KISS OF THE PARASITE SPREADING THROUGH GLASNEVIN

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time: 3 mins.)

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”.

Closeup of Viscum album, the north European mistletoe, leaves and white berries.
(Photo sourced: Internet)

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.

Mistletoe on tree in January 2017, Dublin area (possibly Botanic Gardens). (Photo: D.Breatnach)

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

Clumps of Drualus (mistletoe) on unidentified tree, Botanic Gardens, Dublin, October 2020. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

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.

Smólach Mór (Mistle Thrush), Griffiths Park, Glasnevin-Drumcondra, June 2021. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

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.

Clumps of Irish mistletoe on a north American Poplar, Botanic Gardens, Dublin, 19th December 2021. (Photo: D.Breatnach)
Nameplate on the bark of the poplar tree parasitised by the mistletoe picture above. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

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.

One of two clumps of mistletoe on a poplar tree in Griffiths Park in January 2022 (Photo: D.Breatnach)

So it is spreading.

End.

Footnotes

1According to the Wildflowers of Ireland website.

2From Proto-Celtic Toranos (note “torann”, Irish for “noise” and the word “tone” in English).

3While having humans killed in the arena in large-scale displays for mass entertainment!

4One of the many methods of seed dispersal and why plants produce seeds inside edible packages such as fruit.

5Wikipedia

6Ibid

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.

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mistletoe

http://www.wildflowersofireland.net/plant_detail.php?id_flower=641&wildflower=Mistletoe

Mistle Thrush

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mistle_thrush

1According to the Wildflowers of Ireland website.

2From Proto-Celtic Toranos (note “torann”, Irish for “noise” and the word “tone” in English).

3While having humans killed in the arena in large-scale displays for mass entertainment!

4One of the many methods of seed dispersal and why plants produce seeds inside edible packages such as fruit.

5Wikipedia

6Ibid

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.

THE UNDERWATER BALLET DANCER

Diarmuid Breatnach

The first time I saw a live octopus, we were both underwater and I will never forget it.

On a holiday in the Balearic Islands I had booked a sub-aqua dive with one of those diving schools one finds in those kinds of places. After safety instruction on the sub-aqua gear and rules of conduct, I went out in a boat with another novice and the instructor. It was only my second dive and I was very nervous; the first had been terrifying at first and some echo of that remained.

Once down below and looking at the plants, fish and other life down there, I forgot about my fear and, dallying, began to lag behind the other novice, who was swimming close to the instructor ahead. Then I passed a black rock from which a golden eye looked at me.

Stopping in amazement, I saw that it was indeed an eye. And the black “rock” resolved itself into a dark octopus, draped over a dark rock. It looked at me and I back at it. With its body less than the size of a football, I was startled but not at all frightened. After a few seconds I shot off fast after the instructor, to bring him back and show him.

Almost as bad as the initial fear of going down, I had found the frustration of being unable to speak underwater. But I quickly managed to convey that there was something of interest back there and that I wished him to come and look. When they both swam back to the rock, I showed them the octopus, which had remained in place.

Wait. Watch this, the instructor signalled and gently pulled the animal away from its resting place. Knowing something about the power of its tentacles and suckers, I did wonder briefly how he had accomplished this. But a few seconds later I was enthralled and so was the other novice.

The instructor began to lob the animal gently from one outstretched hand to another, guiding it in a ballet through the water, the tentacles now flaring open like a flower, then trailing behind like a mane. The octopus appeared to be more than enduring the experience passively – it seemed to be cooperating. We were spellbound.

After I don’t know how long, the octopus decided it wished to leave the dance and, finding itself still being tossed by its ballet partner, released a plume of ink and departed.

The instructor, clearly pleased, looked at us, we at him and at one another. The inability to speak, to express the wonder at what we had seen, was for me intense.

(Image sourced: Internet)

I don’t remember now much more about that dive. I have learned a lot more about octopuses over the years. Their group is called cephalopods and there are around 300 different known species of octopus in the world, inhabiting all seas. They display behaviour associated with intelligence, can distinguish between some different humans and learn some skills quite quickly (watch videos of them unscrewing the lid off a glass jar to get at the crab inside or see the My Octopus Teacher documentary on netflix).

