‘Twas Early Early All in the Spring

The world around us is starting to wake up from its winter snooze. We are shooing bees and wasps from our house and every day we see new flowers (like these Wood Anemones, above) peeping out at us from the verges and hedges. It’s estimated that this part of Ireland is about two weeks ahead of the more northerly counties, due to our milder and dryer climate. All of the photographs were taken in March, except for a couple on April 1st. But that’s OK, because the first three days of April are The Borrowed Days, according to Irish folklore, and still really March. 

Primroses – indelibly associated with early spring. Most are yellow (top) but a true wild pink variety (as opposed to a hybrid between wild and cultivated flowers) does exist too.  The little one about to open is growing out of a stone wall.

Although not yet in their full spring splendour, the boreens are sporting a plethora of wildflowers. And not just flowers but flowering trees and shrubs. In fact much of the colour and drama of the boreen come from shrubs at this time of year.

Blackthorn 

I set out to document the wildflowers of a West Cork March and found many old friends already showing themselves, as well as a few new acquaintances. Ready for a ramble? Let’s go.

We’ll start up in Stouke and walk back to Rossbrin by way of Kilbronoge. The first things that hits us of course is that heady combination of Gorse and Blackthorn along each side of the boreen. The Blackthorn flowers come before the leaves and they are beautiful when observed close up.

Blackthorn flowers

This year the Gorse seems especially vibrant – but I think I say that every year.

Gorse (upper) and Berberis (lower)

 At some point in the past, somebody planted Berberis as a decorative hedging, perhaps around the Stouke graveyard. It has spread and is still spreading. Although it was only introduced in the mid-19th century from Chile (by none-other than Charles Darwin!) it thrives here, happily lending its rich orangey tones to ensure you keep looking up.

Flowering currant along the boreen

Further along we came across a long stretch of Flowering Currant. You smell it before you see it – all at once you’ll be sniffing and saying mmmm! Flowering Currant came to Europe about the same time as the Berberis and this one was probably originally planted as a hedge, but now the birds have spread it far and wide and it’s naturalised.

Close up, the flowers are spectacular and they have a strong and pleasant curranty aroma. Thank you to my friend Susan for introducing me to the Berberis and Flowering Currant.

As we make our way down to the water we are stopped in our tracks every so often to admire that quintessential early riot of yellow – Celandine. On its own, or mixed with bright pink Herb Robert or with blue Dog Violets, it’s a cheerful sight.

The Daffodils have gone over now, except for a few hardy souls in sheltered spots. I know Daffodils aren’t really wildflowers, but they grow so freely all over the place here, in the middle of fields, along the grassy verges, and especially in old graveyards, that I simply see them as yet another one of the spring flowers. 

Stitchwort is everywhere too, and little blue Speedwells – you have to be alert for that tiny blue pop of colour or you’ll miss them entirely. The first Common Vetch is just beginning to appear as well.

Stitchwort (top), Slender Speedwell (lower left) and Common Vetch (lower right)

Down on the water, we’re on the look out for Thrift, or Sea Pinks. There are none in Rossbrin yet, but I did see some on a sunny sea-cliff the other day. I risked life and limb to get a photo!

I was hanging over the cliff – but look at the other photographer in the background. I was concentrating so hard on the Thrift I never noticed until afterwards that somebody else was taking pictures too. She survived it, but it sure looks risky from this angle

When I was photographing the Thrift I noticed something else, further down the cliff face. I had to dangle over the edge to get a good shot and was convinced I had discovered a rare species! But here it is again along the Rossbrin Cove wall – it turns out to be Common Scurvygrass. And yes, it’s packed with Vitamin C and sailors used it in a tea to prevent scurvy. For something with an unattractive name, it’s rather fetching, don’t you think?

Common Scurvygrass

Along by the water several of the houses are fronted by stone walls. On one of them we found a whole world unto itself – a complete ecosystem.

