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. 

Wandering the Boreens

One of our goals in writing Roaringwater Journal is to say – Look what we have here! And one of the things we have in abundance in West Cork is a flourishing wildflower population. There is nothing so good for the soul as wandering our boreens and enjoying our amazing floral heritage. This little movie will show you what I mean, although it’s only a tiny selection of the richness. 

Like Lying in the Grass, all the flowers are native, and all photographed within the last two or three weeks in West Cork – that is, late June and early July, 2021. Both posts are a testament to our biodiversity – always under threat. The music is the same, too – Turas go Tír na nÓg by the incomparable Michaeál O’Suilleabháin from his album, Templum, available here.

Here’s the list of all the flowers in the video:

Foxglove – title slide +2

Ragged Robin X2

Sheep’s-bit (the blue one) X3

Oxeye Daisy and Common Vetch

Cat’s-ear, Oxeye Daisy, Bedstraw

Mostly Cat’s-ear

Dog-rose X3

Field-rose X2

Blackberry X2

Tutsan (a type of St John’s-wort) X3

Tufted Vetch (blue) and Meadow Vetchling (yellow)

Tufted Vetch X2

Honeysuckle X2

Hedge Woundwort X2

Purple Loosestrife X2

Foxglove and Meadowsweet

Meadowsweet X2

Wild Strawberry (consumed after photograph taken)

Upright Hedge-parsley X2

Hedge Bindweed (white)

Field Bindweed (pink and white)

Chamomile X2

Common Centaury X2

Oxeye Daisy

Ringlet Butterfly

Bell Heather X2

Spear Thistle and Fuchsia (Fuchsia is not native) X2

Long Island Wildflower Walk

Tracy and Peter Collins are the charming and enterprising couple behind Castaway Wild Island Camping on Long Island in West Cork. When they asked us if we’d like to help with a collaborative island adventure we jumped at the chance to lead a wildflower walk.

But who knew there would be such a demand? Our first date (yesterday) filled up overnight with a waiting list, so we put on a second and it filled from the waiting list! 

People are hungry, it seems, for experiences like this – and who can blame anyone for wanting to spend time on Long Island! We’ve been there several times and we know that the place, as my mother used to say, is Falling Down with Wildflowers. And so, yesterday, we met with our first group – and what a lovely and talented bunch of people it turned out to be, including an archaeologist, a fish biologist, an ecologist, a professor of Pharmaceutics, teachers, fellow-blogger Amanda from Holy Wells of Cork and Kerry, and an assortment of Long Island and wildflower lovers.

We started off at East House, home of Castaway Wild Island Camping for coffee and possibly the most delicious biscuits I’ve ever tasted, and then started our walk westward along the spine of the island, stopping as we went to talk about the habitats we were passing through, and the different flowers that had successfully adapted to those habitats. Hedgebank, field margins, stone walls and rock faces, old gardens – all carry their own assortment of plants.

From the top: Cat’s-ear and Sheep’s-bit on a hedgebank; close up of Sheep’s-bit; English Stonecrop, Navelwort and lichen on rock face

I never thought I would be blasé about orchids, but there are so  many at this time of year on Long Island that we soon ceased to stop and exclaim over each new group (below). Mark, the ecologist, was very knowledgeable about plants and pointed out the presence of Yellow Rattle, something that’s quite hard to find in the wild in West Cork but really important for creating good conditions for a wildflower meadow.

An island man, Joe Whooley, lovingly maintains the well at Cuas na Gualainne (the Little Inlet of the Shoulders – a reference, we think, to the shape of the tiny bay) and it was looking even better than the last time we were there. Amanda shared her knowledge of holy wells in general and told us about this one in particular. She’s not sure what the source of the holiness is, but is investigating. Meanwhile, the water was found to be clear and tasty. 

Reaching the Westlands pier, we concentrated on a whole new habitat, one in which marine-adapted plants flourish in what looks like unpromising conditions of shingle and bare rock..

From the top: a colourful patch of Kidney Vetch (pink), Sea Campion (white) and Bird’s-foot Trefoil (yellow); the delicate white flower of Sea Sandwort

And here was one of the prizes – the Yellow Horned-poppy. It’s rare – classed as near threatened in the Red Data List of Vascular Plants – and strikingly beautiful. It’s wonderful to see a flourishing community of this exotic-looking flower on Long Island and I was thrilled to find some blooming already as I thought we might be too early for them.

From the top: Teresa and Amanda with one of the poppies: a poppy close-up

After a while exploring the shingle beach and the sandy beach we were all ravenous and like magic Tracy and Peter appeared with a fabulous lunch box for everyone. Home-made everything, some of it from their own garden (chocolate-dipped strawberries!) and delicious lemonade.

Tracy and Peter and the superb lunch

Mark gave us an impromptu talk on the island environment, reminding us all it was an essentially man-made habitat, and on the importance of this coastal strip of south west Ireland for so much flora and fauna. A possible future national park? That’s a huge YES from us!

