Wildflowers on Ireland’s Inishmore Island
Our first morning on Inishmore Island, Bob and I set off on foot to explore the hills and wildflowers surrounding Kilmurvey House, our bed and breakfast accommodations, and made first for the historic fort, Dun Aonghasa. What a pleasant surprise to find a good variety of wildflowers growing amongst the karst limestone, many of them in bloom such as this Bloody Cranesbill Geranium (Geranium sanguineum).
Kilmurvey House is ideally situated within sight of the ancient fort on Inishmore Island, which is perched atop very high cliffs at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.
Even before we got to the lower reaches of the rugged and uneven terrain, we were basking in heavenly-scented air perfumed by rifts of honeysuckle plants. Intermixed with wild roses and fuschia flowers, the masses of greenery and blooms virtually obscured any stone fences supporting the vines.
It was after exploring Dun Aonghasa at length that Bob and I split up and wandered the area surrounding the stone walls. Bob headed further east along the heart-stopping precipice,
while I was drawn to an unusual stone structure on the brow of a hill. I was tickled to discover something new…a creative yet simple method of collecting water for the livestock. A substantial ramp was constructed using some of the available limestone and smoothed with concrete to create a slight slope that encourages rain, heavy dew and mist to drain into the basin located at the lower end. Low maintenance, low labour and very effective!
It was as I crisscrossed the limestone pavements that I came to discover some very colourful wildflowers that had taken hold in the meager bit of soil found in the fissures. At one time, local residents hauled tons of seaweed and sand up onto the karst so that, when the seaweed decomposed, it would result in a layer of rich, fertile soil in which to plant crops.
One pretty little plant that I came across was this vibrant Kidney Vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria). The Latin word Vulneraria means wound healer, which gave rise to one of the plant’s alternate names, Woundwort. The plants were a mere few inches tall, so ancient cultures would have required many plants to prepare a dressing for skin ailments. A potion concocted from the roots, leaves and flowers was said to cure constipation and kidney disorders. Upon closer inspection, it appeared as though the small clusters of yellow flowers were held aloft on fuzzy cushions. These small, delicate flowers are mainly yellow but turn orangey-brown as they fade.
Of major significance today is the fact that Kidney Vetch plants provide a significant source of larval food for Small Blue Butterflies (Cupido minimus), insects that are in serious decline throughout Ireland and the United Kingdom. It is the plant’s habitat, chalk and limestone grasslands, that is diminishing in area.
Another patch of vibrant green vegetation was glistening with raindrops from the intermittent mist that settled over the countryside, and poking up smartly from the collection of sword-shaped leaves at its base was a dense spike of flowering Early Marsh Orchid (Dactylorhiza incarnata var. pulchella). The complexity of the purplish-pink flowers included an amazing pattern of dots with a lined border around the lowest petal of each flower. This native perennial is less common than the pink variety, and blooms between May and July.
I took my time strolling amongst the limestone pavements on Inishmore Island, pausing now and then to appreciate the wonderful view over the island, but with the prevalence of grykes separating the thousands of clints, I had to tread carefully because many were hidden from view beneath grasses and low bushes. The grykes provide moist shelter, and that is where I spotted this delicate example of Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum), its branched stalks growing over the limestone and supported by shallow, weak roots. An interesting alternate name for this plant is Death Come Quickly, and yet ancient peoples used to carry pieces of the plant to attract good luck. Also known as Storksbill because of the resemblance of the unopened buds to storks’ heads, Herb Robert was thought to enhance fertility.
The Aran Islands, like The Burren, support a variety of plants from all reaches of the globe – the Arctic, Mediterranean and Alpine areas – owing to the unusual conditions of the climate and the landscape. A unique micro-climate exists due in part to the Gulf Stream that warms the temperatures, odd winds that deposit an interesting mix of seeds, and the rocks themselves. The rocks nurture plants in their sheltered crevices; perpetual moist conditions prevail; and seeds take foothold either where the pavements have been reduced to gravel or where a thin layer of soil has formed on top of the limestone.
