The Out­sider

Hor­ti­cul­tur­ist Han­nah Gardner vis­its the wild, At­lantic-fac­ing Beara Penin­sula in County Cork in the lichen-cov­ered foot­steps of Ire­land’s first wo­man botanist, Ellen Hutchins

Gardens Illustrated Magazine - - Contents - WORDS HAN­NAH GARDNER IL­LUS­TRA­TION ALICE PATTULLO

Hor­ti­cul­tur­ist Han­nah Gardner fol­lows in the foot­steps of Ellen Hutchins on Ire­land’s south­west coast

T he rugged, un­spoilt Beara Penin­sula is the wildest of the penin­su­las in south­west Ire­land. Here moun­tains meet the sea on the very edge of Europe. Ad­mit­tedly, most wild­flow­ers seen in Ire­land are also to be found in Bri­tain and north­ern Europe, Ire­land’s sta­tus as the most ge­o­graph­i­cally iso­lated part of Europe (it has been an is­land for longer than Bri­tain), re­stricted the num­ber of plants that re-es­tab­lished them­selves here after the last Ice Age. The flo­ral range may be more lim­ited than that of main­land Bri­tain, but the mild mar­itime cli­mate is for­giv­ing, and there is a group of plants (col­lec­tively known as Lusi­ta­nian flora) that is na­tive to Ire­land and the Ibe­rian Penin­sula, but ab­sent from much of the rest of Europe. These present an un­re­solved bio­geo­graph­i­cal puz­zle.

Ex­am­ples are the rare but in­clude the hand­some and fleshy St Pa­trick’s cab­bage ( Sax­ifraga spathu­laris) and Ir­ish spurge ( Euphor­bia hy­berna). Colonis­ing the road­sides along­side Cro­cos­mia x cro­cos­mi­iflora and Fuch­sia, the spurge fo­liage takes on a rich crim­son hue as sum­mer stretches into au­tumn.

The re­gion around Bantry Bay is also home to some in­ter­est­ing hor­ti­cul­ture. No­tably the Harold Peto-de­signed Ital­ian gar­den at the heart of Il­nac­ullin on Gar­nish Is­land, and the ma­ture ar­bore­tum devel­oped by the nat­u­ral­ist Ellen Hutchins at her coastal home Ard­na­gashel House.

In­spi­ra­tion for the trip

I was keen to spend some time botanis­ing in the home­land of Wil­liam Robin­son (1838-1935). Hav­ing read his books as a stu­dent, I re­call him us­ing wild Ir­ish plants at his Sus­sex home, Gravetye Manor. Less well known, out­side of Ire­land, is the pi­o­neer­ing work of Ire­land’s first fe­male botanist Ellen Hutchins (1785-1815) into sea­weeds, lichens, mosses and liv­er­worts. She is hon­oured each Au­gust with a week­long fes­ti­val (el­len­hutchins.com) that in­cludes talks and work­shops. I liked the idea of study­ing and pre­serv­ing sea­weeds 1800s style so I signed up for a few of the botanical work­shops, and a sea­weed and lichen study ses­sion with two charm­ing and en­ter­tain­ing botanists from the Na­tional Botanic Gar­dens of Ire­land.

When to go

Au­gust and Septem­ber are won­der­ful times to visit County Cork. The nar­row lanes and wide hedgerows are a riot of colour, the sea is warm, and whale watch­ing boats leave from the quiet har­bours.

Where to go

The Beara Penin­sula is de­cep­tively large with slow, wind­ing lanes and steep re­mote hills so I com­bined hik­ing with driv­ing. Hikes from Glen­gar­riff take you through ses­sile oak wood­land, heavy with moss, and up into the rugged Caha Moun­tains. Ven­ture even fur­ther west and low, sand­stone moun­tains (the Slieve Misk­ish) drop down to the boxy and charis­matic 1960s Dursey Is­land ca­ble car at the very tip of the penin­sula.

The flora is var­ied and colour­ful. A gold and pur­ple sum­mer haze of moor­land forms a mo­saic with bright spongy sphag­num bogs that fill the wet hol­lows between the moun­tains. Along the coast a patch­work of small fields, the damp ones a mass of pur­ple looses­trife ( Lythrum sali­caria) and creamy mead­owsweet ( Filipen­dula ul­maria), lead to de­serted bays and hid­den es­tu­ar­ies where glossy sea­weeds float and the lilac flow­ers of sea aster ( Tripolium pan­non­icum) pep­per salty banks.

Join the Wild At­lantic Way between Al­li­hies and Ey­eries to cut across dra­matic wild stretches of an­cient red sand­stone. The nat­u­ralised Chilean fuch­sia ( Fuch­sia mag­el­lan­ica) roams freely here, romp­ing across the ex­posed hills, re­mind­ing me that this now un­fash­ion­able shrub can be a beau­ti­ful bil­low­ing crim­son and pur­ple mass that jos­tles along­side gorse ( Ulex gal­lii) and heather ( Cal­luna vul­garis and Erica cinerea) quite hap­pily given a wide ex­panse to di­lute the ef­fect.

Ex­plor­ing Sheep’s Head Penin­sula, on the southerly side of Bantry Bay I met smooth-skinned horses as I strode across wide ex­panses of shim­mer­ing grass­land, and then care­fully nav­i­gated the mys­te­ri­ous blan­ket bogs. Here I found drifts of white tufty bog cot­ton ( Erio­pho­rum an­gus­ti­folium) sticky sun­dews ( Drosera), sedges, and the stat­uesque Royal fern ( Os­munda re­galis), a na­tive of Ire­land. Dried by the wind and stand­ing sen­tinel straight, the yel­low star flow­ers of bog as­pho­del ( Narthe­cium os­sifragum) had dried to burnt ochre.

Plant to grow at home

The na­tive flora of Ire­land is punchy and vi­brant in late sum­mer. Es­pe­cially eye­catch­ing is the straw­berry tree Ar­bu­tus unedo, a dec­o­ra­tive ever­green shrub or small tree beloved by birds and bees. Nor­mally as­so­ci­ated with the Mediter­ranean it is also na­tive to Ire­land, an ex­am­ple of dis­junct dis­tri­bu­tion. The first Ir­ish spec­i­men grow­ing in the wild was recorded in 1835. Har­vest­ing for char­coal has re­duced the wild pop­u­la­tion, but you can find lovely ma­ture spec­i­mens around Glen­gar­riff. A pi­o­neer plant, it is easy in cul­ti­va­tion be­ing tol­er­ant of frost, drought and salt.

De­spite be­ing a mem­ber of the Eri­caceae fam­ily it is also rel­a­tively un­fussy about soil pH. Its ever­green habit can be use­ful for wildlife-friendly pri­vacy screen­ing and as a wind bar­rier. The com­bi­na­tion of glossy ser­rated dark leaves, the ap­pear­ance of pale, sweetly scented flow­ers in au­tumn and bright-scar­let fruits make it a valu­able ad­di­tion to any gar­den. The an­tiox­i­dant-rich fruits are also de­li­cious in cakes and for jam.

Guides and maps

Wild­flow­ers of Cork City & County by Tony O’Ma­hony (Collins, 2009).

You can down­load maps at irish­trails.ie

Where to stay

Blairscove House & Restau­rant Blairscove, Mur­reagh, Dur­rus, Co Cork, P75FE44, Ire­land. Tel +353 (0)27 61127, blairscove.ie of­fers stylish apart­ments in a coastal lo­ca­tion. It also has an out­stand­ing restau­rant us­ing lo­cally sourced pro­duce.

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