Tag Archives: Alexanders

An all too Spring-like Winter… so far

Unfortunately the first post of this new year must be a sad one – I have just learned that one of Wicklow’s best known naturalists, Stan Moore, passed away on the last day of 2016 after an illness. Stan wrote the column Nature’s Corner in the North Wicklow Times for many years. He had an all-encompassing interest in nature, was a brilliant artist and produced lovely oil paintings, photographs and videos of the natural world. The first time I met him he came to my house with an illustration of a fish he had found, and needed to look at some of my books to positively identify it as it was a strange one. A few years later I recorded him being interviewed by a journalist for a programme which was aired by the Greystones Community Radio Project, and if I can dig that out I’ll put it on the blog. Sadly I did not take up photography until later, so I have no photo of the naturalist. Rest in Peace Stan!

This January is very different to last year – instead of the incredible wet weather caused when Ireland was struck full force by last year’s severe El Nino event  we have had long dry spells, and some of them have been quite balmy. This had apparently caused the vegetation to get very self-assured, and as early as the 9th of December I saw my first daffodil leaves breaking the surface of the soil, and now many of them are well above ground and soon to bloom:

Daffodil with flower stalk rising in the centre.
Daffodil with flower stalk rising in the centre.

And if that wasn’t enough the pennant-like leaves of Arum Lilies have begun to unfurl:

The leaves of Arum Lily, also known as Cuckoo-pint and Lord's-and-Ladies.
The leaves of Arum Lily, also known as Cuckoo-pint and Lord’s-and-Ladies.

And today I spotted dozens of Alexanders which had broken through the ground and come up all leafy along a roadside verge – Alexanders normally don’t appear until February at the earliest:

32193439185_c03ec74e9d_z   However, most surprising of all is an Elder tree which has sprung fresh green leaves all along the ends of its topmost branches:

Fresh elder leaves glowing in the winter sunlight.
Fresh elder leaves glowing in the winter sunlight.

So the question is, are we getting an extremely early spring? Can the plants predict, or are they just reacting to the immediate circumstances. The short answer to that question is that I don’t know. Last year’s freak wet weather, followed by this year’s very dry weather could have thrown the natural world off-kilter, but plants have had millions of years to evolve an ability to predict and behave accordingly, so perhaps the smart money should be on an early spring. But I have seen all of these plants struck by sudden cold spells before, and killed, and the only plants I have seen in my garden which never appear until the winter has finished its work are a certain group of wild (feral) Early Crocuses. Until I see them I’m not convinced the weather is definitely on the up. However, in the meantime the amount of wildlife to be seen is growing. A few days ago I spotted a male Winter Moth (Operophtera brumata) on a wall by a window light. It was actually more brownish than it appears in the photo, but the camera flash had a strange effect on the colouration:

The Winter Moth is quite small, about thumbnail size.
The Winter Moth is quite small, about thumbnail size.

There are also caterpillars of spring and summer moths to be found at this time of year, most having hatched from their eggs in late autumn. They eat and sleep all winter. Here is a handsome green Angle Shades caterpillar, and two smaller Large Yellow Underwing moths, all of which will get much larger before becoming moths:

All of these caterpillars can be found on and under lawns in winter.
All of these caterpillars can be found on and under lawns in winter.

Because the nights are so long keeping birds asleep, and there are few other invertebrate predators around in winter, slugs can be often seen in huge numbers on warm dark winter nights. Some of them can be very handsome. Here, for example, is a medium-sized species known as the Dusky Slug (Arion subfuscus):

A Dusky Slug grazing on mould and moss on a piece of ceramic.
A Dusky Slug grazing on mould and moss on a piece of ceramic.

And this distinctive species is a relatively recent arrival, the Budapest Keeled Slug (Tandonia budapestensis), which was first identified in the British Isles in the 1920s, probably carried in on plants:

Keeled Slugs get their name from the raised line on their backs, which is like the keel of an upturned boat. Its is very distinctive on the Budapest Keeled Slug.
Keeled Slugs get their name from the raised line on their backs, which is like the keel of an upturned boat. Its is very distinctive on the Budapest Keeled Slug.

