Wednesday 23 January 2019

Snakelocks and scallops on rocks

Ireland's seashore: Lucy Taylor and Emma Nickelsen
Ireland's seashore: Lucy Taylor and Emma Nickelsen

Joe Kennedy

If it is my lucky day I may be served samphire as a vegetable with a fish-of-the-day counter lunch in a Dublin city centre pub.

Samphire? Yes, that chewy, stringy, sea-green exotic that has been picking its way through the asparagus, avocados and kale in a list of what are called superfoods piling up like menu cards distributed by those celebrity chefs commanding attention on our TV screens. Simple folk, such as me fein, can't keep pace with such excitements.

Samphire, now, is a delight, though there are those who would disagree. My problem has been to distinguish the 'rock' version from the 'marsh' one. Now I feel I know, with the help of a new book and a glance back at an old reliable one.

Richard Mabey, the renowned naturalist, in a book he wrote in the 1970s called Food for Free, described the marsh samphire as "a real character", surrounded by folklore as to when it should be picked ("on the longest day") with the healthiest specimens being those that have been "washed by every tide". A search in the muddy inlets and hidden creeks is rewarded by finding something "delectable".

Now, the rock version (Crithmum maritimum), a squat, bushy plant about one-foot high, "bears no sort of relation" to the marsh plant (Salicornia europaea). Mabey says the names are confusing - and even the habitats differ. Rock samphire prefers the sides of cliffs, but is often found in shingle where it may be traced by its slightly sulphurous odour. Both stems and leaves of this plant are boiled and pickled. "Let it be gathered about Michaelmas or in the spring," wrote one John Evelyn in 1699.

Rock samphire (but not marsh) is one of the coastal plants featured in an excellent pocket-sized soft cover book (costing €14.99) compiled by two young graduates of University College Cork and published by the Collins Press.

The authors of Ireland's Seashore - A Field Guide are marine biologists Lucy Taylor and Emma Nickelsen who have gathered a vast amount of information on shells, plants, seaweeds and living creatures encountered on beach walks.

All are pictured in colour and there are some that one may never have heard about (but has noticed) such as a snakelocks anemone, a Sagartia elegans (you have seen it!) or even a humpback scallop which clings to rocks and becomes distorted as it grows.

And there is the prickly cockle that can leap 20cm if disturbed. There is also a sea hare that does not leap, lives in shallow water and looks like the algae it eats. I looked in vain for a sea mouse which I had once found in a magazine - a worm in a velveteen pelage that can create a rainbow of colour.

The book's introductory pages are filled with facts on oceans, tides, waves and habitats with advice to beach walkers on the threats facing a very delicate eco-system. As the authors point out, it can be very depressing to visit a beautiful shore only to realise it has been tainted by human waste, particularly plastic now found in the stomachs and organs of many marine creatures lying on the seashore or struggling to survive in the world's oceans.

Sunday Independent

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