Farm Ireland

Friday 15 December 2017

There's more to our native plants than meets the eye

A host of wildflowers, including cowslips, bluebells and goldilocks, cluster at the base of a lime tree on the avenue of St. Michael & All Angels' Church, Abbeyleix, Co. Laois which marked 150 years of its Consecration last weekend
A host of wildflowers, including cowslips, bluebells and goldilocks, cluster at the base of a lime tree on the avenue of St. Michael & All Angels' Church, Abbeyleix, Co. Laois which marked 150 years of its Consecration last weekend
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

Looking at the countryside, I am struck by the contrasting opinions on three currently flowering native plants, all of which were traditionally regarded as very useful - the gorse-furze-whin, dandelion and cowslip.

In more intensive farming areas, the extraordinary prickly furze (as I knew it growing up) is a common boundary hedge which can also be seen rapidly expanding alongside motorways. Views here towards the furze are generally benign.

Furze bears flowers year round, hence the old phrase: "When gorse is out of blossom, kissing is out of fashion." But the plant is particularly vibrant this time of year when its deep yellow flowers, which give off a wonderful coconut-like smell, illuminate the landscape.

Traditionally, furze has had a range of uses, including as a fuel and animal fodder. The flowers are edible and it has been used to treat ailments including jaundice, scarlet fever and worms in horses. In homeopathy, it is seen as a balm to the heart.

However, views on furze are considerably more heated where it is spreading rapidly in many hill areas that are more sparsely populated and lightly grazed than at any time in the last couple of hundred years.

This has followed various EU agriculture policies, including compulsory destocking of sheep and the latter decoupling of payments, which reduced both sheep and cattle numbers.

The tight, often negative margins, of livestock production in these areas and the move to continental breeds of cattle has accelerated this process.

This issue has come to a head in recent weeks, due to the fires that have swept many such areas during the dry spell. Burning land is illegal from March 1-August 31.

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Catherine Keena, Teagasc countryside management specialist, says burning is a powerful management tool when used in a controlled situation at the right time of year. But, she emphasises, "there is no point in doing it unless the land is going to be grazed afterwards."

Last week, the Department of Agriculture issued a booklet on land eligibility for various EU farm schemes. This states that land which has been burnt (unless under controlled burning when the proper procedures has been followed) is not in a fit state for grazing or cultivation and will thus be ineligible.

However, a farmer will not be held accountable where someone else sets a fire and a person would need to be proven guilty of starting a fire to be penalised.

I don't know if any farmers are illegally setting fires but, if so, they are unlikely to be reported, by a farmer neighbour anyway.

We Irish have a curious attitude to the law which we somehow always see as someone else's that is being forced upon us. It used to be England, now it's the EU. So, even if we don't agree with a rule, we wouldn't consider reporting someone for breaking it.

Maybe this is due to our long history of being occupied when the worst thing someone could do was to inform on someone else?

It's kind of a tribal thing and no-one is more tribal than a farmer.

The dandelion or Taraxacum vulgaria is a less contentious subject. The name dandelion comes from the French dent de lion, meaning lion's tooth, from their deep toothed leaves. One of its vernacular names 'pissy-beds' refers to the belief that just touching part of a dandelion can cause bed-wetting. It's also been called the Sun (flower) Moon (puffball) and Stars (dispersing seeds) plant.

I have a couple of questions on dandelions that some reader may be able to answer; why are they apparently so numerous this year and why is it that some fields are totally peppered with them, while those immediately adjoining have far fewer? Is it somehow linked to the field management, such as the timing of fertiliser application or cutting and grazing?


Everybody knows these bright yellow perennials grow on most ground but do best in rich moist soil and they absolutely love the disturbed ground of the garden. They are among the oldest plants in the world and have been found in fossils dating back 30 million years.

Indeed, the main reason for its spread was that it was so useful, as a medicine, in wine-making and for food. Every part of the plant is edible and it is highly nutritious, with more potassium than bananas and more vitamin A than carrots.

On a South African website I came across the following advice that the root is best harvested after it has flowered and had a chance to spread some of its "glorious seed", adding "just be mindful not to damage surrounding plants and leave plenty of dandelions for other foragers."

There is also a delightful Chicken Soup for the Gardener's Soul story by David Matz.

One day, a man is supposed to take his four-year-old daughter fishing. As they are about to leave, he gets side-tracked into digging up a few dandelions in his garden. The day wears on. The little girl keeps trying to drag him away but the compulsion to complete the job is overwhelming. Finally, she taps him on the shoulder, saying "make a wish, Daddy". He turns in time to see a multitude of dandelion seeds shoot up in the air.

Of course, our attitude is all dependent on familiarity. What's rare is wonderful. Thus, while furze and dandelions get plenty of bad press in this part of the world, I have never heard anyone say a bad word about the delicate little Cowslip or Bainne bó bleachtáin.

Its apricot-smelling, funnel-shaped flowers, with characteristic orange freckles, hang like a bunch of keys on perilously tall stalks and joyfully bob about. Traditional uses include preparing it as antioxidant, a cough mixture, and making a wine that was more precious than elderberry wine.

Cowslip numbers have been in decline for many years but, they are, as Zoë Devlin points out in her beautiful book Wildflowers of Ireland, "starting to make a comeback."

They declined as a result of intensive farming, over-picking and being dug up for gardens. (So if you have any, try not to cut them until after they have seeded.)

The cowslip is one of eight wildflowers that the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) is focusing on in its Irish Species Project, which aims to gather information about the distribution of species of particular interest in Ireland.

The other species covered by the project are Moonwort, Cyperus Sedge, Autumn Gentian, Toothwort, Grass-of-Parnassus, Common Wintergreen and Cranberry. Any and all records are welcome. For more information, contact


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