As I cycled through west Cork and climbed the coastal road that snaked its way north out of Bantry, the weather could not have been more miserable. Cool sheets of drizzle swept across the road in front of me, slowly soaking through my jacket. To my left, Bantry Bay was hazy with rain.
Despite the unpleasant conditions, my attention was focused on the horizon, where, tucked into a secluded valley beneath the stony slopes of the Caha Mountains, I could see Glengarriff Woods Nature Reserve.
Rain-drenched and mossy, this ancient woodland is one of the best examples of temperate rainforest in Ireland.
Temperate rainforests have become so rare, so fragmented and so degraded, that today few people even realise they exist. They prosper in the sort of persistent drizzle that often defines the west coast of Ireland, concealed in damp gorges and clinging to the rocky edge of the land.
Often dominated by knobbly, stunted oaks, they are magical places. Imagine fairy-tale worlds of ferns, wobbly, mossed-over rocks and tangled thickets of crooked, low-hung branches and you get the idea.
These precious habitats once covered much more of Ireland’s west coast, but today only a fraction remain. Isolated fragments can be found on the finger-like peninsulas in Cork and Kerry which harbour some of the best examples in north-west Europe.
Where the land is too steep and rocky for browsing herbivores and logging machinery, our forgotten rainforests survive as relics.
I arranged to spend a day moss hunting with Clare Heardman, a conservation ranger with the National Parks and Wildlife Service. I met Clare outside the lodge at the entrance to the reserve, beneath a towering oak whose branches were wreathed in turquoise lichens. It was cold, drizzly and humid, and our breath formed mist on the still air.
Mossy Irish rainforest in West Cork. Photo: Leif Bersweden
I felt slightly guilty about how wet our walk was going to be, but Clare had the impervious nature of someone who wouldn’t let a bit of rain get in the way of enjoying being outdoors and we set off eagerly, excitedly discussing what we might see.
Being right on the edge of Europe means Glengarriff Woods has a unique climate, heavily influenced by the Gulf Stream and the Atlantic Ocean. The mild, humid conditions are perfect for mosses: it rarely freezes in the winter, and seldom gets too hot and dry in the summer.
The rain in west Cork can be relentless at times – Glengarriff gets more than double the annual rainfall of Dublin – but that’s turned south-west Ireland into a special European hotspot for these damp-loving creatures.
Mosses are among the simplest of all land plants. For the most part they are small, green and overlooked, yet they do all sorts of amazing things.
They can hibernate during dry periods, curling into desiccated, dead-looking patches until they are rehydrated; some can create their own habitat and exert their influence on entire landscapes; others can extract moisture from the air, taking advantage of mists in the absence of rain.
Equipped with these adaptations, mosses play an important role in terrestrial ecosystems. They regulate water cycles, they clean our air and support thousands of invertebrates, many of which have adapted to the cyclical wetting and drying that many species go through during the year.
They also have a talent for storing carbon, one of the many reasons why a mossy ancient woodland is much more valuable than a newly planted one. It can take decades without disturbance for their rich communities to establish.
Then there are the Sphagnum bog mosses, which lock away more carbon than any other genus of plants.
The beauty, ecological adaptations and survival instincts of moss have fascinated and enthralled me for years and even today these tiny plants regularly induce a child-like delight.
So, as we crossed over the river towards the trees and the botanical riches of Glengarriff Woods became visible, I felt my stomach contract into a knot of excitement.
The woodland was dripping with life: every rock surface, every tree trunk, every fallen bough was clothed in emerald moss. Tree branches, usually so bare at this time of year, were completely green, obscured by countless little plants.
The trunks of the Sessile oaks were blanketed in different species and Polypody ferns crowded on to the branches, silhouetted like chunky television aerials against the cloudy sky.
The sheer rock face to our right was veiled in a dense colony of tiny Tunbridge Filmy-ferns. Their cellophane fronds – only one cell thick – were a translucent, beer-bottle green.
Clare and I spent a while standing in companionable silence, looking closely at the lower branches of an oak. We tried moving slowly along the branch, our noses hovering a few centimetres above its surface, imagining we were soaring over an alien forest.
It was a strange, beautiful world of crenulated leaves and starry, soothing greens. Looking at mosses is a bit like looking at snowflakes – they are tiny, perfectly formed structures, the same yet not the same.
Though I didn’t know the names of most of the species I was seeing, I found myself absorbed by their different shapes and patterns.
We climbed the hill, walking through pristine Atlantic rainforest, the light pattering of rain on fallen leaves accompanying us as we ascended. The abundance of mosses and ferns was staggering; I had never seen trees covered in so many plants before.
The lofty branches were chaotically beautiful and I examined those within reach greedily.
Ferns of all shapes and sizes were erupting in tufts. There were the leathery fish-bone fronds of Hard-fern, then the much larger Scaly Male-fern, an upright species with shaggy stems that came up to my knees.
