the launch. It was a great experience and I learned very quickly that for Zoë the wildflowers are just one aspect of an interdependent whole that includes butterflies, moths, bees, birds, and flora and fauna of all descriptions.

Clockwise from top left: Green Veined Butterfly; bee in foxglove; Painted Lady Butterfly; Red Admiral

I also learned how dedicated she is to recording all the flowers she sees for the National Biodiversity Centre Database. This is not a difficult thing to do, but it does take a little practice and a little time. I am resolved to up my own game in this regard and start sending in more records.

Our native – and gorgeous – White Water-lily

But mostly I just want to spread the joy – and help people to see the incredible beauty and diversity of wildflowers that we have in West Cork. Our boreens should be celebrated as National Treasures!

This boreen leads out of Ballydehob – it’s alive with an enormous variety of flowers.

Above is Wild Carrot -as its name suggests, this is the wild version of our cultivated carrot. Very young wild carrots are edible, but you must take extreme care as the plant is very similar to Hemlock Water-dropwort (below) which is very poisonous. This one is growing along a stream in Skibbereen – also the location of the Yarrow in my lead image (top of post).

Irish Spurge, above, is an intense yellow green in April. In May it acquires this little yellow spaceship flower heads. You have to get in really close to see them.

Salad Burnet (above) was grown in kitchen gardens from Medieval times as a salad vegetable and herb. The leaves, they say, taste like cucumber. I’ve tried them, and I have to say you’d need a vivid imagination to get a cucumber taste out of them.

Zoë alerted us to Russian Vine (above, wrapping around flowering nettles) down at Rossbrin Cove. Also known as Mile a Minute, it’s an introduced plant that acts like Bindweed (only worse) and is related to Japanese Knotweed, so very difficult to kill. Bad news!

I love the colour combinations you find in the hedgebanks. Wouldn’t this – buttercup and speedwell – make a great dress material?

A baby waterlilly – I was struck by how it looks, as if lit from within.

A final, tiny, flower of the hedges – appropriately name Mouse-ear

A Wildflower Trail for West Cork

Wildflowers are a spectacular part of our environmental heritage in West Cork. Many of us are aware of them in the background, although we couldn’t name more than half a dozen. It’s only when visitors come along and swoon over the abundance of colour in the hedges that we realise what an incredible natural resource we have on our doorstep. We have a little patch of bog beside us, for example, and a few days ago Bog Cotton and Bog Bean (above) were merrily blooming side by side there. I had never realised how attractive they were until I lingered for close observation. 

St Patrick’s Cabbage is part of the Lusitanian Flora we wrote about in our post Into the Woods. It grows abundantly on the North Side of the Mizen.

We at Roaringwater Journal are exceptionally pleased to have been involved with developing West Cork’s first ever Wildflower Trail System – it launches this Tuesday, but it’s been a while in the planning. The Trail System and its associated brochure is an educative tool that helps us appreciate and learn more about the wildflowers that surround us.

These little beauties are called Mexican Fleabane, but also known as Wall Daisies. The opposite of lawn daisies, they go pink as they age, rather than when they emerge. They’re an introduced species but have naturalised widely. These ones are on the wall of the stream that runs through Drimoleague.

We are particularly happy to welcome Zoë Devlin to do the honours of launching the trails. When I first got interested in wildflowers our friend Amanda (yes, she of Holy Wells of Cork fame) gave me a copy of Zoë’s book, The Wildflowers of Ireland, and it instantly became my bible. It’s laid out by colour, you see, and then by form (four petals, five petals, round clusters, etc) so it’s easy to navigate and to find what you’re after. The illustrations are clear and there’s lots of information about each plant to help you figure out what you’re looking at.

Better still, there’s Zoë’s website. Because it’s constantly updated, it has even more flower species in it, and more information on each one – including herbal uses, folklore references, and details on whether it is native or alien. And finally, there’s her Facebook page where she posts news, recent finds or currently blooming flowers, using her own superb images.

