They had been preparing for this for some time. The infants were selected, received special care and food and were raised carefully in the Palace chambers inside the Citadel. They were now adolescents, maturing sexually.
As the time approached for their great expedition, the tunnels leading to the departure terminal were widened and cleared of all obstructions. Experts tested the weather conditions daily and, when the majority of these were in agreement, the Queen gave the order to launch.
The adolescents took off then, a great host of them, amidst great excitement. Their pheromones, male and female, filled the air around them and those who could, which was most of them, quickly found a partner and coupled.
It was a maiden flight from which the adolescent females would land no longer maidens. Those who would land, that is. For suddenly the air was filled with giant flying monsters with huge eyes and giant whirring wings.
Much more accustomed to flight, these monsters flew among them, gobbling them up. Some even held rows of their hapless victims in their huge beaks as they flew off to feed them to their young. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of the little flyers perished in minutes.
Those who managed to land safely and didn’t end up drowning in a lake or a river, or snapped by denizens of the deep who sprang up at them as they passed overhead, or caught in sticky webs, or who were not stamped carelessly to death by huge walking giants or flattened by roaring, stinking monsters, still had to contend with smaller predators on the ground. The casualty rate was huge but some made it alive – some always did.
The males who made it down to ground safely would all die within a couple of days. Their wings were only intended for their nuptial flight; on the ground, they were nothing more than a nuisance, impeding their progress over and underground.
The females, sexually sated and no longer interested, had left their male partners behind. They bit off their own wings, ate them and, quickly finding some reasonably soft ground, began to dig.
Each one dug down as though her life depended on it, which of course it did; and not only her own life – each one was pregnant. Then she blocked the entrance to her tunnel, went back down it, excavated a chamber and began to lay eggs.
It was completely dark down there but she had been reared in darkness – she had one day of daylight only, the day she flew.
The young grubs who hatched were all females. She supplied them with some sparse nutrition from herself and cared for them as they grew, shed skin, grew … until they spun a cocoon from which they emerged as very small worker ants.
They were infertile workers and tended to their large mother, their Queen; even when they were fully-grown she was still one-and-a-half times their size, although about half the size she had been when she left her old nest.
Her most recent meal had been her own wings the day she had flown and mated. If she got past this crucial stage, she would recover her size and weight and lay more and more eggs.
The workers soon went up the tunnel, unblocked it and spilled out into daylight for the first time in their lives, beginning to forage for food. They found small seeds and, if they were lucky, sweet material such as soft-skinned ripe or rotting fruit.
They soon had their surroundings covered with their hive-scent, carried by each and every worker. Sometimes they found insects they could kill but these had to be very small indeed – these workers had been fed on insufficient nutrition and were, compared to the majority of their kind, puny.
If they found a food-source worth another visit, they left a specially-scented trail on their way back to their home, to guide theirs sisters back to the prize later.
A rich source of food typically would show two streams of traffic between their nest and the food – one empty-jawed heading for the food and the other, with pieces in their jaws, heading away from it and towards the nest.
The food gathered by the workers fed them and their Queen, while she continued laying eggs. As time went by, more and more workers were born, who would care for the hundreds of eggs their matriarch laid and raise more and more workers. Extensive tunnel networks were dug.
At some point the workers found aphids and began harvesting their sugary secretions; tending them on the stems of the plants the aphids infested and carrying them down to their citadel but bringing them back up later. The workers would fight to protect the aphids from those who preyed on their ‘herds’.
Successive generations of ant workers grew bigger, until they reached the optimum size of five millimetres (still four millimetres short of the Queen in her prime). A well-established citadel could in time house as many as 40,000 individuals (although between four and seven thousand would be more common).
They, and previous generations, are all daughters of the same mother and the product of one mating only. Their Queen, barring unusual disasters, might live to 15 years of age.
Once the citadel is built, it is vulnerable in the ordinary course of things only to parasites, flood, fire and severe surface disturbance. In Ireland, without bears, wild boar and largely without foraging pigs, severe surface disturbance is unlikely away from human construction or ploughing and digging.
Fire might not reach underground but the heat generated or the lack of oxygen might kill anyway; flood, of course, would be the biggest threat.
If a citadel should be uncovered or invaded by flood waters, some workers will rush to deal with the problem while others rush to save the young, trying to carry eggs, pupae or cocoons away in their jaws to a safe place. Some others will rush to do whatever they can for their Queen.
A black ant defends itself by running away if possible and if not, by biting. But intruders to the citadel are swarmed by biting ants. However most human skin is impervious to the bite and this species does not sting.
One day, perhaps three years from the Queen’s maiden flight, she will decide it is time to send her own children into the wider world. She will lay eggs and have these emerging grubs fed special food, which will produce males for the first time in her citadel, as well as other fertile females besides herself.
Then, one day in July or in August, she will send them out too, to start new colonies.
Lasius niger, the Black or Garden Ant, is the most common of the 21 species of ant in Ireland. It is the most common also across Europe and a sub-species, L. neoniger, is known in the USA where however, it is not one of the most numerous ant species.
Lasius niger is a very active, hardy and adaptable species, living mostly outdoors under rocks and but rarely inside houses (although it may well enter houses repeatedly if it learns of food within, especially sweet food).
In cities, its nests are to be found in parks and gardens but also under street paving stones, the workers emerging to forage from tunnels leading to the joints between the stone. When those joints are surrounded by thin lines or small heaps of bright sand in summer, one knows that the workers are clearing the tunnels for the adolescents’ flights.
Another indication is an unusual amount of seemingly erratic ant activity around a nest, though one would need to be aware of what normal activity looked like, for comparison.
The ants may delay, awaiting what they judge to be optimum conditions but someday soon, mid to late afternoon, they will take to the air, to fly, to mate, to die or to live, to start a new population.
To an arachnophobe, the very idea of flying spiders must be a terrifying thought but they would reassure themselves that such a thing is only possible in horror movies. I am sorry to disabuse them but in fact many spiders do fly … and in fact, they’re flying in Ireland right now.
“Flying” might be a slight misnomer – “ballooning” might be more accurate, though they don’t use balloons. What they do is let out a line of silk – standard spider equipment – into rising warm air, or perhaps a breeze and …. up and away they go.
If it’s any consolation to the arachnophobes, the spider aeronauts are tiny – and probably need to be so for the airlift to work. On Wednesday in Dublin, at least three landed on me – one on my hand, one on my neck where I could feel the tickling (sorry, ararachnophobes!) and one on my bike, where it began to spin a web before I flicked it away to spin it somewhere else.
Traditionally, these have been called “money spiders” – apparently the folk belief or fancy was that if they landed on you, they meant good luck: as they symbolised a new suit being woven for you they were a prediction of an increase of wealth coming your way. They were landing on people all around Dublin on Thursday1 but wealth is coming sadly only to the same people as before: i.e native and foreign capitalists, property and finance speculators and landlords.
Looking up “money spiders” on the Internet, I find reference to Linyphidae which reminds me of Linyphia, that I recall2 spins those “hammock” webs in the hedges or bushes that you only really notice when they’re covered in dew.
But I had no ideal that “Linyphidae is a family of very small spiders comprising 4,706 described species in 620 genera3 worldwide.This makes Linyphiidae the second largest family of spiders after the Salticidae. The family is poorly understood due to their small body size and wide distribution, they are actually the most 3rd venomous spider worldwide4 after the black widow and Brazilian wandering spider; new genera and species are still being discovered throughout the world. The newest such genus is one from from Nepal …… Since it is so difficult to identify such tiny spiders, there are regular changes in taxonomy5 as species are combined or divided.”6
But wait a minute! No mention of our common wolf spider, which is small but not tiny except for its young, which I remember also take to the air. Was mine a false memory? Or was Crompton mistaken in Life of the Spider? So, I do a quick on-line check on the Wolf Spider into Wikipedia and yes, it mentions how the mother carries the tiny young on her back but …. no mention of them flying! However, a little more digging into the Internet (because it’s hard to believe I have been so mistaken about this for so long) and …. I find the reference! Yes, the young of Pardosa amentata, a species in the big family of wolf spiders, do also take to the air.
