Blooming wonderful display around Ireland's country road hedgerows

It’s the time of year when everything is blooming. Wild plants in flower dress every rural lane in gay profusion, plants we never see at other times of year.

A couple I met on a sunny country road the other day asked me what it was that was absorbing my interest in a hedge — it was a ringlet butterfly — and then what would be worth looking out for in these weeks of mid-summer.

I’m sure they knew as well as I did and asked as a politeness, knowing that I was a contributor to this august (and year-round) Irish Examiner
Outdoor page. They’re great walkers, walking many more kilometres than I do.

I answered as best I could and, as I strolled on, listed, in my head, the flora and fauna species brightening the wayside, details of which might interest readers. There are dozens: I can mention only a few.

First and most brazen is the montbretia. It’s not a native but comes from South Africa and is named for a French botanist, Coquebert de Montbret (1780-1801) who died young, aged 20, when he accompanied Napoleon’s forces in the occupation of Egypt.

South African it may be but seen along the verge of a bog road it would seem to epitomise the storied ‘wild and fiery nature’ of the Irish, livening up the landscape as might a regiment of red-bearded turfcutters or the foxy tresses of their daughters. The first montbretia flower heads have opened as I write.

When wildflowers break into bloom, they do it ‘at a gallop’ or, one might insensitively say, ‘spread like a rash’. Plants one never noticed are suddenly announcing their presence with pennants of bloom.

As for the montbretia, within a week, the verges will be aflame, and will continue to flare mad through August and into September.

Sometimes, its neighbour is purple loosestrife, outstanding where it runs in swathes over damp ground. Lank and upright, it grows to a metre tall, as does its cousin, yellow loosestrife, found more locally by river banks, with star-shaped flowers. It grew densely at Lough Mask when I lived in Ballinrobe, Co Mayo, as a child; it probably still does.

In roadside ditches, watercress thrives, its small white flowers highlighting the tangled thickets of stems and leaves which grow over the streamlets, almost choking their flow. It can of course can be eaten uncooked or as a basis for a delicious, vitamin-filled soup.

However, it shouldn’t be harvested in sheep country because the parasite that gives sheep ‘the staggers’ spends part of its lifecycle within the stems. Unless one knows with certainty that the stream is unpolluted by farmyard or field-slurry runoff, it would be unwise toconsume it.

In the Canary Islands, it is the basis of a traditional soup. However, Canarian streams are almost always clean; there are no cattle, cattle sheds, or milking parlours, there are no pig units. Slurry is non-existent, and farmyards are dry.

Now, in the hedgerows, the ‘hands’ of early-flowering honeysuckle are raising their orange and red fingers to heaven.

Pushing through the bramble flowers, they seem like an exotic, tropical species. Honeysuckle is surely one of our loveliest wayside flowers. Elderflower is white on the bushes.

When I spent a few years in the Borlin Valley in near Bantry in the early 1970s, we would harvest elderflowers by the bushel and elderberries by the bucket, and turn them into vitamin C tonics for the children against colds, or wine for the adults for merriment.

The 23cm-long heads of purple buddleia-of-the-butterflies nods over country lanes, sprouts from old walls in town and cities, brightens up waste lots and conceals the rubbish, throws wild branches in every direction — it is an unruly plant, indeed.

As the nickname I give it indicates, it is a mecca for butterflies. A common-or-garden white butterfly perched with open wings on the thousand, deep-purple flowers of a head of purple buddleia shows off insect and flower in a collaboration of colour rivalled only by a brilliantly-coloured small tortoiseshell on a white buddleia flower.

When the small tortoiseshells wake up and fly, and the red admirals arrive in numbers, and the painted ladies cross the Atlas Mountains to Irish meadows, they will join the wayside colour parade, jewels on the wing brightening further our rural
perambulations.

We live in a blessèd country. I would ask those who scalp our ditches where it is clearly unnecessary to walk a hundred metres of hedge in mid-July and reflect upon the divine blessings they willfully destroy.



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