Fierce Mild

“Fierce mild” my neighbour said when commenting about the weather. While this is an Irish-ism that simply means very mild, it struck me as particularly apt, in that this mildness, while very welcome to us humans in the autumn, can have a fierce effect on our native flora and fauna.

The Spindle Tree comes into its own in October

It’s true that up now we have had a wonderful long, mild autumn. Warm sunny days, perfect for long walks looking for wildflowers, have lured us outdoors and convinced us that this will last forever.

From the top: Corn Spurrey, generally finishes blooming in September; Red Campion – by now we expect to see the empty seed pods, but along with them there are a few flower heads still blooming

And the wildflowers are certainly hanging in. I’ve seen lots that would normally be over by now, but who find a sheltered spot and bloom merrily away for our enjoyment. It’s been lovely, and I can’t help wishing it would last well into November. But the truth is that an unusually mild winter is not good for our plants.

Rose hips – seasonally correct; but look at the branches, are they starting to bud?

The factors that cause winters to be milder than usual are many and complex. Forecasters appear to be conflicted as to whether Ireland can look forward to winters in the coming decades that are shorter and milder than average or longer and colder. Both scenarios pose problems for plants and insects and therefore for those of us who depend on the health of our pollinators. And that, actually, is all of us.

Found on the same south-facing slope; Top: Musk Stork’s-bill – it should have finished flowering in July, but it’s found a sunny spot and is still blooming; Bottom: Red Dead-nettle can bloom well into November 

While it’s impossible to extrapolate from recent weather experiences to talk about long-term trends, a mild autumn can show us what can happen when temperatures vary from the norm. We already know that our springs have come sooner than they used to fifty years ago (two to three weeks earlier!) but we have also seen an increase in average temperatures in the autumn, which can lead to prolonged spells of mild and sunny days, such as we are experiencing at the moment.

Ragged Robin is a spring/summer flower and it’s a little worrying to see it blooming this late

Mild temperatures in the autumn can trick flowers into thinking that it’s spring, and time to wake up and grow. Trouble is, there’s bound to be a cold snap sooner or later and the fragile bloom will freeze and it won’t bloom again when true spring arrives.

This Long-headed Poppy and Common Ramping-fumitory are blooming late, especially the Poppy

Our native and naturalised plants have adapted to our ecosystem, including our climate, and any disruption to that has to be, in turn, adapted to. But this takes time – centuries, millennia even – for many organisms: the rate at which our planet is warming may not give them the time they need to make that adaptation.

Sweet Alison, rare in West Cork, on the same sunny slope as the Musk Stork’s-bill and the Red Dead-nettle

That’s all a bit doomsday, and I’m never inclined to embrace the most alarmist predictions, but whether related to global warming or not, a mild autumn can a problem for wildflowers. Flowers that appear in late summer and normally bloom into September and early October are still nodding away in the fields and hedges this year, and that’s lovely to see.

Common Chickweed – this one blooms all year round!

What’s not so great is that I have seen a few spring/early summer flowers too, long after they should be asleep. I can only conclude that they have sensed that it’s time to produce their one and only set of buds and that the first deep frost will probably kill them.

A lovely lilac-coloured variety of Sea Rocket, still in full flower at Barley Cove

A longer growing season also provides opportunities for insects and fungus that would be kept in check by colder weather to predate on plants. Plants that arrive from warmer climates, whether by accident (hitching a ride on a long-distance freight truck, or hidden in nursery stock) or design (imported for garden use) can start to reproduce once our climate catches up to the conditions they have been bred for. A good example of this is the snowy white egret – it only arrived here 20 years ago!

Little Egret; Russian Vine at Rossbrin Cove, an unwelcome invasive species

A fierce mild autumn is lovely, and we are certainly enjoying getting out and about on our favourite walks and our various explorations. But it’s time to cool down now – for our flowers’ and insects’ sake and ultimately for our own.

I love the colour that the bracken turns at this time of year

The good news is that a north wind arrived yesterday and suddenly it’s chilly. Good news for the wildflowers, that is. Not so great for us – we will miss those sunny walks!

Beautiful West Cork in October

One Acre – One Year On

Last year I introduced to you the wildflowers that arrive unbidden every year to our one acre plot in West Cork. This year I will continue that tradition (if it’s more than once, it’s a tradition – agreed?), starting in March and ending in September and trying to choose different flowers from last year. It was a very different year!