A third species, Hay-scented Buckler-fern, sprouted clumps of crinkly fronds that bowed gracefully over the leaf litter. I picked an end and sniffed, smiling at the unmistakable scent of a meadow at the end of summer.
Plants are the unsung heroes of the world we live in. They have to face all the same challenges that animals face – they need to put food on the table, reproduce, avoid being eaten by predators – but they have to do so with the added complication of being rooted to the spot.
How will they do it? How have they adapted to a life of comparative immobility? Just like humans, plants are determined and crafty when they are after something. When you start delving into the weird and wonderful world of botany, you find they have come up with some ingenious ways of getting what they want.
Finding cool plants is one thing, but finding people who enjoy looking at them is another. Highlighting the ways in which people interact with plants is just as important as sharing the plants themselves if we’re to engage a wider audience.
And, with the catastrophic decline of many of our wildflowers, this has never been more important. Our populations of wild plants are being decimated by habitat destruction, endless application of herbicides and fertilisers, chronic overgrazing, and without more voices standing up for them, their numbers will keep falling.
This is what brought me on my mission to put Britain and Ireland’s plants in the limelight, alongside those who spend time searching for them.
Plants are an almost ubiquitous presence in our lives, wherever we go – even in the heart of cities – and their colours and shapes make up the landscapes that we live in. But when it comes to engaging people with the natural world, empathy plays an enormous role.
Most plants don’t change very quickly, and are often disregarded because of it. I know many people dismiss them as being boring before they learn about the unlikely, extraordinary lives that they lead.
I’m sure if people give them a chance and learn how to engage with them, they will start seeing plants in a different light and discover the value of spending time outside noticing them. If we can encourage people to build emotional connections with our wild plants and show them how fascinating they actually are, then the need to appreciate and protect them might seem more appealing, and more pressing.
As Clare and I passed through the ethereal, fairy-tale surroundings of Glengarriff Woods, I gazed up at the fronds of Tamarisk-moss crowding the branches, fanning out in all directions.
I felt giddy, full of child-like awe, and stopped every few metres, gazing into the canopy, lost in it all. In all my woodland wanderings, I had never seen anything remotely like it. It was difficult to process this level of abundance.
I couldn’t help feeling sad about all that we have lost. Why have we destroyed so much? How could anyone possibly experience a woodland like this and find the strength to cut it down? It was glorious and heartbreaking and joyful and mesmerising.
It had stopped raining and within minutes the sun had come out. The low light lit up the dripping woodland, amplified by countless glistening water droplets.
When we think about woodlands we tend to conjure images of trees, but it’s worth making an effort to change the scale and think about all the life growing in a few centimetres squared.
Mosses get forgotten, but they are every bit as beautiful as flowering plants, conifers and ferns. They just require us to slow down, look closely and appreciate how lucky we are to share the world with such incredible creatures.
Where the Wild Flowers Grow by Leif Bersweden is out on June 23 (Hodder, €20)
Wild about flowers: Five of the best
1. Spring Gentian (Gentiana verna)
Irish name: Ceadharlach Bealtaine
The jewel in the crown of the Burren in Co Clare. In May 2013 I saw my first Spring Gentian at the foot of Mullaghmore, an ancient, sloping hill rising from the rocky limestone landscape of the Burren.
Their pure azure flowers were scattered in the turf like gemstones, collecting around lumps of silver limestone. The eminent19th-century Irish botanist Patrick O’Kelly mentioned their “heavenly blue” flowers. “It is the queen of all known alpine plants in the whole world,” he wrote. “No collection is complete without this gem of the first water.”
2. Kerry Lily (Simethis planifolia)
Irish name: Lile Fhíonáin
Confined to a handful of sites in south Kerry and west Cork, this delicate species is one of our rarest and most beautiful plants. It grows in dry, rocky, maritime heath among rough patches of gorse (Ulex europaeus) and flowers in May and June.
This carnivorous plant has big purple flowers and bright, lime-green leaves arranged in a ring and stuck flat on the ground like a starfish. It catches its insect prey using the sticky hairs that cover the upper surface of the leaves. Your best bet for this one is to head to the peninsulas of Co Cork and Co Kerry.
I visited the windy shore of Lough Cullin in Co Mayo one August. There were the beautiful wine-red flowers of Marsh Cinquefoil (Comarum palustre) and bright pink spikes of Purple-loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria).
But the highlight – and the reason for my visit – was the rare orchid called Irish Lady’s-tresses (Spiranthes romanzoffiana), a spiralling flowerhead of pure white flowers and a real treat for any plant hunter.
5. Cottonweed (Otanthus maritimus)
Irish name: Cluasach mhara
This is an incredibly rare plant that can only befound on the east coast of Co Wexford. It has woolly leaves and tight yellow flowerheads, growing on sand dunes and shingle. This was a plant I had intended to track down for the book, but Covid restrictions thwarted my plans.