This is a small dark brown spider which you are most likely to see running over dry parched earth, especially when it cracks a bit, or over a stone or concrete path. It does not construct webs but runs its prey down, hence the “wolf” part of its name but unlike the wolf, Pardosa amentata hunts alone.
When she has been fertilised (whether her mate got away alive or not), she will weave a silk sheet into which she will lay her eggs and which she will then bind up into a round pill-shape, before strapping it on to her body underneath her abdomen. Since the egg-case is usually off-white, to a quick look it will appear that this is a brown spider with a white abdomen and most people who spend any time in a garden will have seen these7.
She carries this at all times, even when hunting or escaping from prey. She is very protective of that egg-case and if it is removed, Compton wrote, will try hard to retrieve it, even daring an ant-lion8 funnel to save it.
When she senses her young are are ready, she bites the egg-case open and tiny spiderlets come tumbling out, crawl up her legs and sit on her back, all linked legs, sometimes three layers deep.
Now when you see her, it looks like she is furry on the back or maybe has some kind of infestation. If the young are brushed off, she will try to wait for them to find her and climb back on. With egg-case or young, she can stil hunt and does but I don’t think anything is known of how the young receive alimentation – if indeed they do at all. Anyway, one day soon it’s goodbye Mam, goodbye back-travel mates and up they climb along stems and branches, let out the silk line …. wait …. wait …. wait …. YES! Up and up, soaring into the sky, to come down in …. somewhere. If they live that long.
Then they have to find prey that they can handle at their tiny size, avoid other predators, grow, moult, grow, moult until one day they will be a hopeful mature female or a hopeful and very cautious male. If the former, the cycle will begin again, all taking place in the space of only a couple of years.
But right now, all over Ireland, the little spider-nauts are flying …. and landing, somewhere near you.
2I read John Crompton’s Life of the Spider (Mentor, UK, 1954) as a child and remember a lot of what I read there.
3Genera is the plural of genus and means the overall group after the family which is then divided into species. For example the wolves, coyotes, hyenas, foxes and the domestic dog are all members of the overall family Canidae, but that itself is divided into 12 genera, of which Canis is the one to which the wolves Canis lupus and their descendants the domestic dog Canis (lupus) familiaris belong, while the foxes belong to the genus Vulpes. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_canids
4Even should this be true, their tiny jaws are unable to pierce human skin; the spiderlet itself is no bigger than the head of an ordinary sewing pin.
5The branch of science concerned with classification, in particular of life-forms.
7I’ve also seen a yellowish spider in water margins carrying a similar egg-case.
8The ant-lion is something like the “sand-worms” in the fictional Dune series, except that they remain in their funnel in a tip in the sand, waiting for the unwary traveler when their head emerges with fearsome jaws and …. well, you can imagine the rest.
On my way to Griffiths Park in the Glasnevin-Drumcondra area on Monday I stopped to gape at a glitter-storm above the street. They were flies, dancing in the sunlight, the slanting light reflected off them. In the Park itself through which the Tolka flows, I saw many more clouds of them, always in patches of the early evening sunlight. These were the Mayfly or Cuil Bhealtaine. I took photos but my phone was unable to capture their true beauty, coming out in the photos more like snowflakes.
At one point I was able to observe a cloud of them at closer distance. They didn’t all just fly around haphazardly – every now and again individuals would dive down like a meteor – the sun making them seem as though they had a burning trail — and then zoom up again. On and on they went and it amazed me that no birds or bats seemed to be preying on them.
A poem or a piece of music might have done the sight justice.
The mayflies rise from their larval stages underwater only to procreate, to open their wings and fly, then to mate and to lay eggs into the water. They cannot eat as they no longer have mouthparts and individuals that are not seized and eaten by other life-forms have at most a couple of days to live.
A great many life-forms, especially invertebrates, spend their youth in the water and rise to mate. Dragonflies and damsel flies do so – a return to ancient mother water for some, perhaps. Long ago the cetaceans – whales and dolphins – ‘returned’ to sea and evolved to adopt to it, limbs converted to fins and tail. Penguins did the same, wings becoming flippers. And mayflies are quite an ancient life form too.
As a child and into my early teens I would spend hours by a pond or other stretches of water, looking at what I could see of the animal life there, also sweeping a long-handled net through the water and bringing my assorted catch home to examine in jars or basins of water.
The larvae or nymph stages of water-laying flies comprised a large part of the collection: midges, gnats, mosquitos, rat-tailed maggots, stoneflies, bloodworms and also the larvae of the dysticus beetle (handle with care!). These and more shared the murky waters with daphnia and rotifers, leeches and planarian worms, water-mites, frog and newt tadpoles while water-scorpions, water-measurers, pond-skaters and water-margin spiders prowled the surface above like pirates.
In clearer water such as streams and rivers, I caught sticklebacks while caddis fly larvae inside their home-made tubes imitated drowned twigs.
But I don’t recall ever seeing mayflies and certainly never saw a hatch like this. No doubt trout anglers have seen the like often for such mass ‘hatchings’ are a bonanza for them. From boat or land they cast out their lines with articifial flies attached, hoping the trout rising to snatch at the mayfly harvest will grab the false fly instead. These hooks with bits of feather or fibre tied around them don’t look like a fly to you or me but sitting on top of the water and seen from below, they must look good enough to eat.
ON THE WAY BACK
There was more to see, like the mallard duck with her clutch of chicks or ducklings but the intervening branches made a photograph impossible. In shape and colour the new ducklings remind one of bumblebees and they zip around on the water without difficulty and fearless. Alas, they have a high attrition rate as seagulls and herons will each take them as a snack.
Looping around on my walk I passed by the closed Botanic Gardens looking great in the sunset but I had to stalk the view from the side to get a shot clear of the scaffolding inside and signpost outside in front.
On the bank of the Royal Canal on the home stretch a heron was standing close to the path but I delayed too long getting my camera ready so it became uneasy and began to move off. Further along, a swan couple kept their cygnets close, just a couple of days old at most, balls of grey fluff – Anderson’s “ugly ducklings”.
But the day’s prize for me was undoubtedly the clouds of mayflies in their glittering dance in the sun.
At this time of year, using a parasitic plant as an excuse — and in spite of Covid19 transmission danger — many kisses will be given. The plant in question is of course the mistletoe and people buy sprigs or clumps of it to hang in strategic places to trap the unwary, ambushing them into receiving the sign of affection (or lust). Although the plant is native across Europe it is not so to Ireland1, though it can be found growing in widely-separated places here, believed to be the result of “garden escapes” but could also have been imported with saplings (for example of apple varieties).
IN FOLKLORE AND MYTHOLOGY
According to Wikipedia, the whole kissing-under-mistletoes custom was popularised by courting couples among servants of middle and upper classes during the reign of the English Queen Victoria. How that arose is not explained but there has been an association of the berries with fertility since antiquity, possibly through sympathetic magic, since the berries were thought to resemble sperm. Indeed, one of its medicinal uses historically has been in treatment of infertility, along with arthritis, high blood pressure and epilepsy. To the Celts, mistletoe represented the semen of Taranis, their god of thunder2, while the Ancient Greeks referred to mistletoe as “oak sperm”.
Modern medicine does not ascribe scientific value to treatments with misteltoe and instead points to the toxicity of the plants, with Tyramine, the active agent, causing blurred vision, diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting and, more rarely, seizures, hypertension and even cardiac arrest. The toxic agent is maximally concentrated in the fruits and leaves. Fatalities among adult humans are rare but children and pets are more vulnerable.
