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

A Wildflower Trail for West Cork

Wildflowers are a spectacular part of our environmental heritage in West Cork. Many of us are aware of them in the background, although we couldn’t name more than half a dozen. It’s only when visitors come along and swoon over the abundance of colour in the hedges that we realise what an incredible natural resource we have on our doorstep. We have a little patch of bog beside us, for example, and a few days ago Bog Cotton and Bog Bean (above) were merrily blooming side by side there. I had never realised how attractive they were until I lingered for close observation. 

St Patrick’s Cabbage is part of the Lusitanian Flora we wrote about in our post Into the Woods. It grows abundantly on the North Side of the Mizen.

We at Roaringwater Journal are exceptionally pleased to have been involved with developing West Cork’s first ever Wildflower Trail System – it launches this Tuesday, but it’s been a while in the planning. The Trail System and its associated brochure is an educative tool that helps us appreciate and learn more about the wildflowers that surround us.

These little beauties are called Mexican Fleabane, but also known as Wall Daisies. The opposite of lawn daisies, they go pink as they age, rather than when they emerge. They’re an introduced species but have naturalised widely. These ones are on the wall of the stream that runs through Drimoleague.

We are particularly happy to welcome Zoë Devlin to do the honours of launching the trails. When I first got interested in wildflowers our friend Amanda (yes, she of Holy Wells of Cork fame) gave me a copy of Zoë’s book, The Wildflowers of Ireland, and it instantly became my bible. It’s laid out by colour, you see, and then by form (four petals, five petals, round clusters, etc) so it’s easy to navigate and to find what you’re after. The illustrations are clear and there’s lots of information about each plant to help you figure out what you’re looking at.

Better still, there’s Zoë’s website. Because it’s constantly updated, it has even more flower species in it, and more information on each one – including herbal uses, folklore references, and details on whether it is native or alien. And finally, there’s her Facebook page where she posts news, recent finds or currently blooming flowers, using her own superb images.

This is Yarrow. I didn’t recognise it at first because I thought Yarrow was always white, but apparently it can be this colour too. In addition, it’s supposed to like dry ground, but this one was overhanging a stream

The Wildflower Trail builds on the fact that there is already a system of waymarked trails around Ballydehob and the Mizen. Robert wrote about the Fastnet Trails in our post Closer Encounters – Fastnet Trails, and I followed up with a two-part post on the Rossbrin Loop Trail, here and here.

Sea Campion, a native plant adapted to a coastal habitat. It often occurs in drifts.

Using the specially-designed brochure, walkers can identify wildflowers along their chosen trail, then return to the Tourist Office and add their finds to the Master List on the wall. The Tourist Centres at Ballydehob and Schull will have resources available to help them identify any other flowers they have found. If you can’t pick up a brochure, you can find a link to it here.

May belongs to the May Tree – AKA the Hawthorn or Whitethorn. Online forums this year reveal it has been an exceptional year for Hawthorn right across the country

To support the Trails we have started a new Facebook Page – Wildflowers of West Cork – where we will post updates and images of what’s in bloom and what to look out for. If you’re a Facebook user, head over and give us a Like and a Share.

Water Cress, seen on the Colla Road just beyond Schull. Wild Water Cress is edible but you have to be very careful where you gather it as it can be infected with parasites

Everyone is welcome to the Launch – 5PM at the Rossbrin Boatslip on Tuesday the 23rd – and to join Zoë afterwards on a Wildflower Walk. If you can’t make the launch, we hope you’ll go for a stroll along one of the trails soon, brochure in hand, and try your luck at identifying a few wildflowers. Our trails are spectacular right now and will only get better as the summer advances.

Herb Robert – I love those red stems and leaves as much as the little pink flower. Hard to believe there’s enough soil between those rocks to nourish a plant

But you don’t even need to walk a trail – in West Cork the wildflowers are everywhere. Here’s a photo taken right by Fields of Skibbereen – just look over the fence at the stream.

Red Valerian and yellow Monkeyflower. Both are introduced species but obviously right at home on the walls of the Caol Stream in Skibbereen

All the other images were taken in May, all in West Cork, and many of them in unpromising places such as waste ground, urban streams, old walls and rocky shores. Every day, we walk right by a wealth of beauty without really stopping to look.

Mouse-ear Hawkweed and Ivey-leaved Toadflax on the wall containing a stream in Drimoleague. Below in the water is Stream Water-crowfoot

Happy wildflowering! (Start by seeing how many kinds of flowers you can see in the image below – photo taken at Lake Faranamanagh on the Sheep’s Head.)

