It is summer. A rainy night has turned into a day of blue sky and fluffy white clouds. The wind that had been rustling the leaves of the nearby forest all night and together with the drumming of the rain had turned the dark hours into a somewhat noisy affair has died down. Now the world is cocooned into peaceful silence. The song of the Skylark and the buzzing of flies and bees don’t count as noise and only deepen the peace instead of disrupting it.
I am in the middle of a meadow. Around me the tall stems of blooming grasses form a green ocean. In between flower heads sprinkle dots of colour onto the waves of green: Devil’s Bit Scabious provides the purple, the buttercups add yellow, the Greater and Common Knapweed are responsible for red and the Ox-Eye Daisy displays rosettes of pure white. It is almost midday and the sun overhead has long burned away the raindrops that had clung onto the leaves, petals and spiderwebs. Some of the flowers have already served their purpose and are slowly fading away, reminding me that summer in Ireland is short lived and fragile.
I am diving beneath the coloured surface of the meadow. Down here, close to the ground, is a different world. More flowers reveal themselves, these ones even more intricate and intriguing than the ones on the surface. The Pyramidal Orchid shows off with a cluster of flowers in a gleaming pink and the Bee Orchid’s elaborate design is beyond words, it can just be marvelled at. The eyebrights right beside the orchids come along more humble, but the tiny flowers evaporate a gracile beauty nevertheless. There are also clovers, red and white, and Selfheal. Through the stalks I can spot a patch of Wild Thyme and a bunch of Wild Marjoram at the edge of the meadow. Beetles and ants go about their business in this temporary jungle. Out of the corner of my eye I see a Peacock butterfly dancing to the song of the Skylark in the sky above. I close my eyes and give myself to the sounds and smells of the meadow.
Flowering plants are one of the great wonders of the natural world. These plants are not only transforming the countryside into a kaleidoscope of colours and have inspired poets, painters and other artists for centuries, they first and foremost provide food. Flowering plants are scientifically known as angiosperms, which is derived from the Greek words for vessel (angio) and seed (sperm). The name is hinting at the reproduction process of flowering plants, the end product of which is one or many seeds embedded or attached to a vessel. To us this vessel is better known as the fruit which comes on the form of berries, nuts, grains and beans to name but a few. These fruits are the foundation of countless food chains all over the planet. Without flowering plants most of today’s insects, birds, mammals and other animals, including us, wouldn’t exist.
Before angiosperms changed the world, plants reproduced in a very simple and rather dull way. These early plants that appeared for the first time some 500 million years ago and which survived as ferns, horsetails and clubmosses until today, don’t produce flowers or seeds. Instead they reproduce by spores, simple but effective one-celled reproductive units. Through these units the plant can produce offspring by effectively cloning itself without the need of outside help, which is a safe way to secure the survival of the species.
Why plants evolved from spore producing and therefor independent species to flowering plants that need outside support is a big mystery, but without this evolution our planet would be looking very different today. The first flowering plants evolved around 130 million years ago, which in geological terms was a rather recent event. The first flower was most likely a small inconspicuous thing. Scientists are still not clear what this first flower exactly looked like and where, how and from what it evolved. At the moment it is thought that Amborellaceae, a family that includes just one known species, is the oldest living lineage of flowering plants. This one species, Amborella trichopoda, is a small woody plant that only grows on the pacific island of South Caledonia. From those humble beginnings the flowering plants began to diversify and started their conquest of the globe. Today almost 90% of all plants are angiosperms, they can be found from the tropics to the arctic and have diversified into close to 300.000 species. From Oak trees, Hawthorn and Bramble, annual, biennial and perennial flowers to the orchards, fields and greenhouses with apples, wheat and tomatoes, flowering plants are the foundation of almost every ecosystem on Earth.
The new concept that set angiosperms apart from all other plants was a reproduction method similar to that of the animal world. A male reproductive cell, the pollen, had to be delivered to a female reproductive organ, the ovary, and once these two had come together, an event known as pollination, the offspring, the seed, was born. The flower was the key to this concept.