Top image – Blackthorn, the first of the trees to blossom in April (flowers before the leaves come). Above is Blog Pimpernel which grows on what had been quite a wet section of the lawn last year

We had a late start to spring after a long and exceptionally cold winter. Everything seemed about two to three weeks later than last year, so that by March, all I really had to report was the good old lawn daisy.

But finally in April the chill abated and tiny flowers started to appear in the grass. Nothing too showy yet – some of them needed a magnifying glass to find. The mosses were having a field day, though, and our Blackthorn bushes put on quite a fireworks show.

From the top: Keel-fruited Cornsalad (edible and more of a light blue than white); Hairy Bittercress; Common Dog-violet: Ground-ivy; two kinds of mosses

May started to warm up nicely and now the grasses started to grow in earnest, and my uncut portion – my wildflower meadow – took off with a profusion of grasses, sorrel, and clover.

From the top: Grasses, Red Clover, Ribwort Plantain; Common Milkwort; Cut-leaved Crane’s-bill; Trailing St John’s-wort; English Stonecrop; Whitethorn (flowers after the leaves come)

And then, boy did it warm up – Flaming June, they call it, and it lived up to its reputation this year with everything suddenly verdant and pulsing with life and colour. Day after day of sunshine – we just aren’t used to that around here and as the month wore on the word drought was introduced to our vocabulary. Imagine – in Ireland!

From the top: Grasses and Foxglove; Silverweed; Red Campion; Scarlet Pimpernel; Bog Pimpernel; White Stonecrop

July arrived and still no rain. As the month wore on things started to wilt and shrivel. The Bog Pimpernel, which had spread nicely from last year, gave up the fight and turned into dust. There were compensations, though – the long grasses turned the most delicious golden colour and the Knapweed, undeterred by lack of water, sprang up to populate the meadow.

Grasses and Common Knapweed

The rain started in August – not as much as we needed, although it was welcome. But it was too late for most of the flowers to recover and flourish. But one wildflower more than held its own – Chamomile! Most of the chamomile that grows in Ireland (over 90%) occurs in West Cork and South Kerry and I am lucky to have extensive coverage here. Walking over it on a warm day releases that well-known sweet scent – it’s lovely to have!

From the top: Chamomile; Yarrow

And now it’s the end of September. The heather is flowering and the gorse is on its second or third blossoming of the year. I have discovered that somehow the invasive shrub Himalayan Honeysuckle has found its way to a hard-to-access section of my garden and I am not quite sure what to do about that but I’ll definitely keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t spread too much.

From the top: Bell Heather; Himalayan Honeysuckle

The glory of the property right now is the colour of the vine (I don’t know what it is) that covers the house. It’s not a wild flower, but it is irresistible and I think that’s a good way to end this post.

 

 

Mizen Magic 10: Sailor’s Hill

Fancy a walk? One with just enough elevation to get the heart going and with the reward of spectacular views at the top? It will take about an hour, maybe a bit longer if you stop to chat, or just gaze.

We’ve mentioned Sailor’s Hill before in the course of other posts – this one and this one. But it deserves a post of its own, because it’s a complete experience. Start from Schull and walk out along the Colla Road until you get to the old St Mary’s Church and graveyard. The National Monuments listing tell us that this was originally a medieval structure, although what we see in ruins now is mainly an eighteenth century church, situated in a picturesque burial ground. Turn right at that point.

You will notice the waymark signs. This is one of the newer extensions of the Fastnet Trails, and an initiative of a committed group in Schull. The walk up Sailor Hill is actually part of a larger walk, the Colla Loop – we are planning to do that one soon but only had time for this stretch of it today.

The road meanders gently upwards. Take the first left and then the next left. Views of Schull Harbour start to open out as the road rises. Looking back, you can see how Schull nestles at the foot of Mount Gabriel (see the photograph at the top of this post).

A tiny shrine in a gatepost

Later on, this boreen will be heady with Foxglove and Loosestrife and Oxeye Daisies, and later still the purple heather will dominate, but this is early spring and it’s been a long cold winter. 

Everything is late this year, so I am happy to see the ever-reliable Celandine in profusion.

The willows are starting to bud out too, but apart from that, it seems that dandelions and lawn daisies are the only wildflowers brave enough to flourish along the way. Not that we disdain these humble flowers – they provide early and important nourishment for the insects and the bees. Must feed those pollinators!