Late Bloomers: Invasive, Naturalised and Native

Creeper on white cottage wall

This is my last wildflower post! You must be getting tired of my wildflower obsession by now. So, no more after this one. (Well, at least not in 2016.) The thing is, I had assumed that there was nothing left to see at this point. We are in October after all, and autumn is coming early this year after a cool and misty summer. But a walk today put flight to that notion.

Bee on Ivy Flower

Bracken undergrowthThe ivy flowers are alive with bees right now (above) and the bracken is putting on its winter coat

The predominant colour of the countryside is changing now as the brackens take on their winter amber-brown. The ivy is in full flower. Stand near a patch and you will be instantly aware of the hum. Our little black Irish bees are gathering while they still can and depend on this late flowering and ubiquitous plant for the last remaining nectar. Ivy honey is darker in colour and can smell a little rank, but it has a great reputation as a soothing cure for coughs and colds (especially if mixed with a little whiskey).

Bee on Ivy 2

Red Admiral on IvyThe bees and the Red Admiral Butterflies depend on this late flowering ivy

The trees haven’t quite started to turn yet, but brambles and creepers are in brilliant autumn reds. On our walk today this white cottage wall with its scarlet creeper caught my eye.

Creeper on cottage wall

A couple of surprises awaited us today. The first one was to come across a stand of Indian Balsam. This alas, is an invasive species, introduced as far back at 200 years ago from the Himalayas. The distribution map at the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland does not show it in West Cork, but I guess I can now say it’s here. In fact, I submitted a report to Invasive Species Ireland – anyone can do this via their Alien Watch Program. Although it is certainly beautiful, it’s a divil – read all about its negative impacts on the Invasive Species Ireland website. Among its other attributes, it has a explosive seedpod that can throw seed up to six metres!

Indian Balsam

Indian Balsam – Invasive Species Ireland lists it with Rhododendron, Japanese Knotweed and Giant Hogweed as the most damaging invasive species

So  what’s the difference between non-native plants that are labelled invasive versus this that are called simply naturalised? Although it can be a matter of debate and perception, in the main we use the term invasive for those non-native plants that spread to such a degree as to exclude native species from the habitat they favour, or cause damage to the environment or the economy. Happily, the only invasive species we encountered on our walk was the Indian Balsam. However, we did come across lots of non-native, naturalised flowers too.

Greater Periwinkle

The Greater Periwinkle – seen a few days ago on The Mizen

The first one (actually seen a few days ago) is this beautiful Greater Periwinkle. It’s not a native plant but has been here a long time. It’s supposed to have great medicinal properties, especially as a laxative and, in an ointment it’s good for, er, piles. According to Zoe Devlin’s Wildflowers of Ireland (my go-to guide) The 17th century herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper wrote ‘that the leaves eaten by man and wife together, cause love between them. Ooh – think I might head back to where I saw it…

Ivy-leaved Toadflax

Ivy-leaved Toadflax

Another non-native species is the Ivy-Leaved Toadflax – not an attractive name for a very pretty little creeper found commonly on rock walls. During the 1600s, wealthy Brits started to import Italian marble into England in the form of building material and statuary. The Toadflax came along for the ride and is now so completely naturalised that few people realise it’s not a native plant. They look wonderful on rock walls but it’s not usually necessary to plant them yourself. According to one source I read, seeds, complete with a starter-pack of organic growing medium, are usually delivered by birds.

Pink Sorrel

Pink Sorrel

The final non-native flower we saw today was the pink sorrel. I thought at first it was Herb Robert, which is a native plant that grows everywhere and is still blooming, but closer examination revealed  a deeper pink, a more massed growth pattern and very different foliage. It’s a garden escape, now naturalised across the south and south east of Ireland.

Fuchsia on bare branches

Actually, I suppose I also have to add the fuchsia to the naturalised non-native list, even though we think of it as the quintessential West Cork flowering shrub. It’s still hanging in there, even though most of the leaves have dropped already.

Creeping Buttercup

Tormentil

The native plants still bravely blooming to delight us tended to be tiny, but bright enough among the grasses, brambles and bracken to immediately catch the eye. We saw Herb Robert, Prickly Sowthistle, Tormentil and patches of what might be Sea Radish (or perhaps not). 

