Botanic Aspects Of The Peninsula

BotanicAspectPlants of wet boggy ground

The bogs of the Sheep’s Head Peninsula are classified as blanket bogs. The bogs occur in Ireland along with the Western Sea board, where rain falls on the more than 250 days per year and the total rainfall is greater than 1250 mm (50 inches) per year. Blanket bogs feature acid, poorly drained soils and many are now being turned over to forestry plantations (R.F.Hammond. The Peatlands of Ireland. An Fora Talúntais. 1979).

Bogs on the Sheep’s Head Peninsula also feature carnivorous plants called Sundews (Drosera). Since the bogs also are so poor in nutrients the plants have found an interesting way of providing nitrogen for themselves - by feeding on insects. Sundews grow in bogs on peat which is damp enough
to keep them permanently moist but not wet enough to be submerged (usually wet enough for water to come over the top of shoes but not boots!).

These plants are very small and can be easily missed since their brown-red colour blends with the overall colour of surrounding mosses and sedges.

The leaves are round, just smaller than the nail of one’s smallest finger and form a rosette closely pressed to the ground. The most distinctive feature of Sundews is the red hairs (on the leaves) which carry a droplet of sticky juice at the tip. When a small fly lands on the leaves surface it gets trapped
by the juice and the more the fly fights to get free the more hairs it sticks to. The leaf slowly curls up slightly and the sticky juice digest the fly. When “feeding” is over, the leaf is uncurled and the fly blows off in the wind. The system seems haphazard but the fact that the Sundews and the other insect
eating plants are common on many bogs world-wide proves that eating insects is an effective way to get nitrogen.

The Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis) is another important plant of wet places on Sheep’s Head. It’s Irish name “Raithneach Ghallda” when translated into English is “Foreign fern” which may say something about Irish attitudes to royalty (ancient Irish or otherwise)! In spite of it’s name in Irish, this species
is native to Ireland and this island is one of the last places in Europe where this species grows commonly, since land use practices have obliterated it from many of its former locations in Britain and mainland Europe. Even in Ireland it is common only in the west and southwest. The Royal fern is a
large plant (1.5 metres or 5 feet high) which doesn’t look much like a typical fern. Its fronds look more like leaves and they are not repeatedly divided into smaller and smaller segments like most ferns, but two important features show that, despite its appearance, it is still a fern. In the spring, when new fronds are growing up from the basal stock, their tips are curled in the typical fern-like way. Like other ferns, spores (not seeds) are produced and these are borne in the late summer in a brown clustered mass at the tip of the dark green fronds.

Another typical plant of bogs found on Sheep’s Head is the Bog Asphodel (narthecium ossifragum). In spring and early summer it rises above the other bog vegetation in a very distinct straight stalk about 30cms (1 foot) high and bears a cluster of yellow flowers. Later in the year, as the flowers fade, the stalk turns a golden brown which contrasts with the surrounding green vegetation. Finally towards the end of the year, the dead flowering stalks still persist as ghostly pale white stalks.

On less boggy soils which are nevertheless very wet, especially in winter, Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) is found. It is commonest in wet meadows, where hundreds of stems bearing tens of red-purple flowers scream for attention in the late summer.

Another plant of these wet meadows is Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria). The name is thought to be a corruption of “meadsweet” since its flowers were used to flavour mead - a fermented drink made from honey.

Meadowsweet plants are about between knee and waist height with masses of white flowers formed what might be best described as a “foamy” top to the stems. The smell from these is very heady and musky.

Plants of roadsides and field-margins

The most common roadside plant in Sheep’s Head is Gorse (Ulex). It bears masses of yellow flowers in bunches at the tips of its branches. It is so common that most people ignore it but one is reminded of its beauty when tourists ask, “What is that pretty yellow flower?” Perhaps familiarity, or its sharp spines breed contempt! In former times it was probably considered a very useful plant since it could easily be planted as a low maintainance weather resistant hedge through which animals would not easily attempt to escape. It also provided fodder and bedding. Unlike many parts of Ireland this plant flowers all year round except in unusually harsh winters. Gorse has one secret many do not realise - its perfume. On a warm balmy day a sniff of the heavy cocoa-butter scent of a mass of yellow flowers is almost tropical, just avoid coming too close for fear of embedding spines in the nose!

Another striking plant of the Sheep’s Head is Fuchsia (Fuchsia magellanica). It cannot be missed by the walker. The masses of large pendulous crimson and purple Fuchsia flowers form a wall of colour along some roadsides.

