Saturday, 29 December 2012

Ben Bulben & The Dartry Mountains


Browsing through my archive I rediscovered a variety of photos taken during 2009, my first year working in Ireland. That year I was based in Carrick-on-Shannon, Co. Leitrim. Our survey work ranged across the counties of Leitrim and Longford.

Much of that summer was spent surveying the endless rushy drumlins that make up the greater part of Co. Leitrim. While drumlins are pleasant enough the majority of the summer's botanical excitement was provided elsewhere. Namely in the small portion of the Dartry Mountains situated at the North West of Leitrim and in the the Northernmost edge of the Shannon Callows in Longford. For the purposes of this post I shall limit myself to the flora of the Dartry Mountains.

The Dartry range straddles the Leitrim / Sligo border with its most famous peak, Ben Bulben, lying at the south-west of the range near Sligo town. It reaches, at its highest, an altitude slightly greater than 500m. Despite their limited height these peaks have a impressive appearance the like of which I have not seen elsewhere. Neat, steep flanks of carboniferous limestone rise from the flat surrounds of the coastal plain and rapidly level off to broad summit plateaus. A series of deep glacial valleys dissect the range, hemmed by steep cliffs, crevasses and blocky boulder screes. These varied terrains are home to many interesting plants.

King's Mountain, Co. Sligo

Botanical History

The region supports a diverse and well studied flora. Its exploration began in 1700 when Edward  Lhuyd, mentioned previously in my post on Connemara, visited the area. He recorded a range of species including some of the local specialities such as the fern Polystichum lonchitis, known to him by the pre-binomial mouthful: Lonchitis Aspersa Matthioli  Sive Aspersa Major (1).

Edward  Lhuyd
Statue in Aberystwyth
Image from

Following this initial visit I can find little information of further botanical excursions to the area for over 180 years. Then, in 1883, two botanists meet their ends in atypically dramatic fashion for such a generally sedate pastime as botany. Thomas Hughes Corry and a friend were in the region carrying out fieldwork on the second year of a project to catalogue the flora of the Ben Bulben when disaster struck...

The accident is relayed with some panache in the preface to the 1888 work 'A Flora of The North-East of Ireland' co-authored by the late Mr Corry and his friend S. A. Stewart (2). Stewart describes the two botanists and their fateful decision to explore Lough Gill, a lake just to the south of King’s Mountain.

The morning of the trip dawns but is ‘not at all inviting. Heavy showers of rain [are] frequent, and [are] accompanied by [...] sudden and fierce squalls of wind.’ However the botanists ‘made light of the idea of incurring danger’ and ‘undeterred by the warnings of the boatmen […] put off in a light skiff, no doubt rejoicing in the thought that they could penetrate wherever it seemed desirable’. Their bravado is, however, ill-founded and when they do not return ‘[a] search, that night instituted, discovered the empty boat, and subsequently the bodies of the two unfortunate botanists’. As ‘no eye saw the occurrence, […] the exact details of the calamity will never be known’.

Despite their demise some of Corry's  notes on the region's flora were posthumously published in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Science entitled 'On the Heights Attained by Plants on Ben Bulben' (3). This was quickly followed by a 1885 paper in the same journal by Richard M. Barrington and R. P. Vowell (a collaborator of Corry's during the initial survey)  entitled 'Report on the Flora of Ben Bulben and the Adjoining Mountain Range in Sligo and Leitrim' (4). This paper listed most of the species currently known from the range and included an addition to the Irish flora: Epilobium alsinifolium. This species can still be seen growing in a small flush near the wonderfully named Cloontyprughlish. A specimen from this (still the only known Irish population) collected by the great Irish botanist Lloyd Praeger can be viewed on Herbaria United web site.     

Personal Observations

The region supports a number of alpine species found nowhere else in Ireland including the previously mentioned Epilobium alsinifolium, as well as Saxifraga nivalis and one species found nowhere else in the British Isles: Arenaria ciliata.

Though currently restricted to these mountains A. ciliata once occurred more widely in the British Isles. A paper detailing preserved plant remains from a  Late  Devensian spring in Kent lists this species as present on the basis of a number of seeds. This shows that it did occur in the UK even if only about 10,000 years ago (5).