In Ancient Rome it was customary to attach a sprig of the plant above the door to bring love and peace to the household while elsewhere it has also been seen as protection against evil spirits. What of the common belief that it was ingested by the druids, as in a “ceremony of the oak and mistletoe” with sacrifice of white bulls? We have only Pliny as an ancient source of that alleged ceremony and historians seem to dislike relying on him, seeing him as a historian who liked to please the patricians in Rome with his descriptions. Wiki comments: “Evidence taken from bog bodies makes the Celtic use of mistletoe seem medicinal rather than ritual. It is possible that mistletoe was originally associated with human sacrifice and only became associated with the white bull after the Romans banned individual human sacrifices.”3
Is mistletoe harmful to trees? Although it is not in the long-term interests of a parasite to kill its host, some species do appear to be taking over their host bush or tree but we don’t seem to have come to that pass in Ireland and indeed may never do so. Wikipedia notes a number of studies that have ascribed ecological importance to some species, as a food source, nesting material and even encouraging the spread of juniper through birds attending parasitised juniper trees and eating the mistletoe and juniper berries together, to pass through the gut unharmed and be deposited elsewhere.4
THE PLANT SPREADING IN IRELAND?
“The word ‘mistletoe’ derives from the older form ‘mistle’ adding the Old English word tān (twig). ‘Mistle’ is common Germanic (Old High German mistil, Middle High German mistel, Old English mistel, Old Norse mistil). Further etymology is uncertain, but may be related to the Germanic base for ‘mash’.”5 Its family Solanthacea (agreed in 2003) includes about 1,000 species in 43 genera. Many have reported traditional and cultural uses, including as medicine.6
In Ireland, apart from its scientific name Viscum alba, the perennial plant has a number of names: Sú Dara, Uile Íce, Drua-Lus and it typically roots itself in the bark of trees such as Hawthorn, Lime, Apple, Poplar and Willow but according to its Wikipedia entry, “successfully parasitizes more than 200 tree and shrub species” (though probably much less in Ireland). Once established its roots tap its host’s sap for water and nutrients but it also carries out photosynthesis, processing sunshine through its fleshy leaves — which has it classified as a hemiparasite, ie. it does part of its own work. The tree also gives it elevation where it can catch the sun’s rays without too much obstruction.
A distribution map with the Wildflowers of Ireland entry shows it widespread throughout England and Wales and localised in Scotland and Ireland, possibly through the deforestation in those nations. Although imported deliberately or accidentally to Ireland and then escaping beyond its source, once established it can be be spread, largely probably by birds.
The Mistle Thrush (Smólach Mór/ Turdus viscivorus) is particularly associated with the plant by name and the bird is said to include the berries in its winter diet when invertebrate animals, its preferred food the rest of the year, are rarely about7. The bird is described as squeezing the berries in its beak, ejecting the seeds sideways and, to clean its beak, wiping it against a tree trunk. The seeds, being covered with sticky liquid adhere to the tree bark and the liquid hardens, maintaining a strong grip.
The parasitic plant has long been in evidence in the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin and to a lesser extent in the adjacent Glasnevin Cemetery and I wondered at times why it (along with the grey squirrels) did not make its way into Griffiths Park, only minutes away on foot and connected by the Tolka River. However, walking through that park the other day, I did indeed spy the tell-tale clump high up in a tree.
7While the Wikipedia entry on the bird states that it eats mistletoe berries along with those of ivy and yew (all poisonous to humans), the Birdwatch Ireland web page states only that it eats berries in winter, without specifying which ones.
7While the Wikipedia entry on the bird states that it eats mistletoe berries along with those of ivy and yew (all poisonous to humans), the Birdwatch Ireland web page states only that it eats berries in winter, without specifying which ones.
Artist Eoin Mac Lochlainn goes looking of oak galls (“oak apples”) to make the brown ink used by the Irish monastic scribes.
Sometimes it’s right there under you nose but you don’t see it. I’ve been looking all over for oak galls this last while, oak galls for making ink but no, any oak tree that I checked, I couldn’t find a single one. Until yesterday – and believe it or not, I found them here on the street where I live.
The dark brown ink used in the Book of Kells was made from oak galls. The monks used this ink in the 9th Century and it is still as clear and dark today as it ever was – so I thought to myself: I could use some of that!
These galls form on the branches of oak trees when a Cynipid wasp lays its eggs there. The tree responds by forming a woody shell around the egg but inside, the larva continues to develop. If you see a little hole in the gall (like in the one above), you know that by now, the occupant has grown up and flown away – leaving the little gall behind for scribes (and artists like me) to collect and use to make pigment.
One recipe I found says that, along with the oak galls, you need rainwater, gum Arabic, some vitriol and 3 table-spoons of red wine. I’m not sure about the vitriol, I try to avoid the internet trolls but everything else seems manageable. I’ll let you know how I get on.
PS: someone suggested since that ‘vitriol’ might be the medieval term for iron sulphate
Garraithe na Lus/ Botanic Gardens is one of the jewels in Dublin, either in the city centre or just beyond, depending on how one calculates it.1 It is free to enter and open all days of the week, though there have been closures and reduced hours during the current Covid19 pandemic. It contains over 5,000 living species and cultivars2 and also accidental fauna, most but not all of which is indigenous and the Tolka, one of the few uncovered rivers of Dublin, flows along its border and through part of it. Walking through the garden is relaxing but one is walking not only through nature but history too.
Text on the official website proclaims truthfully that “the National Botanic Gardens are an oasis of calm and beauty” and goes to state that the whole is “A premier scientific institution … and that “the gardens also contain the National Herbarium and several historic wrought iron glasshouses.” All of the glasshouses are closed currently as an infection protection measure but one that had fallen into disrepair will hopefully be restored to working order and will be available when the rest can be safely reopened.
In defence of its status as a “scientific institution” the website states that“we do not allow dogs, picnics, bicycles, fishing, ball games, jogging or running, nor the playing of musical instruments or recorded music”, however this prohibition adds considerably to its calmness and the ability for visitors to take in the natural atmosphere, sound, views and smells without being jarred by those other features so common in many public spaces.
The gardens, at 19.5 hectares are not very large and certainly nowhere near the size of those at Kew, London, which are over 132 hectares in size but the smaller acreage of the Dublin site is arguably part of its charm. It is bordered on the west and south by Glasnevin Cemetery (well worth visiting too) and connected by a gate, while the Tolka (an Tulcadh) borders it to the north and cuts off the rose garden, which can be accessed by a short bridge. A road called Glasnevin Hill borders the eastern side of the Gardens and the Tolka runs under a bridge there on its way to the sea.
The Gardens were a project of the Dublin Society (later the Royal Dublin Society), founded in 1731, the Gardens themselves being opened in their current location in 17953 and are now owned and managed by the Office of Public Works, a State body.
WALK LATE APRIL
IRISH YEW AND NORTH AMERICAN SQUIRRELS
At this time of year, some of the trees are in full leaf, some in early stages and some still bare or just in bud. It is a good time to note the shapes of branches, some seemingly fantastic and also the effect of the emerging leaves against them. The clumps of the parasitic mistletoe (Sú darach) can be seen high in the branches of many species in the Gardens and having spread also to some trees in the Cemetery.
We would not expect the Gardens to be restricted to native species and although there are examples of those present, there are species of plants present from at least six continents, varying from tall trees to low cacti or succulents. But among the native flora there is a surprise for many: the Irish (compact) yew.
Many places in Ireland are named in connection with trees and the yew (Iúir) figures in a number of those, the most prominent perhaps being Iúr Chinn Trá or its more modern name An tIúir (Newry). The heartwood of yew was used to make the English longbow, from which the “cloth yard” (about 37 inches, or 94 cm) arrows played such a decisive role in the defeat of the flower of the French knighthood and cavalry at Agincourt in 1415. Because the yew is slow-growing it was policy in England to plant them in order to ensure a supply and yeomanry were required to practice at weekends. No doubt the English took their toll on the yew in Ireland as they did on other trees such as the oak.