Angiosperms can be divided into two major groups. Flowering plants that grow woody parts, the trees and shrubs, form one group and the herbaceous plants the other. The latter is probably the reason for the overwhelming success of the angiosperms. While trees and shrubs take years to mature and bear seed, herbaceous plants have a much shorter life cycle and can live, reproduce and die within a few months. This allows these plants to colonize new ground very fast and expand their range quickly. It was also the herbaceous plants that brought the flower to a whole new level. The flowers on most trees and shrubs are small and undecorated for the simple reason that these plants rely on the wind for pollination so there is no need for any kind of fancy display. Petals, the often colourful leaves we associate with flowering plants, appeared for the first time around 100 million years ago. These petal bearing plants didn’t count on the unreliability and crude delivery system of the wind anymore, they were trying to attract insects that would then transport their pollen directly from one plant to the next. What followed was a co-evolution of angiosperms and insects, a time known as the great radiation. The plants started to diversify at an immense rate and were adding colour patterns, an array of smells and food in the form of nectar to their arsenal in order to attract pollinators. In turn insects adapted and diversified as well and over time even other animals like birds, lizards and bats were joining the ranks of pollinators. In many cases the relationship between plant and pollinator became very special. Flowers that rely on bees have markings in the ultraviolet spectrum that most other insects can’t see. Butterfly pollinated flowers are red, yellow and orange, colours bees can’t see, and often have the nectar hidden deep inside the flower so it can only be reached by the butterfly’s especially adapted long, straw-like proboscis. Flowers that depend on night active bats or moths release their scent only after dark and are often white, which makes them easier to be seen in moonlight.
While the delivery person and method of attraction differs, the actual process of pollination is the same in all angiosperms. The important reproductive organs can be found in the center of the flower and are surrounded by the petals and sepals. The latter are the leaves that protect the flower while it is still closed. The male reproductive organ is the stamen which is made up of the anther, which produces the pollen, and the stalk or filament, which carries the anther. In most flowers a number of stamens are arranged around the female reproductive organ, the carpel. The carpel consists of the stigma on the top, the style, which is a tube that connects the stigma with the ovary at the bottom. Inside the ovule sits the ovary. To prevent self-fertilization the male and female gametophytes (the pollen and the ovary) on the same plant mature at different times and female plant parts don’t accept just any pollen. How the flower sorts compatible from incompatible pollen however is still an area of active research. Once the right pollen has been delivered onto the stigma, the pollen grows a tube (the pollen tube) down the style and into the ovule. Through this tube the sperm cells are delivered to the ovary where fertilization takes place. The ovary will then develop into the seed and the surrounding ovule into the fruit.
The fruit is a further pillar on which the mutual beneficial relationship of angiosperms and animals is built. For the animal the fruit is a food source, for the plant it is the means that turns the animal yet again into a delivery system. The animal devours the fruit, the fruit passes through the animal’s digestive track and while the fruit itself is digested the seed survives the journey and sees the light of day again far away from its place of origin. It is an ingenious way to travel fast and far to colonize new areas. This way of transport allowed the angiosperms, especially the herbaceous varieties, to expand rapidly, which in turn allowed animals in general and mammals in particular, to migrate to and settle in new places.
The history of Ireland’s flowering plants starts towards the end of the last glaciation some 12.000 years ago. Warmer temperatures allowed plants to extend their range and the post-glacial, tundra-like landscape soon developed into a vast grassland similar to today’s African steppe. This landscape was rich in sedges, docks and mugworts that played a major part in feeding the large herds of Reindeer and the Giant Irish Deer that had followed the new vegetation northwards. One of the few plants that survived this first major transition in Ireland’s flora is the Mountain Avens, an unmistakable flower of the arctic, that has managed to survive and thrive in a few limestone and upland areas like the Burren. While the Mountain Avens is what most of us would call a wildflower, this member of the rose family is classified as a shrub which is reflected in its Latin name, Dryas octopetala. The dryas are ancient Greek tree nymphs or tree spirits. This part of the name was eventually passed on to the geological epochs of the Younger Dryas and the Older Dryas, the time periods where Dryas octopetala was particularly widespread. The second part of the name draws attention to the eight petals of the Mountain Avens’s flower.
