Far from ‘weeds’, our native flora are precious specimens we should treasure. It’s time we learned more about them...
My first rented flat was in a house on a Georgian square in Ranelagh, Dublin. It had a garden full of dandelions, which for a couple of weeks each spring was ablaze with flowers — a dramatic scene.
For the rest of the year, it appeared to be a mess. But you take your joys wherever you find them. A current joy is a plant that grows very well in abandoned locations, poor soils and the seaside: it’s red valerian (pictured main). I saw a massive clump of this growing on the side of a motorway this week. Have a look — you’ll see it peeping out of buildings or growing horizontally out of walls; lush, almost succulent-type foliage and brilliant ruby-coloured flowers.
I’m also enjoying the many uncut verges that are now festooned with wildflowers. Trinity College Dublin has replaced the manicured lawns at the front of the college with wildflowers and it looks great — a pioneering move for a formal setting. There is a growing appreciation of our native flora, of both their beauty and benefits to wildlife.
What is a wildflower? The term can apply to any plant that appears without being deliberately planted by humans. There is a distinction between those flowers that have been here “forever” and are considered native, and those that have been introduced intentionally or accidentally. The wonderful orange crocosmia and red fuchsia that fill the roadsides in the West of Ireland originated from South Africa and South America but have made themselves at home in our temperate climate. However, some guests such as Rhododendron ponticum and gunnera, the giant rhubarb, are not so welcome, as their invasive nature elbows out our native flora.
If you want to learn more about wildflowers, I highly recommend Zoë Devlin’s The Wildflowers of Ireland. It’s a pocket-size book to aid identification in the field and is easy to use. Plants are grouped together according to flower colour and after that divided into how many petals they have. There is a helpful guide at the beginning to identifying different plant parts and what to look out for in various areas.
Ireland has many diverse habitats that support different species. You could spot early purple orchids in the woodlands of Wicklow, carnivorous species in wetlands, or bilberries on heathland. There are coastal plants, and species found more commonly in grassland, or specific to limestone regions. Urban areas offer opportunities as well — canals, public parks and even walls, pavements and derelict wastelands can be gracious hosts to species such as rosebay willowherb, wild teasel and poppies.
Armed with this guide, a trip up the Sugarloaf Mountain offered up some surprises. A small blue flower (six petals) turned out to be sisyrinchium: possibly Sisyrinchium bermudiana (blue-eyed grass) or maybe a garden escape called Sisyrinchium montanum. Another gorgeous find was an intricately veined crane’s-bill (pink, five petals), which looked a match for pencilled crane’s-bill, a garden escape that had found a home on the mountain. The simple act of slowing down to observe the natural world is a reward in itself.
Zoë recommends that you arm yourself with a hand lens (x 10), which will help you examine the smaller details (many wildflowers are really tiny); a notebook, a pencil and a camera.
So, as you head off on your staycation, pack this book along with the beach thrillers, and add a new dimension to your holiday by discovering our native flora.
Find out more on wildflowersofireland.net; ‘The Wildflowers of Ireland: A Field Guide’ by Zoë Devlin, 2nd Edition, €15.99, Gill Books. Sligo IT runs a Certificate in Irish Wildflower Identification; see itsligo.ie
The foxtail lily produces dramatic flower spikes in June and July. The acid-yellow flowers, with a subtle but distinctive fragrance, turn orange-brown as they mature, while new flowers open further up the stem. Also known as desert candles, they like good drainage and full sunshine.
I have a small front garden I’d like to change. I’ve always had a lawn and a small flower border by the path. Is there anything I could plant that would look neat but won’t require much maintenance? — Sarah
This is a very common issue: small gardens with patches of lawn that act like rugs or welcome mats in front of a house. They can look lovely but the continual cutting can get simply awkward or even soul-destroying. It seems to me you want something a bit more lush and welcoming. An excellent solution for small gardens can be to create a parterre — a geometric grid of clipped shrubs — that’s formal and welcoming.
The most common shrub used to achieve this is box, Buxus sempervirens, but you can also try Japanese holly, Ilex crenata, which has small green leaves, or a small-leaved hebe such as Hebe pinguifolia ‘Sutherlandii’. If you’re not good at setting out a design, go to your library. Any good general garden-design book should have a few templates. In between the plants, lay some bright-coloured gravel that will reflect light. Then you will have an instant garden that just needs clipping a few times a year.
Submit your gardening questions to Diarmuid via his Instagram
@diarmuidgavin using the hashtag #weekendgarden