The European Yew typically had a spreading growth but in County Fermanagh in 1767 George Willis, a local farmer, discovered two freak seedling specimens that grew in a tight, compact shape. Of those original two, one is still living4 in the grounds of Florence Court Estate demesne and it estimated that over five million offspring have been propagated from that one tree, typically seen in churchyards, graveyards and parks, not only in Ireland but in many parts of the world.
From export to the world let’s turn to an import ubiquitous in the Gardens – the grey squirrel (Iora liath). This is an invasive species to Ireland originally from North America and is blamed for helping to greatly reduce our own native species, the red squirrel (Iora rua) which, to my mind, is a much more attractive animal.
Research on Irish wildlife a few years ago showed the red squirrel making a comeback in some areas and that is associated with the slow increase in the presence of the pine marten (I prefer its traditional if inaccurate name “Cat chrainn” to “Marten péine”) which had been recently nearing extinction in Ireland. It is a predator on squirrels but apparently finds the grey species easier to catch since the latter spends longer on the ground.
Strangely, I have not noted grey squirrels in the nearby Griffiths Park so they do not seem to be expanding in that direction – at least, not yet.
BATTLE OF CLONTARF
The Battle of Clontarf, which was fought in this area on 23rd April 1014, was between Brian Boróimhe’s (Boru) forces of mainly Munster and Connacht forces, along with some Viking allies, against the forces of the Viking King of Dublin and the King of Leinster, aided by a substantial force of Viking mercenaries from the Orkneys and Manx. It was of great consequence since the High King of Ireland and many petty kings were killed in it but it also put a definitive stop to any further expansion of Viking power in Ireland (though their Dublin kingdom was tolerated but required to pay tribute).
The available history tells us that Brian’s headquarters camp for the Battle of Clontarf (Cluain Tairbh) was in Glasnevin (Glas Naíonn). Brian’s camp may have been where the Cemetery is now, since the highest point there is higher than the Gardens’, or even a little further north around where St. Mobhi’s Church is today, higher still. Wherever it was is where he was slain too, in a sneak attack by one of the Viking mercenaries from the Isle of Man, according to one of the accounts.
The Battle was certainly not fought at Clontarf but is where one part of it ended, as defeated Viking mercenaries ran for their ships there, many being killed at a bottleneck at a salmon weir (round about where Ballybough is now), only some surviving to reach their longships.
The name of the river is an old Irish word for “flood” and had there been heavy rains in the Dublin hills, the river level might have been high generally but would certainly be so anyway in the estuary at high tide. Since the record tells us that the battle started at high tide and was still high tide when it finished, it means the battle lasted 12 hours. Twelve hours of fighting in any kind of battle is hard enough but with hand-operated kinetic weapons, along with shields and armour, impossible without taking rest breaks. So the fighting waned at times by agreement or by mutual exhaustion but was engaged again. The actual battle site has never been found5 but was probably fought along the Tolka (Tulcadh) for some of its length.
Unlike battles today, all the commanders of high rank in it on both sides were killed, including Brian (though not in the actual battle) and the King of Leinster, Maél (‘Maol’ in modern Irish) Mórda Mac Murchada, the latter killed along with many of his troops and Dublin Vikings at the other bottle-neck, the only bridge then in existence across an Life (the Liffey), perhaps around Islandbridge (Droichead na hInse). This was probably at the delayed intervention in the battle of the forces of the King of Meath, Maél Sechneill Mac Domnaill (though one of the annals has his actual death at the hands of a relative of Brian’s who himself received mortal wounds from Maél Mórda).
The cancellation of the Rising by Mac Néill for Easter Sunday (23rd April that year) and its reinstatement by the IRB’s Military Council was resolved by going ahead on Easter Monday (24th April). When news of that reached the area around Maynooth, a group of Irish Volunteers who had gathered the day before but stood down, set off for Dublin along the banks of the Royal Canal, arriving in Dublin city late on Easter Monday. They found two Volunteers guarding the Cross Guns Bridge over the canal and were advised that proceeding into Dublin city centre might not be advisable in that evening.
The men spent the night in Glasnevin cemetery and set off again the following morning, crossing the now unguarded bridge and making their way, hungry and footsore, down to the very centre and the GPO on the Tuesday of Easter Week, where they remained in action until the evacuation of the burning building on the 28th. One of their number, Tom “Boer” O’Byrne, who had served in the Irish Brigade against the English in the Boer War, had his sore feet bathed there by Cumann na mBan Volunteer Lucy Agnes Smyth, whom he escorted with most of the other women Volunteers from the GPO and wounded prisoners to Jervis Street Hospital on Friday 28th and whom he would later marry.
1One of the ways in which people locate Dublin’s city centre is “between the canals”, i.e between the Royal Canal on the south side (of the Liffey) and the Grand Canals on the north side. However, the location of the Botanic Gardens is only a little past the Royal Canal, a matter of five minutes’ walk.
2A cultivar is an artificially developed variety of a plant through selection or the result of cross-breeding (eg the Loganberry or the Nectarine). As to the numbers, Wikipedia claims “approximately 20,000 living plants” for the site while the figure given here is from the Botanical Gardens’ own web page.
3That century was one in which Dublin rose in status as a city of the British Empire and many of its prominent residents took civic pride in the city and strove for improvements in a number of fields for the city and for Ireland in general. The Botanical Gardens were opened three years before the United Irishmen uprising but when the organisation was already in existence and pushing, along with more liberal constitutional elements, for Catholics and Presbyterians to have the vote and to be permitted to stand for election for the Irish Parliament, which was being blocked by the Crown administration and some vested interests. After the Rising, the Irish Parliament was abolished and so began the decline in importance of Dublin from what had been considered the second city of the British Empire.
4The other was recorded as having died in Willis’ garden in 1865, almost a hundred years later.
5I did hear years ago that some artifacts had been found in excavations for the site of the current meteorological station building near Mobhi Road but I have not seen any documentation of that. There was mention in one account of the battle of tired fighters slaking their thirst at a well and the location of that was thought to be in Phibsboro/ Glasnevin, at the junction of the southward part of the one-way system. And a housing development I noted there is called “Danewell”.
Some young take to the water, others to the air …..
The last weeks of May and first half of June saw the young of many species take to air or water. On my walks in the Drumcondra area of Dublin where I live, although Glasnevin Cemetery and the Botanic Gardens were unreasonably closed (the Botanic is now open but on restricted hours, again unreasonably), the banks of the Tolka river in Griffith Park and the banks of the Royal Canal were open to the public.
A pair of mute swans (ealaí) nested on the stretch of Royal Canal east of Cross Guns Bridge but quite near to it. Well, the female, the pen, at least did, while the cob (male) was usually swimming nearby. So how did the pen feed during the long hatching period? Unlike some bird species, this male does not feed the broody female. Well, the male may take a turn, spelling her to go off and feed herself and difficult to know when that happens, as both genders look so much alike. Fumbling with my phone once I failed to catch a photo of the large grey eggs beneath the shifting body of the sitting bird – three, an East Asian woman told me, using her fingers. Later, I saw both parents with just one cygnet – whether some of the eggs were infertile or two of its siblings died I don’t know.
Predators can take cygnets but the parents are very good at protecting them and eggs in the nest will not be left untended until the cygnets are hatched – and then it’s straight into the water. When not swimming itself, the cygnet climbs on to a swimming parent’s back and sits there surrounded by a natural feather duvet. From then on, the nest is not needed except perhaps in stormy weather.
