Wildflower Wonder of the World – Part 1

O'Kelly's Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii okellyi) and Bloo

O’Kelly’s Spotted Orchid and Bloody Cranesbill

Bob Gibbons is a renowned botanist and nature tour leader.  His stunning book Wildflower Wonders of the World was published by New Holland Publishers in 2011. In the book Gibbons profiles what he considers to be the top 50 botanical sites on earth. The Burren in County Clare features. Gibbons includes the Burren in the top 50 for two reasons:

1) the sheer abundance of flowers and

2) the unique combination of plants from different habitats and climatic zones in the world co-mingling together. In 2012 Gibbons led a flower walk in the Burren. At one point he came across the Dense Flowered “Irish” Orchid (Neotinia maculata) [below left] and Spring Gentian (Gentiana verna) [below right] growing centimeters apart. Gibbons proclaimed to the group that the Burren was the only region in the world where these two species co-mingle.

Dense Flowered Orchid (Neotinea maculata) Spring Gentian (Gentiana verna)

“The Burren is s strange and wonderful place, full of contradictions” Bob Gibbons

Another botanical giant at our shoulders is Belfast man Charles Ernest Nelson (born 1951). He was formerly senior research botanist at the National Botanical Gardens in Dublin. Nelson is the author of more than twenty books. His magnum opus on the Burren flora is called The Burren A Companion to the Wildflowers of an Irish Limestone Wilderness. Published originally in 1991 by Samton Ltd Dublin for the Burren Conservancy. I think the publication is now out of print but copies are available to buy on-line. Nelson also wrote Wild Plants of the Burren and the Aran Islands (Collins Press) – first published 1999. It is the definitive Burren flower pocket guide. The wholly accessible book features 136 Burren plants. Nelson now lives in West Norfolk in England and spends some time each year in his old farmhouse in Lanzarote.
Mary Angela Keane is an historical geographer and has lived in Lisdoonvarna for more than fifty years. She is the author of the book The Burren – designed and produced by Jarrold Publishing, Norwich (2001). I attended a lecture of Mary Angela’s back in 2005. It took place in O’Donoghue’s pub in Fanore as part of the Burren Wildlife Symposium (now no more). I recall that Keane excellently highlighted five reasons why the Burren is of enduring botanical fascination. The reasons are as follows: Unique combination of wild flowers – the Arctic/Alpine/Mediterranean mix. The Burren is one of the few regions in Europe which supports this very strange wild flower mélange.

Early Purple Orchid

Early Purple Orchid

Sheer abundance of native species. For example the “primula extravaganza” in spring is a sight to behold. There is a particular abundance of Primroses (Primula vulgaris). However, Cowslips (Primula veris) are widespread also. This latter flower is now scarce in the lowlands of Ireland due to industrialization of farming. The extensive primula mosaic is completed by the False Oxlip (Primula x polyantha), an uncommon flower elsewhere in Ireland.





Lime lovers and acid lovers. Acid lovers are a bizarre sight in the great calcareous Burren landscape. Their presence is explained by the fact that there are ghettos of acidic soil in the region which support calcifuge (lime-hating) plants. The most obvious acid lovers are Ling/Common Heather (Calluna vulgaris) and Bell Heather (Erica cinerea). Other acid lovers present in the region include St John’s Wort, slender (Hypericum pulchrum) and the spectacular Bitter Vetch (Lathyrus montanus).

Bell Heather

Bell Heather

Scarce flowers that made it. Some common flowers not present. Hoary Rock-rose (Helianthemum canum) grows grows in abundance in the Burren whilst it is very scarce in Great Britain. The more common Helianthemum, Common Rock-rose (Helianthemum nummularium), is widespread in Britain but is absent from the Burren.

Montane flora growing at sea level. The arctic Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala) and the alpine Spring Gentian (Gentiana verna) are normally found at altitude. However in the Burren, these species can grow from sea level right up to the highest points of the hills.

Mountain Avens

Mountain Avens

It is late September 2014 as I write this blog. It will surely be recorded here as one of the sunniest Septembers since records began. It is time now to say goodbye to Ireland and Britain’s last orchid of the year, Autumn Lady’s Tresses (Spiranthes spiralis). This orchid is not easy to spot – its average height is between only 3 and 15 centimeters. However, Autumn Lady’s tresses is a thing of beauty with white and green flowers – spirally arranged and very fragrant. The flowers are pollinated by bumble bees. The species is almost confined to Europe in the world and its status is near threatened. The biggest threat comes from agri-chemicals.

The Burren uplands are largely free of such fertilisers ensuring that the region remains a kind host to this very attractive plant. One of the many vernacular names for Autumn Lady’s Tresses is Sweet Ballocks – no less! Testicles are invoked as orchids’ tubers and their erect fleshy stems have a likeness to the male genitalia. In fact the word orchid comes from the Greek word for testicle – orkhis.
The Burren is in bloom all year round but when Autumn Lady’s tresses disappears, it will be arrivederci to the orchid family till next spring. Slán magairlíní. (Good bye orchids).

Burnet Rose

Burnet Rose

© Text by Tony Kirby / Images by Carsten Krieger

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