June 23rd - Botany at Howth.

Conductor; Declan Doogue

On Saturday 23rd June, 8 members of the BNFC travelled by train to Howth for a joint excursion with the Dublin Naturalists’ Field Club under the expert leadership of Declan Doogue.  Members put the train journey to good use identifying moth photographs and discussing plans for a Federation of Irish Field Clubs. The Vice-president had his geological eye on the varying landscape we passed through between Belfast and Dublin.

Declan Doogue is a leading Irish botanist with a particular interest in habitats and “plants in their place “.  In his “The Wild Flowers of Ireland” (2010) he deals with differing habitats from gardens and their weeds to bogs and heaths.

We met Declan and DNFC members at Howth Dart station and within a few yards were examining the habitat of a limestone wall with the Mediterranean Red Valerian (Centranthus ruber), which can be white and pink as well as red, flourishing in the heat and shelter of the wall. Wall Barley (Hordeum murinum) with long awns that stick to clothes is a plant of the Dublin area, new to us.  Damper parts of the wall had various ferns such as Wall-rue (Asplenium ruta-muraria). An area of sandy beach and shingle had developed in a bay between the harbour and an outcrop of rock.  Salt marsh plants like Common Saltmarsh Grass (Puccinellia maritima), Annual Seablite (Suaeda maritima) and Lesser Sea-spurrey (Spergularia marina) had established themselves on a shingle outcrop. Seaweed provides nutrition for plants like Spear-leaved Orache (Atriplex prostrata) to develop.  Sea Rocket (Cakile maritima) a lilac-coloured crucifer with fleshy leaves and Sand Couch-grass (Elytrigia juncea), with leaves that can roll inwards to retain moisture and can survive in sandy areas. Declan showed us how the invasive Lyme Grass (Leymus arenarius) forms a matted wall of vegetation which prevents the natural formation of open dune systems.

Sandy land near the sea has often been left fallow and plants have survived from Neolithic times. Above the shore line we saw White Campion (Silene latifolia), Rest Harrow (Ononis repens) whose tough woody stems “arrest” harrows and Haresfoot Clover (Trifolium arvense). Its tiny flowers are obscured by the calyx teeth which give it a downy appearance, hence its English name. Yellow crucifers like Eastern Rocket (Sisymbrium orientale), Hedge Mustard (Sisymbrium officinale), Annual Wall Rocket (Diplotaxis muralis) and Wild Radish (Raphanus raphanistrum and ssp.maritimus) can be distinguished by their very different seed-pods.  Rock Samphire (Crithmum maritimum),edible and mentioned by Shakespeare as being gathered halfway down cliffs, was growing on a wall near the beach. Pellitory of the Wall (Parietaria judaica), a relative of the nettle, once used for fevers and urinary infections, is generally found on old castle walls like Carrickfergus Castle but was widespread on the sea-wall.

On a sandy dune area the photographers were down on their knees in front of Bee (Ophrys apifera) and Pyramidal Orchids (Anacamptis pyramidalis). The fleshy leaves of stonecrops enable them to survive in dry sandy conditions and we saw large clumps of bright yellow Biting Stonecrop (Sedum acre) and White Stonecrop (Sedum album) a garden escape. Declan demonstrated how the withered-looking Sandhill Screwmoss (Tortula ruralis) could be turned green in a minute by sprinkling water on it. Here too were invasive plants like Cotoneaster, Valerian, a Palm and  a species of Rosa rugosa, probably planted to stabilise the dunes but now spreading.

Howth is noted botanically for the diversity of its habitats and has the largest area of lowland dry heath in Ireland. After lunch Dublin Field-club members drove us to the cliff and heathland area near Kilrock where a thin layer of soil over rocks was dominated by Western Gorse (Ulex gallii), Ling Heather (Calluna vulgaris) and Bell Heather (Erica cinerea) as well as the bright blue flowers of Sheepsbit Scabious (Jasione montana) which is actually a member of the Campanula family. In a damp disused quarry were large patches of the rare Variegated Horsetail (Equisetum variegatum), many Common Spotted Orchids (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) and Hemp Agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum).  We had no time to visit the high cliffs, limestone areas where Bloody Cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum) grows, the woodlands or the raised bog area, so must return another time. A boat trip to Ireland’s Eye would be an interesting expedition.

Declan and the Dublin Field-club members were thanked by our President for sharing their expertise and company.

An incident on the line delayed our return train journey at Newry for nearly 2 hours while buses were found to bring us on to Belfast. The botany at Newry station was limited to more Red Valerian and clumps of Ox-eye Daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) and rain did not encourage exploration away from the platform.

Margaret Marshall

Thanks to Shiena McCracken for the photograph of Bee Orchid.

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Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera)

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