The Earliest Spring Ever!

Last night we had a severe frost in Wicklow, but it seems the plants have decided, for whatever reason, that spring is here to stay. I have never seen anything quite like it. On New Year’s Day I found Bluebells throwing the leaf-litter off and raising their juicy leaves to the sun.

Bluebell leaves …on New Years Day!

And not only were the daffodils up, but irises had poked their blade-like leaves through the soil, and the crocuses were not only well up above ground but some now have flowers on the verge of opening.

A crocus about to blossom, as I photographed it yesterday.

Okay, so maybe you’re thinking these impetuous plants are mistaken: crocuses can sometimes bloom in the snow, as can primroses, and daffodils often make mistakes. Fair enough arguments, but have you ever seen cherry blossom in January? There are certain October-flowering Cherry trees, but not January ones, and the pair of cherries growing out front of the church (opposite the petrol station) in Newcastle village would seem to me to be the typical spring variety. True, they are in sunny areas, but covered in blossoms and being attended by big Bumble Bees. Incredible!


One of the blossoming cherries outside the church on Newcastle main street.
A close-up of the beautiful blossoms, with bees in there somewhere.

According to the weather forecasters we are in for another week of cold frosty nights and mostly clear sunny days, so winter is certainly not done with us yet. But spring is here, whatever the weather. And just to end, keep an eye out for the beautiful feather-duster like, aniseed-scented blooms of the Winter Heliotrope. They are in abundance this year, and they have to be as there is so much competition.

Winter Heliotrope flies the flag for winter, while it still can.

And after a great 2012, with the massive successes of Wicklow boxer Katie Taylor and cross-country runner Fionnuala Britton, it seems the very landscape itself has decided to throw a celebratory party. 2013 is off to an awesome start.

Spring! In the middle of Winter?

It seems this is going to be quite an unusual year in Ireland. In a December that has been colder than usual, and after a November which had some very severe frosts, it seems Spring has decided to arrive before the formal end of the year.

Today I found, to my amazement, daffodils which were already a number of inches above the ground, crocuses breaking through the soil forcefully and with serious intent, and wild Primroses (Primula vulgaris) which had already started flowering! Probably even more incredible is the fact that leaves of Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus vicaria), a wild flower of high spring, have broken through the soil en masse in the last few days, but there are reports of them doing this to the south, in Co. Wexford since November. I’m not sure what’s going on with this season, but it seems nature is trying to skip winter and go straight to spring, despite the low temperatures. It will be very interesting to see how these developments pan out.

Winter Solstice – the end of the natural year

Today the precise time for the end of the natural year is 11.12 am Universal Time, formerly known as Greenwich Meantime (in about an hour’s time as I write this). It is our Winter Solstice and I marked it by visiting a local standing stone, which I have been studying with my brother for the past decade.

The Leabeg Stone, facing out to sea where the sun rose against a clear sky this morning at 8.37 am. UT/GMT/local time.

There does seem to be a strong alignment with the rising sun, as the flat face of the stone faces the sun, but its narrow edge points almost due south-south (it’s not perfectly flat being somewhat concave at the sea facing side). As many people will know, today has been hyped up as the end of the Mayan Calendar, and some unfortunate people have imagined this is the end of life as we know it. But it makes perfect sense that the Mayan Calendar ends today as it is the true end of the yearly solar cycle. In ancient times in Europe, and even much further afield, the sun was considered to be asleep for three days after the Solstice, with the actual rebirth, the birth of the new solar year, occuring on 25 December (most years), which you may choose to believe to be an incredible coincidence matching Christmas, if you so wish.

It has been long noted that the days immediately after do no grow noticeably longer than the day of the Solstice until a further three days have passed, so this could have something to do with it. Either way, it highlights just how important the sun is to our lives. But who were these ancients who erected these stone monuments on such a massive scale all across Ireland, and even in the difficult landscape of Wicklow? The monuments date to the Neolithic at least. The stone in the photo, which we refer to as the Leabeg Stone, is just to the north of Newcastle on the coastal plain and there are apparently references to this object in records going back to at least the 16th century. It can easily be seen from the road, especially by anybody seated on the top of the 84 double-deck bus as it makes its way either to or from Newcastle Village. Remarkably, it has an apparently related standing stone about 5 km to the west, on almost precisely the same latitudinal line. In a map you can draw and almost perfect east-west line from one stone to the other, with only five actual metres between them, which might actually be a discrepancy in the maps rather than any meaningful difference between them. Anyhow, out with the old and in with the new – happy new Solar Year to everyone!

An Adventure in the Garden of Ireland