Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Orchids on Carney Commons, June 22nd 2020

Bee orchid - Ophrys apifera
Inspired by the sight of bee orchids in the unmown meadow of friends, I ventured out to Carney Commons to see if I could find any. Last year I found dozens, but when I visited 3 weeks ago I could find none. This time I found a single flower spike. And I found another 8 different kinds of orchids in flower too!
Marsh Helleborine - Epipactis pallustris - one of thousands

Early marsh orchid - Dactylorhizo incarnata ssp incarnata 

Fly Orchid, Ophrys insectifera. Many hundreds of them, but perhaps fewer than last year

Early Marsh Orchid, Dactylorhiza incarnata ssp. pulchella

Common Spotted Orchid, Dactylorhiza ssp. fuchsii
Not sure about this. Could it be a rather pale Western Marsh Orchid, Dactylorhiza occidentalis, or a hybrid? if the latter, between what?
Twayblade, Neottia ovata. Sorry for the photo quality!
Pyramidal Orchid, Anacamptis pyramidalis
I also found seed heads of Early Purple orchids, Orchis mascula. But it was too early to find any Fragrant orchids, Gymnadenia conopsea - I must return in a couple of weeks!

Thank God for the amazing diversity of this family of plants, displaying his creative power through evolution!

Friday, 15 May 2020

Lilies of the field - a refection for the feast day of St Brendan, 16 May 2020

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” Matthew 6:28,29.

So says Jesus, an acute observer of the natural world, when he urges his disciples not to worry about tomorrow, because today’s trouble is enough for today. The fields and hills of Galilee in his time abounded with wildflowers and other living creatures, testifying to the lavish love God shows for all his creation. But in my lifetime,  here in Ireland as in so much of the world, modern farming practices – crop monocultures, weed killers, insecticides - have greatly reduced this wonderful diversity of life, except in ‘unprofitable land’ like mountains and bogs, and small areas preserved accidentally. We have been making a mess of the beautiful living planet God has given us – I call it out as blasphemy.

Graveyards are often the last pieces of unimproved grassland in the neighbourhood, and Killodiernan in North Tipperary, within 5km of my home, is one such. It is a place of pilgrimage for me at this time of Covid-19 restrictions. The short turf is densely packed with many species of wildflowers and grasses growing as a sustainable community, which emerge and bloom in succession throughout the season, before being mown in the autumn. At this time of year early purple orchids star, alongside bugle, and wispy clouds of pignut, amid the last of the cowslips and primroses. 
The star of the show - Early Purple Orchid
A stand of Bugle
Wispy clouds of Pignut
 Other species will take over soon, including mouse-ear hawkweed, germander speedwell, quaking grass, and three more kinds of orchids, until late summer paints the graveyard blue with devils-bit scabious. This is a rare survival, an ever-changing, beautiful tapestry of colour and texture, preserved by the accident of the church being built here, and managed sensitively by the church wardens for wildlife. Other local pastures must have looked like this to the delight of our forebears for hundreds of years, before they were reseeded with rye-grass and fertilised to maximise productivity.

This type of grassland is not natural, however. The climax vegetation here would have been woodland after the last glaciation. What we see now is the work of human beings over millennia, who felled the trees and worked with the grain of nature to make a living from the land. And since the graveyard was enclosed, generations of faithful worshippers have left their mark too by planting other exotic flowers, including snowdrops, daffodils and bluebells, montbretia and fairy foxgloves, now naturalised. What we see now is a product of both change and continuity.

Fairy Foxglove from the Dolomites clings to the lime-mortared wall

And Killodiernan church itself is a product of both change and continuity. The present building replaced the medieval parish church a mile away, in ruins since the 17th Century. It dates from 1811, as recorded on a date stone. 

Originally a simple barn-church with tower and small gallery, it was built to hold 150 people with a grant from the Board of First Fruits. Drawings by James Pain c.1830 show box pews and a central pulpit and prayer desk between the two windows on the north side of the nave. The present chancel and vestry were added in 1879, when the box pews and central pulpit were removed, making way for east-facing pews, with pulpit, prayer desk and altar table at the east-end. One of the north windows was bricked in to make room for the vestry, and a pot-bellied iron stove was also installed to provide heating, since replaced by electric heating.
Killodiernan church sits comfortably in its graveyard

Today our human society is in the grip of the corona virus, disrupting our society and its economy, and bringing sickness and death to many. We do not know what the future will bring. We hope for a return to some kind of normality, but we know it will not be what we have been used to. And even when the pandemic passes - as it will - we know that we must face up to the twin existential crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, brought on by our over-exploitation of natural resources, in other words by sinful human greed.

But Jesus tells us not to let anxiety overwhelm us. We are enfolded in the love of the God he calls Father, and guided by the Holy Spirit. There will be change, but there will also be continuity. The natural world burgeons with new life, driven by the inexorable seasons. The caring response of our communities to Covid-19 shows that we can respond to challenges we face. Our task is to work to overcome today’s evils, while making the new world more like God’s kingdom than the old world we leave behind. We are in much the same situation as St Brendan and his monks when they launched their currach into the sea in search of the island of paradise.

