Biodiversity Ballydehob

In the same way that strangers are friends you haven’t met yet, weeds are wildflowers you haven’t yet come to know and love. So come with me to the Ballydehob estuary and meet the dazzling array of wildflowers that call it home. That’s me, by the way, with my trusty camera, at the always-scenic Twelve-Arch Bridge. All the photos in this post were taken within 100 metres of the bridge, on the west side of the estuary.

Thrift, or Sea-pinks, is the most visible flower at the moment, in pink drifts along the shore. There’s a lot more than Thrift in this photograph, but before we move on, let’s take a closer look at them.

In Irish Thrift is called Rabhán (pronounced ravawn) and this word means an outburst, as in rabhán gáire, a sudden fit of laughing. Pretty apt, isn’t it, for a flower that is suddenly everywhere at this time of year. By ‘everywhere’ I mean all along the coast, although in Great Britain it is also found in a few mountainy places too.

Ballydehob has some white Thrift too, fairly unusual. According to Niall MacCoitir in his wonderful Ireland’s Wild Plants, Thrift has many alternative folk-names, such as Lady’s Cushion, Sea Daisy, and Sea-July Flower.

As there is everywhere at this time of year, there’s lots of Ribwort Plantain (did you use it to play Soldiers as a kid?) but there’s also Buck’s-horn Plantain (above). The stalk and flower look very Plantain-like, but the leaves of the basal rosette are what give the plant its name – look at all those tines. In Irish the plantains are called Slánlús, which means health plant as they are used liberally in folk medicine. But be careful – in regards to Ribwort Plantain (below, with Oxeye Daisy and Cat’s-ear), Mac Coitir warns us, . . .while it could be used to cure many ailments, there was also a danger that if the wind changed wile you were collecting it, you would lose your mind.

Here’s Buck’s-horn Plantain again (above), along with three different pink flowers – can you make them all out? I’ll talk about each one and then you can go back and look at his photo again and see if you can see them this time.

Here’s the first one, Dove’s-foot Crane’s-bill. The dove’s-foot comes from the shape of the leaf, and the crane’s-bill from the shape of the seed-pod – you can see both in this picture.

The flower is tiny and very sweet, deep pink with purple anthers. It’s a member of the Geranium family, and that makes it first-cousin to the next little pink flower, Herb Robert, below.

It’s one of my favourites, not just for its attractive flower, but for the leaves that turn a deep red as the plant matures. Himself, of course, is very pleased to have a plant named after him, although a more boring explanation could be that the Robert comes from the latin ruber, meaning red. It’s got lots of alternate names but my favourite Irish one is Eireaball Rí, means the King’s Tail. It’s another powerful herb, used traditionally to stop bleeding.

The last of the pink flowers is Kidney Vetch, although it also comes in other colours. It’s actually more common in yellow around here, but I have read that it can be orange, purple, or even pure white. In the photograph above it’s mixed in with the Buck’s-horn Plantain, but here it is on its own, below.

Kidney Vetch is a member of the Pea family but the funny thing about it is that each little pink petal is embedded in a tuft of what looks like cotton wool. It’s a bit otherworldly, but it makes it easy to identify. It’s also known as Lady’s-finger (or in Irish as Méara Muire, which translates as The Virgin’s Finger) and as Stanch, which comes from its reputation as being able to staunch blood flow.

Another member of the Pea family is Red Clover, beloved for its nectar by bumble bees, which have longer tongues than honey bees and can get at the goodness.

This is one of those flowers that are so familiar we hardly notice them, but a really close look reveals a beautiful flower indeed. The leaves are the familiar shamrock shape, but much larger and often with pale patches, and another reason to look closely is to see if you can find a four-leaved clover, considered lucky all over the world. In Irish myth and legend the clover is a symbol of prosperity and the fertility of the land. Among Mac Coitir’s many examples is the story of St Brigid who decided to make her home in the Curragh of Kildare because when ‘she saw before her the delightful plain covered in clover blossom, she determined to offer it to the lord’.

Above is Trailing Tormentil. Although this is a widely-distributed plant in Ireland I haven’t seen a lot of it around here. In fact it’s much more common to see its first cousin, simply called Tormentil, especially on heath, among the heathers and gorse. Tormentil has only four petals on its yellow flowers, whereas Trailing Tormentil can have five, as in the patches I found along the estuary. The name seems to relate to its potency as a cure for stomach torments – the root was boiled in milk as a cure for colic. Add in a little wine and it was good for what ailed you. Add in some St John’s wort and it was a sleeping draught. This is reflected in the Irish name Néalfartach: néal has several meanings which can related to depression and to sleep.

