Take a walk on the wild (flower) side

MAY is the month for wildflowers.

Dozens of species are in bloom now, adding interest to every walk.

The purple carpet of bluebells in the dark woods where they are still in flower; the dog violets among the ivy on the forest edges; the blue, smoky haze of germander speedwell when it forms a mantle of flowers on a roadside ditch. The bluebells of the deep woods are the darker than those in open woodland, the pigment richer, perhaps because of lack of light.

DH Lawrence wrote a poem called Bavarian Gentians in which he described the gentians as “burning dark blue/ giving off darkness, blue darkness....” The same could surely be said of those dark blue bluebells under the lightless canopy.

The list of flowers to be discovered and enjoyed on the average country walk is legion. Distant vistas are lovely to behold, but the small bouquets half-hidden in the hedgerow are every bit as striking, these miracles on a smaller scale.

Why, one asks oneself, was this humble thing made so glorious? Yes, we know it is so constructed or pigmented to attract insects to pollinate it, but that its beauty is purely functional is hard to credit. It is better made than any manmade piece of jewellery; and indeed the component parts of jewellery (the glitter of the diamond, the gleam of gold) are, in any case works of nature which we merely fashion, as we fashion landscapes or flower gardens. We are mere end-users; they are there in any case, oblivious of us. Mountain avens bloom on mountains far from the eyes of man.

Fumitory, with small, pinkish, trumpet-shaped flowers gets its name because its bluish-green foliage was thought to resemble smoke; also when pulled the roots emit a smokey smell; also, if the sap gets in the eyes, they water.

Herb Bennet, a five-cent-sized yellow flower now in bloom, was so called because it was said to drive off evil spirits and was, therefore, a blessed herb, Herb Benedicta.

Sanicle, found especially under beech trees, has a small, white, bulbous head with the stamens protruding from it, giving it a hirsute look. These flowers turn into burrs, with little hooks to catch one’s trousers or an animal’s fur, thus to be dispersed elsewhere.

In her marvellous book, Wildflowers of Ireland, Zoë Devlin quotes from a record of the plant in 1792, noting its discovery “in the Closes beyond Drumcondrah” and Culpeper, the herbalist, comments that “this is one of Venus’s herbs, to cure the wounds or mischiefs Mars inflicts upon the body of man”.

Devlin’s book is too big to carry ‘in the field’ but every walker should tote a pocket flower guide on his rambles; there is so much to be learned.

Sea pinks, or thrift, is now resplendent on the cliffs but cliff-walkers continue to contact me with theories of how the raven clutch on the Seven Heads met its premature end just as the fledglings were about to fly. It is a sad sight, indeed, above the lonely cove, the broken nest, the feathers, the remains.

Once again, I turn to DH Lawrence, this time because he describes so well the far-reaching and irreversible consequences arising from the extinction of a single creature, how the landscape where it roamed is drowned in silence.

In his poem, Mountain Lion, he describes meeting two Mexicans high in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. They are carrying a mountain lion one of them has trapped that morning. When Lawrence asks him about it, “he smiles, foolishly, as if he were caught doing something wrong”.

Lawrence later finds the animal’s lair: “And her bright striped frost-face will never watch any more, out of the shadow of the cave in the blood-orange rock . . . what a gap in the world, the missing white frost-face of that slim yellow mountain lion!”

Poets are so useful; they say what we cannot say. All children should learn the great poetry by heart. In adulthood, it is too late.

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