This is Yarrow. I didn’t recognise it at first because I thought Yarrow was always white, but apparently it can be this colour too. In addition, it’s supposed to like dry ground, but this one was overhanging a stream

The Wildflower Trail builds on the fact that there is already a system of waymarked trails around Ballydehob and the Mizen. Robert wrote about the Fastnet Trails in our post Closer Encounters – Fastnet Trails, and I followed up with a two-part post on the Rossbrin Loop Trail, here and here.

Sea Campion, a native plant adapted to a coastal habitat. It often occurs in drifts.

Using the specially-designed brochure, walkers can identify wildflowers along their chosen trail, then return to the Tourist Office and add their finds to the Master List on the wall. The Tourist Centres at Ballydehob and Schull will have resources available to help them identify any other flowers they have found. If you can’t pick up a brochure, you can find a link to it here.

May belongs to the May Tree – AKA the Hawthorn or Whitethorn. Online forums this year reveal it has been an exceptional year for Hawthorn right across the country

To support the Trails we have started a new Facebook Page – Wildflowers of West Cork – where we will post updates and images of what’s in bloom and what to look out for. If you’re a Facebook user, head over and give us a Like and a Share.

Water Cress, seen on the Colla Road just beyond Schull. Wild Water Cress is edible but you have to be very careful where you gather it as it can be infected with parasites

Everyone is welcome to the Launch – 5PM at the Rossbrin Boatslip on Tuesday the 23rd – and to join Zoë afterwards on a Wildflower Walk. If you can’t make the launch, we hope you’ll go for a stroll along one of the trails soon, brochure in hand, and try your luck at identifying a few wildflowers. Our trails are spectacular right now and will only get better as the summer advances.

Herb Robert – I love those red stems and leaves as much as the little pink flower. Hard to believe there’s enough soil between those rocks to nourish a plant

But you don’t even need to walk a trail – in West Cork the wildflowers are everywhere. Here’s a photo taken right by Fields of Skibbereen – just look over the fence at the stream.

Red Valerian and yellow Monkeyflower. Both are introduced species but obviously right at home on the walls of the Caol Stream in Skibbereen

All the other images were taken in May, all in West Cork, and many of them in unpromising places such as waste ground, urban streams, old walls and rocky shores. Every day, we walk right by a wealth of beauty without really stopping to look.

Mouse-ear Hawkweed and Ivey-leaved Toadflax on the wall containing a stream in Drimoleague. Below in the water is Stream Water-crowfoot

Happy wildflowering! (Start by seeing how many kinds of flowers you can see in the image below – photo taken at Lake Faranamanagh on the Sheep’s Head.)

Late Bloomers: Invasive, Naturalised and Native

Creeper on white cottage wall

This is my last wildflower post! You must be getting tired of my wildflower obsession by now. So, no more after this one. (Well, at least not in 2016.) The thing is, I had assumed that there was nothing left to see at this point. We are in October after all, and autumn is coming early this year after a cool and misty summer. But a walk today put flight to that notion.

Bee on Ivy Flower

Bracken undergrowthThe ivy flowers are alive with bees right now (above) and the bracken is putting on its winter coat

The predominant colour of the countryside is changing now as the brackens take on their winter amber-brown. The ivy is in full flower. Stand near a patch and you will be instantly aware of the hum. Our little black Irish bees are gathering while they still can and depend on this late flowering and ubiquitous plant for the last remaining nectar. Ivy honey is darker in colour and can smell a little rank, but it has a great reputation as a soothing cure for coughs and colds (especially if mixed with a little whiskey).

Bee on Ivy 2

Red Admiral on IvyThe bees and the Red Admiral Butterflies depend on this late flowering ivy

The trees haven’t quite started to turn yet, but brambles and creepers are in brilliant autumn reds. On our walk today this white cottage wall with its scarlet creeper caught my eye.