I did encounter this plant while on vascular diversion from a  bryological trip to the region a few years ago but, not having a camera at the time, was unable to take any pictures. However the Herbaria United page has a number of scanned images of material collected in the nineteenth and early twentieth century’s from Ben Bulben. Below is an image of an 1849 collection that seems to represent the earliest specimen on the site. It was collected by the prolific Somerset botanist Thomas Clarke.  

Arenaria ciliata specimen from Ben Bulben,
coll. Thomas Clarke, 1849

Image from Herbaria@home

Many other, less rare, upland calcicoles are present. Some of these are particularly exciting for a Welsh botanist such as myself.  One of the most frequent of these is Saxifraga aizoides, the Yellow Mountain Saxifrage. Another species that is less common but still far more frequent here than in North Wales is Dryas octopetala. This species occurs in only two locations in Snowdonia with each of these populations amounting to but a couple of plants. Since 2009 the abundance of this plant I have encountered on the Galway limestone as well as in the Alps has somewhat dulled my excitement for it.

Saxifraga aizoides Glenade, Co. Leitrim, 2009

Dryas octopetalaGlenade, Co. Leitrim, 2009

Another species that is quite frequent here is the Irish speciality Euphrasia salisburgensis. The first unequivocal report of this species from Ireland is that of Nathaniel Colgan in 1897 (6). His paper details the confused history of the plant in Ireland dating back to a collection made in 1852 on Aran More. It is now known to be widespread on calcareous soils in the west of Ireland and is thought to be a obligate hemi-parasite of Thymus polytrichus (7). I have observed it in many places but it has a particularly fondness for the loose soil atop ant-hills.   

Euphrasia salisburgensis Glenade, Co. Leitrim, 2009

Finally a species that is very rare in Ireland, Arabis petra. This species is only known from Glenade (where the picture below was taken) and from the Galtee Mountains in Tipperary (8).   

Arabis petra Glenade, Co. Leitrim, 2009

  1. Mitchell, M. E. "Irish botany in the seventeenth century." Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section B: Biological, Geological, and Chemical Science. Royal Irish Academy, 1975.
  2. Stewart, S. A., and T. H. Corry. "A Flora of the north-east of Ireland." Belfast Naturalist's Field Club, Belfast (1888).
  3. Corry, Thomas Hughes. "On the heights attained by plants on Ben Bulben." Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Science 4 (1884): 73-77.
  4. Barrington, Richard M., and Richard P. Vowell. "Report on the Flora of Ben Bulben and the Adjoining Mountain Range in Sligo and Leitrim." Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Science 4 (1884): 493-517.
  5. Kerney, Michael P., R. C. Preece, and C. Turner. "Molluscan and plant biostratigraphy of some Late Devensian and Flandrian deposits in Kent." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences (1980): 1-43.
  6. Colgan, Nathaniel. "Euphrasia Salisburgensis, Funk., in Ireland." The Irish Naturalist 6.4 (1897): 105-108.
  7. Webb, David Allardice, and Mary JP Scannell. Flora of Connemara and the Burren. Cambridge University Press, 1983.
  8. Stelfox, A. W. "The forms of Cardaminopsis petraea (L.) in Ireland." The Irish Naturalists' Journal 16.10 (1970): 308-309.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Aberystwyth Glasshouses & The NBGW

I am currently at Aberystwyth University studying for an KESS MPhil in the population dynamics of glasshouse weeds. I'm a couple of months in and I've just progressed from many weeks spent wading through the literature and onto my first visits to actual glasshouses. In an effort to develop a survey protocol I have visited many of the glasshouses in and around Aberystwyth over the last few days. I also made my first visit (in many years) to my KESS partner organisation, The National Botanic Garden of Wales

My literature review on the subject of glasshouse weed assemblages turned up surprisingly little information. I found only a single paper describing the floral assemblages in any detail. This solitary paper details the glasshouse weeds of a Polish Botanical garden. Considering the huge diversity of structure and function within the protected environment (greenhouses, polytunnels, etc.)  as well as its economic importance I find it puzzling that no further research exists in this subject area. This lack of previous information makes a wide-ranging survey the only logical first step in my research. 

So the results of my initial, very limited and provisional, survey of thirty-four Aberystwyth glasshouses turned up around eighty species.The season limited both what was visible and what could be identified so the actual number of species in the surveyed glasshouses is certainly greater than my current enumeration. The most frequent species  (listed below) were unsurprising. Some of the frequent but not universal species were less expected. For example Geranium lucidum, a species that occurred frequently both in the Aberystwyth and NBGW glasshouses but one I would not immediately have associated with the habitat.     