Connie and Betty Griffin have built a house with magnificent vistas near the top of the hill. They never stop adding to it, Betty with flowers and Connie with quirky additions, sculptures and walls. This time, he showed us his Sailor Hill Newgrange, a nifty arrangement of standing stones that respond to the rising sun by capturing the morning light in a stone recess.

Connie demonstrates his sun calendar to Robert

Up to the top then, and there it is – a breathtaking panorama that encompasses the whole of Roaringwater Bay and Long Island Sound to the south, and Mount Gabriel and its foothills to the north. Cape Clear, the Fastnet, Sherkin Island and all the smaller islands are laid out in front of you.

And there’s a cross and inscriptions, so you begin to realise that this site is about more than those views. Connie, who designed and built it, wants us to think about those who lost their lives at sea. It’s his own personal mark of respect and a reminder to us in the midst of all this grandeur to take a moment to contemplate on the power of the ocean and the fleeting nature of life.

I had to look up The Niña, 1492, and of course it was one of Columbus’ ships. He took the Santa Maria, the Niña and the Pinta on his voyage to the New World, but the Niña was his favourite. To learn why, take a look at this. But why is it here? Well, I’m not sure, but there is a tradition around here that Columbus may have visited West Cork on his way. His last provisioning stop may have been with the hospitable, learned and Spanish-speaking Fineen O’Mahony, Scholar Prince of Rossbrin

Connie has built his own tiny belvedere (he calls it his folly) perched to take maximum advantage of the view. It’s the perfect spot to sit, munch an apple, and enjoy a companionable chat before the walk down again.

A final look out to sea. There’s Long Island and beyond it the Fastnet Rock with its iconic lighthouse.

We paused to admire a Goldfinch in Connie’s garden, as well as his wonderful textural arrangement of sticks, stones and whalebones.

Thank you, Connie and Betty, from two happy walkers.

Mizen Magic 9: Rossbrin to Schull

There’s a main road between Ballydehob and Schull, and then there’s a back road – a road that meanders through farmland and down half-forgotten boreens, a road lined with wildflowers and dotted with the remains of past history, a road that looks over once-inhabited islands. South of this road lies Mizen Magic 9.

Along the back road in early summer

We’ll start at Rossbrin Cove – a place that Robert has written about over and over, like any writer with his own ‘territory.’ This was the home, in the 15th century, of Fineen O’Mahony, the Scholar Prince of Rossbrin.

Looking down now on what’s left of his castle, it’s hard to imagine that this was a place teeming with life and learning – a mini-university where scribes and poets and translators transcribed to vellum (and to paper – a first in Ireland) psalters, medical tracts and even the travels of Sir John Mandeville. The castle has been in ruins since the 1600s, and we live in fear that the next storm will bring the last of it down.

Rossbrin Castle from the sea

The road runs through the townlands of Rossbrin, Ballycummisk, Kilbronogue, Derreennatra and Coosheen. Ballycummisk has a wedge tomb from the Bronze Age and a ring fort from the Early Medieval period – just to remind you that you are far from the first to want to settle in this place. In more recent times, and like Horse Island, it was once the centre of a thriving mining industry, but a spoil heap and stone pillars are all that remain.

Large ring fort, and the remains of mining activity, in Ballycummisk

Two islands dominate the views of Roaringwater Bay along this road. The first is Horse Island, owned now by one family, with its industrial past a distant memory. There have been various plans for Horse Island in recent years – a resort, a distillery – but so far it has resisted development.

Horse Island Miners in 1898 and the ruins of miners’ dwellings

The other is Castle Island, home to yet another vestigial O’Mahony Castle – one of a string along the coastline, all within sight of each other and sited strategically to control the waters of Roaringwater Bay and their abundant resources.

There’s not much left of the castle on Castle Island

The O’Mahonys became fabulously wealthy in their day, charging for access to fishing and fish processing facilities and for supplies and fresh water. They also forged strong alliances with the Spanish and French fishermen and visitors who plied those waters – a friendship that was to cause great concern to the English crown and that was to spell, in part, their eventual downfall.

Ruined farm houses on Castle Island. The photograph was taken from a boat – that’s Mount Gabriel in the background

The closest spot to Castle Island (also uninhabited) is the beautiful little pier at Derreennatra. There is a large house up behind the pier, now inaccessible but once run as a guest house and famous for its hospitality. A curious bridge once gave access to the demesne and it remains a striking landscape feature, with its pillars and giant Macrocarpa tree.

