Weeds: A Matter of Perspective

A weed is a wildflower whose name we haven’t learned yet, in the same way that a stranger is a friend we haven’t met yet. Like the hogweed above – a plant, by the way, that is in the top ten percent of the most nectar-rich and valuable-for-pollinator wild plants, a plant that is also edible by humans and animals – ‘weeds’ are plants we mostly love to hate.

Ah yes – weeds! Those wreckers of manicured lawns and tidy driveways. Those nasty undesirables that must be dug up or, as with the seldom-used holiday home above, Rounded-Up. 

But wait – what’s this? All over Ireland people are letting the ‘weeds’ take over! Just look at this fabulous example at the Heron Gallery on the Sheep’s Head (above). It’s like we’ve had a mad rush of blood to the head and are changing life-long attitudes. What has caused this? Was it the pandemic, like we account for so many other changes in our lives? 

Mostly, it’s down to the incredible work of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, a program devised by the National Biodiversity Data Centre and two lead researchers, Dr Úna FitzPatrick of the Centre and Prof Jane Stout of Trinity College. (I had the immense pleasure of a day with Úna recently.) It’s been very successful, with many county and town councils signing up and pledging to implement pollinator-friendly horticultural and agricultural practices. For the last few years, The National Tidy Towns Handbook is on board too, with an emphasis on native species and pollinator-friendly planting.

And this is urgent!

Pollinators are in decline, with one-third of our 98 wild bee species threatened with extinction from the island of Ireland. The problem is serious and requires immediate attention to ensure the sustainability of our food, avoid additional economic impact on the agricultural sector, and protect the health of the environment. 

Working together for Biodiversity:
Tales from the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan 2015-2020

Each of us with any little patch of ground can do our bit too. All you have to do is set aside whatever portion of your garden you’re comfortable with (10%? 50%?) and turn it into a perennial wildflower patch. I’ve been doing this in my garden (above) now since 2017, so this is my 6th year. in 2018 I introduced Yellow Rattle from seeds bought from Sandro Cafolla at The National Wildflower Seed Collection. Called the meadow maker, Yellow Rattle (below) parasitises on grass roots, thinning them out and providing space for other wild seeds to take root. Apart from that, I have had to keep an eye on incursions of bracken and nettles. 

The results have been all that I hoped for. Every day I am tempted out to my little mini-meadow with my camera. The rest of the lawn I try to leave as long as possible between cuts and it’s amazing what comes up there too. Take a look at my video, Lying in the Grass, for a sense of the sheer wonder and variety of what has appeared all over my One Acre.

The driveway and all around the house is gravelled and I have resisted the temptation to tidy it up in any way. In return, a huge variety of wildflowers have appeared – Groundsel and Pineapple-weed, Scarlet and Yellow Pimpernel, Silverweed, Cat’s-ear and Autumn Hawkbit, Germander and Thyme-leaved Speedwells, Herb-Robert and Keel-fruited Cornsalad, Dove’s-foot and Cut-leaved Crane’s-bills, Common and Bush Vetch, Sowthistles (Prickly and Smooth), Sheep’s-bit, Sorrels and Chamomile. 

I even discovered a rare little plant popping up in my driveway – the gorgeous and curious Sharp-leaved Fluellen. According to the distribution maps it’s been slowly making its way west from Wexford over the years – but how on earth did it land in my driveway? It’s a mystery like that, that keeps me fascinated with wildflowers.

See what I did there? I named the ‘weeds’ – and naming something gives it presence and personality. Once you know the name, there’s a natural curiosity to know more about the plant itself and to keep an eye on it. Thus, they turn into old friends and your heart lifts as you watch a Painted Lady Butterfly feeding on the humble Knapweed, or a Bumble Bee hover over the vetch, choosing which blossom to settle on.

We need to adjust our notions of what’s beautiful if we are to avoid a biodiversity catastrophe. Each one of us can do something to help. If you want to grow your own perennial wildflower patch, there are simple steps you can take – see my posts on my One Acre (then, One Year on, Three Years on, and Four Years On) for what I have done, or follow the Guidance of the Pollinator Plan.