A very exciting find for me now (above) as it’s the first time I have seen it. Look how tiny it is – it’s very possible I’ve walked over it many times without noticing, especially as the old eyes aren’t what they used to be. It’s one of the Sea-spurreys (the others are Rock Sea-spurrey, Greater Sea-spurrey and Sand Spurrey, all of which are found in West Cork) but this one is Lesser Sea-spurrey.

It’s very like Greater Sea-spurrey but several factors distinguish it – it’s tiny, the sepals are longer than the petals (see above) and it has far fewer stamens. The distribution of all the Sea-spurreys is coastal, as you would imagine, but strangely Lesser Sea-spurrey is also found all over Britain, inland as well as by the sea. In Ireland, it is only coastal. Is it weird to get this excited over a tiny plant? (Okay, don’t answer that.)

Moving right along, this is Cuckoo-flower – so called because it appears about the same time as the Cuckoo does. It’s also called Lady’s Smock and it can vary from pure white to a mauvey pink and if you look closely at the stems you might see tiny eggs – they are white when laid but turn orange with time. They are laid by the Orange-tip Butterfly and the larva feeds on the stem of the flower.

There’s a little patch of grass jutting out into the estuary and at first I thought it was just covered in daisies. Daisies are important little flowers for our pollinators too, but what caught my eye was smaller so I had to lie down to get close enough to see the little blue ones.

This is Thyme-leaved Speedwell, one of the many Speedwells you can find in West Cork, and one of the smallest ones. Right across the road is another one – much more visible. In fact, if your eye is caught by a flash of blue in the grass in West Cork, this is likely to be what’s causing it.

It’s Germander Speedwell – a closer look below. Speedwell looks a bit like a Forget-me-not but it doesn’t have the yellow centre and only has four petals to a Forget-me-not’s five.

It belongs to a different family too – the Veronica family, which includes the next flower, Ivy-leaved Toadflax, which I found growing all over the bridge pillar.

This is one opportunistic little plant – it will find a crack in a wall and dig right in. In fact, walls are its favourite habitat. Here’s what Zoë Devlin’s Wildflowers of Ireland (my go-to resource) has to say about this adaptable genius: The seed-planting mechanism of this plant is very clever indeed.  The flowers turn their heads to the sun until they have been fertilised at which stage they turn about towards the wall on which they are growing and in this way they plant or push the seeds into any little crevice possible on the wall. They also have very long roots which help them to hang on, like the Ivy for which they are named, and thereby ensure their survival.  This plant was introduced in the seventeenth century from the Mediterranean countries.

As Zoë says, it arrived here from the Mediterranean – but how? During the craze for importing marble from Italy, including marble statues, the plant hitched a ride, jumped ship once it got to Britain, and flourished from then on. Even though it’s not a native plant it’s adapted well to the Irish climate and has proven to be a good neighbour, unlike many other alien species.

Just glancing along the bank, it’s hard to take in how many plants are here, and what a variety there is. I will finish with a couple from across the road. First, the Hawthorn is now in full bloom.

It’s also known here as the Whitethorn and it comes into flower after its leaves have arrived and after the Blackthorn has faded. Beautiful – but considered to be very unlucky. Woe betide anyone cutting a Whitethorn or bringing its flowers or branches into the house – except in the month of May when it was customary on some counties to bring the flowers to the house, or even into it, to honour Mary (it’s the May Tree) or to ward off evil. That’s a bit confusing – it’s May now so should you gather some blossoms? Better to take no chances, I say, and leave it to bloom outside for all our enjoyment.

And what’s this I spy? It’s St Patrick’s Cabbage and you will only find this plant in southern or Western Ireland and in Spain and Portugal. Called the Lusitanian Flora, there is a group of plants who seem to have flown, as if by magic, across the Bay of Biscay, France and Britain, to land in West Cork, and this is one of them.

If you’re a gardener it might look familiar – the popular garden plant, London Pride, is a hybrid of this and another member of the Saxifrage family.

There’s more – lot’s more – but I’d better leave it at that (except I couldn’t resist that image of the Scarlet Pimpernel, above, with the Dove’s-foot Crane’s-bill). Here’s what I want you to take away from this post – with the exception of the Ivy-leaved Toadflax, which has been here for hundreds of years, every single one of the plants I have written about here is native. Every. Single. One. Why is that important? Because this is what a wildflower patch looks like and should look like. These are the flowers to which our native insects and pollinators have adapted over millennia and therefore these are the ones which are critical to our ecology here in Ireland.