If you doubt this, I recommend a pilgrimage to a little bit of heaven near you – seek and you shall find!


Wednesday, 8 April 2020

Willow patterns

Golden Willows, pollarding in progress

Yesterday I finished pollarding the ornamental willows in the wildflower border between the croquet lawn and the beech hedge. Their bare stems provide winter colour, but every year they must be cut down to the stumps or they would grow too tall, and older stems lose their vivid colour. It looks rather brutal, but within a few weeks the stumps spring into growth, and by the autumn the shoots are up to 8 ft tall. In winter sun they become brilliant candles against the brown leaves of the beech.
A brutally pollarded stump

There are 3 each of 3 different varieties: Golden Willow (Salix alba 'Vitellina'), Coral Willow (Salix alba 'Britzensis'), and Violet Willow (Salix daphnoides 'Aglaia'). When I planned the planting I was aiming for a rainbow effect and chose cultivars said to be of equal vigour. For me, however, 'Britzensis' is somewhat outgrown by the other two, and though the tips of the stems are coral red, the effect is little different to 'Vitellina'. 'Aglaia' stems are such a dark red that they barely stand out against the hedge, but they do produce some 'pussy willow' blossoms in March. I sometimes wonder if I should have stuck with just 'Britzensis', but truth to tell I love them all!

'Aglaia's pussy catkins

The border beneath the willows is mostly planted with native wildflowers, though there are also snowdrops and a few daffodills,which bloom successively from now to the summer. They seed themsleves around and the only maintenance they need is a rough chop back of last years dead stems, and removing perennial weeds like docks and dandelions, which otherwise would take over. It becomes a lovely ever-changing tapestry of colour. The show begins with Red Campion (just starting now) continuing with White Campion and pink hybrids, continuing in the summer with Dog Daisy and blue Meadow Cranesbill, with Great Knapweed, Chicory and wild Marjoram continuing on to autumn.

The Wildflower Border at the end of May 2018

Sunday, 5 April 2020

Rest in peace,Tim Robinson


I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Tim Robinson in London on 3rd April 2020 at the age of 85 from Covid-19, just 2 weeks after the death of his wife and colaborator Mairéad, whom he always called 'M' in his books. Although I never met him, he has been part of my life through his maps and books for nearly 30 years.


When I first came home to Ireland, struggling with much sadness, my refuge and garden of delights was the Burren in Co. Clare, where I escaped for weekends to walk and explore as often as I could. Tim Robinson's Burren map was my constant companion. I revelled in its bare limestone rocks eroded by water, its botanical teasures, and the traces left by its human inhabitants over millenia, from neolithic tombs, through iron age forts, to medieval abbeys and cathedrals. My original map has become dog-eared and stained from use, but I have it still. I bought a second and a third copy, but I lent them out and they haven't returned - I will need to buy yet another when Covid-19 is over and I am able to visit the Burren again.

Tim Robinson's map, showing the location of
the ruined house of  'P. J. Kelly, Botanist, d.1937'
Tim Robinson's map, showing the location of
the Glen of Clab, and Poll an Bhallain
His map introduced me to many secret corners of the Burren. Places like the ruined home and overgrown garden of Patrick O'Kelly, an amateur botanist who made a living selling Burren wild flowers by mail order in the first half of the 20th century - there I found Coralroot (Cardamine bulbifera), an uncommon plant he must have introduced that still persists. And the Glen of Clab, the lined by spring gentians (Gentiana verna), leading to the massive circular depression Poll an Bhallain - a polje caused by the collapse of an underground cavern carved out of the limestone by water.


Later on, I discovered Tim Robinson's books, the 2 volume 'Stones of Arran', and the 'Connemara' trilogy. In these books he disects the landscapes to the minutest detail, recovers the stories of their inhabitants, and relates them all in a cosmic philosophy of wonder. His writing is gloriously evocative.

Most recently I have been reading his last book of essays, 'Experiments on Reality'. In the Preface he declares a materialist faith, writing:
'My focus is, as always on the multitudinous ways in which our physicak bodies relate to the physical universe. This commitment to material nature in its wondrous plenitude encourages me to reappropriate terms, themes and tones long regarded as the property of religion, and dares me to denounce supernaturalism as blasphemy.'
Although I am sure he would deny it, for me his life's work reveals more than a little of the glory of our loving Creator God.
Tim Robinson near his home in Roundstone, Connemara, Co Galway. 
Photograph: Brian Farrell

Friday, 3 April 2020

Peas, please! - Friday 3rd April 2020

Young pea plants of the variety 'Homesteader', grown by Marty
 My wife Marty has taken me to task for calling the garden I share with her 'my' garden in this blog, although of course it belongs to us both. Like many homes with two keen gardeners, we each have our own parts and our own jobs. Marty manages our handsome front garden with the help of our skilled gardener Geraldine, and raises most of the vegetables, which she plants out into raised beds. I manage the grass, the hedges and shrubs, and the mini woodland I call the wilderness.