Many tourists from the European mainland are amazed that plants which they can only grow indoors, appear in such profusion here in southwest Ireland. If one takes the time to stand silently beside a Fuchsia hedge on a warm sunny day, the noise that is produced by hundreds of hardworking insects feeding on nectar and pollen is something to be enjoyed. In winter the Fuchsia hedges, even though reduced to mere sticks of pale brown bark, still make a very effective windbreak. In spite of its great beauty and natural appearance in the landscape, this species is an alien. It was introduced from South America and the fact that it grows so well indicates that in the future it may spread and become a pest, in the same way as Rhododendron ponticum. Fuchsia has already “gone wild” in parts of Ireland, but in the Sheep’s Head it appears to be confined to the hedges and gardens in which
it was originally planted.

Walkers cannot fail to notice another very obvious alien of the Sheep’s Head landscape - Monterey Pine (Pinus radiata). This large tree, often with an outline somewhat like an ice-cream cone, had been widely planted around farmyards and some fields. Local tradition has it that the seeds from which most of the local tress are grown come from wood washed off a ship, but it is more likely that the seeds came from cones of older trees planted in some of the big houses in Bantry, Durrus or Ahakista. According
to Mitchell (A.Mitchell. A field guide to the trees of Britain and Northern Europe. Collins.1978) this conifer is one of the fastest growing in these islands (2.5 meters per year) and here grows much larger than in their native Monterey (California) where their populations are very small (in number and size).

Walkers will find cones from local trees washed up along the line of driftweed on the shores of Dunmanus Bay (perhaps, there lies the tradition that they were washed off a ship?). These cones are easily recognised by the fact that the point of attachment of the cones is skewed to one side of
the base. Unlike most trees this species has a very long growing season, from January to October and sometimes even longer in mild winters. It is interesting to note that many of the older citizens of Kilcrohane only know this species as Pinus insignis (a former scientific Latin name for this species)
- a tribute to the quality of environmental education received almost half a century ago from former primary school teachers in the village. How many children nowadays, would know the scientific name of even a daisy?

Foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea) are common on the Sheep’s Head Peninsula and recognised by their large basal leaves and a long stalk (2 meters or 6 feet high) on which many thimble shaped purple flowers are produced. On rare occasions, white flowered Foxgloves are found. This plant is poisonous and it illustrates one of the cases where folk medicine has been re-worked into modern medicine. One of the constituents of Foxgloves has a very powerful action on the heart. Ancient herbalists prepared special extracts of foxgloves to treat certain diseases which (though they did not know it) were caused by some heart conditions. This treatment eventually led to the production of a modern drug (from dried foxglove leaves) that is used today in the treatment of some heart ailments. This is not unusual, since at
least 50% of the drugs used in medicine today come from plants. In Irish Folklore, in some places, foxgloves were reputed to be good for bringing children back from the fairies while in other places it was believed that fairies who took the form of children could be banished if they were rubbed with foxglove juice.

Rowan and Holly are important roadside trees, especially on the north side of the Sheep’s Head Peninsula. Both bear red berries late in the year. The red berries of many plants were very important in the days before electric light banished most of the fairies. Formerly, in the long dark winter night,
all kinds of magical evil lurked in every corner, and, red (as a colour) was extremely important in warding off evil. In the middle of winter only Holly bore red berries and so was the only plant available to protect people and their homes from bad fairies.

Irish Spurge (Euphorbia hybernia) is a plant that has an interesting distribution. Walkers from Britain will not have seen it in their countryside. Irish Spurge plants are about knee high and look best in the spring and early summer when their almost fluorescent yellow green upper leaves stand out along the roadsides. Later in the year the upper leaves turn to dark green and are not as obvious amongst the other “forty shades of green” of West Cork hedges. The easiest way to confirm the identity of this plant is to pull off a small piece of the leaf and watch a milky white juice seep out from the torn surface. This juice (technically called “latex”) is poisonous (it should be kept away from the skin and eyes). The plant belongs to the same group as rubber trees, which can grow to almost 30 metres (100 feet) high in the Amazon rain forest and from which a similar latex is tapped commercially.

Poinsettia, an ornamental indoor plant with bright red upper leaves and sold at Christmas time, is another relative of the Irish Spurge, which also has a milky white latex. This latex has some interesting properties and the day may come when West Cork farmers may even grow Irish Spurge as a
crop for industrial etraction of the latex - an interesting end for what is now considered a roadside weed.