We’ve been fed images of colourful meadows full of poppies and cornflowers and told that’s what a wildflower meadow looks like – it’s not. THIS is what our pollinators need – a wide variety of native plants left undisturbed. It’s wonderful to see this in Ballydehob, but every village and town in Ireland has areas like this. Let’s make sure they flourish!

 

Wild Wall

It’s a wall like hundreds of other such walls in the city, an old remnant of some enclosure long forgotten. It’s been heightened in a more recent period, although it’s not clear why.  ‘Round back’ of a plumbing supply place in Cork, people walk and drive by it every day without a second glance. But if you pause and take a close look it rewards with an astonishing variety of plant life.

In their magnificent book The Wild Flowers of Ireland:The Habitat Guide Declan Doogue and Carsten Krieger devote a chapter to Old Walls and Ruins. Here’s how they introduce that chapter: Walls, they say

. . .have over time been colonised by a number of plant species, some of which seldom live elsewhere in Ireland. . . . Buildings are completely artificial structures. Therefore the question arises as to where these colonising species lived before these walls were built. Some species were either deliberately or accidentally introduced by man into the country, usually for medicinal or ornamental reasons, within the past 1000 years and have become established or persist on walls. Another group of genuinely native Irish species made their own way, spreading from natural and usually rocky habitats within the Irish countryside onto the new buildings of the time. In both cases there were enough points of environmental similarity between the plants’ original natural habitats and the buildings of the Irish countryside to make it possible for them to extend their range and find new homes. In a sense an ongoing botanical battle between the native and newcomer was being fought on the fabric of these old buildings. This struggle comes complete with issues such as natural succession, colonisation, displacement, local extermination and sheer opportunism. The conflict continues to this day and can be observed in most older towns and cities.

Walls have other characteristics friendly to certain plants: the stones warm up in the sun and retain their heat into the evening, acting, as Doogue and Krieger put it, as a sort of storage heater. Lime-rich mortar allows lime-adapted plants to flourish even in non-lime areas. Microclimate and soil conditions on top of the wall can be different from those on the sides, or on south-facing versus north-facing walls.

This wall in Cork exemplifies everything Doogue and Krieger describe – native and non-native species growing side by side in an environment where it seems impossible that enough nourishment could be supplied.

Oxford Ragwort

Some of the plants have intriguing histories. Take the humble Oxford Ragwort, the one that looks like a yellow daisy. (This is not to be confused with Common Ragwort, or Buachaláns as they’re known in Ireland, which are on the Noxious Weeds list – although that’s another story.) It was introduced into an Oxford botanic garden in 1690 from Sicily, but soon escaped and was seen all over the walls of Oxford. The University of Bristol takes up the story from there:

During the Industrial Revolution, Oxford became a thriving railway centre and Oxford ragwort found a new habitat in the clinker beds of the railway lines that fanned out of Oxford to all parts of the country. These ‘furnished the plant with a replica of the lava-soils of its native home in Sicily’, said Druce in his Flora of Oxfordshire. Referring to the fruits (achenes) of Oxford ragwort, he said ‘I have seen them enter a railway-carriage window near Oxford and remain suspended in the air in the compartment until they found an exit at Tilehurst’ (near Reading).

Because this species hybridises readily with other Senecio species (other Ragworts and Groundsel), this site adds, the introduction and spread of the promiscuous Sicilian S. squalidus has resulted in a great deal of evolutionary novelty among British Senecio – an amazing example of evolution in action. I love the idea of a promiscuous plant.

Herb-Robert – surely one of our most-loved wildflowers

Herb-Robert is among our most commonly seen (and known) native wildflowers – a dependable spot of brilliant colour almost all year round in a huge variety of environments, with its frondy leaves turning a brilliant red as the season wears on. However, on this wall it was joined by a cousin – Shining-Crane’s-bill.

And this is Shining Crane’s-bill!

In fact, I had to do a double-take, as I had never seen this flower before and at first I thought I was looking at a miniature Herb-Robert. While it might be easy to confuse the flowers, the leaves are totally different, with the Shining Crane’s-bill leaves being smooth and hairless, almost waxy, with a distinctive shape. I wish all similar species were this easy to tell apart upon close inspection!