From the top: The Royal Fern – the spore-bearing fronds are starting to appear – this species is an indicator of a healthy environment and Mark told us it it getting to be quite rare in some parts of Europe and needs protection; Rock Sea-spurrey – a beautiful and tiny pink flower that likes to grow on rocks by the sea

Well fuelled, we made our way back to the ferry. The chat was mighty along the way, with old friends catching up and new friendships being forged. 

We’ll be doing it again next Saturday – all full up already, so sorry. But why not go on a do-it-yourself wildflower ramble on Long Island any time? Check the ferry schedule, pick up a copy of Zoe Devlin’s The Wildflowers of Ireland (she’s just brought out a new edition – the best and easiest way to teach yourself how to wildflower)  and treat yourself to a day in Paradise! Better still – book in with Castaway Wild Island Camping for a true island adventure.

World Wetlands Day: A West Cork Bog Soak

In honour of World Wetlands Day, which we celebrate on Feb 2 every year, here is a selection of beautiful, weird and wonderful native plants from one small bog soak in West Cork.

Bogs are unique environments, highly acidic and with low nutrients. Nevertheless, some plants have adapted to thrive in them. It’s important we safeguard these diminishing natural habitats.

We Welcome the Hope That They Bring

Sea Campion

The flowers that bloom in the spring, Tra la,

Breathe promise of merry sunshine —

As we merrily dance and we sing, Tra la,

We welcome the hope that they bring, Tra la,

Of a summer of roses and wine,

Of a summer of roses and wine.

And that’s what we mean when we say that a thing

Is welcome as flowers that bloom in the spring.*

We’re officially in spring now. Throughout April (an unusually dry one) our West Cork fields and boreens have been greening and sprouting. Every day on our walks we welcome old friends to the hedgebanks, or discover new ones.

The photographs in this post were all taken in April. Above is Bitter Vetch, and below is a fern unfolding – a particularly fascinating process, almost mathematical.

The quintessential flower that we all look forward to at this time of year is, of course, the bluebell. How it cheers the spirits when you spot the first one, and then begin to see them carpet the floor in shady places or old graveyards, or even climbing up along the hedgebanks, so that you are walking between blue walls.

They mix so beautifully too, with the bright yellows of first the celandine, and then later the buttercup, the white of the wild garlic, or the intense bright green of spurge.

About that wild garlic – in the post for March wildflowers I wrote that what we mostly have around here is the non-native three-cornered garlic. I have been on the hunt for our native species, called Ramsons and I finally spotted a huge patch, growing right along the main road between Skibbereen and Ballydehob, at the gates of New Court (I wrote about New Court in my post about belvederes). Robert pulled over, at great jeopardy to life and limb as it’s a busy corner, and out I leapt with my camera.

But what was this? Every leaf was covered in bird droppings – every single one! I realised that there is a rookery in the trees above: perhaps it is this that provides the fertiliser for the garlic. I certainly didn’t linger to explore further, as I could hear the gregarious cawing overhead. I’m still on the hunt for a clean patch!

It seems to be a very good year for Cuckooflower, also known as Lady’s Smock. Interestingly, the colour of the petals vary from almost white to a delicate purple, depending on the composition of the soil and other aspects of the habitat. Up to this year I had seen isolated examples of Cuckooflower (so called because their arrival coincided with that of the cuckoo) but this year there were Cuckooflower “blooms” in many fields. At first, you’d think they were just daisies, but once your eye was attuned to their shape, they seemed to be everywhere. This is great, as it’s an important larval food source for the Orange-Tip Butterfly – it lays its eggs on the underneath of the petals.

If March belongs to the Blackthorn, in April the Hawthorn (sometimes called Whitethorn around here, and May Tree elsewhere) gradually moves in and takes over. Suddenly the hedges are full of green trees loaded with showy white blossoms (the opposite of the Blackthorn, in which the blossoms come first and are over by the time the trees green up).

I found my first Thrift, or Sea Pinks, last month, but it’s in April that they become commonplace around the coast. I was delighted to find a patch down by the Ilen River at the very beginning of their blooming, and could see the stages they go through on their journey to the delightful pink flowers we all love.

At the very beginning of the month I was fortunate to participate in a walk with Éanna Ní Lámhna, well-known naturalist and a frequent speaker on topics related to wildlife on Irish radio and television. It was a great experience, as she spoke mostly about trees, about which I know little.

In the course of our marvellous walk I also observed several spurges, including this very rare example of a wood spurge. You just never know what you’ll find – this one was right outside a kindergarten!

There’s an exciting announcement about West Cork wildflowers coming soon! Stay tuned to this blog and all shall be revealed… Meanwhile, a few more flowers of April…

I featured Scarlet Pimpernel last month – this is his cousin, Yellow Pimpernel. On the right is Bilberry

Wavy Bittercress, found along the shore, consorting with thrift. On the right is Common Milkwort :it has a tiny white flower emerging from a deep blue one

Stream Water-crowfoot: at first I thought this was a weed choking a stream, but closer inspection revealed these lovely flowers

We’re not the only ones enjoying the bluebells

*OK, I know it dates me. It’s from The Mikado, by Gilbert and Sullivan