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!