Shining Crane’s-bill – the flowers are smaller than Herb-Robert and the leaves are totally different

One of my favourite wall species has to be Ivy-leaved Toadflax – not a very pretty name for a truly spectacular flower. This is another Mediterranean plant, and we can blame Oxford for this one too, as it is thought to have hitched a ride on marble sculptures imported from Italy to Oxford in the seventeenth century. Once the flowers are finished, the seed heads bend away from the sun and towards the wall, dropping their seeds into the cracks – thus they are able to grow vertically up the wall.

Ivy-leaved Toadflax – every well-dressed wall should have some

At the bottom of the wall I thought I saw the ubiquitous dandelion, but once I looked closer I saw that the leaves were quite different. I think this is Smooth Sowthistle. Zoe Devlin of Wildflowers of Ireland tells me that the leaves can go this purplish colour in the absence of good soil. There are so many wildflowers that look, more or less, like dandelions – it has been a real journey of discovery to find out more about this large flower family.

Smooth Sowthistle and Ivy-leaved Toadflax in the act of climbing up the wall

Smooth Sowthistle is edible when young and has been used as fodder for animals. According to one authority I read, In Greek mythology Theseus is said to have eaten smooth sow-thistle to gain power before leaving to slay the Minotaur in its Cretan labyrinth, where it dined on human bodies, bull’s heads and young Atheneans.

Rue-leaved Saxifrage. It’s also pictured in the lead photograph at the head of the post, where you can see the basal rosette

Growing from the mossy ridges in the wall was a delicate little white flower with a reddish basal rosette, and this turned out to be Rue-leaved Saxifrage. Although it was new to me, this little native beauty is common in many parts of Ireland. As the season progresses the stem, leaves and rosette become redder – hence ‘rue-leaved.’

Red Valerian sprouting from the wall, with Oxford Ragwort and Ivy-leaved Toadflax. The tiny fern growing in the cracks glories in the name Maidenhair Spleenwort

We all know the plant known as Red Valerian, yet another Mediterranean import. I saw it growing in huge masses in the Burren a couple of years ago, meaning it’s one of those plants that enjoys the lime-rich environment provided by the mortar in the wall.

This is not, by the way, the Valerian that the sleep-aid tea is made from, the one that makes cats go loopy. It can also come in shades of pink and white, all growing side-by-side.

Keel-fruited Cornsalad (above) is also known as Lamb’s Lettuce, although it doesn’t look like the supermarket variety known by the same name. It is, in fact, very edible, with a kind of parsley after-taste and packed with vitamins (although you probably shouldn’t pick it anywhere near dog-height). The tiny blue/purple flowers reward examination through a hand-lens if you have one.

It took me a while to identify one little plant growing close to the pavement (above). It turned out to be Petty Spurge and, although it is not native to Ireland it’s been here a long time and has spread widely. It’s not usually as red-tinged as this when you see it in ID sources. It’s of huge interest to scientists at the moment because of the potential of its sap (a toxic latex substance) to treat common forms of skin cancer. Several rigorous double-blind studies have come to the same conclusion that it is an effective treatment for non-melanoma lesions. It’s a hardy little thing too – seeds found in excavations, dormant for a hundred years, can still germinate.

Finally, up on top of the wall is sprouting a Butterfly-bush (above); many of us know it as Buddleia. It’s well named, as butterflies love it. It was introduced into Europe by missionaries returning from China and it spread quickly as it will grow just about anywhere. What you see on this specimen are the remains of last year’s flowers: by June it will be hosting butterflies. Butterfly Bush may seem benign but like many other introduced species there is a dark side. First of all, as Tony O’Mahony points out in his Wildflowers of Cork City and County, it’s quite invasive and can take over and crowd out native species. The roots can do significant structural damage to the very walls it depends on for survival. More serious is the charge that, while it provides nectar for butterflies it is not a butterfly host plant – that is, one that butterflies can use to deposit their larva, which will then feed on the leaves. According to a spokesperson concerned about the destruction of chalk grasslands at Folkestone Warren in Kent: If left uncontrolled, then buddleia and other shrubs would have engulfed the chalk grassland. Clouds of butterflies used to be seen there, but now only common species can be spotted and even these are in decline, with the rarest ones disappearing altogether. Buddleia was eliminating butterfly habitat by killing off everything else, and while the shrub provided food for adults and larger insects, other plants were needed for butterflies in their larval stages.

So there you have it – it’s just like the human history of Ireland, full of invasions, adaptations, displacements and resurgence. All in a Wild Wall.