Here’s what NOT to do – don’t buy ‘Bee Bombs’ or packets of ‘wildflower mix’ seeds. As this excellent paper puts it: Wildflower seed mixtures do not help address biodiversity loss. Rather, they cause further disruption to what remains of the natural environment. Follow best practice – mow once a year and remove the cuttings, try to keep down nettles, dock and bracken (and Ragwort if it’s threatening to take over) – and then let it be. Every now and then, go lie down in the grass beside it and listen for buzzing.

And if you’re a keen gardener and want to just make your garden more pollinator-friendly – there’s a guide for that too!

Rare Plants on the Mizen

For a wildflower enthusiast there is nothing better than a day spent with like-minded folk looking for interesting plants under the leadership of a true expert.

At this time of year the buttercups all over the dunes are actually Bulbous Buttercups – if you look under the flower head you will see that the sepals turn down away from the petals

I had the immense privilege of being included in a Rare Plant Monitoring Workshop on Friday the 13th – which also happened to be the day that Biodiversity Week kicked off in Ireland. As you probably all know by now, Nature is in crisis all across the world, and although we may be surrounded by lush hills and boreens in West Cork, there are ominous signs that all is not well with our natural world here as elsewhere. Fewer than ten percent of our native species in Ireland have been assessed for their conservations status – but of those that have been, one fifth (yes – one-fifth!) are at risk of extinction.

Sand Pansy – gorgeous little violas found on the dunes

That’s why counting plants is important – each one is part of the complex web of biodiversity that contribute to the health of our environment and the loss of even one can have knock-on effects on a whole cascade of others. I already monitor two rare plants for the National Biodiversity Data Centre (NBDC), Vervaine and Calamint, so I have an insight into the kinds of threats rare plants can face, from mowing to herbicides to change of land use – all of those have happened to the small populations I monitor.

The location for this workshop was Barley Cove and Mizen Head. Having rendezvoused with Botanist Paul Green and NBDC Scientist Úna FitzPatrick (above, at Mizen Head) we set out across the dunes. I had met Paul before and so I knew that he is unfailingly generous about sharing his immense knowledge. Throughout the day we stopped frequently to exclaim over a plant that one or another of us spotted (like the Bulbous Buttercup) on the dunes or the rocks, and Paul always took the time to stop and educate us about each one.

Thus, along the way, I was introduced to several plants that were entirely new to me. Despite the fact that I have been to Barley Cove on numerous occasions, many of them spent lying in the grass on the dunes (see this post and the wildflower slideshow within it, for example), I had never seen Common Cornsalad (above) nor Early Forget-me-not (below) before Friday.

As our first rare plant, we were in search of Early Sand-grass, the kind of undistinguished little plant that you would walk over unthinkingly, but which is so rare that it only occurs here and in the Bull Island Nature Reserve in Dublin. That’s the distribution map below, courtesy of the BSBI.

Paul found it and we collectively traced its extent across the dunes. This is an area with much rabbit activity and Paul speculated that the bare patches of sand created by the busy bunnies was what had encourage or allowed the Sand-grass to colonise this area. It’s a complex issue – those Barley Cove Bunnies can be destructive to the dunes in some ways, but here we have an instance where their presence has been beneficial – one of those complex interactions that are so hard to predict.

Our next target was an orchid – the Green-winged Orchid. But, on the way, we found another Orchid – the Irish Marsh Orchid (below). It was beautiful and bold and instantly visible in the short grass on the dunes.

In contrast, we almost tripped over the Green-winged Orchid, which upon first glance looked spindly and unremarkable. This is one you have to get close to – can you see them in the grass, below?

Here’s what Zoe Devlin has to say about this flower:

Surely the most exquisite wild orchid in Ireland. . . Green-winged Orchid is a small, erect plant which grows to about 30cm tall in grassland and meadows where grazing occurs. It bears flowers, well separated, in short spikes and these flowers appear in several colours – from snow-white through pink and magenta to deep purple. The three sepals are purple-veined with strong, green lines and these sepals form a hood over a broad, downward folded lower lip which is three-lobed and heavily spotted at its white centre. There is also a stout, slightly-curved spur. These incredible flowers bloom from mid-April to mid-June. The leaves are shiny green, unspotted with the upper leaves sheathing the stem and the lower leaves forming a rosette. 