Creeper on cottage wall

A couple of surprises awaited us today. The first one was to come across a stand of Indian Balsam. This alas, is an invasive species, introduced as far back at 200 years ago from the Himalayas. The distribution map at the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland does not show it in West Cork, but I guess I can now say it’s here. In fact, I submitted a report to Invasive Species Ireland – anyone can do this via their Alien Watch Program. Although it is certainly beautiful, it’s a divil – read all about its negative impacts on the Invasive Species Ireland website. Among its other attributes, it has a explosive seedpod that can throw seed up to six metres!

Indian Balsam

Indian Balsam – Invasive Species Ireland lists it with Rhododendron, Japanese Knotweed and Giant Hogweed as the most damaging invasive species

So  what’s the difference between non-native plants that are labelled invasive versus this that are called simply naturalised? Although it can be a matter of debate and perception, in the main we use the term invasive for those non-native plants that spread to such a degree as to exclude native species from the habitat they favour, or cause damage to the environment or the economy. Happily, the only invasive species we encountered on our walk was the Indian Balsam. However, we did come across lots of non-native, naturalised flowers too.

Greater Periwinkle

The Greater Periwinkle – seen a few days ago on The Mizen

The first one (actually seen a few days ago) is this beautiful Greater Periwinkle. It’s not a native plant but has been here a long time. It’s supposed to have great medicinal properties, especially as a laxative and, in an ointment it’s good for, er, piles. According to Zoe Devlin’s Wildflowers of Ireland (my go-to guide) The 17th century herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper wrote ‘that the leaves eaten by man and wife together, cause love between them. Ooh – think I might head back to where I saw it…

Ivy-leaved Toadflax

Ivy-leaved Toadflax

Another non-native species is the Ivy-Leaved Toadflax – not an attractive name for a very pretty little creeper found commonly on rock walls. During the 1600s, wealthy Brits started to import Italian marble into England in the form of building material and statuary. The Toadflax came along for the ride and is now so completely naturalised that few people realise it’s not a native plant. They look wonderful on rock walls but it’s not usually necessary to plant them yourself. According to one source I read, seeds, complete with a starter-pack of organic growing medium, are usually delivered by birds.

Pink Sorrel

Pink Sorrel

The final non-native flower we saw today was the pink sorrel. I thought at first it was Herb Robert, which is a native plant that grows everywhere and is still blooming, but closer examination revealed  a deeper pink, a more massed growth pattern and very different foliage. It’s a garden escape, now naturalised across the south and south east of Ireland.

Fuchsia on bare branches

Actually, I suppose I also have to add the fuchsia to the naturalised non-native list, even though we think of it as the quintessential West Cork flowering shrub. It’s still hanging in there, even though most of the leaves have dropped already.

Creeping Buttercup

Tormentil

The native plants still bravely blooming to delight us tended to be tiny, but bright enough among the grasses, brambles and bracken to immediately catch the eye. We saw Herb Robert, Prickly Sowthistle, Tormentil and patches of what might be Sea Radish (or perhaps not). 

Prickly Sowthistle

Prickly Sowthistle

Herb Robert is such a hardy little flower – it seems to peep out and last longer than almost everything else in the hedgerows. Birds love the seeds of the Prickly Sowthistle – it has guaranteed its survival by appealing to them and providing food when other sources are fading.

Herb Robert

Sea Radish

Herb Robert (top) and possibly Sea Radish

As  a member of the cabbage family, the leaves of the Sea Radish are edible, if a little peppery. Interestingly, it normally finishes flowering in July, so the ones we found today must be in a particularly sheltered spot. But this also raises the possibility that this is a different plant. Can anyone help identify it?

Tormentil Patch

And finally the strangely named Tormentil – it sounds like it may cause pain but in fact it’s the opposite. There are all kinds of medicinal uses for this little flower and its parts, some of which relieve the ‘torment’ of pain. It also, according to this website,  imparts nourishment and support to the bowels and the fresh root, bruised, and applied to the throat and jaws was held to heal the King’s Evil. You heard it here first!