Species occurring in 10 or more of the 34 Aberystwyth glasshouses surveyed (listed in order of frequency of occurrence).

  1. Epilobium sp.
  2. Oxalis corniculata
  3. Cardamine hirsuta
  4. Poa annua
  5. Euphorbia peplus
  6. Stelaria media
  7. Senecio vulgaris
  8. Taraxacum officinale agg.

Some of the more interesting weeds were those that had simply spread from one side of the glasshouse to the other. A particular feature of the varied glasshouses in the University Botanic Gardens at Penglais was the frequency of regenerating pteridophytes. Three species that seemed particularly successful were Phlebodium aureum, Cyrtomium falcatum and Pteris cretica. These species were not only common in the heated glasshouse where they had originally been planted but had also spread to adjacent unheated glasshouses with some success.         

Phlebodium aureum
Penglais Botanic Gardens,
Aberystwyth University, Cardiganshire
(SN 59619 82076) 28/11/12 

Pteris cretica
Penglais Botanic Gardens, 

Aberystwyth University, Cardiganshire 
(SN 59619 82076) 28/11/12 

Further interest was provided by the infallible glamour of carnivorous plants. In the most tucked away glasshouse of the already rather tucked away University Botanic Gardens there is a rather impressive collection of pitcher-plants, sundews, venus fly-traps and bladderworts. Not being an expert on any plant not native to the British Isles I relied on the labels for any indication as to the identity of the plants. In truth it mattered little as the appeal of these plants is universal and even for a cataloguer such as myself it was easy to appreciate their exquisite adaptations without needing to know their identities.       

Sarracenia leucophylla
Penglais Botanic Gardens, 
Aberystwyth University, Cardiganshire 
(SN 59676 82089) 28/11/12 

A somewhat odd highlight of my visit to the NBGW was seeing two of Snowdonia's most enigmatic alpine plants. Admitted both were in pots, a fact that somewhat detracted from the excitement. 

The first of these is a plant that I am now quite familiar with in its Irish settings but one that has a quite mysterious history in Wales. Saxifraga roseacea subspecies roseacea, the Irish Saxifrage was, according to the Welsh Red Data List, last seen in Snowdonia in 1970 (1). I am not sure of the details of the 1970 record but the material in cultivation at the gardens and elsewhere stems from a collection made by the legendary North Wales botanist Dick Roberts. The information I can find suggests that the collection was made in  1962 and was of a single unattached sprig from Cwm Idwal (2). The staff and students at the NBGW are currently conducting genetic studies on  Welsh and Irish material to determine the if there is any difference between the accessions. I have  carefully checked any Saxifraga hypnoides type plants I have encountered in the mountains of North Wales but have, as yet, not managed to rediscover this most enigmatic of Welsh alpines. Below are two pictures of Irish S. roseacea subsp. roseacea each looking very different and each growing in very different situations. The first in steep Philonotis flushes in a shaded corrie on the east flank of Mount Brandon in Co. Kerry and the second on exposed dry limestone pavement on Inisheer, the smallest of the Aran Islands. This page from the BSBI plant crib contains helpful leaf outlines of this group of species. Also, from the Herbaria@home page, here is a nice specimen from 1918 apparently collected somewhere on Snowdon.

Saxifraga roseacea subsp. roseacea
Mount Brandon, Co. Kerry (Q 46282 12593) 25/08/12

Saxifraga roseacea subsp. roseacea 
Inisheer, Co. Glaway (L 99027 01612) 01/08/11

The second plant is probably one of the rarest species in the world if species is the correct term for this apomitic taxon. Hieracium snowdoniense, as detailed in this paper, is a Welsh endemic of which only one  individual is currently known in the wild. It was previously recorded slightly more widely across the three main massifs of Snowdonia but was long thought extinct until the rediscovery in 2002. Seed was collected by Tim Rich in 2002 from the single wild plant and it is from this collection that the plant below derives. Had I come across this plant in the wild I would not have been able to put a name to it with any certainty but the specimen below is helpfully labelled and barcoded.        

Hieracium snowdoniense
NBGW from material collected in Cwm Idwal, Caernarfonshire

KESS is part-funded by the European Social Fund (ESF) through the European Union's Convergence Programme (West Wales and the Valleys) administered by the Welsh Government.