Prickly Sowthistle

Prickly Sowthistle

Herb Robert is such a hardy little flower – it seems to peep out and last longer than almost everything else in the hedgerows. Birds love the seeds of the Prickly Sowthistle – it has guaranteed its survival by appealing to them and providing food when other sources are fading.

Herb Robert

Sea Radish

Herb Robert (top) and possibly Sea Radish

As  a member of the cabbage family, the leaves of the Sea Radish are edible, if a little peppery. Interestingly, it normally finishes flowering in July, so the ones we found today must be in a particularly sheltered spot. But this also raises the possibility that this is a different plant. Can anyone help identify it?

Tormentil Patch

And finally the strangely named Tormentil – it sounds like it may cause pain but in fact it’s the opposite. There are all kinds of medicinal uses for this little flower and its parts, some of which relieve the ‘torment’ of pain. It also, according to this website,  imparts nourishment and support to the bowels and the fresh root, bruised, and applied to the throat and jaws was held to heal the King’s Evil. You heard it here first!

Ballycummisk Coppermine and Gabrial

Our walk today, along one of the Fastnet Trails, took us past the old Ballycummisk mine site and gave us distant views of Mount Gabriel

On the Butter Road

The old Butter Road runs between Schull and Ballydehob

The old Butter Road runs between Schull and Ballydehob

For most of its history, roads were a hit-and-miss affair in Ireland. We didn’t get the great Roman road builders, and anyway, it was easier to get around on the water. Some routeways led to Dublin or Tara in the early medieval period, but a real road system didn’t develop until the 18th Century with the building of turnpike highways between major cities. In the 18th Century, Cork became the largest centre for the butter trade in the world and needed transportation corridors to ensure butter could get from remote rural areas to the Butter Exchange (now a museum) in the city. The Butter Roads were built from the 1740s on, and provided an efficient and speedy (for the time) route to market. Butter was packed in firkins (40 litre barrels), stacked onto carts, and transported from West Cork and Kerry to Cork City to be loaded onto ships for Australia and America.

The Old Mill

The Old Mill

Here and there, traces of the old butter roads remain. One stretch runs between Ballydehob and Schull and in the last few years a project to open it as a walking route has been spearheaded by students of the Schull Community College. It starts at the Old Mill, now open as a gallery by our friend, the esteemed wildlife photographer, Sheena Jolley. Sheena has enhanced the mill stream and stabilised the workings, still intact in her basement. A visit to her gallery is a great way to start or end your walk.

Robert on the stepping stones

Robert on the stepping stones

Setting out from the mill we were immediately on the old green road, soft underfoot, running between hedgerows alive with wildflowers, winding gently uphill. A plaque tells the story of the butter roads and of the current project. Gurgling and murmuring, the mill stream is on your right until you come to cross it. This is accomplished on stepping stones where we found it impossible not to linger and contemplate the gentle water. 

The mill stream

The mill stream

Onward and upward, passing an abandoned farmhouse, and marvelling at the variety of flowers along the route. Having been presented with the superb Zoë Devlin’s The Wildflowers of Ireland (thank you, Amanda!) I can now identify most of them, so here is a selection – captioned, by dint of my new-found knowledge. (Mousing over the pictures will bring up the captions, clicking on them will take you to full size images.)

As the road ascends, we could look back towards Schull and Long Island, or north to Mount Gabriel. The sense of peace, of being in a place of age-old tradition, is palpable. 

Mount Gabriel

Mount Gabriel

Near the top of the hill we met the Newman family, setting out from their farmhouse to walk down to Schull. John and Helen grew up in this house, walking to school in Rossbrin (about 4 km away) every day and John still lives in the house. He has a fascinating collection of old tractors and an obvious interest in farm machinery of every kind. They told us they had the butter road all to themselves in the old days, but now it’s quite popular and they are glad to see it used and enjoyed. A Mr Henry Ford once lived in the farmhouse, related to THE Henry Ford, whose father came from Ballinascarthy, near Clonakilty. 

Three generations of the Newman Family

Three generations of the Newman Family

The Butter Road is an ancient right-of-way, but access depends on the goodwill of those, like John Newman, and like Paddy Hayes whom we met on the way down, whose farms and fields lie along the route. This is a marvellous resource for the people of Schull and Ballydehob and we are grateful to those whose vision and hard work and generosity of spirit have made it a reality. 

If you want to experience the tranquility of the deep countryside, lovely views, and a sense of how the making of a road could connect far-flung communities to the wider world, we recommend an afternoon spent on the Butter Road. 

Walking back down: Long Island comes into view

Walking back down: Long Island comes into view