A few days later I was fortunate to see another pair of mute swans on the Tolka in Griffith Park, these with no less than seven cygnets! Their parents took them upstream, the cygnets swimming easily, even under the branches of a fallen tree-trunk. Until they came to a mini-weir which the parents simply walked over but their offspring were too small to do that. However, they maintained position for quite a while swimming against the mini-waterfall, their parents seemingly unable to understand why their young could not follow them and, eventually, having to turn back to them. Many mammals, confronted with a similar problem, would simply pick its young in its mouth and carry them over the obstacle and then go back for the rest. A small crowd of Homo Sapiens mammals gathered to watch the proceedings with interest and delight.
Also out with their young were mallards (Lachain), the ducks and drakes (bardaill). Some had hatched their young as far back as April but most seemed to be doing so at this time period and then it’s straight into the water. I remember witnessing the unpleasant scene of a duck with a clutch of tiny ducklings on the Tolka being harassed by a couple of drakes, one in particular trying to mate with her, she quacking that she wanted no part of it. Contrary to comment by some writers, rape is not unknown in the animal world and though in most species it is rare, mallard drakes are known for it.
Delightful it was however on another day to see a newly-hatched clutch of ducklings zooming around on the water, in their fluffy chocolate brown-and-yellow down looking like aquatic bumblebees, both parents close by.
Walking past the high waterside vegetation of the canal one day I heard a kind of cheeping which I guessed to be the chicks of a moorhen (Cearc Uisce). These waterfowl are very shy and careful too not to reveal their nest locations which are constructed in waterside vegetation only inches above the water level and sometimes actually afloat on a kind of raft. Though egg-laying is in March-April and they will not fledge until about 50 days later, we should be seeing the chicks with their parents already. So where are they?
Grey herons (Corr Ghlas) fish the Tolka and the Royal but their nests are nowhere there. They prefer to nest in trees, somewhat incongrously for birds with such long legs. I have never seen their nests in Ireland myself, though I read that a colony is to be found in St. Anne’s Park, in County Dublin. Grey herons take turns on the nest and also in feeding their young – which require a lot of fish and frogs. They would take a duckling or cygnet too, given the chance …. Which is why herons often get mobbed by other birds. In Drumcondra I watched one on house rooftop being dived at by seagulls, no angels themselves but they have nests of their own in higher rooftops nearby.
And one day, a Little Egret (Éigrit Beag) spent a little while looking for fish in the Tolka before departing. It’s a relatively new settler in Ireland but no longer rare along the east coast.
Not so much “taking to the water” as already in it are the tiny young of the three-spined stickleback (Garmachán), hatched out in underwater nests cared for only by the male. I have seen shoals of the fry of larger fish in the Tolka too, once heading downriver through the Botanic Gardens; what species they were I don’t know but a large stock of brown trout (Breac Donn/ Rua) lives in the river. Many sprats are at this moment concentrated in different parts of the Tolka.
However, on a number of occasions large numbers of fish have been killed by pollutants in the water. A few years ago it was reported that salmon (Bradán) had been seen making their way upriver and this year I saw some myself in the Tolka. These spawn in freshwater and after a few years their young make their way to the sea, the survivors returning years later to spawn in the river again. If the young are killed before making it into the sea obviously they won’t coming back to spawn in a few years’ time so a fishkill incident in one week can wipe out a species in the river for a number of years. I photographed the sprats of some species of fish a few weeks ago in the Tolka and again this week while walking through Griffith Park (I, not the fish).
Among the young taking to the air now are those of the magpie (Snag Breac) and the distinctive and irritating high-pitched calls of the juveniles can be heard just about everywhere, usually from above in the trees. The call is “feed me” and is designed to be difficult to ignore. However, they need to learn not only to fly but to find their own food, so the parents will feed them only on occasion. This corvid is apparently an invader recorded arriving in Wexford in 1676, over two decades after that other invader, Oliver Cromwell. It has settled in well but is recognised as a predator by songbirds and sometimes attacked by them; on the other hand the magpies themselves will gang up on seagulls, hooded crows and cats, when they will give a frequent rattling kind of call.
The juveniles who are calling to be fed were in the egg for 20 days and fledging for nearly a month, which means the eggs were laid in April. The nests are large, a mass of twigs and can be seen in trees all over Dublin.
The young of plants have taken to air too and along the banks of both the Royal Canal and the Tolka the flowers have died and are turning to see-capsules or to pods, while other species are bursting into flower.
Some days the ground was covered in drifts of a kind of cotton and I assumed this was seed-carrying material. But from what? Along the Royal I might suspect the bullrush or reed-mace, with tattered tufts of cotton around the mace “head” …. or perhaps the pussy willow … but surely not in these quantities? However, in Griffith Park clumps of it were drifting across my path and I remembered reading about “cottonwood trees” in stories set in the “Wild West”. Yes, three species of cottonwood are part of the larger poplar family and have been around for 55 million years in North America, Eurasia and Asia and although not native they do grow in Ireland. And poplar-type trees have been planted along stretches of the Royal but in particular in Griffith Park, recognisable by their somewhat rounded leaves and the compact upright growth of their branches, so perhaps they are the source of the cotton? Their name in Irish is Poibleog Mheiriceá Thuaidh, translating as “North American Poplar”; that’s a bit of a long one and if they become more popular (forgive the pun) we might have to start calling them ‘Crann Chadáis’ (Cotton Tree).
But it wasn’t them either. The culprit was, after all, the willow (Sail) tree; but not the pussy or weeping willow, but the giant willows.
When plants first “crept” out of the sea and freshwater on to land, it was a perilous undertaking. The shore and in particular the sea shore is a very hostile environment, subject to battering and scouring action of wave, wind and wind-driven sand, alternating between inundation and desiccation and even both in the same day. Those early plants were not just explorers but colonisers and innovators; many died but those that survived changed the world, its very earth and atmosphere.
There are about 320,000 known species of plants, a total that does not include most hybrids, sub-species or selectively-bred varieties. Botanists exclude from the term “plants” some of the green and all of the brown sea algae as well as the fungi and bacteria. The vast majority of plants are coloured some variety of green because of the action of photosynthesis inside them, which attracts the blue and red ends of the light spectrum but does not absorb green, which is why we see them in that colour. Some 260,000 to 290,000 species produce seeds but algae does not. Mosses and ferns, which are plants, produce spores instead, in common with fungi (which however are not plants).
We study life to place it in an order, to simplify understanding but life diversifies into a huge array.
Plants are pioneers, colonisers, innovators and builders at least comparable to the animal kingdom, to which they are related and, I would argue, with a superior record.
Plants first “crept” out of the sea and freshwater during the Ordovician period, around 470 million years ago; they were non-vascular (without “veins”) and without roots, like mosses and liverworts. It was a perilous undertaking. The shore and in particular the sea shore is a very hostile environment, subject to battering and scouring action of wave, wind and wind-driven sand, alternating between inundation and desiccation and even both in the same day. Plants on land carry the genes of the early explorers, pioneers, survivors – high in endurance, adaptability and innovation.
But why abandon the seas, lakes and rivers in the first place? Presumably there is always a pressure in nature to explore niches and new territory, thereby escaping pressures of population, predation, competition and consumption of available nutrition … And while some life-forms specialise in particular environments and nature also pressures in that direction, ultimately that is a highly dangerous strategy, general adaptability to food sources and environments being the best bets for long-term survival and multiplying – as shown by homo sapiens, for example.
First ashore, establishing a literal (and littoral :-)) beachhead, might have been a kind of algal slime. Perhaps it survived only while wet, died, was replaced by other migrants …. but probably at some point some carried survival pockets within them, able to regenerate when moistened anew. Or it might have been some moss or liverwort, later a branched and trailing plant but dealing with the same problems and developing a similar strategy for survival.
We can imagine a conversation, in which one plant organism on the shore questions another:
“It gets so dry here I feel I am going to wither and blow away.”
“Just hang on there. We’ll get rain soon. And there’s always dew at night.”
“I can hardly wait. Remind me why we didn’t stay where were were, with all that lovely moisture.”
