Monday 23 July 2018

Pale blue and spotted white among treasures of The Burren

Treasure trove: This month is a great time to spot the spring gentian, found in The Burren
Treasure trove: This month is a great time to spot the spring gentian, found in The Burren

Joe Kennedy

There was a sizeable queue outside the Central Bank in Dame Street, Dublin the other morning seeking to make modest investments in 1916 commemorative coins.

These have the likeness of 'Hibernia' which, though she may gaze from the roof of the GPO, some doubts as to her patriotic suitability have been expressed.

Be that as it may, the day that was in it still had the lingering chill of weather that continues to resist the arrival of a decent spell of real springtime. Indeed, perhaps the present climate has been more suitable to honour the imposing lady with the harp.

The Romans named us well as Hibernia, the "wintry land", the last outpost of the inhabited world where, the Messalian explorer Pytheas held, "complete savages lead a miserable existence because of the cold." No wonder Caesar didn't send any legions in from Britain!

Pytheas (300-285BC), a geographer, was the first Roman to visit these islands and recorded that the original name of this land was "Ierne" - the weather obviously hastened a change to Hibernia.

So then let us give some thought to a remarkable part of "Ierne" where the weather is usually milder as the massive bulk of the bare limestone landscape acts as a great storage heater, taking in the warmer airs of summer and gradually releasing it over the wretched winter months.

This is The Burren or boireann, the rocky place, where the temperature of water and air in deep caves is constant at 10°C and is home to an amazing assembly of plants of different climatic zones and habitats not found growing together elsewhere in Europe.

Many admirers of nature's wonders will have on a regular basis traversed The Burren's lunar-like landscape and that of the neighbouring Aran Islands to look at flowers. Visitors keep returning to see the hundreds of flowering plants and ferns peeping out of fissures and showing joyous colours in a landscape where they might feel they were the first visitors.

All of these plants arrived within the past 15,000 years and when the glaciers disappeared at the end of the last Ice Age, other plants drifted in. Two tundra-era survivors are the Arctic sandworth and mountain avens. The first is very rare and once was thought to have become extinct but a scientific observer noticed some in depressions of gravelly soil south of Black Head in 2008.

This month is the time to look for the great Burren attraction, the spring gentian, common in grassy places and peaty hummocks. It peaks in May but the pale blue plants begin flowering before that. Plant spotters can be carried away by treasures such as the trove of orchids in mid-summer, especially the famous pure white O'Kelly's Spotted.

All this care about Clare is as a result of a little book by The Collins Press of Cork, from the distinguished Dr Charles Nelson, who was senior research botanist and horticultural taxonomist at the National Botanic Gardens. Many will remember him on radio with our own Gerry Daly. The Wild Plants of the Burren and Aran Islands fits in the pocket, has excellent photographs and with a touch of magic will transport you to the peace and pleasures of the West for just under €10, considerably less than the shining coins of Hibernia in her raiment of gold and silver.

Sunday Independent

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