Derreennatra Bridge

Continuing towards Schull we come to the last of the O’Mahony castles and the best preserved in this area. This is Ardintenant (probably Árd an Tinnean – Height of the Beacon – possibly referring a function of the castle to alert others to the presence of foreign vessels) and it was the home of the Taoiseach, or Chief, of this O’Mahony sept.

Two ‘beacons,’ ancient and modern – Ardintenant or White Castle below and above it the signal stations on Mount Gabriel

The castle, or tower house, still has a discernible bawn with stretches of the wall and a corner tower still standing. If you want to learn more about our West Cork tower houses, see the posts When is a Castle..?; Illustrating the Tower House; and Tower House Tutorial, Part 1 and Part 2.

Ardintenant is also known as White Castle, a reference to the fact that it was once lime-washed and stood out (like a beacon!) to be visible for miles around. It appears to have been built on top of an earlier large ring-fort which in its own day was the Taoiseach’s residence before the fashion for tower house building.

Sea Plantain at Coosheen

From Ardintenant we head south to Coosheen, a picturesque pebble beach known only to locals. It’s one of my favourite places to go to look for marine-adapted wildflowers. On a rainy day last August I saw Sea-kale, Sea-holly, Sea Plantain and Thrift, and drove back on a boreen lined with Meadowsweet and Wood Sage and past a standing stone whose purpose has been long-forgotten but that continues its vigil through the centuries.

Our final spot in Coosheen is Sheena Jolley’s mill house, now the gallery of this award-winning wildlife photographer. She has restored it beautifully and the gardens are a work-in-progress that manage to capitalise on, rather than overwhelm, the mill stream and the rocky site. This is also the starting point for the Butter Road walk – but that deserves a new post one of these days, a post in the Mizen Magic series. We have written one but it was a long time ago.

Take a walk, or a drive, down any part of this road – do it in summer when the boreens are heady with wildflowers, or do it in winter when the colours of the countryside are at their most vivid. Heck, do it any time!

 

One Acre

Marsh Thistle

That’s what we have in West Cork – one miraculous acre. We don’t sow potatoes nor barley nor wheat – we just try to let the grass grow and see what happens.

Above: Scented Mayweed along our boreen/right of way. Below: Wildflowers behind the house – Self-heal, Scented Mayweed (the daisy-like flower) and Bog Pimpernel (the tiny pink ones)

This year was my year for leaving part of my acre un-mowed. I’ve been reading Zoe Devlin’s new book, Blooming Marvellous, and as she suggests, I started with the September chapter which happens to be, among other things, about growing a wildflower meadow. I have a better idea now as to what I should have done, and I’ll be able to improve things as I go along, but for a first year, it didn’t work out too badly.

Common Sorrel, A delicate grass called Bent, and Red and White Clover with Plantain

Essentially, I chose one section not to mow at all until a couple of weeks ago. I was pleased with the flowers that appeared in my little ‘meadow,’ as well as the grasses and the plants we commonly call weeds (ragwort and thistles) because they all added to the variety of what was there and provided food for the bugs.

Ragwort (above) is toxic to cattle and horses and is considered a noxious weed. Known in much of Ireland as Buachalláns (boo-ka-lawns) it is also a superb food source for insects. A recent Guardian article spells out the dilemma we face with Ragwort.

Sheep’s-bit rewards getting up close and personal

Thing is, even the parts I hadn’t intended as a wildflower haven flourished as well. Maybe it’s because I have an eye for what’s growing now (and didn’t before), or maybe it was a particularly good year, but whatever the case, I was living this spring and summer on an acre of wildflowers, a feast for the sense, and a joy to walk upon.

The flowers I found on my own acre are a testament to what happens when you try not to mow too often or too short. Lying in the grass on a warm summer morning you become intensely aware of the activity all around you – bees, bumble bees, hoverflies, butterflies and bugs of all sizes and description are busily flitting from flower to flower, alighting on the Clover, the Cat’s-ear or the Mayweed, investigating the Bindweed and the Bramble flowers, and then buzzing off again.

Slender St John’s-wort and Bramble (blackberry) flowers

And it wasn’t just the lawn – random flowers started to poke out of the gravel driveway, as if sensing friendly territory, and all sorts of stuff popped up in my herb patch (the only actual gardening I do). I let the herbs go fairly wild too, once I saw how the insects loved them. 

From the top: Common Ramping Fumitory among my Tarragon; this Field Woundwort just appeared in the gravel one day; Wood Sage growing on the boundary wall, a soldier beetle on Parsley flower

The rock walls hosted Foxglove and Stonecrop and Wood Sage and around the periphery Heathers and Vetches fought the Gorse for space.