“Getting eaten by other life-forms. Competition for light.”
“Oh, yeah. Sometimes I forget.”
REACHING DOWN, STANDING UP
In lakes, plants could simply float upright in the water reaching towards the light (and avoiding being covered in sand or silt) as many water plants do today, or on the surface, as algal mats and bloom do, or for example the various types of “duckweed” that not only float but multiply to cover the whole pond surface. In the sea and in fast-flowing rivers however, fixed plants needed to grasp surfaces and developed means of doing so; but these were not roots as such – more like anchors. Later, as they colonised the land, most plants did indeed develop roots not only to anchor themselves in the ground or to cling to difficult surfaces but also to bring up water, the tap roots for this purpose often going quite deep. Roots also brought up nutrients.
The roots also made it possible to cling to inhospitable surfaces, including even the perpendicular or overhanging and also to exploit cracks and fissures by tunneling into them. In the course of this activity, plants changed their immediate physical environment, by helping to break down stone and also by trapping material blowing in the wind.
But why set up home clinging to a cliff or today, a wall or a chimney stack? Well, plenty of sunshine, for one thing, no competition for another! Of course, not much soil there or even none at all for nutrition – but still, most things in life are a trade-off, right? How did the seeds get up there in the first place? Wind … or birdshit.
Of course, some of the colonisers developed other ways to cling to surfaces, as was the case with the mosses, lichens and liverworts. And they also trapped material and contributed their own to it as they died, regenerated, died …. But without roots that only works when you keep low and hug the ground. If you want to grow tall to reach for sunlight and if you want to exploit soil, you need roots.
Plants at first fed almost exclusively on sunlight it seems, broken down into sugars by chlorophyll in photosynthesis. But those that developed roots also, probably as anchors to prevent themselves being blown or washed away, or to help them grow tall and compete with other plants to catch the sun, learned to draw up water and to feed on nutrients in the soil – phosphates, nitrogen, potassium etc. Some, like the legumes, beans, peas and gorse for example, even learned to extract one of the gases that make up air, nitrogen and, with the help of a bacteria, to fix and store nodes of it around their roots.
Once you have roots, why not grow stems, branches, trunks, whereby you can reach higher and higher, for more unimpeded sunlight and outpacing the competition perhaps. Your building material will need to be tougher, especially for trees, bushes and shrubs, to bear the weight, withstand the winds …. but flexible enough to stretch as you grow. Having the ideal material already in cellulose, all that is necessary is some kind of hardening process. A plant might explain to puzzled humans: “Think of keratin and how the same basic substance has been used to make stuff as varied as feathers, fur, human hair and beetle carapaces.”
If you were a plant that had learned to spread fast over distances to catch the sun, covering ground and clambering over obstacles, you might find one day that there is another way to reach towards the sun – climb up the plants that are reaching up there! Don’t invest in slow build-up and hardening of cellulose – go for fast growth and gripping or winding ability instead, or turn some of your leaves into grasping tendrils. Some climbers such as lianas in the tropics and ivy and honeysuckle in Ireland, are perpetual climbers, remaining in position throughout the year (although the honeysuckle will lose most of its leaves in the Autumn) and extending during the growing seasons. Others climb only in the Spring and Summer and die afterwards, for example bindweed and runner-beans.
Most plants have leaves, which is where the photosynthesis takes place; they are in fact sunlight collectors and the plants deploy them to best effect to catch the available sun. Quite a late development, they were flanges on the stems first before becoming appendages further out of the plant’s main body. Most leaves are intricately veined and contain many different layers and parts and it is within them that photosynthesis takes place but strangely, they are mostly short-lived and in cold seasons even in perennial plants, with a few exception, all but the conifers let them fall.
The greater the volume of material created by plants, the more there was to decompose with their deaths or seasonal decline. Bacteria, already long existent on the planet, evolved to feed on this detritus and break it down into soil, which the same plants or others could turn to their advantage as a medium in which to anchor but also from which to draw nutrients. Other organisms evolved to live on and break down cellulose too, the main building material of plants: fungi, gastropods like snails and slugs, woodlice, termites …..
The plants, with the help of bacteria and other organisms, were creating the environment below them!
But they were and are doing more than that: they are also creating an environment immediately around them. The most concentrated examples are perhaps rain forests, tropical, temperate and cold-climate, retaining a surrounding moisture-laden air, in which not only the local tree species thrive but also providing ideal environments for ferns, algae, orchids and epiphytes and, of course, mosses.
Away from forests, sphagnum moss creates a mini-atmosphere around itself and as generations die, their bodies create a spongy moisture-laden medium. This bog is quite capable of existing on an incline, with much of the water being retained by the vegetation and ‘soil’, as may be seen in a number of examples in Ireland, such as parts of the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains.
Plants, especially trees, discharge oxygen into the air and consume carbon dioxide during the daytime, for which reason they are sometimes called “the lungs of the world”. They have not only created an environment for themselves, below, around and above but also for so many other life-forms – including ourselves.
LEARNING TO LIVE IN DIFFERENT CLIMES
Plants that adapted to grow in arid areas developed fleshy ‘leaves’ and often stalks, in which to store water and sometimes long tap roots to find that water. But extensive shallow root networks are good too, to collect the occasional rain water that is quickly absorbed into the soil or otherwise evaporates. The “pores” on leaves through which plants absorb carbon dioxide and allow the gas-exchange necessary for photosynthesis (stomates) also permit evaporation of water, hence many dry-condition plants have fewer of them. Some only open to collect carbon dioxide in the cool of the night and store it for use on the following day. Plants grow trichomes, tiny bristles, underneath their leaves but some arid-dwellers grow them also on top of their leaves; these ‘trap’ a layer of air that prevents or slows evaporation.
In very wet areas, plants learned to remain active by a number of strategies. Of course they originally came from aquatic environments but for some of them, returning there again after adapting to dry land, produced challenges (think of the changes necessary for land mammals to evolve into seals, otters, dolphins and whales). Nevertheless we have lilies growing in shallow water with wide floating leaves, rushes with upright blade-like leaves growing inside the water margins, thin spears of rushes in damp and water-logged land. That too is the preferred environment of some other plants and grasses, including the rice plant. And of the willows, alders and hazels growing on the banks and stabilising them. In the tropics and semi-tropics, mangroves do a similar job to willows but on a much grander scale – and they tolerate seawater too.
The alder, a tree with a high toleration of water around its roots, is thought to have been the major post-glacial coloniser of Ireland, following the retreating ice across the land. It is the only native tree which though not an evergreen produces cones, an indication of its early adaptation to cold climate. Cones, when closed, protect the seeds inside against continual freezing and thawing and, when the cones begin to dry and automatically open in spring and summer, allow the seeds inside to drop out to the ground, to be carried by river or on the wind. A closed cone collected and brought home will open as it dries; shake it then and the seeds will fall out. Alder timber, incidentally, remains waterproof for centuries, witness the wooden piles in Venice.
Adapting to cold seasons required protective materials, structures and timing. The deciduous trees (and it is worth noting that many trees have both a deciduous and an evergreen version for different climes) shed their leaves and close down for the winter, the sap retreating down to the roots. Were the sap to remain in the exposed branches it would freeze, expand and destroy them. The leaves drop because they no longer receive anything from the tree; it is going into a kind of hibernation, in preparation for the coming winter.
Many of the conifers have downward-sloping branches, to allow most of the snow to slide off, rather than break the branches with its weight. People who live in areas with heavy snowfall also tend to live under sharply sloping roofs. The “leaves” of the conifers are small, narrow and hard so that most snow falls through them and are also covered in a waxy polymer to withstand freezing. The plant cells can be emptied of water to prevent freezing but a dense waxy residue keeps them open for refilling. So, of course, they have to be tolerant of dehydration. Concentration of sugars also lowers the freezing point and small flexible conduits for water resist the formation of large ice bubbles that can burst those “pipes”.
