‘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.

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