Thursday, 22 November 2012


Now for a set of photos taken over a year ago during a trip to Iceland in September of 2011. In preparation for the trip I invested in the only portable flora of iceland: Hörður Kristinsson's 'Flowering Plants and Ferns of Iceland'. The book is pleasant enough for a photo-flora though it falls down in fetureing my pet-hate; arrangement by flower colour. A good percentage of the flora's content can be found on the web, though in a somewhat clunky format. As it turned out we visited too late in the season to see many species at their best. While I did encounter a wide range of species few were in a state suitable for the purposes of photography.

Our first week was spent in the capital, Reykjavik. Meandering around the city I noted the first Icelandic species new to me. These included Angelica archangelica, Ranunculus hyperboreus and Rumex longifolius all observed while making a circuit of the municipal lake. A species that somehow elicited much more excitement than those listed above was Mertensia maritima, the Oysterplant. I found a couple of plants among the boulders that form the artificial sea defences along the Reykjavik bay. A rare and decreasing species in the UK the distribution of M. maritima is thought to be governed by temperature. The seeds are known to require exposure to cold temperatures to stimulate germination (1). It is perhaps for this reason that many of the more southerly colonies in the UK are no longer extant (map). I also recently spotted this species on a TV cookery show. Perched atop a piece of fish and and some pointlessly arty vegetable shapes it was served under the name oyster-leaf and said to actually taste of oysters. I now regret not testing the veracity of this claim on the Icelandic plants.

Mertensia maritima Reykjavik, September 2011

Leaving Reykjavik we drove out along Route 1. Practically the only 'major' (two lane) road in Iceland.  Encircling almost the entire country Route 1 begins and ends in Reykjavik. When travelling east as we were the initial section follows the fringing plains of the south coast. Snaking along a thin strip of flat land  between the black sand beaches and the volcanic bulk of ice and lava that forms the Vantajökull. 

The lower lip of the Vantajökull glowers down on your left as you drive east along the coast. The larva cliffs interpolated by countless waterfalls. These cliffs support a rich flora as well as a huge number of Fulmars and other sea-birds. Unfortunately, the season and haste resulted in my having little opportunity to explore. One of the species I did observe was the pretty Saxifraga cotyledon. It had long since gone over but it's neat rosettes of white trimmed leaves were still a pleasant site adorning the dark algal slime covered rocks.

Continuing along the south coast we paused where a track diverged from the straightness of the road as it cut through lava fields spanning the horizon  While the landscape clearly consisted of lava its volcanic origins  was superficially disguised; hidden under a thick carpet of the moss Racomitrium lanuginosum. This surreal landscape, dominated by mosses and lichens supported a handful of  vascular plants. The most frequent and interesting of these was the fern Woodsia alpina (Alpine Woodsia). A very rare plant in the British Isles mostly due to its diligent eradication by collectors during the Victorian fern craze. This species is not particularly common even in Iceland this being the only place I observed it. 

Woodsia alpina Iceland 2011

Leaving the south coast we continued into the Eastfjords. The landscape drawn in ferrous red and blue as we drove for hours in and of the deep fingers of the fjords. Slow progress was made but once we had conquered the fjords we made a stop shortly before the main road degenerated into a zig-zag dirt track. Here I found one of the plants I had most anticipated, Harrimanella hypnoides the Mossy Mountain-Heather. In what was an enduring theme of the trip it was well past its best. It grew in abundance intertwined with  Loisleuria procumbens, the Trailing Azalea.   

Harrimanella hypnoides near Breiðdalsvík, Iceland

Our next stop was at the highest point of the pass that leads to the isolated port town of Seyðisfjörður. We walked north from the road to the snowline and continued to the top of the nearest peak. A number of interesting species were encountered during the climb. Firstly large amounts of the moss Paludella squarrosa growing in flushes. This species was thought to be extinct in the British Isles until a small remnant population was discovered in Co. Mayo, Ireland. Many other species were scattered around including Sibbaldia procumbens (pictured below) and Sedum villosum. We also surprised a covey of ptarmigan hidden amongst the heath.

Paludella squarrosa near Seyðisfjörður
Sibbaldia procumbens near Seyðisfjörður

The ground became rough as we neared the summit and we found ourselves scrambling up gulleys of frost loosened scree. This treacherous terrain yielded  a high alpine species that I was pleased to encounter and, most remarkably, one still in flower: Ranunculus glacialis.

