We’ve had a long cold winter and it’s raining, misty and downright bleak outside as I write this. But there have been bursts of sunshine here and there and when I can catch those moments I am out with my camera to see what I can find in the trees and the grass. The land is waking up. This video is a compilation of what I’ve seen in the last week, in my own garden and along the boreens around me.
Here’s what I saw – all native and all typical of our West Cork flora. Hazel trees produce both male catkins – easy to see – and tiny red female flowers – very difficult to see and easy to overlook, but very pretty little pincushions when you see them.
Willow trees, on the other hand are either female or male and depend on wind and insect to pollinate one from the other. The male trees are the ones who produce the cute little pussy willows, which explode into yellow flower heads as they mature.
I only have a female tree, with its own distinctive catkin-like spiky flowers. Fortunately, as you’ll see in the video, when I was photographing it, it was visited by a Great Tit and a White-tailed Bumble Bee, all helping (along with the breezy weather) with the pollination.
The blackthorn trees are one of our true harbingers of spring – the flowers emerge before the leaves, looking bright and beautiful against the dark bark.
Some Staghorn moss is followed by two Dandelions and then some Lawn Daisies, Dandelions come early in West Cork and don’t last long – they are soon replaced by Cat’s-ear in my lawn. The daisies are a constant delight all summer long.
Another early spring wildflower is Common Dog-violet. This one really rewards getting up close. See my lead photo for this one. Finally, a couple of shots of Herb Robert emerging from a stone wall, followed by photos of Juniper Haircap Moss, which has established a little colony in the crevices of the rocks that line my driveway. The spore capsules sit atop tiny bright red stems. That’s my lead photo for this post, and the shot below.
The results are, as you might expect, not happy. Here is a bar chart, for example, showing how Native Plants, Archaeophytes and Neophytes are trending.
The chart shows that more than half of all natives have decreased, whereas the overwhelming majority of neophytes have increased. These figures are based on short term trends, i.e. since 1987.
Why does this matter?
The decline in awareness of plants has occurred when plants need our attention the most. Globally we know that 40% of plant species are threatened with extinction. Many insects and other forms of life depend on specific plants, so the extinction of plants leads in turn to the extinction of many other things. In the Ireland Red List, 18% of plant species are in one of the threat categories and a further 9% are on a waiting list because of insufficient data. Time is not on our side.
The report looks at examples of plants which have increased or decreased and our own experience in West Cork will readily confirm its findings. Sitka Spruce, of course is one of those that have increased enormously, but here are four other examples from my own files.
American Willowherb, first recorded in 1958 and now everywhere, including my own garden.
Butterfly Bush has spread rapidly since the 1960s. 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.
Himalayan Balsam, a beautiful but highly invasive species that can colonise waterways, choking out our native flowers.
Variegated Yellow Archangel – only here since the 70s, it can carpet woods in the spring, crowding out our native woodland species.
Examples are also given of plants that have decreased, and indeed most of these I have never seen, such as Agrimony, Corn Mint, Field Gentian, Heath Cudweed and Mugwort. Two that I have been fortunate to observe and photograph before they get even rarer are Corn Marigold and Marsh Lousewort.
Corn Marigold – just as it is supposed to grow, on the edges of arable fields. It is hanging on in West Cork here and there and it’s always a treat to see it.
A section of the report looks at Habitat Loss and another at Climate Change and its effects on our wild flora. Reading about the loss of species-rich native Grasslands is particularly sobering.
