One knot to sing about, another a noteworthy must-have

KNOTWEED is flowering, those beautiful, lacy flowers that first won the hearts of the ladies and gents of Victorian England. 

One knot to sing about, another a noteworthy must-have

Brought home by plant-hunters from far-off Japan, it won prizes and to the delight and genteel hand-clapping of lady gardeners of that era, was retailed to the public.

Gardeners, district councils, builders, and developers have since had cause to regret that enthusiasm. As we know, Japanese knotweed is a curse to which there has been, so far, no long-term solution. Local authorities, after ignoring it for years, are making efforts to control it. In West Cork, I see roadside stands treated with herbicide here and there. The National Biodiversity Centre has assisted the authorities. The Irish Examiner has repeatedly published articles highlighting the need for action.

However, it has become so widespread that it will cost millions to control, while complete eradication seems impossible. Spraying chemicals down the individual hollow stems for at least three consecutive years, may be successful. Excavation is not: unless the soil is steam treated, rhizomes within it make root elsewhere. It has proved unstoppable over much of Europe and America.

First brought west by a German plant-collector in 1847, it won prestigious prizes in Holland. Cuttings were sent to Kew Gardens, London. Cultivated at Edinburgh Botanical Gardens, shoots were sold to nurseries and the public. It escaped and spread via watercourses and soil moved about for roads and railways. It has become so widespread in these islands that is now beyond human control.

To enlist nature seems the best hope; a natural parasite would find and infest every stand, and stop its gallop. In Japan, bugs keep it in check. But the right bug for introduction beyond Japan isn’t easy to find. Bring the wrong kind to Ireland and who knows what other plants might be attacked. We would not want to introduce a potato-eater, beet-eater, wheat-eater or cabbage-eater. Until tests find a bug that stays exclusively on knotweed, botanists are being sensibly cautious and continuing trials.

Meanwhile, God forbid that the invader should establish a permanent foothold on, say, the Burren, that unique swathe of limestone rock in west Clare where a million fissures have created multiple microclimates nurturing a diversity of plants unknown elsewhere on this island. Here, botanical rarities grow and thrive, and add immeasurably to the commonwealth of Irish flora.

The Burren is the special haunt of Gordon D’Arcy, one of this island’s eminent naturalists, an Ulsterman come south who, after a visit and a memorably warm welcome from local people there half a century ago, has been rooted on the edge of this seemingly barren landscape for more than 30 years.

He has now written a book, The Breathing Burren, that is worthy of it, fine writing on fine paper, illustrated by delicate and striking watercolours from his own hand, the whole bound in hard covers, with dust jacket and stout binding, a credit to its publishers, The Collins Press.

It recounts the man’s life, and the life cycles of the plants and animals of the rock platform and of the seas on its western edge below the Cliffs of Moher. It tells tales with the verve of a consummate storyteller, and is as entertaining for the ‘lay’ reader as it is informative for the amateur naturalist. It will, I believe be one of the lapidary books of the Burren, long-lasting, as befits the limestone landscape that engendered it.

Also “lapidary” in content, a record of human response to the river and valley of the lovely Lee, is the collection of reflections and paeans of praise in prose, song and verse entitled simply On the Banks, the well-founded assumption being that the words that complete the line will be supplied by any Corkonian worthy of the name, and any singer or listeners to songs on the island of Ireland.

Published by The Collins Press between the hardback covers, it is a credit to the skills and hard work of Allanah Hopkin who collected and edited the contents, and to the respect for local history that motivated its publication.

It is a compendium work indeed, Cork’s river, streets and monuments, characters and courting couples, sportsmen, markets, families, ghosts and exiles, all celebrated in lines and verses from material as diverse and dignified as Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen to the anonymous and locally feted Boys of Fairhill. It is impossible in this space to name all the authors; the list of acknowledgements runs to seven pages.

Ms Hopkin, the many selected authors and the publisher have enshrined Cork in the national literature: it will be enjoyed by Corkonians and literary historians for generations to come.

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