Zoe Devlin, Wildflowers of Ireland

Can you see all that in these photos? I’m not sure you can, which is one of the things that makes wildflower identification interesting – especially with a family like the orchids where there are quite a few that look similar until you really examine them. 

There were more plants on the dunes – I was amazed to find Field Madder (above), which I always assumed was a plant of arable ground. One of the things we had to get used to was how tiny many of the plants on the dunes were compared to those that grow in less challenging environments – like miniature versions of themselves.

Then there was one of our target species, the Sea Stork’s-bill (above) – really, a flower that only its mother could love, but very rare in Ireland and therefore one of the plants that enable us to chart the conservation of its habitat.

We drove from Barley Cove around to the Holiday Park but were unable to do a count of the Slender Thistle. The land was being grazed by sheep and every access was blocked (above). So we contented ourselves with noting that currently it appears to be abundant, if very localised. I managed a distant shot of this fine head (below) showing the pink flowers but also how spiny it is.

Our final stop was Mizen Head, one of the very few places in Ireland (see map below and the Broom below that) where you can find Prostrate Broom (try saying that fast). This was another exercise in a different kind of counting, since the plant is on sea cliffs and behind fences at the Visitor Centre, so it has to be identified at a distance and the count is an educated estimate. Add in the fact that there are two other yellow flowers gaily blooming around it (Kidney Vetch and Bird’s-foot Trefoil) and you get an idea of the challenge involved.

I have taken on the task of the Early Sea-Grass count. It may bloom as early as February or March, so I’ve made a calendar note to head out to the Dunes next year at that time. Another one of the participants, Damaris, and I will work together on our counts – it’s always more fun if you have a companion and probably more accurate too.

Thank you, Úna and Paul, for such a profoundly educational experience, that also managed to be great fun. 

Become a Citizen Scientist!

The National Biodiversity Data Centre, which is also known as Ireland’s Citizen Science Portal, is asking us to record certain spring flowers that we see. This is not a task, it’s a pleasure! What could be more delightful than wandering down a country boreen, stopping to admire the flowers (like the Cuckooflowers above, seen near Bantry) and in about a minute, sending off a record to the Data Centre?

Common Dog-violets, Greenmount, near Ballydehob

Yes, they have made it that easy, with the most amazing little app. I’ll explain how to use it below, but first – why record spring flowers at all? Here’s what the NBDC says about that:

All recording is valuable as it contributes to furthering plant conservation in Ireland. Most plant recording takes place later in the summer. This project is particularly important as it encourages records of early-flowering species that can otherwise be lacking in data. Many of the spring flowering plants are very distinctive, making it a good way for those new to recording to get involved.

Primroses, Rossbrin

Most (but not all) of the flowers selected for this Spring Flowering Plant Project are common and can be found extensively around West Cork and elsewhere in Ireland. Here’s the list: 1. Bluebell 2. Common Dog-violet 3. Cowslip 4. Cuckooflower 5. Early Dog-violet 6. Early-purple Orchid 7. Lesser Celandine 8. Lords-and-Ladies 9. Primrose 10. Ramsons/Wild garlic 11. Toothwort 12. Winter Heliotrope 13. Wood Anemone 14. Wood-sorrel.

Winter Heliotrope is an invasive species and a common sight along roads and railway tracks. Here it has colonised the Butter Road

The Winter Heliotrope has been blooming since December, and I’ve already seen my first Primrose. But the real spring blooming time is yet to come, in March and April, and into May. That’s when our hedgerows will come alive with Common Dog-violets and Lesser Celandine, and the Cuckooflowers will suddenly appear in the fields.

We saw these beautiful Lesser Celandine consorting with March Violets in the Magic Forest

A venture into the woods will reward you with Wood Sorrel and Wood Anemone, and the ultimate spring experience – a carpet of bluebells. A trip to the Beara Peninsula early last April provided an opportunity to wander up the River Path at Gleninchaquin, surely one of the most picturesque spots in all of Ireland. Not only was it a gorgeous warm spring day, but the path wound its way through clumps of Wood Anemone and Wood Sorrel.