Wikipedia tells me that the species vary in adult size from “The giant Pacific Octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini) (which) is often cited as the largest known octopus species. Adults usually weigh around 15kg (33lb), with an arm span of up to 4.3m (14ft). The largest specimen of this species to be scientifically documented was an animal with a live mass of 71kg (156.5lb). Much larger sizes have been claimed for the giant Pacific octopus: one specimen was recorded as 272kg (600lb) with an arm span of 9m (30ft). A carcass of the seven-arm octopus, Haliphron atlanticus, weighed 61kg (134lb) and was estimated to have had a live mass of 75kg (165lb). The smallest species is Octopus wolfi, which is around 2.5cm (1in) and weighs less than 1g (0.035oz).

(Image sourced: Internet)

Many of the species are highly-appreciated items in the seafood cuisine of many countries on all the inhabited continents of the Earth.

But I have never been able to eat octopus since watching that underwater ballet.

End.

CLIMBING EVERY TREE IN KIMMAGE

Artist Eoin Mac Lochlainn goes looking of oak galls (“oak apples”) to make the brown ink used by the Irish monastic scribes.

photo by eoin mac lochlainn of oak galls in harold's cross

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!

Page from Book of Kells showing brown ink.

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

The Wall of us All

Words and photos by Diarmuid Breatnach

This is a section of a limestone wall. You can see that it is composed of limestone blocks.

Small section and detail of a limestone wall

Each block is roughly rectangular but of different sizes, shades and colour.

Section of limestone wall in shade.

All of the blocks in different shades and sizes and types go to make the wall.

A different section of the same wall in strong sunlight.

It takes all of them together to make the wall; if put together well, the wall stands for centuries against all kinds of weather.

End.

FLAUNTING FLOWERS – AND FLIERS, SAILORS AND HITCHHIKERS

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time: 3 mins)

          In a couple of previous posts I remarked that plants have developed amazing innovations in order to grow, adapt to conditions, colonise strange ground and to propagate their species. I commented also that their variety of methods outnumbered those of our section of life on Earth, the animals; this month of June is a good time to see some of them at work.

Along with all their other innovations, plants evolved some very impressive ones in procreation and 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 and plants developed early “flowers” like grass “heads” or catkins to catch the passing pollen. 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, 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 the female counterparts. And the plants developed different ways of dispersing their offspring too.

Flowering plants, angiosperms, are now the overwhelming majority of plant type on Earth not only in variety but in total bio-mass – but they are latecomers in the evolution of plants. Once arrived, in order to attract pollinators, flowers produced nectar and were developed in a huge variety of shapes (some we would not even normally describe as flowers) and colour.

Probably smell came later. 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 of low visibility for flowers, when presumably they are visited by moths.

A hive honey-been, one of the most common pollinators, approaching a flower (perhaps a dandelion’s) intending to collect nectar and perhaps pollen but will certainly collect the latter inadvertently. Note the collection bag on its legs. (Photo source: Internet)

Early plants did not have seeds or flowers (some still don’t) so the whole paraphernalia around them had to be developed from other existing parts with originally completely different functions, an impressive feat of adaptive engineering (some of us could convert a bicycle, a machine for locomotion, into an electric power generator but still ….).

The petal seems to have been the key development which spurred huge flower diversity to outcompete others in attracting pollinators and it is known now that some carry identifying patterns in ultraviolet, invisible to us but advertising like neon lights to bees. Some, like the dandelion, group many single-petal florets together to make what appears to us as one flower, each floret capable of individual survival.

USING OTHERS TO SPREAD THE SPECIES

Just 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 some species, the Prunus 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.

On the grassy plains of the South American Pampas there are isolated copses of trees whose occurrence seems mysterious. An investigating botanist 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 resulting in some years later – a grove of trees. Of course horses (or their riders) might also seek the groves out for shade and, while there, drop a few more nuts. Horses have only been in the Pampas for a few centuries and probably the other local grazers are not overly-fond of saplings (or not of those tree species).

Nuts and seeds 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 are – 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.