Around 11.000 years ago the Nahanagan cold snap pushed many plants and animals back south for a while but with a rapid rise in temperatures that started around 10.000 years ago the flora and fauna started to recapture the lost territory. Continuously rising temperatures allowed for a swift change in Ireland’s landscape. Some 10.500 years ago the Birch was the first tree to establish itself and laid the foundation for other species to follow. Birch trees carry fruit after only 10 years and so started to form forests within a few decades. In addition the shed leaves made a major contribution to the developing soil every autumn. Hazel arrived shortly after the birch and with it a number of herbaceous plants that are still associated with forests today.
The Primrose is one of those, although today it isn’t limited to a forest setting and can be found in a number of habitats like hedgerows, roadsides and even exposed coastal areas. The Primrose is one of the first flowers to burst into bloom every year. Its Irish name sabhaircin means May flower, but nowadays this quintessential spring flower starts to show its first blossoms on average in March, sometimes as early as February. The flowers of the Primrose come in two different forms on each plant. The pin flowers show a prominent style while in the thrum flowers the style is considerably shorter and the stamens are the dominant part of the flower. This ensures cross-fertilization which means it is more likely that pollinators, for the Primrose those are mainly bumble bees and beetles, transport pollen from one plant to another plant. Soon after the Primrose the Wood Anemone bursts into bloom and another few weeks later Bluebells, Wild Garlic, Cuckoo Pint, also known as Lords and Ladies, and others follow. Like the Primrose these flowers are not limited to woodlands anymore and have established themselves in other habitats. Their presence however indicates the former existence of a forest at their location and the plants have kept their habit of flowering early. In a forest setting this early start was necessary to finish growing and flowering before the forest canopy closed and held back the light necessary to photosynthesize. The need of light becomes especially obvious in the Wood Anemone. Their delicate flowers only open fully in sunshine and stay closed on cloudy days. Strangely enough the flowers of the Wood Anemone rarely produce fertile seeds and the plant spreads mainly by expanding its root system. Once the trees have awoken from their winter slumber the forest floor soon gets cast in permanent shadow and the spring flowers take a rest. After spreading their seeds, the Primrose slowly disappears from the surface and reverts its energy reserves into its root and the Bluebell does the same with its bulb. The Cuckoo Pint is one of the few that keeps a presence above ground. Arranged around its stem a cluster of berries turn from green into a bright red over the course of the summer.
How this flora made its way to Ireland is still a matter of debate. It is widely accepted that for a limited period of time land bridges existed between the European continent and the islands of Britain and Ireland and that plants and animals used these connections to move from the continent first to Britain and then into Ireland. As those migration highways disappeared under the rising sea, the number of species that made it all the way to Ireland stayed relatively small and as a consequence Ireland hosts only around 800 species of flowering plants while its neighbour has almost double. This makes sense, what is however a mystery are certain plants that grow in Ireland but not in Britain. The Lusitanian Flora is a group of 15 species that thrive in northern Spain and Portugal as well as in Ireland but none of those plants can be found in Britain. How plants like the Strawberry Tree, Maidenhair Fern, Large Flowered Butterwort and Irish Fleabane to name but a few found their way to Ireland is still not clear. Some theories suggest a land bridge between the Iberian Peninsula and Ireland, others think that seeds were carried in the gulf stream or that the Lusitanian species were introduced accidentally and much later by trade between Spain and Ireland. An alternative theory suggests that these species have been in Ireland since before the glaciations and managed to survive in some hidden corners of the south west.
Over time Birch and Hazel were joined by bigger forest trees, first and foremost oaks and pines and eventually the open grassland was transformed into vast forests. None of these primeval forests exist today but it is thought that these woodlands were so dense that only few grasses and other flowering plants managed to survive in the constant twilight. Only in places with a thin soil cover like areas of limestone rock, around lakes and beside rivers, grasses and herbaceous plants kept on thriving.
