By John Lavery
DISTRICT DIRECTOR: JOE MURPHY / EDITOR: cormac foley
The study of Flora or all plant life is referred to as botany. With so many handbooks, county floras, and of course nowadays the internet, all of which contribute to increasing our knowledge of plant life making the pursuit of botany no longer the domain of specialists.
Ice-sheets covered most of Ireland until 13,000 years ago. The majority of Ireland’s flora has returned as the ice-sheets retreated when about 10,000 years ago the climate temperature began to warm up. Of the 2300 or so species growing in Ireland, about 980 are termed as native.
On a world wide scale plants provide us with the air we breathe, by removing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. They provide us with food, medicine and shelter and are for the most part things of great beauty, even more so when in flower.
It is well to know and remember that in nature’s food chain every other living thing can be traced back to a dependence on green plants. In a series of reactions a seed germ, becomes a seedling, then a sapling, from this to a tree, perhaps an oak to live for hundreds of years. The flora of Kerry is varied, from the many common plants to those species which are unique.
One of our floral gems has the grand Latin name of Hieracium scullyi, but is commonly known as Scully’s Hawkweed. This plant is found nowhere else in the world outside of Kerry, and it’s occurrence in this county is very local being confined to an area south east of Killarney in the vicinity of Kilgarvan. It exists there in small numbers perhaps no more than a couple of hundred plants. This precarious existence has gone on unhindered for many hundreds if not thousands of years. Scully’s Hawkweed was first discovered in 1894 by Irish botanist Dr. Reginald William Scully a native of County Cork, and in his own words he described his find as follows, ‘ except in one spot where it is plentiful it is scattered along two miles or so and until further investigation has led to it’s discovery elsewhere it is hoped collectors will be sparing in their gatherings of this local and easily exterminated plant’
More than a hundred years later I am glad to relate that in the late summer of 2009 on a visit to the location I found the plant growing just as he described. It grows in a wild and inhospitable location and I believe it will continue to survive into the future.
And now to a common plant we must all be familiar with, for it grows on roadsides, waste ground, and quickly takes up residence in our flower or vegetable gardens if given a chance. This species is Taraxacum officinale, with it’s common name being Dandelion, this plant flowers sparingly throughout the year in all seasons but is in full colour in late spring when it provides necter for a host of insects at a time when flowers are scarce. This important member of our flora is extremely common and is to be found anywhere from sea-level to 2,440ft on the Reeks to 2650ft on Mount Brandon. The first account of this plant goes to Dr. Smith in his History of Kerry in 1756 when he encountered it on the top of Glenaw Mountain near Lough Lein.
The Dandelion is well known for its diuretic properties which would explain some of the local common names given it. One such name is ‘pissy bed’ a reference to it’s effectiveness as a diuretic. The flower heads are used to make wine, the leaves are blanched for use in salads and the dried roots make an excellent alternative to coffee. For those with an interest in our varied and precious flora some of the most productive places to explore would be old native woodland and the environs, also hedgerows are full of surprises and very biodiverse if you can access away from roadsides the latter not being at all worthwhile. A good book/plant guide preferably one that references Ireland’s flora. Such guides affordable and numerous nowadays and with accompanying photographs will help you with identification.
The accompanying photo shows Hieracium scullyi, Scully’s Hawkweed in flower on location.