Vocabulary of wild flowers worth noticing for their story

Eastertide, and time for a longish walk-a-day for three days. We are promised blue skies and warm sunshine all over Ireland but it doesn’t happen here in West Cork.

Mornings are lovely but mist comes down as the day winds on. Gossamer veils creep across the view. The mist is like pixels on a hazy computer screen. Distances are foreshortened and even the near world becomes ghostly. But the sun breaks through in the late afternoon, and the morning resplendence returns, burnished, like old brass. As we set out from home, the beeches across the stream are, overnight, in new foliage. As we reach the lane long acres of the verges are bright with a vocabulary of wild flowers, a veritable vocabulary of buttercups, primroses, violets, daisies and dandelions, wild garlic and bluebells; they flower now in gay profusion whether they’re noticed or not.

They’re worth noticing, not just for their hundreds of colours, changing with the species and as its flowers advance from bud to bloom, but often, also, for its story. Take Herb Robert, now available for viewing on practically every ditch in Ireland. It has a long history as a herb, and may well have been called after a medieval French abbot herbalist or after a duke of Normandy who commissioned a medical treatise for the common good.

It was used for various medical conditions, including emergency compresses for wounds sustained in battle and for stomach ulcers and infected gums.

It’s a pink geranium-family flower, with five petals, the head about as big as a 10c coin. The petals are always open; they don’t close when the sun goes behind clouds. The stems are dark red and the deeply-lobed leaves green, or amber or red on dry ground.

Most interesting about it is that it is effective against mosquitos or, at least, midges, whose bites can be even worse. Sometime in the late ’60s, overnighting in our beat-up Volkswagen camper in a Somerset meadow, we stupidly parked under trees and were being eaten alive when a farmer appeared. We thought he was going to run us off his property but, instead, came to tell us how to repel the gnats. “Burn this ’ere weed...”, he says, and pulled a handful of Robert (aka Stinking Bob) from the ditch, “It’ll smell nocwus but it’ll send ’em on their way...”

We scorched then set aflame the lovely weed on a frying pan and rubbed its ash on our exposed parts. It did, indeed, smell ‘nocwus’. But it did allow us to sit around our little campfire, gnat-free.

Later, sleeping together in the close confines of the van was survivable because we were one as ‘high’ (I mean, of course, as ‘ripe’) as the other. And we had learned a useful non-chemical midge-deterrent and a new word, ‘nocwus’, being apparently a local Zumerzet way of pronouncing an ancient word, ‘nocuous’, i.e. noxious. An enjoyable evening was had by all!

It’s extraordinary how many plants can cram themselves into a few metres of West Cork ditch — and that is your common or unpretentious ditch: there are exotic and specialised ditches too, that sprout cuckoo flowers, wood sorrel, wild currant and the like. There’s nothing like a swathe of wild flowers to slow down the perambulating hedge scholar. There’s much to learn and there’s

and there’

the music too, the sonorous hum of the bees — bumbles, carders, honey and cuckoo bees, bees of all hues and tonal registers going about their leisurely business, buzzing from flower to flower, their lacquered wings catching the light.

Blue Speedwell is another pretty flower blooming here and there. We used to call it Forget-Me-Not, but it is more delicate and the stems aren’t hairy. The name comes from the observation that the petals quickly fall as soon as it is picked, thus “Speed well...” as in “Farewell...” But it may have been so named because it cured wounds quickly.

Now, the stone walls on the sea-side of our West Cork village are suddenly draped with curtains of tiny, green leaves with small, blue snapdragon-like flowers sprinkled amongst them. This is Ivy-leaved Toadflax, originally native to South West Europe but now spread almost worldwide, to the US, the Antipodes, and these islands.

It’s robustly invasive, but relatively innocuous. It propagates itself in an interesting way. As is usual, the flower stems grow toward the light. After the flowers open and are fertilised, they turn away from the light and grow into a crack in the wall, a gap between stones, a fissure in the tree bark. Thus, the seeds reach darkness where they’re most likely to germinate. Clever plants.

I see more house martins and swallows have arrived. Hail the freeways of the sky!

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