WIND-SAILERS AND BOMBARDIERS

Immature lime tree seeds with their “kite”, Drumcondra roadside, June 2021. (Photo: D.Breatnach)
Seed-carrying parachute downy ball of the Meadow Salsify (I’m guessing) Dublin Botanic Gardens, June 2021. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

Some plants scorn to use animal helpers to disperse their young and instead employ the wind. Dandelions, thistles and many other plants send their seeds off on downy parachutes, often to land kilometres away. And some of those wind-sailers are tiny seeds of very large trees, like poplars and cottonwoods, using cotton tufts to carry their offspring off into the world, which is happening right now in June in Ireland. Some, like the sycamore, grow “wings” on their seeds which, when dry in the autumn and winter, spin away on the wind; not only that but when they strike mud they are sometimes twisted by the wind on their “wing” to ‘screw’ the seed into the soil.

The catkins of a poplar in June 2021 on Tolka banks as the river flows through Griffiths Park, north Dublin city; tufts of cotton carrying tiny seeds float away this time of year. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

Many plants with pods, for example the legumes, will have their pods crack open when dry to “spill the beans” upon the soil, or some might shake loose and fall as the rest are eaten by birds and mammals. That is all a bit pedestrian for the gorse or furze, the pods of which explode on a summer’s day, shooting the seeds away. One such afternoon 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.

HITCHHIKERS

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 woollen clothing. These are seed cases covered in tiny hooks, said to have been the inspiration for the invention of velcro fastenings in fabrics. 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, as we learn when we walk through meadows in late summer or autumn. 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.

All aspects of the Cleaver plant (“Stickyback”), another hitchhiker for its seeds. (Photo source: Wikipedia)
Hitchhiker seeds — the ‘fruits’ of the burdock after flowering become a bur to attach to passing traffic. (Photo source: Internet)

At some point in the future, these clingers will be brushed off or fall away, ready to sprout, if conditions favour them, in their new home.

Even the hot winds of forest fires are used by some conifers (which are of the non-flowering gymnosperms) to spread seeds from inside their cones – 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.

SURFERS

The coconut, on the other hand, floats its fruit to distant shores – it was 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 (bouncing and rolling of heavier seeds, though not normally described as a seed dispersal method, clearly plays a role).

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.

UNDERGROUND EXPANSION

Floating colonisation is carried out by some seeds but there are other surfing colonisers 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.

An unusually solitary Yellow Flag Iris on Tolka banks as it flows through Griffiths Park, north Dublin city in June 2021 (they can be seen in clumps along the nearby Royal Canal). The Yellow Flag uses both seeds — fertilised by pollinators in the flower — and underground rhizomes to propagate the species. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

RUNNERS

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 strawberry overground runners to grow new fruiting plants.

Grasses are an evolutionary late and special kind of plant that can be grazed down to ground level and grow again, year after year and as we saw earlier, wind and hitchhiking are their special seed dispersers. Grass provided a renewable food source for animals that could convert its leaves, stems 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 ……!

Some plants are capable of employing all of the various methods of reproduction and distribution: seed, tuber, branch or leaf regeneration. Plants are the innovators par excellence of visible life on Earth.

Some plants are capable of employing all of the various methods of reproduction and distribution: seed, tuber, branch or leaf regeneration. Plants are the innovators par excellence of visible life on Earth.

End.

Stray immature barley (maybe) seed heads, Drumcondra roadside, June 2021. Cereals such as these use hitchhiking inside grazers as well as hitchhiking by snagging passing wool and fur with spikes on the “ears” (Photo: D.Breatnach)

A mixed group of seed-spreaders: wind parachutes (dandelion or salsify maybe), pod-rupture (red clover), hitchhikers and wind-sailers (grasses), (scatter by movement and wind) broad-leaf plantain and one of the umbellifers, probably cow parsley (by the leaves). Drumcondra uncultivated garden, June 2021. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

SOURCES

Flower production:http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20141017-how-flowers-conquered-the-world

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flowering_plant#Reproduction

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/big-bloom

Pollination by bees and what they see: https://www.beeculture.com/bees-see-matters/

Seed dispersal methods: https://www.sciencelearn.org.nz/resources/103-seed-dispersal

https://www.britannica.com/list/falling-far-from-the-tree-7-brilliant-ways-seeds-and-fruits-are-dispersed

Identification: https://www.teagasc.ie/media/website/crops/horticulture/vegetables/Illustrated_Guide_to_Horticultural_Weeds_2020.pdf

Dawdling in Dalkey & Dún Laoire

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time text: 5 mins.)