Declan Doogue and Carsten Krieger in their marvellous book The Wild Flowers of Ireland: The Habitat Guide (brilliant – highly recommended!) describe what happens to old stone walls:

…Grit, sand and dust gradually accumulated in in the spaces between the cut stones and a thin soil began to form. The stones themselves functioned as a sort of storage heater, warming up by day and retaining heat well into the evening. These small areas were very much warmer and dryer than the surrounding wooded or grassy countryside… In these relatively favourable conditions, some species were able to spread much further north and west into cooler and wetter areas. At a local level a number of plants were enabled to grow in areas where there was no suitable ground for rock dwelling species.

Ivy-leaved Toadflax (an introduced species) loves old walls

Conditions on the top of the wall can be different (drier, for example) than the crevices, or the face or base of the wall, thereby providing a variety of living conditions for different species of plants.

Ramping Fumitory (don’t you love that name!) has rooted well in the south face of the wall

Abundant and beautiful, Ivy-leaved Toadflax clings to the rock face and cascades down the front of the wall. Ramping Fumitory (which seems to be everywhere) had also found a foothold among the stones, and adds lovely flashes of pink.

Wild Strawberries and a little patch of Dandelions occupy space on top of the wall

This wall is south facing, absorbing the maximum amount of heat the sun can provide in West Cork in March. The top hosts Daisies and Dandelions, some newly emerging Scarlet Pimpernel and some Wild Strawberries (duly noted!).

Common Cornsalad or Lamb’s Lettuce

It took me a while to even spot the tiny white flowers hiding among a particular foliage that was growing from spaces between the stones on the front of the wall. Difficult to photograph, as I don’t have a macro lens, this is Common Cornsalad, or Lamb’s Lettuce. As its name suggests, it’s edible, and a popular salad green in several European countries. If you want to get a better idea how tiny these flowers are, check out Zöe Devlin’s listing on her Wildflowers of Ireland site – click on the ‘see more images’ link.

Scarlet Pimpernel on the top of the wall – it’s one of only a very few native flowers in the orangy-red colour range
Nettles, ferns and Navelwort grow on the wall or at the base

This tiny fern is sprouting, in between the stones

But two of the species we found there speak to the indiscriminate nature in which a microclimate like this provides opportunity for all – both Three-Cornered Garlic and Chilean Iris benefit from this ideal patch of sunlight and warmth.

Three-Cornered Garlic is not our native wild garlic (that’s called Ransoms and is a broad-leaved variety). Tony O’Mahony in his excellent Wildflowers of Cork City and County* refers to it as an ‘ineradicable weed’ and says that ‘it poses a major threat to some West Cork native plant rarities’ (such as the Wild Onion). All parts are edible, and said to taste like a cross between an onion and garlic.

Chilean Iris

Chilean Iris is another invasive species, although not considered high-impact, possibly because it needs a warmer climate to grow. However, it has the potential to invade habitat preferred by our native plants. From Rossbrin we wend our way back to our own little patch of paradise. But something catches our eye on the way – can it be? Yes – our first Bluebells of the season, almost hidden in the brambles.

We’ve decided to leave part of our lawn unmowed this year, as an experiment in whether or not a wildflower meadow will develop. We have to be careful, as some areas are already full of Montbretia corms, which will be only too delighted to proliferate if left unchecked.

But we’ve identified an area as having potential. It’s south facing and relatively sheltered – and it’s already a haven for little Common Dog Violets, mixing with the Dandelions and Daisies to provide a colourful carpet. We’ll let you know how things progress.

All this early spring wildflower exploration has made me look closer at the humble ones we take for granted – the Lawn Daisies and those pesky Dandelions. How did I never see before how utterly perfect they both are?

I will leave you with one final image – we found more Berberis down on the water, where it was clinging to a stone wall over the water. An astounding testament to the resourcefulness and strength of such a pretty and delicate-looking stem of flowers.

For more wildflower posts, click here.

*The book is out of print and quite hard to get, but worth the hunt.

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