Ranunculus glacialis near Seyðisfjörður

A final stop at the lake of Mývatn before a speedy drive back to Reykjavik produced little in the way of botanical observations but did reward us with sightings of both Barow's Goldeneye and a single Harlequin Duck.

Barrow's Goldeneye (Bucephala islandica) Mývatn
1 - Skarpaas, Olav, and Odd E. Stabbetorp. "Diaspore ecology of Mertensia maritima: effects of physical treatments and their relative timing on dispersal and     germination." Oikos 95.3 (2001): 374-382.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Breakwater Country Park, Anglesey

During the last couple of weekends I have been surveying the Breakwater Country Park on the outskirts of Holyhead. Stuck between the grimy degeneration of the port town and the hilly lump of Holyhead Mountain,  the country park consists of an area of coastal heath and a number of scrubbed over old quarry workings. The contorted Precambrian rock was quarried in the mid Nineteenth century and transported a mile or so along the coast by rail to contribute to the building of  Holyhead Breakwater. Later a brickworks was built on the floor of the abandoned quarry, still later this too was abandoned leaving the area to dog walkers and duck fanciers.

My visits, being in October, were too late in the season to encounter many plants at their best. The Genista anglica (Petty Whin) among the grassy heath atop the low cliffs had gone to pod. The previously confusing Dactylorhiza species were also nothing more than dessicated spires. Despite this I saw a handful of things of interest, both dead and alive. 

While recording relevés of coastal heath I came across a familiar species typical of the habitat but looking nothing like it had on any of my previous encounters with it. Scilla verna (Spring Squill) is a small plant that now, post APG III, belongs to the family Asparagaceae. Growing exclusively on salt-sprayed sea cliffs its small blue flowers emerge in spring and somewhat resemble a small bluebell. I had know it would be frequent on the site but had suspected that I may miss it due to the season but its delicate seed pods, once noticed were everywhere. Later, when crawling around examining mosses growing on bare peat on a skeletal area of heath I came across the other end of the squill's cycle. Tiny succulent green shoots poking up from the peat readying themselves for the spring.   

Scilla verna open seed pods with seed
Breakwater Country Park, October 2012

Scilla verna shoot
Breakwater Country Park, October 2012

A flushed and overhung area of tumbledown soft cliff  a little further along the coast supported a range of mossy cushions and wefts. Among these was the plain coastal pleurocarp Drepanocladus polygamus. Not an uncommon species but, as I am still a relative novice with regard to bryology, a new species for me. 

Drepanocladus polygamus Breakwater Country Park, October 2012 (N.B. while specimens of this species from this site were confirmed
microscopically the plant in the picture was not and therefore
I can not say with 100% certainty that it is this species)

One species very noticeable for its malodorous bloom during my visits was the ivy. At once one of the most universally recognised species and one that, in this case, has only recently come to 'exist'. Nearly all of the ivy in the west of the British Isles was relatively recently (1990) recognised as a different species, Hedera hibernica. Despite having now been understood for over two decades this species is still mostly ignored. See  the 1990 paper by McAllister & Rutherford in the journal Watsonia for details of the differentiation between H. hibernica and H. helix.            

Hedera hibernica flowers
Breakwater Country Park, October 2012 

Pale Tussock (Calliteara pudibunda) caterpillar
Breakwater Country Park, October 2012  

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Vanoise National Park

Baffled motorists
in front of Notre Dame de I'Iseran
Being my first visit to the Alps, my time in the Vanoise National Park this June was botanically rather overwhelming. I took  hundreds of pictures of plants that I can no more than assign to genera. I see little point in posting pictures about which I know so little, instead I'm mostly going to post those of species that also occur in the British Isles.

Our trip began in, what felt to my Welsh constitution, unbearable heat in Lyon. Our few days in the city unsurprisingly produced little in the way of plants. I saw two species I had not previously encountered; Impatiens parviflora and Senecio paludosus.

The former is a problematic invasive in Europe whose spread from botanic gardens is detailed in this paper. The latter grew abundantly up and down the banks of the Saône . This species is very rare in the British Isles and was long thought to be extinct. One population was rediscovered in Cambridgeshire in 1972 as detailed in this paper. Three subspecies of this taxon exist and a key to distinguish between them is to be found in this paper.