Farewell, sweet Dublin’s hills and braes
To Killiney’s Hill and silvery seas,
Where many’s the fine long summer’s day
We loitered hours of joy away.

(The lyrics I see have “silvery streams” whereas I somehow learned “silvery seas” but in any case the latter lines seem more appropriate to me).

Near Killiney is Dalkey in south County Dublin and above both is Killiney Hill, a mostly public hilly woodland with some great views of the Mediterranean-like bay below. Dalkey might be a Viking translation of an Irish place-name, Deilg-Inis, meaning “Thorn Island”. Of course it is just possible too that the Irish translated the Viking name but not likely. The Vikings were here of course, a place of small coves between their towns of Wicklow and Dyflin.

VIEWS FROM THE HILL

Dalkey Island (Deilg Inis) in the distance from Killiney Hill, gorse (furze – aiteann) in bloom in the foreground (Photo: D. Breatnach)
Closer view, showing the Martello Tower in the centre of the island. Ireland has a number of these, built to give warning of Napoleonic invasion or raid on the UK (in which all of Ireland was at the time). (Photo: D.Breatnach)
A view from a somewhat different point, showing also a strange stone tor to the left (which I don’t recall from before) and the stone underneath me of which much of the Hill is made. On a hot day in late summer in my teens, I heard small pistol-like shots erupting over the hillside — the pods of the gorse were exploding and shooting out their seeds. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

The path and slope up to the woodland and hilltop. For a few weeks I used to meet lads from the ‘Noggin (Sallynoggin) and we’d go hunting rabbits with our dogs, through common and private land, up to Killiney Hill (where the dogs always claimed they could smell rabbits but all we could see was their shit), then down to the sea and encourage the dogs to go for a swim to clean them. And throw in the ones who declined. Of course, they got their revenge shake-drying themselves all over us. (Photo: D.Breatnach)
A great view of the bay from the path, the pronounced peak of the Sugarloaf in the distance. County Wicklow begins just a little down below to the right. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

It’s now I must bid a long adieu
To Wicklow and its beauties, too
…..

Not the Mediterranean, Killiney in south County Dublin and the rest of the coast line on towards Wicklow: Bray, Greystones and beyond, seen from the open space at the top of Killiney Hill. The obelisk at the summit was behind me as I took the photo. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

IN THE WOODLAND

The woodland is above the path beyond where a stone wall runs along part of it and the woodland continue curving around the northern slope of the Hill. Here one takes the left fork to follow the tarmacadamed bath with steps at intervals. One winter I mitched (truanted) school up here for a few weeks in a little “camp” we had made of branches and we cooked potatoes and fried bread over a managed fire. It was cold, though. Had to face the music eventually of course ….

This tree is just tensing before it takes off running! (Photo: D.Breatnach)
Hard to say whether the steep downward path here was carved out by rain streams or whether the excess rain just flows down here off the path, widening an existing fault or dip. (Photo: D.Breatnach)
The top of the steep path/ rainwater runoff channel, with a tree growing rampant at the lip of the slope. (Photo: D.Breatnach)
On the way down the other side of Killiney Hill, a view westward towards where the Dublin Hills run southward into the Wicklow Mountains. (Photo: D.Breatnach)
“Thus Daedelus flew” says the inscription on the bronze statue on the way down, which I do not recall from boyhood, nor the cafe it is facing. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

DÚN LAOIRE — THE WEST PIER

Dún Laoire Harbour was surveyed by a team led by Lieutenant Bligh, before he set off in command of the Bounty, where he fell foul of Fletcher Christian and a mutiny. Bligh might not have been a great people manager but he was an excellent seaman — he navigated a launch 3,500 nautical miles (6,500 km; 4,000 mi) to safety, leading his 18 loyal crew members.

