Tag Archives: wildflowers

Blooming Marvellous this September

It’s hard not to feel sad in September as another summer draws to a close. Children are looking forward to Halloween and Christmas coming after it, but adults often see time slipping away. It never seems long since last September, yet here we are again. But I found something really incredible which will absolutely lift your spirits if you feel the sort of poignancy I do, and that something is a beautiful new book by the botanist Zoe Devlin entitled Blooming Marvellous: A Wildflower Hunter’s Year. It will change your perspective on September, and the year itself.

I can honestly say there is only one book I have ever come across which is like it in any way, and that is the legendary naturalist Gerald Durrell’s The Amateur Naturalist which can best be described as a manual and interactive adventure story rolled into one. These are the sort of books you don’t want an electronic version of, because they are beautiful things in themselves, a combination of art and reading which is truly exhilarating. Blooming Marvellous recounts episodes in the author’s life while inviting you to have your own adventure with the aid of the book.

It’s divided into chapters which deal with each month. Zoe suggests you read the chapter of the month you’re in right now, and immediately you are seeing what she sees and not only that, but you are able to find things she tells you about which you never even realised were there in front of your eyes, by a hedgerow or in your garden. I took mine out into the garden and suddenly I was in the book, and just look at this and you’ll see what I mean:

   As you can see by the page shown from Blooming Marvellous it’s not just about wildflowers, but also about the wildlife which supports them, and depends on them. This is not a botanical manual, but a true-life adventure story comprising anecdotes and a field guide combined. And it’s rugged too, with a rock hard cover and a beautifully stitched binding of heavy, tough, glossy pages, but it is the weight of wisdom. This is a rugged book you can carry in your rucksack, and the writing is fantastic and elegant and absolutely draws you in to the adventures:

“Wordsworth had a way with words that many have envied. In 1798, on the banks of the River Wye, that self-proclaimed ‘worshipper of nature’ wrote ‘Nature never did betray the heart that loved her’. Long before I ever knew those words, my less eloquent maxim was ‘Nature never, ever lets you down’.”

And those are just the opening lines! The rest of the book reads as easily, and there are sad bits, and thought-provoking tales too,  which sweeten the knowledge you are unwittingly taking in with them. Remarkably, all of the adventures Zoe describes in this book occurred in Ireland. Even more alluringly Zoe has included recipes for cooking some of the fruits and wildflowers you encounter, which adds a whole new dimension to this book and interracting with her adventures. For example, there is a really nice recipe for blackberry tart, which is great considering how many blackberries there are on the hedgerows this year:

Before Zoe had published her first book she appeared in a photo on this blog when I met her and her ever reliable sidekick and husband, Pete, out on one of their adventures (as far as I’m aware this is her third book for the Collins Press – or are there more?). So you might think I’m biased, especially if you read pages 186-187. This very original masterpiece is, I promise you, different from anything you have seen before, with photos and text by the author, and I think Gerald Durrell would definitely love it.

If I am ever unfortunate enough to find myself lined up in front of a firing squad I’m going to make sure this book is in my breast pocket, because, although it’s not gigantic, I feel pretty certain, in addition to its many other virtues, it can stop bullets.

If you’re too lazy to go to the bookshop, or don’t live in Ireland, or fear catching one of those horrible September flus or colds, you can buy Blooming Marvellous from Amazon right now and have it delivered to your door.

The Great May Adventure

May is always a bit of a mixed bag. You never know quite what you’re going to get, but it’s always progressing towards the calmer months of summer. And in the natural world it’s a time of frenetic activity. This year we had May weather in April because the weather was so unusually dry for spring. First it started with early bird nesting.

A handsome Wood Pigeon in breeding colours carrying a large twig to its nest.
A Jackdaw carrying nesting material to a disused chimney where it has a nest.
A Robin carrying spider prey back to its nest, which is hidden in the hedge. It watched to make sure I had moved on before entering the nest and giving the location away.