Another interesting aspect of Iris Spurge is its distribution. It belongs to a group of plants which were called the ‘Lusitanian element’ in the Irish Flora.

Lusitania was the Roman word for Spain and Portugal, and ‘Lusitanian flora and fauna’ is now used as a very general term for plants and animals which are found in west and southwest Ireland as well as Spain and Portugal but are absent from Britain and France. Why should such a species occur in such
distant places and not in between? The explanation seems to be that long before humans arrived in Ireland and during times when sea levels were much lower than they are now (as much as 200 metres or 600 feet lower than present levels) the coastline of Ireland extended much further west into the Atlantic than it does now. Because of the lower sea levels, Spain and Portugal would have been directly connected to Ireland, so plants and animals could have extended north along what is now the floor of the Bay of Biscay into West Cork. Then, as sea levels rose and the Bay of Biscay formed, the Lusitanian plants and animals in west and southwest Ireland were cut off in a lonely outpost far north from the rest of their species. So why have these plants not spread over the rest of Ireland? The answer lies
in the inability of these species to tolerate cold winters - the only place they can survive in Ireland is southwest Ireland, where the average January temperature is a mild 5 to 7 degrees Centigrade.

Walls and rocky places

Undoubtedly the most delightfully interesting plant of walls and rocky places is St. Patrick’s Cabbage (Saxifraga spathularis). This is another native plant of the ‘Lusitanian element’ in Ireland (see under Irish Spurge for an explanation of this term). While it is common on the Sheep’s Head Peninsula and in southwest Ireland in general it is much rarer in other parts of Ireland.

As in the case of other ‘Lusitanian’ plants, it does not occur in Britain. The Irish name for this species is ‘Cabáiste an mhadra rua’ or ‘foxes cabbage’ and ‘Cabáiste na ndaoine maithe’, meaning ‘the good people’s cabbage - a reference to the fairies - has also been used. The reference to “cabbage” in
its name must allude to the round shiny leaves (2.5 centimetres or 1 inch in diameter) with serrated edges which form a rosette at the base of this plant.

Often hundreds of basal rosettes colonise shady walls, rock faces or stony stream sides, almost always on the north facing side of these. If the Sheep’s Head Peninsula had woodlands it would grow in the shade of taller trees, as it does in places where sunshine is not so intense. St. Patrick’s Cabbage
flowers rise above the basal rosette of leaves to just below knee height.

The flowers on each stalk are very small, but very beautiful, being dotted with red and yellow spots.

Another English name which is sometimes used for this plant is ‘London Pride’ but this name, strictly speaking refers to a cultivated hybrid between St. Patrick’s Cabbage and another related species.


Much of the Sheep’s Head Way, especially at its western end, is through heathland. The soil is usually a thin layer of peat over rocky or mineral soil.

The commonest plants are Ling (Calluna) and Heather (Erica, often both called “heather”). While both form twiggy bushes up to about knee height and both have purplish flowers, they are easily separated by their leaves. In Ling the leaves are on a stem in such a way that they are very crowded and overlapping. In Heather, on the other hand, the leaves are clearly separate from one another and the flowers are bell shaped. The long stretches of Ling and Heather covered mountain along the Sheep’s Head Way are often considered to be “natural”. At best they can only be considered as seminatural,
because humans have been (wittingly or otherwise) managing this landscape for thousands of years and changing the vegetation from woodland to scrubland to heathland through the use and effects of grazinganimals and of fire.

One of the small pretty plants of heathlands is Milkwort (Polygala). Its bunches of tiny deep-blue flowers (each flower smaller than the nail of the smallest finger) are common amongst the heather and grasses along much of the upland and coastal cliff parts of the Sheep’s Head Way.

Areas affected by sea spray

There are many plants in this habitat but perhaps the most boring looking but interesting is the Sea Beet (Beta vulgaris). This plant occurs at the top of the shore amongst gravel just above the reach of high tide, but is regularly washed over by waves during storms. Sea Beet grows as a tuft of large (30
centimetres or 1 foot) tongue shaped leaves which are dark green and shiny.

It is from this species that beetroot, sugar beet, mangel (mangold) and Swiss chard all were derived as cultivars. Interestingly, the ability of this seaside plant to tolerate salty soils is still present in its distant descendants which can tolerate saltier soils than many other crops. Today, in many countries, agricultural practices are increasing the salt content of many soils to such an extent that crops can no longer be grown in them. In the future, through genetic engineering, the salt tolerant genes of the Sea Beet may be called upon to restore the agricultural potential of these unproductive salinized soils.