Both piers of the harbour are built from granite quarried from the side of the Killiney Hill next to Dalkey and from the top of Killiney Hill itself, so that it is now lower than it was before. A lot of the Hill is also limestone, the most common stone in Ireland (and indeed in Europe) and that has been quarried too, for road and house-building.

As a boy and teenager I spent hours fishing from the West Pier, losing more weights and line than I caught fish. One time I fished the incoming tide, the outgoing tide and the incoming tide again (a full tide cycle takes a little over 12 hours). Beyond the level crossing at the start of the West Pier is where it is thought the original Irish fishing village was, where there was a small inlet, the only storm shelter for boats between Dublin river-mouth and Wicklow, someone told me once. About 100 meters south-eastward along the harbour there is a plaque marking some stones believed to be all that remains of King Laoghaire’s fort, which is what the name of the place means in Irish.

Common Tern, one of a mated pair, perched on the pier’s edge. These normally nest in sand-dunes and that type of terrain on the coast, so not sure what they were doing here. They have very forked tails and hover before diving into the water to catch small fish or sprats. Wherever they were diving I would expect to find mackerel below, forcing the sprats up to the surface to catch them there. Terns dive at people or animals approaching near their nests and can be quite disconcerting even is one is not stabbed by a beak, which is said to occur on occasion. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

The East Pier is the one that decades ago had deckchairs for hire by day and a bandstand where brass bands would play in the evening, a place where many like to promenade still today. The ship from Britain was alighted here, or boarded with the next stop being Holyhead (Caergybi) in Wales, to catch the train to other cities or all the way to London, which I did myself at 19 years of age, like many before and after me.

But after the English colonist town of “Kingstown” grew up around the constructed harbour, the Young Irelander captives were sent to prisoner exile in Tasmania; Queen Victoria came through here on her two visits to Ireland; most of the troops brought in to suppress the 1916 Rising came in here too. Some of those, the Sherwood Foresters, had little idea of the slaughter that was awaiting them at Mount Street Bridge from much less than a score of Irish Volunteers, without even a machine-gun between them but extremely well-placed. Blind, arrogant British officers persisted in sending their men in waves against the insurgent positions, although there were much safer ways to reach the Dublin city centre, since only about one-third of expected insurgent forces were in the field, due to confusions and countermanding; 240 dead or wounded was the toll they paid to pass.

Grey Heron (Corr éisc) on top of the wall at the end of the West Pier — first time I have ever seen one there. He wasn’t too worried about me but was keeping an eye on a couple of dogs wandering around below. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

REFERENCES:

The Emigrant’s Farewell song lyrics: https://www.norbeck.nu/abc/lyrics.asp?rhythm=song&ref=109

DUBLIN BOTANIC AFTERNOON – NATURE AND HISTORY

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time main text: 8 mins.)

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 thatwe 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.

A bluebell glade (with a white variant) in Dublin’s Botanical Gardens, April 2021 (Photo: D.Breatnach)

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.

Some strange branch shapes seen here surrounded (and contrasted) by early leaf and sky, April 2021 (Photo: D.Breatnach)
Close-up of the contorted shapes, with some of the contrasts lost but more play on shadow. (Photo: D.Breatnach)
The dark clumps are mistletoe, a photo taken in June (2020), when they are less obvious among the leaves of the tree. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

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.

Four Irish Yew in the Dublin Botanical Gardens early April 2021 (Photo: D.Breatnach)
An Irish Yew specimen at close quarters in Dublin’s Botanic Gardens. Millions of these around the world were propagated from two ‘freak’ types found in Fermanagh, Ireland in 1767. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

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.

Grey Squirrel (Iora Liath) in Dublin’s Botanical Gardens (Photo: D.Breatnach))

HISTORY

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.

Some boys brave a small weir on the Tolka just east of the Botanical Gardens. There is little sign on this day in late April 2021 of the surging flood of which the river is capable and from which it takes its name. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

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).

1916 RISING

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.

End.