Ballycummisk Coppermine and Gabrial

Our walk today, along one of the Fastnet Trails, took us past the old Ballycummisk mine site and gave us distant views of Mount Gabriel

Foxglove Fever

Foxgloves in our own boreen

Nobody can remember a year like this one for the foxgloves. In fact, all wildflowers seem to be crowding out the boreens and invading the fields everywhere you look, including our own little patch of paradise, above.

ragged robin and oxeye daisies

Ragged Robin, Oxeye Daisies, Buttercups and Thistles

Back Road to Schull

Along the back road to Schull from Ballydehob

Last year I wrote a post, Close Reading, about the June wildflowers. The theme of the piece was that to really see what was in the hedgerows you should slow down, stop and seek.

Massed foxgloves

Not this year! This year we cycle or walk along fragrant, colourful paths that threaten to overwhelm the senses. The bounty is simply laid out before us.

Half way there

Foxgloves can have as many as 75 blooms on one stem. This one’s half way there

Foxgloves, tall and straight, are everywhere, singly or in masses. Nobody knows why it’s called foxglove, beyond the obvious explanation which doesn’t seem to quite fit the size of the flower in relation to a fox’s paw. But we do know its latin name, digitalis, was based on the idea of the flower easily slipping over a finger. It’s an important medicinal plant used in heart treatments but highly toxic if ingested raw or improperly, earning it the nicknames dead men’s bells or witches gloves.

They are a native to Ireland, quickly colonising waste ground and common near moorland. Sometimes called fairy thimbles or fairy bells here, they were associated with the little people and it was considered unlucky to have them in the house. That’s good, as they are an important source of nectar for bees and other insects.

Wasteland

This patch was cleared last year and looked barren. Here’s what’s happening now!

The other ubiquitous flowers of June in West Cork are the Oxeye Daisy and the Buttercup, often growing together in a riot of white and yellow. Both are native plants and, like the foxglove happily and quickly colonise any ground that’s been recently cleared. We grew up calling them dog daisies and bringing them home in great bunches for our mother, who would quietly dispose of them once we’d gone to bed – their perfume didn’t match their good looks.

oxeye daisies blue sky

And Buttercups – is there another such yellow? We held them under each other’s chins to see the yellow reflection. If it was there, it meant you liked butter. It never occurred to us to question the validity of the predictive method.

oxeye daisies and buttercups darker

Ragged Robin – such an apt name for this native! A tiny haggard near us is full of them, much visited by butterflies. This lovely flower used to be more common, but the draining of wetlands and boggy areas has left less of their preferred habitat for them.

Ragged robin

Scabious is everywhere and its brilliant periwinkle blue plays off beautifully against the yellow of the humble dandelion. The bane of gardeners everywhere, the dandelion was used in Ireland to make a tea that was supposed to be a great tonic for one of ‘consumptive habits.’ As kids, we delighted in blowing the seed heads to see what o’clock it was, and rubbing the milk on our warts as a cure. On a less charming note, we called them piss-a-beds and teased each other that touching them would result in wetting the bed.

Scabious

Scabious and DandelionsThe honeysuckle and the fuchsia are just starting to make their presence felt now. The bramble flowers and the wild roses are punctuating the hedges and the bird’s foot trefoil has taken over part of our lawn. My father waged war on anything but grass on his lawn, especially the little lawn daisies. He didn’t mind us pulling those up to make daisy chains, or to play he loves me, he loves me not.

Clockwise from top left: Birdsfoot trefoil, Wild Rose, Lawn Daisies, Campion, Foxglove and bramble flower

Of course, there is still a bit of seeking and peering involved for the tiny flowers in the hedges or fields. Speedwell, Herb Robert and Campion (below) reward the slow down and look closely approach.

Flaming June, some people call it (although the original Flaming June is actually a painting), and perhaps this year it’s a better description than ever.

colourful haggard