Donal Hickey: A little bit of the Caribbean in Killarney

Tiny rare fern likely made its way to Kerry via the Jet Stream
Donal Hickey: A little bit of the Caribbean in Killarney

The discovery of a rare, tropical fern in Killarney National Park has sparked significant excitement. Picture: Valerie O’Sullivan

The discovery of a rare, tropical fern in Killarney National Park is being celebrated by plant lovers and scientists as being of conservation significance, but should people be that surprised?

After all, we’ve long been hearing how plants from hotter climes thrive in the temperate, moist climate of south-west Ireland and the warming effects of the Gulf Stream.

Garinish Island, in Glengarriff, West Cork, has been famous for decades for its sub-tropical plants, also not forgetting Glengarriff Bamboo Park with its 30 varieties of bamboo combined with palm trees and other tropical plants.

And not too far away are the gardens at Glanleam, on Valentia Island, Co Kerry, where the natural habitat is mixed with “exotic, enchanted gardens, a sub-tropical rain forest and jungle,’’ according to its promoters.

But we’re now onto something entirely new to Europe, never mind Ireland, with the tiny fern found last year in Killarney by locally-born botanist Rory Hodd. He saw this fern growing on humid rocks and was immediately excited by it. Dr Hodd intimately knows the national park, already renowned for its range of mosses and lichens which can be found in woodland and rocky areas.

It is highly unlikely that the little fern was brought here by humans, according to scientific opinion, and the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) agrees with the authors of the recently published paper that it arrived here naturally under its own steam or, rather, via the Jet Stream.

“Hitherto, the species was known only from the Caribbean —  Cuba, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic — and it is a cause for celebration that its native range can, it seems, now be extended to south-west Ireland,’’ said an NPWS spokesperson.

Some mosses growing in south-west Ireland also occur in the islands of the Azores. Killarney National Park, for example, is home to a wide range of flowering plant, fern and moss species that are also found in similar habitats in the Azores.

The location and microclimate of the park results in a wide range of habitats and conditions which support a large number of plant and animal species, including many that are rare, threatened and have unusual distribution patterns.

The newly discovered fern occurs in the Caribbean cloud forest and the NPWS says that if one were to hazard guesses as to where it might turn up in Ireland, then Killarney National Park would likely be first on the list. What next, with climate change et al?

“The species is one of Ireland’s, and indeed Europe’s, rarest plants, with a total known population comprising some 46 plants growing on two boulders at a single location. Under International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List guidelines, it is assessed as critically endangered,’’ the NPWS says.

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