On arriving in our chalet in the on the edge of the pine forests above Peisey-Nancroix I quickly headed out to get a first look at the local flora. One of the first species I encountered was the doubtful British native, Homogyne alpina. This species ha only ever been found in one location in the UK and it is suspected that it may have been planted. On the continent it is quite common and I observed it everywhere in the pine forests of the Vanoise.

Homogyne alpina Peisey Nancroix June 2012

Nowhere near as frequent as the previous species was the elusive orchid Pseudorchis albida. I have unsuccessfully searched for this species at a number of sites where it has been recorded both in Ireland and Wales. On my previous searches for this species I had been hunched over searching for a tiny greenish plant but it was nowhere near as small and inconspicuous as I had expected it to be.

Pseudorchis albida Peisey Nancroix June 2012

Next a couple of species of northern pine forests. Lycopodium annotinum and Melampyrum sylvaticum  both occur in Scotland and both were frequent in the Vanoise.

Lycopodium annotinum 
Peisey Nancroix June 2012
Melampyrum sylvaticum Peisey Nancroix June 2012

Melampyrum sylvaticum is a species I have been concious of for a while as it described in the books as being very similar to Mpratense and could possibly still be found in new areas. However its small bent flowers make it appear quite different when actually encountered.

Differing somewhat from the generally northern species above is the structurally odd woodland plant Paris quadrifolia. Not a species I had expected to encounter in the Alps I saw it growing in scrubby woodland on the lower slopes of a valley. 

Paris quadrifolia Peisey Nancroix June 2012

Moving now from the woodlands of the lower slopes to the meadows, scree and snow above. A species that I am familiar with from Snowdonia but one that I have only ever seen as a single flower on an inaccessible crag. Gagea serotina, the Snowdon Lily grew abundantly among the short sward of grey-brown Festuca and harsh blue Gentiana near the Col de l'Iseran. 

Gagea serotina
Col de l'Iseran (27/06/12)

Alpine Chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus) chicks
in an old fort above Lac du Mont-Cenis (27/06/12)

Monday, 24 September 2012

Gorumna Island

Last day in Connemara today. Surveying a small coastal fringe of grassland on the edge of the boulder-strewn heathland that makes up the majority of Gorumna island. While the extent of the grassland habitat was very limited it was a nice example of the species rich neutral grassland that occurs in small pockets along the southern Connemara coast. The most interesting species recorded was Ophioglossum azoricum (found at L_9315_2232 or thereabouts). This small , rather un-fernlike, pteridophyte is almost entirely restricted to islands as can be seen from the BSBI on-line distribution map. It grows in short, damp sward on cliffs and rocky outcrops near the sea. This is the first time I have found it in Connemara but the third time I have observed it in Ireland. The two previous occasions being at Malin Head (C_3985_5969), Co. Donegal in 2010 and at Dooncarton (F_8010_3839), Co. Mayo in 2011. 

Ophioglossum azoricum  Dooncarton (F_8010_3839), Co. Mayo 2011 

A more frequent species in this area is the small orchid Spiranthes spiralis. Its English name, autumn lady's tresses, while evocative is slightly misleading as it had already gone over today. Having reached its peak about three weeks ago around the end of August. In Britain I have seen it only a handful of times and always on inland limestone grassland. In the west of Ireland however, it is frequent on machair and other base-rich coastal grassland types.       

Spiranthes spiralis
Belmullet, Co. Mayo
F_61790_19549) 2011
Another frequent species here is Gentianella campestris. This attractive species of un-improved grasslands is much decreased and now quite rare in the southern half of the UK but is still locally common in Connemara.

Gentianella campestris Roundstone, Co. Galway (L_715_386) 2011 

Finally, though not a species of grassland, Daboecia cantabrica is a classic Connemara species. Along with Erica cinerea and Ulex gallii it was still in flower today adding colour to a grey and drizzly day.  

Daboecia cantabrica
Doonloughan, Co. Galway 2011

Saturday, 22 September 2012


Connemara ponies graze in a species rich coastal grassland
with the The Twelve Bens in the background  

Over the last couple of weeks I have been working in Connemara, the westermost region of Co. Galway. This is the second summer during which my work has involved forays to this botanically fascinating area. 

