Tag Archives: botany

The Feast of Samhain and Wildflowers in Autumn

The Thursday before last (28 October) Zoe Devlin had her latest book launch and I was invited along to Hodges Figgis on Dawson Street in Dublin for the wonderful event. Colin Stafford-Johnson, the globe-trotting Irish BBC wildlife cameraman and film-maker opened the proceedings, and I was also fortunate enough too to meet Richard Nairn who has published many books about Irish wildlife. And here are all three of them:

From left to right: Richard Nairn, Colin Stafford-Johnson and Zoe Devlin.

Personally I have found Zoe’s book ( Blooming Marvellous – A Wildflower Hunter’s Year) is making me pay much more attention to flowers in autumn than I ever would have normally. And I’ve found some very beautiful flowers are still blooming, such as this tiny and magnificent Ivy-leaved Toadflax (Cymalaria muralis) which lives in rocky places, including on footpaths, where I found this one:

   Tuesday was Halloween, the eve of All Hallows, aka All Saints Day, and Halloween is also the ancient feast of Samhain. According to Irish myth and legend an evil spirit, a sort of serpentine creature, was unleashed on the feast, and the ancient Irish would light bonfires and make loud noises in an attempt to scare the creature away. It was eventually done away with by the heroic Finn MacCumhail (or McCool if you prefer). As with many ancient feasts and religious rituals, Samhain refused to disappear and to this day bonfires are lit and loud noises are created (using fireworks) to scare away the monster and all other evil beings from dark places who might walk the land in the dark half of the year. Because of Christianity Ireland has attempted to ignore Samhain, which has absolutely no effect on it, and as a result most of October is filled with the noise of fireworks and the building of illegal bonfires. If an attempt was made to engage with the feast, rather than trying to subdue it,  much less anti-social behaviour and illegal bonfire-related activity would occur, as there would be an outlet for the activities and a point of focus. It’s part of Irish culture, from very ancient, pre-Christian times, and it seems this ritual has no intention of coming to an end, being hardwired into the Irish psyche. Let us not forget that Samhain is the Gaelic name for the month of November. But it is a very frightening time of year for animals, both domestic and wild. And for many people too. However, it is over for another year.

 

Fungi, before the storm

Unfortunately the arrival of Hurricane Ophelia right on top of the island of Ireland is going to pretty much spell the end of most of the beautiful mushrooms and toadstools around at the moment, but I thought I should at least show some of them. So here are just a few, starting with the Common Puffball (Lycoperdum perlatum):

This handsome fungus grows in abundance at the moment, and stands a good chance of surviving torrential rain due to its shape and toughness. When they get older puffballs become soft and are designed to release spores in a cloud when trod upon. When they are young, as they are now, they are very handsome. Here’s one on its own:

An equally common, but far more delicate mushroom is the Parasol (Macrolepiota procera), which is famous for its extremely narrow stipe, which is the part of the mushroom which looks like a stem:

And then there are the more notorious ones, such as this, the infamous Deathcap (Amanita phalloides), one of the deadliest toadstools in Europe, but fortunately quite distinctive. The most common variety has a platinum-coloured cap, but this white variety, alba, is almost as common:

Whereas Deathcap looks pretty unremarkable, some fungi could best be described as curiousities. Here is a common species which appears to be emitting motor oil, the Common Inkcap (Coprinopsis atramentaria), and eventually dissolves into a black blob of oily substance containing spores:

   Some fungi are both beautiful and remarkable-looking. Here is one of my favourites, the Upright Coral (Ramaria stricta), which gets its name due to its resemblance to coral from an undersea reef. It is one of many species of coral fungus, and, despite how exotic it looks, it’s actually quite common:

All it remains for me to say now is stay safe. Hopefully all will be well and the hurricane/cyclone will pass off and dissipate with a minimum of fuss and harm to Ireland, or anywhere else.

Autumn Changes

I’m sure a lot of people are a little tired of the spider hysteria which grips the nation every year. However, due to spiders appearing around houses in Autumn we also have larger creatures. Rural gardens, and even gardens in villages and small towns in Wicklow are often visited by Pheasants (Phasianus colchicus), and you are almost certainly guaranteed a sighting of a big handsome male pheasant if you stop by the gate of a field and take a look inside. Male pheasants are very territorial birds. Here is one I managed to get a shot of recently:


Last spring I was woken very early in the morning, before sunrise, by a tapping sound on my bedroom window, and when I got up and drew back the curtains I found a startled pheasant on the other side of the glass, spider webs hanging from the corner of its beak. It had been plucking them off the outer window frame.  Spiders make up a substantial part of the diet of these birds, as do many insects.  This species was introduced from central Asia in the 18th century as a gamebird, and domestic pheasant cocks often have ring-necks, but after several generations the ring-neck disappears and many wild Wicklow pheasants are now more or less identical to those found in their original habitat. These big insect-eaters are also joined in gardens by smaller ones, and arguably  the cutest of the lot is the Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus):

   These acrobatic little birds travel in small flocks, and they sing to each other in communication as they hop and fly through the canopies of trees and shrubs. Because of their size and long tails, and habit of climbing everywhere, not to mention their somewhat mammalian appearance, they were known as ‘tit-mice’. Keep an eye out for them. You’ll hear them before you see them.

However, Autumn is best known for the fruiting bodies of fungi which appear everywhere, and in huge numbers. I hope to do a little bit of a showcase of these mushrooms and toadstools shortly, but will start with this little one, which is found on manicured lawns everywhere at this time of year – the Brown Mottlegill (Panaeolina foensecii), also known as the ‘mower’s mushroom’ – a mower being a lawnmower, or the person using it:

This weekend is the time to see them, because if Hurricane (or ex-hurricane) Ophelia lands on Ireland on Sunday night and Monday morning, then most of the mushrooms and toadstools will be destroyed by torrential rain. But let’s hope it is much weaker by the time it arrives here.