The Wood Sorrel leaves are like large shamrocks, while the flower has a sweet little white head veined with pink

Returning through Kenmare we stopped by an old graveyard just outside the town, to find the entire area covered in bluebells. The other place to look out for bluebells is, perhaps surprisingly, in recently burned patches. It’s the only upside to a lot of the burning that goes on around here. The bulbs, like those of many flowers, are able to lie dormant underground for many years until the right conditions allow them to germinate.

There’s always lots of Wild Garlic around, but the NBDC are asking us to record the native plant, also known as Ramsons, and NOT the ubiquitous Three-cornered Garlic that looks a little like white Bluebells. Ramsons are a little harder to find, although there is a magnificent stand of them near here. Unfortunately, it’s on a bad bend on a busy road, and also under an active rookery. When I finally managed to pull in safely last year, it was to discover that every plant was covered in rook droppings. There went my plans for Wild Garlic Pesto.

The Ramsons stand at New Court – and a close up of the effects of being located under a rookery

While I have lots of photographs of orchids, I have never seen the Early Purple Orchid. However, they have been spotted around Crookhaven, so that’s one of my goals for this year. I want to try to find some Lords-and-Ladies in their spring phase as well – the only photos I have are from the Caol Stream project I did last year, and they already have their green, highly poisonous spikes, which turn red later.

While the Common Dog-violet is, well, common, the Early Dog Violet is rare. I may have spotted one last year on the Sheep’s Head, but I didn’t get good enough photographs of it then to make a positive ID. If you’re unsure, always try to get shots of the leaves, or the basal rosette, and the context (hedgebank? stream bed? grassy field? disturbed ground?) – all this will help you when you download your photographs and look through your resources.

What I think is an Early Dog-violet, found on the Sheep’s Head. I wonder if I can find it again, as I need to verify this by taking better photographs

And speaking of resources – here are my go-to sites and books:

  1. Wildflowers of Ireland: Zöe Devlin’s book is the perfect companion for a walk – small enough to pack around and very easy to use, as it’s organised by colour and number of petals. Her website is likewise excellent and easy to navigate.
  2. Irish Wildflowers – if you can’t find it in Wildflowers of Ireland try this site. The information isn’t as expansive, but it’s good on Cork species and it’s searchable in a variety of ways.
  3. A Beginner’s Guide to Irish Wild Flowers – a handy little reference book that slips in the pocket. It’s published by the wonderful Sherkin Island Marine Station, and is organised by family groups. For such a tiny book it is packed with information (by John Akeroyd) and excellent photographs (by Robbie Murphy). If you can’t find it in a book shop, you can order it through the Marine Station.

Wood Anemone – a delicate beauty

Now – you want to get recording, so here’s what to do. Go to the App Store or Google Play and search for the free app ‘Biodiversity Data Capture.’ You will find a very clean and simple interface which exists for one purpose, to make it incredibly easy to record a sighting. The whole process of recording one flower takes about a minute!

First, find your flower! Make sure your Location Services is ON. Open the app, and in the app take a picture of the flower. While you are doing that, the app is busy establishing your location. From the Species Group, select Vascular Plants (last option). From the Species, select the flower. You can start to type the name and a list of near-spellings should come up. Site – type in the name of the place, for example, a townland or road. Select a habitat – whatever seems closest. Type in any comments you have, add your name and email address, and Save. Once that’s done, go back to My Sightings and hit the Upload button, or wait until you have several (or until you’re on WiFi) and hit Upload All.

Bluebells growing on a recently-burned hillside, where no Bluebells had been before

Don’t worry if you think you made a mistake. A real human checks all the records submitted (that’s why it’s important to include a photograph) and only includes verified records in the final selection. Now so – give it a go and tell me how you get along. And if you do, feel proud, because you will have joined the ranks of the Citizen Scientists of Ireland, all doing their bit to safeguard our precious biodiversity.