It may seem ironic that grassland should be threatened in Ireland, but it is the loss of certain types of grassland – those on less fertile soils and rich in wild species – that is the issue. These ‘semi-natural’ grasslands supported a large number of our characteristic native species, including many orchids. They were maintained by extensive grazing, or by the cutting of hay in mid to late summer. Converting these habitats rich in species into more intensively managed grassland, or in some cases abandonment to scrub, has led to the loss of many species that could not compete in the altered environment. The underlying reason for the decline of many grassland plants lies in their response to nutrient concentrations, such as soil nitrogen levels and nitrogen deposition from the atmosphere. For the most part, native grassland species require low levels of fertility; they cannot compete successfully at higher levels. It may at first seem counterintuitive that high fertility levels could be inimical to plant diversity, but there is now a very large body of evidence pointing in this direction. We can conclude that grassland plants generally are in trouble, with the exception of those few species that thrive in highly fertile conditions.
Even in West Cork, our fields are becoming larger and hedgerows are disappearing. Wetlands, woodlands and ‘Arable land and other disturbed habitats’ are also dealt with. The report notes that while the volume of ‘weeds’ in agricultural lands has reduced, what is mostly missing are the native plants, while the variety has increased with the advent of new species. The Common Poppy, for example, might be making a comeback since it is often included in wildflower mixes. I saw the ones below in a field in Wicklow.
The report concludes with some highly charged questions.
A botanical visitor to the present day from the 1950s would see vast changes in Ireland. Changes in the landscape would stand out, with large swathes of dark conifer forest in the uplands having replaced areas of blanket bog and hill pastures. There would be larger, more uniformly deep-green fields in the lowlands, less length of hedge, more fence, and many fewer areas of marsh and bogland. Roads would be larger and straighter with verges that were mown by machine once or twice a year rather than grazed or cut spasmodically by hand. There would be fewer small potato patches, and arable crops would be less widespread and more concentrated in favourable areas.
Looking more closely, they would see that the mature conifer plantations consisted mainly of one species, Sitka Spruce, in huge numbers of even-aged stands, and had very few plants growing within them. The green fields of the lowlands would have a few plants of familiar common species like Dandelions, Docks and Chickweed along with the ubiquitous Ryegrass, but the diverse flower-rich meadows would have disappeared. Road verges would be dominated by rank growth of grasses. Pockets of wetland would be far fewer except in the West. All these changes and many more have been documented, implicitly or explicitly, by the findings of Plant Atlas 2020 and comparisons with those of its predecessors.
Our visitor might raise a flurry of questions. Have scientists been looking the other way? Why were the best habitats not protected? Who should have prevented the pollution of water bodies by nutrients? How did the idea of planting vast uniform stands of one alien conifer on deep peat take root Whose job should it have been to develop a long-term vision for Irish land-use? Were the consequences of moving towards energy-intensive farming systems foreseeable?
These are questions closer to the realm of politics than of science. Plant Atlas 2020 itself cannot answer them, but the information within it provides an enormous wealth of data about the distributions of Irish plants and how they have changed.
Sea Kale, above, is a rare plant that seems to be more abundant now that it was 20 years ago. As the report points out, there are a few examples like this that may relate to how records are collected rather than the absolute abundance/rarity of the plant, and the report tries to provide a model that corrects for this.
Finally, there are a set of recommendations based on protecting and restoring habitats, and the last is this one:
Repair the cultural standing of plants. As generations of people become more distant from their origins on the land, they tend to overlook the vital roles of plants. Their place in formal education has dwindled, and most people can name very few of them. By omission, plants are misunderstood, downplayed, ignored, and dismissed, even though we still need them as much as ever. Plants require more of our attention and it is in our interest to give it to them.
So what can we- you and I – do about this? Here are my own actions – they are simple and doable by anyone.
First, I have educated myself about wildflowers. Buy a copy of Zoe Devlin’s Wildflowers of Ireland and take it with you as you walk (that’s Zoe, above, with a group of us hanging on her every word). Or take your phone and use her website or one of the new plant ID APPs. People swear by their own, but I have to say I have found the Picture This app to be reliable and easy to use.