The first people that arrived in Ireland, Mesolithic hunter-gatherers that lived on a diet of fish, shellfish, fruit and hazel nuts, stayed along the coast and didn’t venture into the dark forest that covered Ireland’s interior. During their reign the Irish landscape didn’t change much. The transformation of the land was coming with the arrival of Neolithic farmers some 6000 years ago. In these past 6000 years Ireland’s landscape and its flora experienced a radical change. In the beginning these changes were small and happened gradually. The farming activities of the Neolithic people opened up clearings in the forests and allowed grasses and herbaceous plants to make a bit of a comeback. With a growing human population however the number of pastures and fields increased steadily. Instead of Reindeer and Giant Elk, cattle and goats roamed these new grasslands and native flowers were joined by imported and cultivated seeds. Ireland was being transformed into a cultural landscape. A change in the climate around 4000 years ago did the rest and the trees that had escaped the farming activities were engulfed by the growing peatlands and so the green checkerboard-landscape Ireland is so famous for took hold.
Some 250 species in total made up the new grasslands. These species formed communities depending on local climate, soil type and drainage condition and it wouldn’t have been unusual to find more than 40 species within a few square meters. Today these grasslands can be divided into four main categories: Wet meadows, dry meadows, roadside grassland and upland meadows. These environments often blend together, sometimes even in the same field and can so host a multitude of different species. The majority of the angiosperms in a meadow are grasses. Worldwide there are more than 11.500 known species of grasses including our cultivated food stables of wheat, rye, oat, corn and rice, and agrostologists (Agrostology is the study of grasses) estimate that there could be a total of up to 13.000 different species. One of the most common species in Ireland is Red Fescue which can tolerate a range of soil conditions, Marsh Foxtail is an indicator for wet ground, Quaking Grass prefers it well drained and dry, Sweet Vernal grass is typical for acidic soils and Yellow Oat Grass is an indicator for alkaline soils. The wind pollinated grasses are being joined by a variety of meadow flowers like Common Knapweed, Oxeye Daisy, Red and White Clovers, Bird’s Foot Trefoil, Ragged Robin, Devil’s Bit Scabious, various orchids and others. These grasses and herbs thrived not despite but because of the interference of farming. Carefully timed grazing and cutting allowed the herbaceous species to flourish beside the grasses and the droppings of the farm animals provided fertilizer and supported the regeneration of the soil.
The best known and probably most missed of these grasslands is the traditional hay meadow, a dry grassland that can be found on calcareous and well drained soils. The meadows of the Burren National Park are a good example for this kind of grassland. Its counterpart the wet meadow often lies on the floodplain of a river or beside a lake that experiences fluctuating water levels. The Shannon Callows are a prime example for a wet meadow. A unique kind of grassland and one of the rarest habitats in Europe that can only be found in north-west Ireland and parts of western Scotland is the Machair. Machair is the Gaelic word for fertile plain and these low lying, coastal grasslands are always adjacent to a beach or dune system. The ground that forms the Machair is highly calcareous and consists mainly of shell fragments that have made their way from the sea onto the beach and eventually inland, being broken down into ever smaller particles along the way. In summer the Machair turns into a colourful carpet consisting of Ox-Eye Daisy, Bird’s-Foot Trefoil, Lady’s Bedstraw, White Clover, Harebell and others and rivals any hay meadow in appearance. Like a hay meadow machairs had been cultivated in the past and even today are still used for grazing in some places. While all these grasslands were never truly natural, many formed a species rich environment where numerous plants, insects, birds and even men existed in relative harmony and balance.
Today however these grasslands, especially the traditional hay meadows, have disappeared in most places. The old farming practice of hay making, which in fact isn’t that old and only came into being around 1000 years ago, involved one cutting in late summer and tedious stacking and drying of the bounty. This labour intensive and in the wet Irish climate often futile practise has been replaced by silage, the cutting and immediate wrapping of the crop into plastic sheets. The new technique was a much safer and quicker option for the farmer to secure winter fodder for the animals, but silage was also the start of a downward spiral for the rich biodiversity of the hay meadow. A growing national herd demanded more food and so the old meadows with their mixture of grasses and herbs were replaced with faster growing rye grasses. At the same time chemical fertilization was increased to allow two or even three cuts over the summer. The result is beautifully green but otherwise barren pastures. Where once 30 or more species thrived in a field, one might be lucky to find 10 today. The loss of species is however only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Apart from the wrapping plastic that has turned into a pollution problem in itself and the run-off of fertilizer that causes additional environmental problems, modern farming has also displaced many ground nesting birds. The nests that aren’t being destroyed by farm machinery are left wide open and without the protection of tall grasses are an easy pick for predators. The corncrake is probably the most famous but not the only victim of modern farming and is now close to extinction. Another and more far-reaching side effect is the decline in insect populations and therefor a loss of pollinators. In recent years not only the much-loved bees and butterflies have dropped in numbers, the not so much loved but nevertheless important flies and other creepy-crawlies are in sharp decline as well.