Common Vetch

I’ve just chosen a selection of wildflowers from my acre for this post, to give you a flavour of what will grow if you let it. 

Above: Heath Speedwell; Below: Common Mouse-ear

There were more and I don’t know that I can identify them all, especially all those yellow members of the Asteraceae family – the ones that I always used to think were just Dandelions but now I know that this family has enormous variety of flowers. One of my goals for next year is to advance my knowledge in this area so I am comfortable with distinguishing more of them.

There are fewer bright blooms now that it’s well into autumn. But, like the sweet little Scarlet Pimpernel about to open, below, it’s amazing what’s still flowering sturdily on – on our one acre.

The Lusty Month of May

The month of May was come, when every lusty heart beginneth to blossom, and to bring forth fruit; for like as herbs and trees bring forth fruit and flourish in May, in likewise every lusty heart that is in any manner a lover, springeth and flourisheth in lusty deeds.  For it giveth unto all lovers courage, that lusty month of May.

–  Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur 

One of our local roads is lined with Ragged Robin

Walking the boreens in May there is a sense of potency, urgency even, in the landscape. We’ve been asleep long enough, the flowers are saying – it’s high time we put in an appearance.

Another one has pignut on both sides. Pignut? Yes, there is such a flower – it’s widespread and the rounded roots which are said to taste like hazlenuts were a food source for pigs, and sometimes for humans too

After a long dry spring, everything is early this year in West Cork this year – and earlier than in the rest of Ireland too, thanks to our southerly location and mild climate. The big flowers are happening – the irises and the foxgloves in all their boldness and drama, as well as the tiny ones that are peeping out along the hedgebanks.

Glimpsed along the way: Yellow Iris is a bold native plant that likes damp places; St Patrick’s Cabbage grows extensively around the Cork and Kerry Peninsulas; this Spotted Orchid was one of several at the Heron Gallery Garden; Red Campion grows just across from my house

The Big Event in May for us was the launch of the Wildflower Trail, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. The launch was lovely – it was a great honour to have Zoë Devlin come and declare the trail open, and then lead us in a wildflower walk. The brochure is now in the Tourist Centres and already people are picking it up and wandering the boreens.

Zoë had participants spellbound – she just knows SO much!

For me it was a special opportunity to learn from Zoë when we walked the course before the launch. It was a great experience and I learned very quickly that for Zoë the wildflowers are just one aspect of an interdependent whole that includes butterflies, moths, bees, birds, and flora and fauna of all descriptions.

Clockwise from top left: Green Veined Butterfly; bee in foxglove; Painted Lady Butterfly; Red Admiral

I also learned how dedicated she is to recording all the flowers she sees for the National Biodiversity Centre Database. This is not a difficult thing to do, but it does take a little practice and a little time. I am resolved to up my own game in this regard and start sending in more records.

Our native – and gorgeous – White Water-lily

But mostly I just want to spread the joy – and help people to see the incredible beauty and diversity of wildflowers that we have in West Cork. Our boreens should be celebrated as National Treasures!

This boreen leads out of Ballydehob – it’s alive with an enormous variety of flowers.

Above is Wild Carrot -as its name suggests, this is the wild version of our cultivated carrot. Very young wild carrots are edible, but you must take extreme care as the plant is very similar to Hemlock Water-dropwort (below) which is very poisonous. This one is growing along a stream in Skibbereen – also the location of the Yarrow in my lead image (top of post).

Irish Spurge, above, is an intense yellow green in April. In May it acquires this little yellow spaceship flower heads. You have to get in really close to see them.

Salad Burnet (above) was grown in kitchen gardens from Medieval times as a salad vegetable and herb. The leaves, they say, taste like cucumber. I’ve tried them, and I have to say you’d need a vivid imagination to get a cucumber taste out of them.

Zoë alerted us to Russian Vine (above, wrapping around flowering nettles) down at Rossbrin Cove. Also known as Mile a Minute, it’s an introduced plant that acts like Bindweed (only worse) and is related to Japanese Knotweed, so very difficult to kill. Bad news!

I love the colour combinations you find in the hedgebanks. Wouldn’t this – buttercup and speedwell – make a great dress material?

A baby waterlilly – I was struck by how it looks, as if lit from within.

A final, tiny, flower of the hedges – appropriately name Mouse-ear