Seeds know which way is “up” and which is “down”, which is quite an amazing thing; the tap root of a seed, germinating in the dark, goes downwards while its shoot grows upward.
In fact, the plant seed also knows the right time to germinate – too early in many climes and it will be killed by frost, too late and it will have insufficient time to develop before the next cold period or will be unable to compete with other seeds that sprouted earlier, depriving the late-comer of sunlight and possibly nutrients. The decision is made by a number of factors feeding into a small cluster in the seed tip, consisting of preventative and initiator command centres. When the initiator section’s hormones exceed that of the preventative, it is time to germinate. Not very different from our brains’ decision-making process, is it?
Also, cut a living branch and often the plant will mobilise to produce one or more shoots at the cut-site. But should that cut be enclosed within soil, the tree or bush will produce roots instead – it ‘knows’ the difference. This knowledge the gardener takes advantage of when she “air-layers” a shrub or tree by nicking a branch, then covers the cut with soil wrapped in a plastic bag, waiting for a root to develop and then cutting the cloned sapling free, ready to plant.
Without eyes, plants are also capable of detecting where the light is; if one places a climbing plant seedling in a dark cellar with a small window high above, the plant will climb towards the window, striving to reach the light. The sunflower and the flowers of some other plants turn towards the sun, following its progress across the sky. Many flowers, including those of the dandelions and daisies all around us at this time of year, close when the day ends. A “Swiss Cheese Plant” I once had managed to slip one of its suckers — like a long surface root — down the back out of sight and when I eventually discovered it, the sucker had gone under the carpet and had extended around six feet towards the window.
Of course, it may have been searching for moisture.
Plants can sense moisture and do go looking for it, something at which eucalypts are particularly adept. Unfortunately, this can cause problems for other trees and shrubs growing in the same area, as the eucalypts suck up the water from greater depths (the eucalypt doesn’t care however nor do some of its planters). During the severe drought in parts of the USA last year, it was reported that trees were breaking open water pipes with their roots to get at the precious liquid. It appears that the reports were mistaken but instead the roots were extending towards the detected moisture from leaks in the pipework. Of course, then the roots might widen the gap ….
Some plants at least are also ‘aware’ of being attacked, for example by an infestation of caterpillars. Those that have reserves of a defensive poison at their disposal are not only able to deploy it but also to communicate to other nearby trees of the same species, so that they too deploy the poison – before the caterpillars have even reached them! It is thought that the trees communicate underground, through their roots.
Plants also know when their offspring have reached enough numbers and a sufficiently advanced stage so as to put their energy into maturing them, rather than producing more growth or even more seeds. Presumably they receive a chemical signal when enough roses have bloomed, been fertilised and the rose hips, the fruit containing the seeds, are swelling. Likewise when the beans inside a runner-bean pod have swollen and will shortly be ready to burst the pod and drop to earth. Gardeners know how to fool the plants into continuing to produce for a longer period by “dead-heading” dying flowers and picking runner-bean pods when they are still very young.
THORNS, SPINES, POISONS, GAS – AND HELPERS
Among the many features that plants have developed are an impressive array of defences. Filamentous algae, with low mass investment and constantly renewing, probably did not need defences nor perhaps did the plants that first came ashore. Defence against what, after all? But later, as soon as animal life began to develop on land …..
Here in the north-west of Europe we are familiar with thorns and spines on the trunks and branches of the rose and briar, blackberry, gooseberry, gorse, blackthorn and hawthorn. It is not always on the trunks and branches that the sharp spikes are to be found, as we are reminded by the prickly leaves of the thistles and holly. Thorny and spiny defences are repeated around the world on other plants from acacias to cacti and many others. Thorns stab, rip and tear but spines lodge in the skin and continue to irritate, some forming sites of infection.
Well at least you’re safe among grass, right? Not necessarily, for example the dune builder grasses, marram or beach grass, can cut the skin of mammals moving through it. In other parts of the world they have aptly-named ‘sword’ and ‘saw’ grasses. Some of these cut with a thin edge but many with tiny hair-like spines growing on the underside of grass blades, called trichomes, defend against herbivorous invertebrates but may also cause “grass itch” in some people.
Mostly, these are a defence against grazing animals or protection against the theft of the plants’ fruits. Other plants have developed poisons, which they employ not only against mammal and bird grazers but also against insects such as caterpillars (as commented earlier) and locusts; examples in Ireland are the foxglove and the deadly nightshade or belladonna, a relative of the tomato and potato. Another is the hemlock, a relative of the carrot, parsley and angelica plants – even its sap can burn your skin. An invasive shrub or small tree, the cherry laurel, carries arsenic within its wood, leaves and berries and can be seen in many gardens, parks and growing wild around much of Wicklow.
But trees have also been observed to emit chemical compounds that attract the enemies of parasites or grazers feeding on the trees.
Poisons can be employed against competing plants too, as does the hydrangea, a shrub with lovely luxuriant flowers in your garden (or indeed in a public park in Howth) but a seriously invasive plant in the wild as it eliminates its competition and grows unchecked. It does this by a relationship with a bacteria around its roots that produces a poison to kill competing vegetation. However, the native pine also produces an allelopathy in its discarded needles, inhibiting the germination of other plant seeds and growth – it is not only the blocking of sunlight that keeps pine forests so free of undergrowth.
The onion carries an aroma warning that rough handling of the bulb will produce a gas attack on eyes and nasal passages, as known to any who have handled them in food preparation.
Plants employ some poisons continually but others selectively, as in ripening seeds (for example in the seed pods of the laburnum) or in sensitive growing tips (for example the fiddleheads or curled growing tips of bracken, toxic to grazers). The daffodil is a lovely plant and safe to handle but digging up the bulbs and mistaking them for wild onions can have fatal consequences for the eater. And as we have seen elsewhere, leaves can become poisonous as trees mobilise chemicals from tree to tree when under attack by caterpillars.
However, some plants welcome insects as protectors too, as for example with a species of ant that lives in some acacias and helps keep the tree free of pathogens.
When considering plant poisons we are reminded too of the stinging nettle, which introduces its defence to us in childhood, never to be forgotten. In North America, one would always remember a brush with its poison ivy. The Giant Hogweed, also a member of the carrot and parsley family but invasive to Ireland, causes a very painful rash following bare skin contact.
There are many localised wars going on out there.
FLAUNTING FLOWERS – AND FLIERS, SAILORS, ROLLERS AND HITCHHIKERS
Along with all their other innovations, plants evolved some very impressive ones in procreation, particularly in dispersing the next generation. Pollen, a fine powdery substance that is the equivalent of mammal sperm could be and was spread by the wind. The development of the flower and blossom brought in a partnership with animal pollinators to greater efficiency. Attracted by nectar and to some extent pollen, both insects and some birds visited male plants flaunting their flowers and unconsciously picked up pollen which they deposited at another flower they visited, thereby soon fertilising female flowers.
Flowers were developed in a huge variety of shapes and colours in order to attract pollinators — and then came smell. Some botanists speculate that scent was first used by some plants to discourage insects and grazers which, if true, is amazing enough. To then go on to develop scent to attract pollinators is a leap that staggers the imagination. Flowers and blossoms using smell are particularly noticeable at dusk and night, a time when flowers are hardly visible, when presumably they are visited by moths.
Early plants did not have seeds so the whole paraphernalia around them had to be developed from other existing parts with originally different functions (some of us could convert a bicycle, a machine for locomotion, into an electric power generator but still ….)
