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Grass of Parnassus

(Parnassia palustris)

June 29th - 2nd July - Long Field Trip to North Mayo


The Mullet peninsula in hot sunshine is a most beautiful place with Mediterranean blue seas and views of off-shore islands and the mountains of Achill and Mayo.

Dublin and Belfast Field Naturalists gathered on Monday 30th June at Portnafrack Bay where we were fortunate to have the expertise of Gerry Sharkey, BSBI (Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland) recorder for Co. Mayo, and Declan Doogue of DNFC (Dublin Naturalists’ Field Club). Gerry took us to the shore to demonstrate how sand dunes are formed. Sand is blown in by onshore breezes and when it meets some obstruction it begins to accumulate in small piles. On a wet and stormy day, Gerry had been driving along this shore to photograph sand being blown and had had to get a tractor to extricate his car from the beach! Nitrogen in blown sand, seaweed and shells provide enough nutrients for salt–tolerant plants like Orache (Atriplex) and Sand Couch-grass (Elytrigia juncea) to become established. Their stolons stabilise the sand and as the salt is leached out, sand further inshore is colonised by Marram Grass (Ammophila arenaria) whose rooting systems hold the entire dunes together.

As in the Outer Hebrides, the strong Atlantic winds on the west coast of Ireland lead to the formation of Machair inland from the dunes where the soil is enriched by sea shells and leguminous plants. Here we identified Sea Holly (Eryngium maritimum), Kidney Vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria), Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum), Sea Campion (Silene uniflora), Sea Carrot (Daucus carota) and Birdsfoot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus). When barley was no longer grown here, Marram Grass was cut for thatching and the dunes deteriorated until new Marram Grass was planted.

Our next stop was Annagh Head where the habitat is dominated by Sea Plantain (Plantago maritima), Buckshead Plantain (Plantago coronopus) and Thrift (Armeria maritima). Declan speculated why the Eyebright (Euphrasia) had very small flowers whereas the other plants dwarfed in this windswept area still had normal-sized flowers. In damper areas were Bog Pimpernel (Anagallis tenella) and Marsh Pennywort (Hydrocotyle vulgaris). Hydrocotyle means ‘Watercup’ so both names describe the leaves, penny-sized and cup-shaped.

After a picnic lunch, our bus took us to Falmore and the new sculptures of Dervla’s Twist – will archaeologists in a few thousand years time wonder why second millennium people had resorted to building stone circles like their ancestors four thousand years previously? Gerry had bought us here to see the plentiful Bee Orchids (Ophrys apifera) growing in a newly-grassed area and spreading out onto the heathland.

He reckoned the seeds had come in with the stone quarried for the sculptures. Other orchids in the area were Lesser Butterfly Orchid (Platanthera bifolia) and Northern Marsh Orchid (Dactylorhiza purpurella). He also identified a southern hemisphere plant - Buttonweed (Cotula coronopifolia). Chilean Gunnera has become invasive in many places in the West of Ireland, apparently spread from a quarry in Co. Galway with stones used for roadworks.

Tuesday was an archaeology day but archaeological sites have interesting plants. The Ceide Fields are covered with blanket bog but we were intrigued to see lime-loving plants such as Fairy Flax (Linum catharticum) and Quaking Grass (Briza media) growing alongside the gravel path. An unusual plant was Yellow-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium californicum) which is also naturalized near Lough Cullin in County Mayo.
The related Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium bermudiana) is possibly native in Ireland. Rathlackan Court Tomb was the only place wet enough to have damp sphagnum moss with flowering Round-leaved Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia).

On Wednesday the wind blew and rain began to fall to remind us why the blanket bog had developed over so much of NW Mayo burying the Ceide Fields. However we had an enjoyable final botanical walk on the shores of Cross Lough. Gerry identified Early Marsh Orchid (Dactylorhiza incarnata ssp.incarnata), Northern Marsh Orchid (Dactylorhiza purpurella) and Hebridean Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii ssp hebridensis). The beautiful white flowers of Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia palustris) were beginning to appear along with Brookweed (Samolus valerandi) which is in the Primrose family. Field Madder (Sherardia arvensis) generally prefers limey ground. In the water was the lilac-flowered Lesser Water-plantain (Baldellia ranunculoides) named after an Italian nobleman. Many aquatic plants have 3- petalled flowers, I wonder why.

The great pleasure to be gained from any Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club excursion is from the combination of all the sections, so on this Long Field Trip we shared the enjoyment of looking together at plants, butterflies, moths, birds, rocks and ancient sites in a beautiful part of Ireland. We thank our out-going Excursion Secretary, Joan Semple, for her enthusiasm and efficiency over many years.

Margaret Marshall


Eyebright (Euphrasia)

Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera)


Round-leafed Sundew

Bog Pimpernel (Anagallis tenella)