Second, I have tried to spread the good word. I do this using this blog – see the Flora and Fauna of West Cork Pagefor many many posts on our wildflowers – including lots of slideshows for pure enjoyment. The one above, Wandering the Boreens, is one of my favourites and shows what can be seen along a typical West Cork road in summer. I have also developed a Wildflowers Brochure for use along the the Fastnet Trails, and occasionally lead wildflower walks (below) and give talks. Perhaps most importantly, I am now using my Instagram page for short (I aim for 30 seconds or less) videos on individual wildflowers. I’ll be starting that up again soon for 2023.
Third, I have set aside part of my own One Acre as a wildflower meadow. How I have done this is all laid out in my Rewilding My One Acre Posts and it has taken very little work on my part. If you have a garden or any bit of land around your residence, do consider whether you can do this too. The Pollinators will be very grateful.
Finally, I try to mow as little as possible and I have changed my mindset about ‘weeds’ and such concepts as ‘curb appeal’ and ‘tidiness.’ True gardeners would be horrified, but the insects don’t seem to mind. A tiny rare plant, Sharp-leaved Fluellen (below), showed up on my driveway, who knows how – but if the ‘weeds’ had been eliminated, I would never have found it.
PLEASE read the report, and see what you can do to protect our precious biodiversity.
I have a new venture this year – an experimental foray into the world of Instagram. I’ve set up an Instagram page on the Wildflowers of West Cork. I’m using video, instead of photographs like the one above of St Patrick’s Cabbage.
I’ve been uploading short (less than 60 seconds) videos about the wildflowers I see around me here in West Cork. The video format is helpful, as it allows people to see better the size of the flowers. This is important, as photographs don’t always convey the relative size of what you should be training your eye to find.
I have chosen four of the videos to feature in this post. The flowers I include on the Instagram posts are mostly native, but I have also included non-native as well, such as garden escapes and invasive aliens that have the potential to be damaging to our native flowers by taking over their habitat.
I know many of you aren’t on Instagram, but if you are, take a look and follow the page if you like. I have tried to set up an automatic redirect also from Instagram to my Wildflowers of West Cork Facebook Page, but I have found it to be hit and miss – the videos don’t always show up on that page. I’ve done 70 videos this year and I am going to take a break now and start again next spring.
I had the great pleasure recently of spending a day in a bog – and because the bog had dried out completely it was indeed a rattlin’ bog, complete with the twig on the branch and the branch on the log…
It was an amazing place – there were several different habitats – waste ground, heath, meadow, woodland, marsh and finally a bog – except there had been so little rain that the whole bog had dried up and we were able to walk all over it. I had volunteered to help out our friends Robin and Sue Lewando with a small plant study of a defined area, while Robin collected samples from the lake for his own research. Afterwards, we spent a happy hour wandering through the dried-up bog, exclaiming over plants you can’t normally get close to and taking photos. Several were new to me – I had never seen Bur-reed or Yellow-cress before, or Star Sedge.
The slideshow is an amalgam of shots from the whole day. Here is the complete plant list, in the order in which you see them in the slideshow:
First three sides - waste ground with Foxglove, Sheep’s Bit, Cat’s-ear, Clover The Lake Slides 6 to 10 Marsh Cinquefoil (10 is Sue photgraphing the Marsh Cinquefoil 11 Compact Rush (?) 12 Soft Rush 13 to 15 Common Valerian (with Grypocoris stysi/Mirid Bug - thanks to Margaret Manning for the ID) 16 and 17 Heath Spotted-orchid 18 and 19 Marsh Bedstraw 20 - 22 Marsh Yellow-cress 23-25 Water-plantain 26 Water Forget-me-not 27 and 28 Water Forget-me-not and Spike-rush 29 and 30 Branched Bur-reed 31 and 32 Beaked Sedge 33 and 34 Marsh Speedwell 35 Bogbean 36 Robin 37 Star Sedge 38 Labyrinth Spider 39 Marsh Thistle, 7-Spot Ladybird and Bumble Bee
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?
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.
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.
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.
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