Spring may be delayed, but there still is a vast diversity of life forms around us.
‘There’s always a sense of uplift, isn’t there, a visceral uplift really, when you step out of your car and into nature?” Zoe Devlin, author of two popular wildflower field guides, is a perennial optimist. Her enthusiasm, as we head off towards the woods on Brockagh Mountain near Glendalough, is infectious. It needs to be; on this dull day the light filters only dimly through the trees, even at noon in mid-April.
I have to confess I hadn’t felt much uplift at all on driving into the Wicklow mountains an hour earlier. A heavy mist had completely closed down the superb vistas along the Calary Bog road; even the hedgerows were hardly visible. It did not seem an auspicious day to go looking for spring blossoms.
Devlin herself had been a little dubious about our prospects as we discussed the trip in a coffee shop in nearby Laragh. What could we really hope to find when the whole spring had seemed to be cancelled by two unseasonal snowfalls and continuous, torrential rains, and was still sadly arrested and suspended?
The massed sunburst flowers of lesser celandines on roadside verges are among the clearest signs of early spring, but this year their petals had mostly remained tightly folded, refusing to unfurl for lack of light.
Right away, however, before we even left the car park opposite St Kevin’s Church, our spirits are indeed lifted by a flash of vivid white and chocolate brown on a nearby tree. Not a flower, but a tree creeper, a tiny bird that hunts for insects with its fine curved beak.
For several minutes we have exceptional views of it, scuttling up tree trunks like an acrobatic mouse. Then another puts in a brief appearance, and the two depart together. Perhaps it is spring, after all.
Green honeysuckle leaves are certainly visible on dry brown vines along the pathway. Then we find a broad patch of much brighter green a little deeper into the wood, with a few white flowers showing. Three-cornered garlic, however, is not a plant Devlin wants to find.
Devlin explains that this species is an “invasive alien”, a garden escape spreading very fast in our countryside, free of the factors that limit its population in its natural habitats. Such species, including shrubs like rhododendron and laurel, can rapidly exclude diverse native species from a landscape.
We see no more of it, but neither do we see any of our native wild garlic, also called ramsons. Its broad green leaves and star- like white flowers can carpet woodlands at this time of year, its scent so powerful that a sharp nose can detect it in a passing car.
We do find another characteristic forest understory plant very quickly. The bilberry, perhaps better known as the frochan, produces blue-purple berries that are a little bitter when fresh, but make good jam with sugar added.
But these bilberries are only barely coming into leaf. The flowers that will produce the berries are nowhere to be found. “They are three weeks behind, according to the books,” says Devlin. “The weather and the plants are making fools of the books, and more so of the people who write them,” she adds wryly.
What should we seeing in flower along this trail at this time of year, I wonder?
“There should be lots of herb Robert, and some dog violets, perhaps bog pimpernel” she says. “And I’m really surprised we’ve seen no wood sorrel.” The latter has a (rather tasty) three-fold leaf, and so is occasionally called shamrock. It is usually first in the spring parade on our forest floors.
Devlin soon finds a little of a more popular shamrock contender, lesser trefoil or yellow clover. But again, it has no flowers yet, and she has to use a hand lens to distinguish the leaves from a very similar plant, black medick.
A hand lens, especially one with an LED light, can bring great pleasure even if you feel no urge to make such fine distinctions. To suddenly see the complex structures and subtle colours in a small flower, which are invisible to the naked eye, is to plunge into another world of awesome beauty. It’s rather like the delightful shock of seeing the underwater world through a diving mask for the first time.
Meanwhile, taking a broader view, the mosses that cover entire trees, and soften the stone outlines of long-abandoned homes, create a subtle kaleidoscope of golden-green glows all around us.
We both wish we knew more about them, and about the lichens that festoon the hawthorn bushes, and about the fungi and ferns and liverwort that flourish on trees living and dead, the sedges pros- pering in the ditches.
Spring may be on hold here, but there still is a vast diversity of life forms around us, we just don’t have the skills to distinguish more than a handful of them between us. “I can recognise 650 flowering plants,” says Devlin, “but after that it gets difficult. I do try to learn a few new mosses every year.”
And every so often, we find more plants. “That’ll be a marsh thistle when it grows up,” said Devlin, poking at a little whorl of prickles. The green first leaves of foxgloves are also coming through, with the remains of last year’s crop standing like gaunt brown ghosts behind them.
Devlin says she loves this trail “because it’s so understated, so tranquil. It seems old, it hasn’t changed since I was last here a dozen years ago. I feel my forbears might have seen it just like this.”
And then, at last, we find some wood sorrel, its light green leaves showing well against the dark moss on a boulder. Its flowers, and those of dozens of other species, will, or should be, lighting up the trail by the time you read this.
It hasn’t changed since I was last here a dozen years ago. I feel my forbears might have seen it just like this
Common wood sorrel has a (rather tasty) three-fold leaf, and so is occasionally called shamrock: “A heavy mist had closed down the superb vistas along the Calary Bog road completely; even the hedgerows were hardly visible. It did not seem an auspicious...