Connemara has a long history of botanical visitors drawn by a suite of local specialities. The first of these being the Welsh botanist Edward Llwyd who visited in the late 17th century. Incidentally this is the Llwyd whose namesake Lloydia serotina has recently been rather unfeelingly reassigned to the genus Gagea. Since then pretty much no corner of Connemara has gone un-botanised. This is demonstrated by the thorough, if somewhat dated 1983 flora by David Webb and Mary Scannell. Despite its age it is remarkable in its accuracy. Most times one finds a plant in the region the exact location will be found to be noted in the flora.   

The most recent plant of interest I came across is not one I had associated with the region. The yellow bartsia, Parentucellia viscosa. I found it abundantly around about Roundstone in Juncus effusus flushes on the north facing slopes of the small hill Errisbeg (L_69430_39137). Sure enough on consulting Webb and Scannell I learnt that the species was first recorded in the region in 1909 by Praeger from a location within a stones throw of where I had found the plant. Another, somewhat less exciting but also unexpected species in the same area was Stachys arvensis found growing around a rock in an intensively sheep grazed semi-improved acid grassland (L_69379_39286). This species, normally found in arable situations, is listed as 'very rare' in the region by Webb and Scannell and no recent dots are shown in the Atlas.        
Parentucellia viscosa near Roundstone 12/09/12
Moving now to a famous location and a pair of species for Connemara is well known. On the other side of Errisbeg lies Roundstone bog a large expanse of lowland blanket bog punctuated by small oligotrophic loughs. This is the classic location of the Connemara speciality Erica mackaiana, Mackay's heath. E. mackaiana was first discovered in Ireland in 1835 on Roundstone bog and has been visited in this location by botanists ever since. By far the most difficult to identify of the three Irish heathers this species hybridises with the common Erica tetralix and even pure specimens appear very similar without close examination. Having been based for a number of years on the west coast of Ireland in both Mayo and Donegal I had been on the lookout for this species in some of its other stations but had not been able to convince myself with certainty that I was not simply looking at variation within Erica tetralix. However, on Roundstone bog last year I was able to study plentiful pure plants as well as a number of intermediates that I presume to be the aforementioned hybrid (E. X stuartii). 

Erica mackaiana with Pedicularis sylvatica subsp. hibernica
Roundstone Bog, Co. Galway 03/08/11

The second species is the subtly beautiful Eriocaulon aquaticum, Pipewort. This aquatic species is frequent in some parts of the west of Ireland but, apart from a few stations in Scotland, is unknown form the rest of Europe. It is one of a handful of species that have their headquarters in North America with outposts in the west of the British Isles. The nubs of peppered white flowers are found protruding from small acidic loughs. On Roundstone bog scattered plants grow in deep bog pools with their roots attached to other submerged vegetation rather than to the substrate. The picture below is of a much more impressive colony growing on gravely substrate in shallow water by a small lough in Co. Mayo.  

Eriocaulon aquaticum small lough near Currane,
Co. Mayo (
L 76433 92563)
The carnivorous plant Utricularia minor
growing in a bog pool.
Roundstone Bog, Co. Galway. 03/08/11 

Moving now from the Roundstone to the eastern edge of Connemara. The area around the western edges of Lough Mask and Lough Corrib is host to two other species with similar distributions to that of Eriocaulon aquaticum. The first of these, Hypericum canadense is doubtfully native. Outside of this area it is known from Cork and North America. It grows with some abundance in roadside ditches as well as in boggy flushes away from the road. 

Hypericum canadense 
growing in a track-side ditch near
Shanvallycahill (M 05017 62236) 01/08/11

The second species is the elegant little orchid Spiranthes romanzoffiana. It is well know from the shores of Lough Corrib though I myself saw it in Co. Mayo near Rinakilleen. It is found on gravely lake shores often among Molinia. Being somewhat small and inconspicuous it is quite possibly still to be discovered in a number of places. Given its current distribution in the UK (Dartmoor, Ireland and Scotland) I have often wondered if it may someday be found in Wales. 

Spiranthes romanzoffiana 
near Rinakilleen, Co. Mayo 16/08/2011

The final Connemara species for my blog today is not a speciality of the west of Ireland but is quite an enigmatic and strange little fern. Pilularia globulifera is a small aquatic, grass like plant that is only revealed as a pteridophyte by its coiled croziers (see picture). It is a local and decreasing species that I had not seen in the wild before. So I was pleased to find it in some abundance on swampy low-lying ground near the shore of one of the 'fingers' of Lough Mask near Finny (M_01780_58241).    

Pilularia globulifera 
near Finny (M_01780_58241)  03/07/11