March of the cow parsley

IN May the weather was cold and this was followed by a period of drought.

This inhibited growth, as we all know from listening to the fodder problems of farmers on the radio. But then, quite suddenly, the soil temperature passed the magic number of six degrees and it started to rain.

There was some kind of pent up energy caused by the delay and when the growth came it was explosive. I walked down the path through my little wood to check up on it and I was surrounded by cow parsley towering over my head, and I’m quite tall. The umbrellas of creamy white flowers were damp after a recent shower and giving off a sickly sweet scent that hovered somewhere between pleasant and unpleasant.

This plant, familiar in most parts of the country along road verges and the margins of hedgerows and woods, has many common names. It’s often called Queen Anne’s Lace, but this is a bit confusing because the same name is sometimes used for the wild clematis, which is also called Old Man’s Beard. In parts of South Leinster school children have told me that it’s called Devil’s Porridge — the off-white flowers when they’re densely packed do bear some resemblance to porridge but I’ve never got to the bottom of the association with the devil.

Cow parsley belongs to a large family of plants and has some interesting relatives. These include edible ones such as parsnip, fennel, real parsley and carrots. Unfortunately, this means that it is a host for that dreaded pest, the carrot fly. Among its wild relatives are the poisonous hemlock and the hogweeds, not only our native hogweeds but also the alien giant hogweed that can cause severe skin burns.

Cow parsley is fairly harmless, in fact it’s said to be edible, though not very appetising. However, some of its wild relatives are so poisonous that they’ve killed people and they look very similar.

When it grows luxuriantly on winding country roads it can sometimes obscure the view round bends and it has to be cut down. But the foliage and the flowers are frequently used by florists to provide a cool contrast to showier blossoms in a floral arrangement.

Nature table

WOOD MOUSE (Apodemos sylvaticus)

There are only two native species of mouse in Ireland, the wood mouse and the house mouse (Musculus domesticus) — though the house mouse is probably not really native because it’s believed to have been accidentally introduced in prehistoric times. In general the wood mouse has reddish-brown fur and the house mouse is grey, but there is some colour variation and they can be very hard to tell apart. But the house mouse, which originates in a warmer part of the world, is always found in buildings in winter and close to them in summer. The wood mouse has the scientific name of Apodemos which, in Greek, means ‘away from home’ because it shuns humans and their buildings. Confusingly, wood mice are sometimes called field mice in Ireland. This name should be reserved for a smaller species which is found in other parts of Europe. Both species are essentially seed eaters but they will try almost anything edible.

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