But the most important aspect of the spring, apart from the weather, is the mass flowering of various plants. The most important is the spring dandelion bloom. Dandelions provide huge amounts of pollen that many insects depend on, especially our pollinators. Every conceivable species of bee, fly and many beetles depend on these flowers in the early part of spring. In May they reach a crescendo in their blooming and then rapidly seed while other spring blooms appear just in time to sustain the insect population. Here you can see dandelions and bluebells together:

The Bluebells are now mostly gone out of flower in the lowlands, but up in the highlands of Wicklow they are only coming into bloom, so if you’re looking for bluebells this late in May then you need to go upland. Tawny Mining Bees among many other species depend on these flowers. The Tawny Mining Bees are gone for this year, but you might see another pollinator about, the somewhat sinister-looking and beautiful Panzer’s Nomada (Nomada panzeri) a cuckoo-bee which parasitizes the mining bees. It is also known to have a bad sting, but this one was very calm and unthreatening:

Also, May is the time to see the Orange-tip butterfly (Anthocaris cardamines). The females are all white with very few black dots on the upper sides of their wings. The males have are identical but have stunning orange markings on the tips of their forewings.

The female Orange-tip looks pretty much like other species of white butterfly when seen from above, although she does have silvery-black forewing tips.
The male Orange-tip is very distinctive despite being fast-moving and rarely sitting still.

However, from below both the male and female Orange-tip look very different to other white butterflies, having a green marbling pattern which gives them camouflage.

The marbling pattern on the underside of both the male and female’s wings can be seen when the butterfly is at rest.

As the weather gets warmer more and more moths appear too, but keep a look out for caterpillars, because many of the caterpillars of moths found in Wicklow are far more spectacular looking than the adults of the same species. Here, for example, is the caterpillar of the Yellow-tail Moth (Euproctis similis). The moth is plain pale white with a bright yellow abdomen tip, but look at the gaudy colours of this caterpillar found on a Cistus bush:

The hairs of this caterpillar are a defence against predators and can cause irritation rashes 0n the skin of some people.

Along with dandelions the other big bloomer where the bees depend on is the big spiny Gorse or Furze bush. The yellow flowers fill the air with the scent of vanilla. Unfortunately in dry conditions they are highly flammable, but now we are at last getting some decent heavy rain showers the danger is passing. Some parts of Ireland have suffered terrible Gorse Fires this year. But fortunately Wicklow has escaped the worst of it:

The Big Bloom

Now it’s high spring, so the countryside is a blaze of colour. There’s something a little sad about it too, because the blossoms on the trees last only a few days. But the flowers on the ground will continue to bloom for most of the summer, whith few exceptions. Anyhow, here are some of the beauties:

Apple blossom, which I photographed in a little orchard in my garden. The scent of these flowers could almost define spring. Sadly, after only a few days, they are soon to fall from the trees. Live for the moment!
Apple blossom, which I photographed in a little orchard in my garden. The scent of these flowers could almost define spring. Sadly, after only a few days, they are soon to fall from the trees. Live for the moment!

Although I found a few cherries blooming in January (big mistake!) most are only blooming now, or coming out of bloom, and the occasional breezes of May have carpeted footpaths and lawns in the pink of their blossoms. Cherries are fantastic trees, and they can be found throughout Wicklow. Most are cultivated but there are wild ones too.

Heavy cherry blossoms on a thin tree. Beautiful, especially against a blue sky.
Heavy cherry blossoms on a thin tree. Beautiful, especially against a blue sky.

Closer to ground level the combination of sun and rain has caused an explosion of wildflower blooms. The hyper-sanitised gardening which developed in the 1950s and has continued more or less unchanged until modern times treats Dandelions and Daisies as enemies to be destroyed, yet these beautiful little flowers are the very bedrock of the Wicklow ecosystem, as they once were in most of Europe. They support millions of pollinating insects on which the human race depends for its very survival. Ironically, Dandelions are not only edible, but in many countries, such as France, they are served in the best restaurants as food.

A lawn of daisies and a complimentary dandelion.
A lawn of daisies and a complimentary dandelion.

Some flowers which can be found thriving in Wicklow are currently considered endangered species in many other parts of Europe. While not exactly a common sight, a sharp pair of eyes will find Cowslips along the hedgerows and borders of damp meadows. Bees love them.

The gentle but strong yellow of a Cowslip, a plant which has become very precious as it is in decline in many parts of Ireland.
The gentle but strong yellow of a Cowslip, a plant which has become very precious as it is in decline in many parts of Europe.