Missel Thrush (Smólach Mór), if I’m not mistaken. This one seemed quite unafraid, going about its hunting a few yards from me. The caterpillar-seeming forms on the ground are catkins from the poplars in Griffiths Park, which follows the Tolka eastward from the Botanical Gardens (Photo: D.Breatnach)
Hooded Crow (Caróg Liath), the Irish (also Scottish, Icelandic) species closely related to the all-black carrion crow, seen here on a field of grass and daisies, late April 2021, Dublin Botanical Gardens. They are wary and difficult to get close-ups of without a tele-lens. (Photo: D.Breatnach)
Mostly dandelion (caisearbhán) on a grassy slope above a stretch of the Tolka between Botanical Gardens and Griffiths Park. The dandelion is a plant with a cheery flower which would be highly prized were it not so common (it also has a startling nature which is not discussed here). (Photo: D.Breatnach)

FOOTNOTES

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”.

SOURCES

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Botanic_Gardens_(Ireland)

The Irish Yew: https://futureforests.ie/products/taxus-baccata-fastigiata

Grey & Red Squirrels in Ireland and the Pine Marten: https://www.rte.ie/brainstorm/2020/0616/1147681-red-squirrels-comback-ireland-pine-martens-grey-squirrels/

Battle of Clontarf: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Battle-of-Clontarf/Showdown-at-Clontarf

The Battle of Clontarf in Irish history and legend


Maynooth Volunteers traveling to Dublin for the Easter Rising http://www.kildare2016.ie/history/maynooth-company-irish-volunteers-and-the-easter-rising/

https://www.irishlifeandlore.com/product/sheila-oleary-b-1921-her-daughters-emer-oleary-and-maeve-oleary-and-her-niece-margaret-sheeran/

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/heritage/love-and-war-one-family-s-incredible-connection-to-the-1916-rising-1.2281929

FLYING TURTLES, SF VOTER PROFILES AND POSSIBLY EXTENDED LOCKDOWN

Clive Sulish

(Reading time: 5 mins.)

Skimming through some of the material posted on the internet today as “breaking news”, I came across items under the categories listed above.

To take the first, a car driver on Interstate 95 highway in Florida was stunned by an object that flew through her windscreen and struck her on the head. Luckily for her and her mother who was a passenger, the woman managed to guide the car to the roadside where her mother summoned assistance.

A man who stopped to help was surprised to find a turtle among the broken glass inside the car but not as surprised as both women.

The media report speculated that the turtle was probably crossing the road and got knocked into the air by another vehicle.

Though there was a lot of blood as is often the case with a scalp wound, the woman was not badly injured. “I swear to God this lady has the worst luck of anything,” the daughter told the 911 operator as she tended to her injured mother, according to the report. Her daughter will no doubt remember those words of comfort for a long time.

What about the turtle? According to a Port Orange police officer, the turtle was uninjured apart from some scratches on its shell and was released into some local woods (where it has no doubt gained legendary status already among the local wildlife; hopefully the woods were in the direction in which it had been headed, so it did not have to cross the road once more).

In this part of the world we tend to think of turtles as those big marine animals or, for some, as little stripey shellback reptiles kept in aquaria. There are actually four species of native land turtles in Europe, which we call “tortoises”, found mostly around the Mediterranean and at one time it was not unusual to have one as a pet in Ireland, even at loose in the garden, where dogs, cats and other predators eventually learned the uselessness of attacking them. Sometimes they survived winters by hibernation and lived on for years, becoming quite accustomed to their owners, extending their heads out of their shell to accept bits of lettuce from people, etc. Perhaps the expression of a shy person “emerging from their shell” comes from such instances.

The cute little stripey ones in the aquarium if they lived could grow to a similar size as their land cousins but unlike European tortoises, were carnivorous. There are seven European species of which two have been introduced but none indigenous or large-scale colonisers here or in Britain (yet, at any rate – but see concern about the “Florida Turtle” invasion).

These animals in general on land or in water when fully grown are about a foot long at most but the shell adds considerable weight.

The United States is home to more species of tortoises and freshwater turtles (which we call “terrapins”), along with marine turtles than any other country in the world – 57 of the world’s 320 currently recognized species. A handful of the turtles of the Florida state are land-dwellers and like most land-dwellers, have on occasion to cross those avenues of death: roads and motorways. Which is why predators and scavengers regularly patrol these for the motor vehicle-impact corpses strewn along them.

