Saturday 25 January 2020

Country Matters: Hedgerow dangers and queen's lace

FROTHY: Queen Anne’s lace
FROTHY: Queen Anne’s lace

Joe Kennedy

Recognising individual bird calls I find as difficult as is identifying wild plants in ditches and hedgerows.

As an amateur observer with little scientific knowledge except scraps absorbed in the course of a peripatetic newspaper life, I readily admire those who can promptly name a calling bird, especially the smaller songbirds, from hearing a twittering melody or signal of alarm.

A clergyman's son once impressed me with his marvellous facility for identifying birdsong. He was a striking example of a received opinion that Anglican ministers comprised the foremost group of naturalists in these islands. Perhaps this was so because they had the time to study and observe the natural world in their rural parsonages.

Be that as it may, recently I was transported to another world in northern Leitrim - with at least one abandoned place of worship - where I awoke to the sound of a scolding robin and wandered along traffic-free roads and lanes criss-crossed by birds at almost every other step.

It was like being transported back to a 'normal' Irish countryside of 50 years ago. There were no people about and fewer animals - even sheep - than when I was last in this untrammelled wildness with only the scolding of small birds breaking cover and, in the distance, the unmistakable call of the cuckoo to puncture the silence.

The roadside hedges were thick with 'sweets-of-May' hawthorn blossoms and the abundant white testaments of Queen Anne's lace - the frothy cow parsley, one of many umbellifers of the carrot family, difficult to identify and, in the case of one or more, being also poisonous. This is especially so with fool's parsley (Aethusa cynapium), aptly named, which can be mistaken for the genuine herb.

This contains an alkaloid substance called coniine - the main active ingredient of hemlock, poisonous to man and beast. Remember Keats's "as though of hemlock I had drunk… and Lethe-wards had sunk.." (This plant killed Socrates.)

The botanical name of fool's parsley, aethusa, comes from the Greek 'aithos' meaning fire, its toxic reputation being reflected in nicknames such as dog poison and devil wand.

'Peirsil bho' is the Irish name for cow parsley (Queen Anne's lace) with white terminal umbels and long stalks schoolchildren once used as peashooters.

The carrot genus ranges from pignuts and dropworts to angelicas and the nasty giant hogweed ('feabhran capaill' in Irish) which is phototoxic, causing severe skin reaction if touched. Giant hogweed is an ugly, invasive growth seen along riverbanks and ponds, originally an escape from Victorian gardens where it was introduced as a novelty in the 19th century.

I have a personal memory of a mystery skin rash on a family member, the cause, after much medical attention, being eventually traced to brushing against the hogweed on a "shortcut to the shops".

No one really seeks carrot family blooms for botanical displays - but, nevertheless, being alerted to possible dangers and discomforts is important.

Wildflower guides are informative and should be consulted. There are a number of published choices, all attractively illustrated.

Sunday Independent

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