Honour where it is due, today's subject is peas, both as a vegetable and as flowers, and Marty has been busy with them. In the photo above you can see a tray of young pea plants in the greenhouse. The variety is an old one called 'Homesteader', which Marty got on our visit to the US last year - it's not a name I recognise on this side of the Atlantic. It is a heritage variety dating back to the early 1900s, and clearly still popular in America. Marty is delighted with the high germination rate. I look forward to picking and eating fresh peas in a little over 2 months, just cooked for a minute or two with pleanty of farmhouse butter!

My Grandfather, Jocelyn Waller of Prior Park, grew peas in the 1960s for the Erin Foods factory in Thurles, like many other local farmers - sadly the plant has been closed for many years. They had to be harvested by a contractor at exactly the right time and sent to the factory to be frozen within hours. Do you remember the Birds Eye advertising jingle, "Sweet as the moment when the pod went pop"? It was the same idea. I remember the anxiety in the house as harvest time approached. Were the peas ready? Could the contractor be got in time? Would the peas obtain the desired price at the factory? I'm not sure, but I think he soon decided peas were too much trouble as a crop, and stopped growing them.

Marty's Sweet Pea plants waiting to be planted out
Marty is also growing Sweet Peas in the greenhouse, as she does every year - the seeds were planted in the winter, and as they grow tall they are chopped to make sturdy, branching plants, to plant out when the danger of frosts is past. They are always wonderful, and during the season she picks large fragrant bunches for the house and to give away - I call her "My Sweet Pea Queen of North Tipperary". She says for the year that's in it she wants to concentrate on vegetables, not flowers, but I hope she finds a good place so that these strong plants don't go to waste - a summer without sweet peas would be no summer at all!

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Flower of the day Thursday 2nd April 2020

Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna)
Today's flower is the beautiful Lesser Celandine, another wildling, a harbinger of Spring. It brightens the darkest ditch or woodland with its gleaming yellow cups before the leaves of trees cut out the light. It has blessed me by coming  into the garden as a volunteer without my help. I did once plant a small patch I found in the ditch with pretty black markings on its heart-shaped leaves, but that seems to have reverted to the ordinary wild type. There are several much more spectacular varieties you can buy in the horticultural trade, such as 'Brazen Hussy' and 'Coppernob' with dark purple leaves, and 'Collarette' with double flowers - but I really prefer the wild type.

The proper scientific name for the Lesser Celandine is Ficaria verna, but the older among us will know it by the name given it by the great 18th century botanist Carl Linnaeus - Ranunculus ficaria L. This reveals its close relationship to the buttercups in the genus Ranunculus. Oh why do the botanical systematists keep changing the names of the plants we learned as children!

Another, much less attractive name for it is Pilewort, because historically it was used to treat piles (hemorrhoids). An ointment of raw leaves is still recommended in some herbal guides for application to the affected area. Supposedly, the knobby tubers of the plant resemble piles, and according to the doctrine of signatures, this resemblance suggested that Pilewort could be used to cure piles. Please don't try this at home - far better to enjoy the fleeting blossoms!

Wordsworth, when he wasn't wandering lonely as a cloud admiring daffodills, was very fond of Celandines - he wrote no fewer than three poems about them. Here are the first lines of one of them:
To the small Celandine
Pansies, Lilies, Kingcups, Daisies,
Let them live upon their praises;
Long as there's a sun that sets
Primroses will have their glory;
Long as there are Violets,
They will have a place in story:
There's a flower that shall be mine,
'Tis the little Celandine.

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Flower of the day - Wednesday 1st April 2020

Wild primroses - Primula vulgaris ssp vulgaris
Our native Irish primroses are making a fine sight in the bank at the back of the garden just now. Wildlings, they are such a mark of Spring in ditches and woods right across the country, and worthy of a place in any garden.

The proper scientific name for primroses is Primula vulgaris, and our wild ones with pale yellow flowers are a subspecies: Primula vulgaris ssp. vulgaris, native across western and southern Europe. The latin epiphet 'vulgaris' means 'common'. Occasionally, rather muddy, light pink individuals grow wild or in cottage gardens alongside the more usual light yellow variety.
Primula vulgaris ssp. sibthorpii
I also grow another primrose subspecies, Primula vulgaris ssp sibthorpii. This is native to the Balkans and South-west Asia and its flowers vary between a bright light pink and a deep purple. The ones I have are a strong purple and flower much earlier than wild primroses - they began in January, and are now nearly over, with just a few blossoms hanging on.

I am excited that these two subspecies are hybridising in my garden, despite their different flowering times. The hybrids are very vigorous, floriforous, and a strong bright pink. I shall try to propogate them and pass them on to any fellow gardeners who would like them.
My hybrid Primula vulgaris, growing alongside one of its parents, P.vulgaris sibthorpii
I rejoice in the diversity of God's creation!