Wild­flower walk

Spring may be de­layed, but there still is a vast di­ver­sity of life forms around us.

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - Paddy Wood­worth In­for­ma­tion on Zoë Devlin’s flower guides and lat­est book, Bloom­ing Mar­vel­lous ( Collins) on wild­flow­er­sofire­land.net/in­dex.php

‘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.

Tree creeper

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.

Sharp nose

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.

Sham­rock con­tender

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

Trail in­for­ma­tion:

https://moun­tain­views.ie/sum­mit/346

PHO­TO­GRAPH: GETTY

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...

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