The next happy little plant that I discovered was creeping along some broken pieces of limestone. My first thought was that the flowers resembled miniature sweet peas, except for their bright yellow flowers. In fact, Common Bird’s Foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) is a member of the pea family, albeit a wild native plant found throughout the United Kingdom. A variety of habitats suit its needs including downs, rocky ledges, heaths, hill pastures and coastal cliff tops. Red buds open to reveal the slipper-shaped blossoms, but it is the cylindrical seed pods that give the plant its name. My photo shows clearly a couple of ripe pods, each one long and slender with a fine spur on one end. Each brown pod resembles a bird’s claw, and a cluster of them looks distinctly like a bird’s foot.
Clusters of delicate Thrift (Armeria maritima) clambered playfully between the clints, their heads bobbing in the fresh breeze. Otherwise known as Sea Pinks, the pale pink flowers grow in dense tufts above a cushion of bright green, grass-like leaves.
The flowers of Thrift are papery to the touch and form rounded heads atop thin leafless stalks. This native perennial can be found blooming en masse such as these plants that Bob and I observed at the edge of the cliffs inside the fort, Dun Aonghasa.
The harsh, windswept cliffs below Fort Dun Aonghasa did not preclude the growth of other wildflowers, and that is where Bob spotted this Sea Campion (Selene uniflora). It baffled me as to how any plants could withstand the apparent dry conditions on the face of the precipice, but as Sea Campion’s name suggests, these perennial plants thrive on well-drained cliffs next to the sea. The flowers, which begin to bloom in June, are snow-white and open outward from an calyx that is inflated to form a bladder. It is the reddish striations of the bladder that give the plant its purply-pink hue. Sea Campion has waxy leaves that are sea green, and being fleshy, they protect the plant from drying out by retaining moisture regardless of the salty sea winds.
Further afield, I was indeed very lucky to come across a Wild Irish Rose or Burnet Rose (Rosa spinosissima) since they grow only in select locations: coastal dunes, cliffs or grassy heaths. Each flower is composed of five creamy-white petals that surround a central mop of golden stamens. The delicately-scented flowers are held aloft on slender, bristly stems, and although the plant I discovered barely rose above the surrounding rocks, these plants, with their low-growing tendency to sprawl, can reach up to 50 centimetres (20 in) tall. Bob and I wouldn’t be around to see the rich, deep maroon rose hips that follow later in the season.
And here is one more species of wildflower that I found growing within the shadow of Dun Aonghasa. This one was the most difficult for me to identify and required master sleuthing on the internet. In the end, I learned that it is Hemp-Agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum). These young plants will potentially grow to a tall and bushy height of 1.5 metres (5 ft) later in the season, and will start blooming in July. The delicate pinkish-white budded flowerheads will erupt into flat flowerheads that are either whitish, dull pink or pale lilac in colour.
In a sunnier location, some of the flower buds of this native perennial plant had begun to open, uncovering the mystery of one of the flower’s alternate names, Raspberries and Cream. When fully in bloom, the crowded masses of flowers at the top of each stem will be a magnet for butterflies and bees anywhere that the plants are found, which is frequently on the Aran Islands and The Burren while rarely elsewhere. Damp habitats of fens, sea cliffs, wet heath and crevices of limestone pavements provide the perfect growing conditions for these plants that are neither related to hemp nor agrimony. It is the hempen-shaped leaves that lend themselves to the plant’s English and Latin name, being derived from cannabis, and like so many other wild plants and flowers, Hemp-agrimony was also routinely used for medicinal purposes, both the flowers and leaves.
The light drizzle that dampened Bob’s and my rain ponchos throughout the morning finally gave way to warm sunshine as we completed our circuit of the hills surrounding Dun Aonghasa. As we descended the rocky slope towards Kilmurvey House, the sharp contrast of this red-leaved plant set against vibrant green ferns took my eye. I then had to rush to catch up to Bob. We were next headed out on our bikes for a ride around the island.