Slugs might not be to your taste, but if not then there are still quite a few bumblebees to be seen feeding on winter-flowering garden plants such as Mahonia and Vinca. Here is one I saw today, with noticeably full pollen sacs on its legs, a Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris):

A bumblebee feeding on Vinca difformis today. This plant is sometimes known as Star-of-Bethlehem due to its habit of flowering in winter, bit it blooms sporadically throughout the year.
A bumblebee feeding on Vinca difformis today. This plant is sometimes known as Star-of-Bethlehem due to its habit of flowering in winter, bit it blooms sporadically throughout the year.

Only time will tell how this winter pans out, so in the meantime Happy New year!

Flower Power in April

Of all of our months, April brings with it the most spectacular changes to the Wicklow landscape, so I’ve decided to showcase the changes so nobody can be in any doubt. This April was very sunny, dry and warm with very few ‘April showers’, until these last few days. Firstly, in the towns, villages and gardens, we had the cherry trees blossoming.

A typical cherry tree in blossom against a bright blue sky.
A typical cherry tree in blossom against a bright blue sky.
Beautiful pink blossoms, but some cherry blossoms are white.
Beautiful pink blossoms, but some cherry blossoms are white.

Now, under cold breezes and rain of the last few days these blossoms are beginning to fall like snow flakes. However, some are only now starting to blossom properly. However, while the streets were and are lined with these beautiful trees the surrounding Wicklow hills steadily turned bright yellow as the jungles of Furze bushes also blossomed. Their flowers filled the mountain air with the scent of vanilla.  They will continue to blossom for some time, and have another less-spectacular blossoming in the summer.

Furze or Gorse blooming bright yellow over the evergreen spiny leaves of this painful plant, much-loved by nesting birds.
Furze or Gorse blooming bright yellow over the evergreen spiny leaves of this painful plant, much-loved by nesting birds.The blossoms are very popular with bees, particularly Honey Bees.

Meanwhile, along the laneways and roadways of the Wicklow countryside the fleshy Alexanders have grown tall and putting a subtle fragrance on the spring air which can only be found in springtime. These plants die off in June and should be treated with respect as they are so vital to pollinating insects so early in the year.

Spring just wouldn't be spring without these roadside umbellifers. When the Alexanders die off they will be replaced by the hairy rough-stemmed Hogweed.
Spring just wouldn’t be spring without these roadside umbellifers. When the Alexanders die off they will be replaced by the hairy rough-stemmed Hogweed. In this photo you can see another spring flower, the yellow-flowered Lesser Celandine, growing alongside.

These plants grow on the roadside verges in front of the hedges, but in the hedges the wild Blackthorn trees have their white blossoms right now. They don’t really have a scent, but the blossoms are associated with ancient pagan fertility rites, and in recent times girls making their first Holy Communions would wear little tiaras of blackthorn blossom on their heads. The blossoms are very tough compared to cherry blossoms and don’t break easily.

The Blackthorn is famous for its extremely strong black branches, which are still made into walking sticks, and were used in stick-fighting by Irish men up until the late 19th century (and currently being revived as a sport and martial art in some areas), but the blossom was actually considered sacred and magical to the ancient Irish, and was an especially potent religious emblem up until recent decades.
The Blackthorn is famous for its extremely strong black branches, which are still made into walking sticks, and were used in stick-fighting by Irish men up until the late 19th century (and currently being revived as a sport and martial art in some areas), but the blossom was actually considered sacred and magical to the ancient Irish, and was an especially potent religious emblem up until recent decades.

Behind the hedgerows, in the fields, you have a good chance of seeing the great spring blooming of dandelions. These much-maligned wildflowers (not ‘weeds’) consitute entire eco-systems in their own right, and they are also edible and considered extremely good for cleansing the liver of impurities, which is why they should be eaten in moderation. They are the favourite flowers of many bee species, particularly the tiny Nomada cuckoo bees.