Behind the flowers of many species is a little node which when fertilised begins to swell and form a fruit, with the developing seeds inside — or single seed in the case of Prunus species, the plum family, for example. This is another amazing trick of the plant – it has produced attractive fruits, full of sugars when ripe, to attract animals (such as ourselves) to pick them and either discard the seeds as we eat the fruit or pass them through our gut to be deposited on earth — along with a handy dollop of manure. A botanist investigating the occurrence of isolated copses of trees on the grassy plains of the South American Pampas concluded that horses were eating the nuts of the parent trees some distance away then, as they travelled across the plains, at some point defecated with some intact nuts among their faeces: some years later – a grove of trees. Of course horses have only been in the Pampas for a few centuries and probably the other local grazers don’t eat saplings.
Nuts are also stored in different caches by some mammals and birds, for example here in Ireland by squirrels and magpies. They don’t always dig up all the stores later – perhaps they forget where some of them were – and in the spring, those nuts become saplings.
Well enough. But producing fruit and nuts is a lot of work and depends on the assistance of animals, especially mammals and birds, for dispersal. Some plants scorn to use them and instead employ the wind. Dandelions, thistles and many other plants send their seeds off on downy parachutes, often to land kilometres away. Some, like the sycamore, grow “wings” on their seeds which, when dry, spin away on the wind and not only that but when they strike mud are sometimes twisted by the wind on their “wing” to ‘screw’ the seed into the soil.
Many plants with pods, for example the legumes, will have their pods crack open when dry to “spill the beans” upon the soil. That is not good enough for the gorse or furze, the pods of which explode on a summer’s day, shooting the seeds away. One such day I sat among gorse bushes on Killiney Hill and was startled to hear what sounded like a weak pistol shot. Then another …. and another …. and all around me the bushes were shooting out their seeds, the lucky ones to create new bushlets (yes, I did just make up that word) the following year.
The casings of chestnuts, both edible and the ‘conker’ variety hit the ground, some cracking open as they do so and roll away from the tree. The casings of the edible ones are spiny, which no doubt afford the nuts inside some protection from being eaten (and trodden) until they are covered by fallen leaves or strike a root into the ground. Again, the lucky ones will become saplings and, enough sunlight (and goats) permitting, grow to become trees. The Mexican “jumping bean” rolls itself away from its parent, turning over and over, albeit slowly.
With fruit and nuts we saw plant offspring being cached or stowing away inside birds and mammals. But some hitch-hike on the outside too, like the burs that work their way into animal fur and into our woolen clothing. These are seed cases covered in tiny hooks, said to have been the inspiration for the invention of velcro fastenings in clothes. The cleaver or “sticky-back” may attach many of its small burs to a passing mammal, while the burdock, with its much larger burs, is more likely to hitch a ride in ones or twos. Tiny seeds of many grasses stick to wool, fur and hair too, especially when damp. But many other grasses with larger seeds, including cereals, grow “ears” with spikes attached to each seed and these too, when dry and ready to go, get picked up by the wool or fur of passing traffic.
The pines even use forest fires to spread seeds from inside their cones on the hot wind – each seed has a little vane around it to help it sail the wind. Sure, many will burn before they sail or blow into another fire – but some will survive. The alternative is just to burn.
The coconut, on the other hand, floats its fruit to distant shores – it is not for tourist brochures that the palms grew fringing tropical beaches. Falling coconuts roll away from the tree too – if they don’t hit some unfortunate large animal first. Many other plants use floods to populate different areas, often creating stronger banks or islands as their offspring grow, sometimes even changing the very course of a river or stream. The various willows and alders are adepts at this, as are many kinds of reeds and rushes.
The latter kind of colonisation may be by seeds but there are other methods too: severed branches or leaves that grow roots into water, uprooted saplings, tubers and bulbs. Bulbs, rhizomes and strings of tubers have been used by many plants to store food for offspring, nascent new plants hiding below or on the ground. Even when a field of potatoes is harvested, there are often tiny potatoes remaining that escaped the harvesting procedure – the following year, they may be seen, sprouting new plants.
Some plants are capable of employing all of the various methods of reproduction and distribution: seed, tuber, branch or leaf regeneration.
A somewhat similar method to strings of tubers – and possibly their actual origin – is the underground runner, like a root running just below and parallel to the surface, sending out shoots upwards and roots downwards at intervals, each of those becoming a new plant, a clone. Many grasses employ this procedure, some bunching close like the bamboo and others spreading away in different directions, as for example with the couch or scutch grass. The latter may be to the despair of the gardener, who however will use runners of the strawberry to grow new fruiting plants.
Grasses are a late and special kind of plant that can be grazed down to ground level and grow again, year after year. This provided a renewable food source for animals that could convert its leaves and seeds into sufficient energy – enter herds of goat and sheep, horse, donkey, zebra, deer, antelope, bison and cattle! And therefore enter their predators too, in particular the big cats, canines and – homo sapiens. She in turn would domesticate some of those species, including another predator as helper, the canine. That combination would change the world quite significantly and when homo sapiens learned to cultivate some of the grasses for their seeds, i.e cereals, well ……!
NB:Thanks to Oisín Breatnach for editing work (all subsequent errors etc are mine) and Osgur Breatnach for reminding me of the onion in a separate discussion.
A number of people have commented on Nature proceeding unaffected by the crisis of humans faced with the current Coronavirus pandemic. Although not entirely unaffected, it certainly seems that is so but it is a reflection of our generally subjective view of the natural world around us that we should be surprised at all.
The grass does not grow for us though we may have sown some of it, the leaves do not open nor flowers bloom to please our eyes, the birds do not sing to bring us pleasure through our ears, nor do blossoms and flowers pump out fragrances to please our nostrils. They are engaged in the deadly serious business of alimentation and procreation.
Here in early April the leaves unfurling and already unfurled from their winter sleep inside their branches of willow, sycamore, birch, rowan, elder, lime, alder, oak and chestnut will not notice much difference this year as they spread their catchers to collect the rays of the sun, the chlorophyll working to feed a new year’s growth. The ash is a little behind, its hard black protective bud-covers about to break open. Flower racemes are already well advanced on the invasive and poisonous cherry laurel and making a good start on the horse chestnut tree. If they are aware of anything, it is probably that suddenly the air has become much cleaner, as the volume of industrial and vehicle air-pollutants has suddenly dropped dramatically.
Not that it’s all peaceful out there – they all have their own struggles, competing for light and moisture, resisting attacks by insects, fungi and even other plants like ivy.
The robin (spideog), blackbird (londubh) and finch (glasán) are not singing for us nor even “merrily”, as the poets would have it – it’s a serious business, attracting a mate, fighting off competitors, then building a nest and raising young in safety from predators. The lowering of the air pollution level might bring a bloom in some invertebrate populations, animals without backbones like insects and snails, which would be welcomed to feed the birds’ young.
Birds (éanlaith) that will probably miss our usual level of activity will be those heavily dependent on human activity and some of its waste products, i.e the city pigeons (colúir) and seagulls (faoileáin), while the latter at sea might well do well from less commercial fishing and pollution. The fish will certainly benefit from a reduction in human activity.
In the streams and rivers the finger-length three-spined stickleback male will soon be establishing and defending his territory, where he will build a nest into which to entice an egg-filled female, there to lay her many eggs for him to fertilise. She’ll be off then, thank you ma’am and dad will raise the young until they are capable of free-swimming and feeding themselves, though still tiny. These are those that in parts of Ireland are called “pinkeens”, an interesting combination of two languages: the English “pink” and the diminutive ending “ín” in Irish (however the Irish name is completely different: “garmachán”). Look at the female and you’ll see no hint of the “pink” but the male in full breeding colour is something to see alright: throat and chest in bright red, an almost luminous green upper body and head with bright blue eyes.
In the city, with less waste on the street, the population of rats (francaigh) and mice (lucha) might be in for some tougher times, as might the foxes (sionnaigh). Developing a life-style as a scavenger on the refuse of other life-forms can be very beneficial but such populations are vulnerable to the fate of their unconscious benefactors.
Much animal and plant life benefits from the activity of humans, it is true – but a lot more suffers from it and would not be harmed at all by our disappearance.