SPRING IN TREE, FLOWER AND SONG

Diarmuid Breatnach

As we have been shown this year, if we did not already know, Spring comes in its own time. Roughly around the calendar yes, but not exactly. It’s not like the clothing merchants, who withdrew the gloves in March and left people like me, who regularly lose them, with frozen hands unable to buy cheap replacements while the models stood in windows in shorts and bikinis.

But spring wild flowers are already out and have been for weeks, though the city is not a great place to see them. However in gardens, parks, canal banks and on empty sites, the dandelion, much disregarded as a decorative flower has been flaunting its bright yellow flower for weeks and will continue to do so for quite a while yet.

Some variety of Speedwell and Cat’s Ear (Photo D.Breatnach)

Furze (Aiteann) in bloom (photo: D.Breatnach)

In early April I spent a few days in Wicklow by the Dartry river. In a very short walk to Ashford I encountered eight types of wild flowers in bloom, including furze (or gorse), daisies,

Fumitory maybe (pink), mystery white flower on stalk and Groundsel on a bit of waste ground.
(photo: D.Breatnach)

The humble daisy (Nóinín) looking splendid on some waste ground.  (Photo: D.Breatnach)

groundsel, cat’s ear, speedwell, and of course dandelion. On a longer walk heading away from the river I came upon primrose, lesser celandine and wild or barren strawberry (not knowing how to tell the two apart at this time of year). And a mystery plant also (see photo). Swathes of wild garlic (creamh), grew both sides of the country road; I had long thought this plant a foreign import but it seems I was wrong. It certainly spreads when established however, as witnessed by this Wicklow road and wooded areas of Dalkey Hill where I have also seen large patches of it. My father transplanted some to our garden but rarely used it in cooking – or if he did, not often enough, for it soon took over large areas of the smallish garden.

Wild Garlic (Creamh).
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Blue Tits even upside down on bird feeder (note that the tree is the Cherry Laurel, an invasive tree species).   (Photo: D.Breatnach)

 

 

At a Wicklow hotel garden’s bird feeder, blue tit, chaffinch and some other species flicked in to take a snack and flicked out again, making it very difficult to photograph them but which of course did not bother them at all.

Returning through Ashford (Áth na Fuinseoige) I came across one of our

Chaffinch (Rí rua) picking up some of the spillage from the feeder on the ground. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

feathered anglers, the smaller grey heron. Patience personified, this species stands in the water waiting for the appropriate moment to strike, apparently not feeling the cold. But perhaps this one did feel it, for it stood on the bank.

Grey Heron (Corr réisc) on the Vartry riverbank.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

The Gael reckoned the start of Spring with the feast of St. Brigid (and probably the Goddess Brig before her), February 1st, when the ewes come into milk, with their expected birth of lambs. As Brigid/ Brig was associated with butter in some traditions it is possible that some early butter was made from sheep’s milk, though that is not recorded in records, as far as I know. The lambs and many other animals born in Spring had no choice regarding when to appear – that had been decided in the Autumn or Summer of the year before when their mothers mated. Birds, on the other hand, who are more vulnerable, mate in the Spring itself.

In Dublin city until perhaps a week ago, there was very little sign of Spring apart from the lengthening of the day. The blind wandering poet Antoine Ó Raifteirí (1779-1835), writing in the month of January, was already anticipating spring in one of his better-known poems:

Anois teacht an Earraigh beidh an lá dúl chun síneadh, 


Is tar éis na féil’ Bríde ardóigh mé mo sheol;


Ó chur mé ‘mo cheann é, ní stopfaidh mé choíche 


Go seasfaidh mé síos i lár Chondae Mhaigh Eo.

He’s thinking of heading home to County Mayo, he feels Spring coming but will wait until Bridget’s feast day to “hoist his sail” and since it’s in his head now won’t stop till he gets there. We might have been anticipating Spring ourselves in January this year and into February — though cold and wet enough — but if so we were in for a shock towards the end of the month and into March with “snow dumps”.

The birds have to set up their territory even so and in fact the robin (Spideog) was marking its territory in song sporadically through December and January, often enough even at night in the city and particularly near street or train station lighting. The polygamous wren (Dreoilín), if not already at it followed in February. The seagulls at their nesting sites on roofs were calling and mating in mid-March but may have been delayed a little by the snow; however they are hardy birds. Some blackbird males have been singing since March and now are all in full throaty song. In March also we heard the high-pitched “peeps” of those acrobats, the tits as they foraged for invertebrates through the branches of tree and bush and at the end of April, also the bursts of chaffinch song which remind us often of caged canaries — and why not, when the canaries are often taught that very bird’s song to sing.

The Lesser Celandine, I think (Grán arcáin)
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

January was the time to hear adult foxes in the city, the somewhat frightening scream of the vixen and the two or three-times bark in quick succession of the dog fox. This month the cubs, born a month earlier, will venture out of their den and may be heard sometimes by night at play too, though this is more likely in the months to come.

The mystery plant with flower or hood bud (going by the leaves, not ‘Lords and Ladies’).
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

The Primrose (Sabhaircín) leaf, bud and flower.(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Wild (or perhaps Barren) Strawberry (Sú talún or bréige) in blossom.  (Photo: D.Breatnach)

The trees and ground plants apparently respond more to length and angle of sunlight to tell them it is time to grow from seed or to burst open into bud and some of them are doing so now in late April, for example the birch (Beith). Others delay and the ash trees (source of our camáin or hurley sticks and much else) are still in their black hard bud stage in late April and the oak waits along too. Trees that flower tend to do so first and put out leaf later, as the blackthorn (Draighneán donn) did in February with its little white blossoms which will develop into sloes (airne) later in the year. In March hawthorn (Sceach geal), willow (Sail, from which we get “The Sally Gardens”) and elder (Ceireachán), all of which may be seen in gardens or parks (and the elder growing even on empty sites) were already green-misting in tiny leaf and are now well advanced. The “candles” of the horse chestnut (Crann Cnó capaill), to be seen in parks and in some leafy suburb streets, are however forming alongside the tree’s large leaves right now at the end of April (Aibreán) and the rowan (Caorthann) and sycamore (Seiceamar) of the whirling seeds are also in stages of leaf.

Slender Speedwell perhaps (there are a number of different species). (Photo: D.Breatnach)

Spring is really coming for us but for many plants, mammals and birds, it is already here.

end

PS: When checking The Tree Council of Ireland for tree species names in Irish, I was shocked to find that they do not supply them. Nor reference the huge number of places across the land whose names in English are corruptions of the original Irish place names derived from the names of trees.

Links for more information:

Identifying wildflowers by month through the year: http://www.irishwildflowers.ie/this-month/april.html

Wildflower information, photo and names in Irish, English and Latin: http://www.wildflowersofireland.net/plant_detail.php?id_flower=220

Song of the Chaffinch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GVyW9t5wX3U

Native trees in leaf throughout the year: http://www.thegardenshop.ie/native-trees

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