A sea of Dandelions in a field, and in the hedgerow behind you can see a mighty white blossoming of Blackthorn.
A sea of Dandelions in a field, and in the hedgerow behind you can see a mighty white blossoming of Blackthorn.

And then in the gardens the orchard trees are also blossoming. The Pear trees went first, as usual, and most have already lost the blossoms, which have been shorn from the trees by rain and dispersed by wind. But this is what they looked like at their height only just over a week ago –

Fresh pear blossoms in an orchard. Each blossom could potentially become an actual pear fruit, but in actuality only a small fraction do so because there are so few insects about capable of pollintaing these trees at this time of year.
Fresh pear blossoms in an orchard. Each blossom could potentially become an actual pear fruit, but in actuality only a small fraction do so because there are so few insects about capable of pollintaing these trees at this time of year. Pear blossom has a strange scent, almost like the fruit when it is cut, but more fragrant.
The height of the pear blossoming. Sadly these flowers last only a little over a week in even the most favourable conditions, as we had this April.
The height of the pear blossoming. Sadly these flowers last only a little over a week in even the most favourable conditions, as we had this April.

Finally, in many of the older gardens and escaped into nearby hedgerows, you will find dense shrubs of Flowering Currant. Every spring they turn red due to their scented hanging blossoms. These flowers are loved by almost all species of bee and hoverfly, not to mention human beings.

Flowering Currant on a bright sunny day. This year they had an exceptional blossoming. Make sure to stop and smell them.
Flowering Currant on a bright sunny day. This year they had an exceptional blossoming. Make sure to stop and smell them.

And that’s just the blossoms and flowers making their presence felt in April. May will bring with it a whole area of blossoming trees and wild flowers . Every tree and flower has its moment in Wicklow.

The Eclipse and Equinox

St. Patrick’s Day is usually the time when spring begins to feel like spring, and this year we had a bright and dry St. Patrick’s Day. And it was the first day I noticed the power of the spring booms.

The biggest bloomers of the moment are the prickly Gorse or Furze bushes. You need to lean in close to get the scent, but it's very strong and beautiful too.
The biggest bloomers of the moment are the prickly Gorse or Furze bushes. You need to lean in close to get the scent, but it’s very strong and beautiful too.
Alexanders is a smooth relative of the hogweed which dominates the banks and hedgerows of Wicklow in spring, dying off in early summer. They creamy flowers are like cauliflower, but the unusual frangrance they produce is very much the perfume of spring. They are very important flowers as bees depend on them to make honey at this time of year.
Alexanders is a smooth relative of the hogweed which dominates the banks and hedgerows of Wicklow in spring, dying off in early summer. The creamy flowers are like cauliflower, but the unusual frangrance they produce is very much the perfume of spring. They are very important flowers as bees depend on them to make honey at this time of year.

Friday, March 20, brought with it a rare event, an eclipse of the sun, the first since August 11, 1999. It was a cloudy morning but I still managed to get some decent photos of the spectacle. 90% of the sun was eclipsed at the darkest point. Our next one won’t be until 2026.

Approaching the darkest part of the eclipse the cloud gave way temporarily to allow me this photo.
Approaching the darkest part of the eclipse the cloud gave way temporarily to allow me this photo.
Ironically this photo of the eclipse nearing its end is more impressive than the earlier photo, largely because you can see more clearly what is happening between the two heavenly bodies.
Ironically this photo of the eclipse nearing its end is more impressive than the earlier photo, largely because you can see more clearly what is happening between the two heavenly bodies.

On Friday night at 10.45 pm GMT another important event occurred – the spring equinox. This moment is the exact half-way point between the winter and summer solstices. That means that Saturday was the first day of astronomical spring. And it was a beautiful day too. I have more spring phenomena report, but just for now let’s leave it at that.