In areas where deer might be expected to be encountered crossing the road, or even in areas near airports, traffic signs warn of the possible danger of accidental impact. Can we now expect flying turtle warning signs in Florida?

SINN FÉIN AND THEIR VOTER DATABASE

Shock and horror greeted the news that the Sinn Féin political party has a voter database. Really, how could they! Yes, they keep track of who voted for them so they can call them out for a repeat vote when they need to. Of course, most political parties do that but … but … this is different!

Actually, SF are probably emulating Dublin Fianna Fáil in this respect – it was said years ago that a Dublin FF Councillor could name his voters and that a FF T.D (parliamentary representative) could name the streets in their constituency where the majority voted for them. And since SF are emulating FF in so many other ways, why not? As one of the party’s policy advisors Éoin Ó Broin remarked also, they are “a professional party” – yes indeed.

Eoin Ó Broin TD, SF spokesperson on Housing answering press questions (photo: Gareth Chaney/ Collins)

The next horror revelation was not only that SF had such a database but that they had removed it from its usual location and lodged it somewhere else – Serbia! However this turned out to be a complete invention based on the fact that one SF member was married to a Serb. Really? A whole scandal was built on that?

So if not Serbia, where is that database now? In Germany, boss of the EU, it is rumoured, though Ó Broin declined to say. Well that’s alright then. But where was it before? In Britain, it turns out, from where SF moved it due to the UK’s Brexit. The state whose invaders Irish people have been fighting for eight-and-a-half centuries and which is still in military occupation of one-sixth of our land. Of course, no worry there for our political class and media – but Serbia! Thankfully it was never there.

POSSIBLY EXTENDED LOCKDOWN

It is reported that Leo Varadkar, the Tánaiste (like Prime Minister in Irish government) said publicly that he is not as confident as he was recently about the pace of relaxation of restrictions.

Those who are hostile to Varadkar and his party, or even the whole Government Coalition may let forth an expletive while the vast majority who are sick of restrictions on so many levels of normal life may groan in despair. But Varadkar is right to be cautious.

He has been made so, he says by the state’s experience in December, when the Government ignored their medical advisors and strong statements from left-wing TDs and, under pressure from commercial interests, relaxed the restrictions in the run-up to the Christmas period. A spike in rates of Covid19 infections and death rates a few weeks later was the result.

Currently infection rates in the state have fallen to the lowest level since October last year (i.e before the disastrous decision to relax restrictions) but even a composite table of a number of agencies’ predictions envisages a possible fall to 1,558 cases a week or 222 cases per day by May 15th. However that is still high enough and really the way to go is what has been advocated by left-wing TDs, which is a zero-level target. In a capitalist system that will not be the choice of the Government but rather one of managing the number of sick and tolerating the number of dead within “acceptable limits”. But hopefully the Government will at least wait until the vaccines are widely available and being administered, with testing stations throughout the state, before they risk any further relaxations of the restrictions.

We do not wish to return to the climbing rate of infection and hospital cases of earlier this year, nor do our hospital staff need any such repeat. And France and India have given graphic evidence of the penalties of too-early lifting of restrictions, if our own experience has not been enough.

End.

A US land turtle on a road (image sourced: Internet)

SOURCES:

(in case you don’t believe me): https://www.breakingnews.ie/world/flying-turtle-smashes-through-cars-windscreen-in-florida-1115824.html

https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/discover-herps/florida-amphibians-reptiles/turtles/

Photos: https://www.gertjanverspui.com/eu-species-list/reptiles-of-europe/terrapins-tortoises/

European invasion of the Florida Turtle: https://www.nytimes.com/1994/07/05/science/europe-fights-invasion-of-aggressive-american-turtles.html

SF voter database controversy: https://www.breakingnews.ie/ireland/mary-lou-mcdonald-denies-wrongdoing-over-party-voter-database-1116020.html

Possibly extended lockdown: https://www.breakingnews.ie/ireland/covid-varadkar-not-as-confident-over-reopening-pace-as-some-days-ago-1115818.html

Covid19 crisis in France: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-56622471

In India: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/apr/22/india-hits-global-record-of-315000-new-daily-cases-as-covid-wave-worsens

COLONISERS AND INNOVATORS PART II

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time: 5 mins)

In Part I, we remarked that “Plants are pioneers, colonisers, innovators and builders at least comparable to the animal kingdom, to which they are related and …. with a superior record.” We followed their emergence from the waters and their colonising of land, along with various strategies they developed for their new environment. Now we watch them constructing their very own environments and adapting to some of the most challenging climes of the earth.