The loss of wildflowers also means a loss of knowledge, a wisdom that had been acquired over generations. Many of the now endangered plants have medicinal properties, were used as food or for other applications in the home or the farm. Lady’s Bedstraw for example was once widely used as a rennet in cheese making, the flowers were made into a drink and the roots were used for dye. Red Clover was a welcome ingredient for salads and used for wine making. The developing seed heads of the White Clover were ground into a flour and used for baking; timing however was important because the fully developed seed heads are poisonous. Meadowsweet, which today can mainly be found at roadsides and in ditches, has been used as an anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, analgesic and diuretic. The dried leaves have been eaten as sweet treat, the flowers made into cordial and the roots were the source for a black and yellow dye. The Primrose was well known as a remedy for cuts, bruises and other skin conditions and Cowslip, which has a narcotic effect, was used as a cure for insomnia and also was made into wine. Yarrow was a common medicine for arthritis and rheumatism and was taken in the form of a tonic, potion or tea. The humble Daisy is rich in vitamin C and despite its bitter taste was often used in salads and the Cuckoo Flower was known as an antispasmodic… the list could go on.
Today the old-style meadows have only survived in protected areas and they make a bit of comeback on some organic farms. While the disappearance of the hay meadow was the most visible loss in the Irish landscape, flowering plants in other habitats were also decimated. The drainage of the peatlands meant the end for numerous species, heavy grazing in mountainous regions put huge pressure on plants there and manicured gardens drenched in pesticides not only eliminate native plants but insects and other invertebrates with them.
Climate change is also having a big impact on flowering plants, both positive and negative. While some species have been known to flower throughout the year, especially in the mild climate of the west coast, more and more wildflowers abandon their traditional flowering time in exchange for a rather erratic behaviour. Some species start to bloom several weeks earlier than usual while others produce flowers in irregular intervals throughout the year. In my little corner of Ireland I see typical coastal flowers like Thrift and Sea Campion appear up to two months before their usual time, sometimes as early as late January. Others like Daisy and White Clover produce flowers whenever they see fit, even in the middle of winter, and gardeners tell anecdotal stories of their roses suddenly bursting into bloom in November and strawberries bearing fruit at Christmas. For flowers and insects that have formed a close relationship this can have dire consequences. The insects will experience a lack of food, because by the time they arrive on the scene the flowers would have already faded without having produced seeds as their pollinator wasn’t around. It is however also possible that over time flowers and insects will adapt to a new timetable. The same goes for alpine and arctic species which will be the most affected by a warming climate. These flowers can move further north, expand into higher altitudes or find a way to adapt like the Mountain Avens must have done in the Burren. In the end adaption is what evolution is all about. Orchids and other Mediterranean species could be the winners of higher average temperatures and there are already signs that some species extend their range northwards.
Nevertheless wildflowers today live literally on the edge. National parks and nature reserves, some ditches and roadsides, coastal fringes and hard to reach mountain tops are the only places left where wildflowers can still thrive. Bringing wildflowers back however would not be difficult. Because these plants can produce seeds within a few months, wildflowers would come back very quickly if we would only let them. Some County Councils have already stopped mowing roadsides and roundabouts every other week and movements like We are the Ark guide garden owners in transforming their landscaped backyard into a more natural place. If every garden owner would give back a part of their property to nature, let the natural flora take over or re-introduce long gone native wildflowers, it would be a big, first step back from the brink of a world without flowering plants and all the consequences this would bring.
Carsten Krieger, April 2020 / Edited January 2021