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


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.


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 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

On the Butter Road

The old Butter Road runs between Schull and Ballydehob

The old Butter Road runs between Schull and Ballydehob

For most of its history, roads were a hit-and-miss affair in Ireland. We didn’t get the great Roman road builders, and anyway, it was easier to get around on the water. Some routeways led to Dublin or Tara in the early medieval period, but a real road system didn’t develop until the 18th Century with the building of turnpike highways between major cities. In the 18th Century, Cork became the largest centre for the butter trade in the world and needed transportation corridors to ensure butter could get from remote rural areas to the Butter Exchange (now a museum) in the city. The Butter Roads were built from the 1740s on, and provided an efficient and speedy (for the time) route to market. Butter was packed in firkins (40 litre barrels), stacked onto carts, and transported from West Cork and Kerry to Cork City to be loaded onto ships for Australia and America.

The Old Mill

The Old Mill

Here and there, traces of the old butter roads remain. One stretch runs between Ballydehob and Schull and in the last few years a project to open it as a walking route has been spearheaded by students of the Schull Community College. It starts at the Old Mill, now open as a gallery by our friend, the esteemed wildlife photographer, Sheena Jolley. Sheena has enhanced the mill stream and stabilised the workings, still intact in her basement. A visit to her gallery is a great way to start or end your walk.

Robert on the stepping stones

Robert on the stepping stones

Setting out from the mill we were immediately on the old green road, soft underfoot, running between hedgerows alive with wildflowers, winding gently uphill. A plaque tells the story of the butter roads and of the current project. Gurgling and murmuring, the mill stream is on your right until you come to cross it. This is accomplished on stepping stones where we found it impossible not to linger and contemplate the gentle water. 

The mill stream

The mill stream

Onward and upward, passing an abandoned farmhouse, and marvelling at the variety of flowers along the route. Having been presented with the superb Zoë Devlin’s The Wildflowers of Ireland (thank you, Amanda!) I can now identify most of them, so here is a selection – captioned, by dint of my new-found knowledge. (Mousing over the pictures will bring up the captions, clicking on them will take you to full size images.)

As the road ascends, we could look back towards Schull and Long Island, or north to Mount Gabriel. The sense of peace, of being in a place of age-old tradition, is palpable. 

Mount Gabriel

Mount Gabriel

Near the top of the hill we met the Newman family, setting out from their farmhouse to walk down to Schull. John and Helen grew up in this house, walking to school in Rossbrin (about 4 km away) every day and John still lives in the house. He has a fascinating collection of old tractors and an obvious interest in farm machinery of every kind. They told us they had the butter road all to themselves in the old days, but now it’s quite popular and they are glad to see it used and enjoyed. A Mr Henry Ford once lived in the farmhouse, related to THE Henry Ford, whose father came from Ballinascarthy, near Clonakilty. 

Three generations of the Newman Family

Three generations of the Newman Family

The Butter Road is an ancient right-of-way, but access depends on the goodwill of those, like John Newman, and like Paddy Hayes whom we met on the way down, whose farms and fields lie along the route. This is a marvellous resource for the people of Schull and Ballydehob and we are grateful to those whose vision and hard work and generosity of spirit have made it a reality. 

If you want to experience the tranquility of the deep countryside, lovely views, and a sense of how the making of a road could connect far-flung communities to the wider world, we recommend an afternoon spent on the Butter Road. 

Walking back down: Long Island comes into view

Walking back down: Long Island comes into view

Mizen in Bloom


hawthorn or whitethorn

Hawthorn or whitethorn

They say that spring is a little late this year – the result of the winter storms, which caused so much destruction and set back growth. Many shrubs and trees around us looked stripped and burned from a combination of ferocious winds and salt spray. Even the gorse is slow: although some of it is in full bloom, the hillsides are not yet ablaze with that incredible yellow.

Gorse and hawthorn

Gorse and hawthorn

But now around the Mizen the spring flowers have burst into bloom. The boreens are heady with wild garlic. It’s become a thing to cook with it. One of my favourite young Irish chefs, Donal Skehan, has a recipe for wild garlic pesto and another for wild garlic soda bread. Haven’t tried it myself yet, but it’s definitely on the list.

Wild garlic

Wild garlic

I have serious bluebell wood envy. There is one near here, and I dream of eventually having my carpet of blue under the trees. Here’s a little bluebell slideshow: most of the photos were taken close to our house, but a couple are from Wicklow (Bray Head and Mount Usher Gardens), and the last one shows my brand new bluebells coming up from the bulbs I planted last autumn.

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The hedgerows are striking right now. Above are the white branches of the hawthorn (also known as whitethorn), gorgeous in their bountiful white blossoms, and below are the roadside flowers – celandines, buttercups, daisies, violas and primroses.

wayside flowers

Wayside flowers

Along the shore hardier species are showing themselves now. Sea pinks, or thrift, are waving in the breeze. Today we found one that Robert has always called pennypies, but which is more properly called navelwort. It’s a fascinating looking plant – and good, apparently, for curing corns!

There are lots I can’t name, so can you help me out, Dear Reader, and tell me what these flowers are?

Can you name these flowers?

Can you name these flowers?

I can’t resist one final photo – no, it’s not a wild flower, but it holds the promise of delicious things to come. These are the blossoms on our pear trees.

Pear blossoms

Pear blossoms