ENVIRONMENT-BUILDERS

          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 although it is within them that photosynthesis takes place, strangely they are mostly short-lived and in cold seasons, even in perennial plants, 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 or 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.

Inside a tropical rainforest.
(Photo source: Internet)

Temperate Rainforest — parts of the Wicklow hills and valleys would almost qualify.
(Photo source: Wikipeda)

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.

Close-up of sphagnum moss, creator of its own environment and changer of landscape.
(Photo source: Internet)

 

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

          Creating one’s climate isn’t always possible and, when it’s not, adaptation is the other option. Plants that adapted to grow in arid areas developed fleshy ‘leaves’ and often stalks, in which to store water and also 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.

Arid-adapted plants, SW USA (Photo source: Internet)

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 lillies growing in shallow water with wide floating leaves, reeds 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.

Reeds and two different species of willow on the Royal Canal, Dublin. (Photo source: D.Breatnach)

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.

Close view of alder cones and leaves from tree on the Royal Canal, Dublin north city centre. (Photo source: D.Breatnach)

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”.

The “needles” on pine twigs. (Photo sourced: Internet)

The downward direction of the branches of many conifers ensures slide off by snow when it reaches a certain weight — but long before the branch might break. (Photo source: Internet)

Red and white spruce in snow. Though the branches incline slightly upward, they are very flexible and will bend and dislodge the snow overlaying them long before the branch is in danger of snapping.
(Photo source: Internet)

COMPLAINT TO DAVID ATTENBOROUGH

Dear Mr. Attenborough,

We wish to draw your attention to what we perceive as a serious bias in your series The Natural World, a bias which is as unjust as it is unproffessional and, indeed, unscientific.

In your otherwise excellent film documentary series The Natural World you depict the wonders of our world and the many levels of interaction and responses to different environments within it, of plant and animal, of eater and eaten, prey and predator.

However, when any of us appear upon the scene, your narrative voice drops in volume as if to indicate the arrival of something sinister, the evil presence in this otherwise natural world. We are neither sinister nor evil, Mr. Attenborough – we are an integral part of this natural world, the same as all the rest.

You seem to delight to show footage of us pursuing the young calves and fawns of grazers, thereby seeking the sympathy of your human audiences for their plight and, in turn, hostility towards us. No doubt the omnivores among your human audience are able to disassociate themselves mentally from the relative immaturity states of lamb, veal, piglet, pullet, egg and sprat in their diet. But much more to the point – do we not have young too? And how do you – or your sympathetic audiences – imagine that our young get fed? Or what do you or they imagine stands between our cubs and dying of starvation?

We note also that it is not all higher predators that you depict in this way – not of course humans but not the great cats either. We laugh when we see you depict the lion, “the king of the jungle” as some kind of majestic monarch. Those of us in the African veldt know well that most of what he eats is what our brethren have chased and brought down before he has bullied us off what is ours. And the rest of his food is killed only by the females in his group. Among us, on the contrary, males and females all take part in the planning, the chase and the kill.

As a naturalist you know that all predators play a part in the balance of nature and generally cull the weak and unwary, strengthening the overall health of the prey species. As a naturalist, we would not expect you to have this bias against us and can only wonder whether perhaps as a child you had an unpleasant experience with a domesticated canid. If so we hope that you can put it behind you.

We trust you will consider what we have to say and hope that you will change your depiction of us in any future series.

Sincerely,

Wolves, Dingoes, Wild Dogs, Jackals and Hyenas

on behalf of Canids of the Wild (CaW)

A Grey Wolf adult ‘cuddles’ a pup (Source: Internet).

 

 

Three Dingo pups — one of them camera shy. (Source photo: Internet)

“Parents have to work hard to feed a big family.  We hope you’ll think about that, Mr. Attenborough.  Goodbye for now ….. C’mon, kids.”
(Photo source: Internet)