Blue-eyed beauty: Bermuda’s national flower is also native to Ireland

Irish Connections: Delicate ‘Sisyrinchium bermudiana’ thrives on both islands

Sisyrinchium bermudiana: found on Beara and Bermuda. Photograph: Wouter Hagens

Sisyrinchium bermudiana: found on Beara and Bermuda. Photograph: Wouter Hagens

 

Every spring in Bermuda a little plant comes into flower, sprinkling the grass with jewel-like sparks of palest blue. Known as Sisyrinchium bermudiana, it was long thought to be limited to the island, where it appears on jewellery, in art and even on banknotes. It is Bermuda’s national flower, but it is also found in one other place in the world: Ireland.

This low-growing grassland plant, first discovered here in 1845, is found around Lough Erne and Lough Melvin, in Co Fermanagh. There are also reports of it growing on the shores of Lough Allen and on the Beara Peninsula. It doesn’t grow in Britain.

What nobody seems to know for sure is whether it’s native to Ireland and was introduced to Bermuda, or vice versa. Given its flowering habits – the star-like petals open only on sunny days – you’d expect it to prefer Bermuda’s humid subtropical climate to the uncertainties of Irish weather.

Both countries, however, claim the plant. “Endemic to Bermuda” declares the Bermudan department of environment and natural resources, while our own National Botanic Gardens includes it on the red list of endangered Irish plants – although only in Northern Ireland. There it is protected under the Wildlife (NI) Order 1985, which makes it an offence to intentionally pick, remove, uproot, destroy or sell the plant in the North.

Even its name is ambiguous. It’s often called “blue-eyed grass” – but that invites confusion with a much more common plant, Sisyrinchium montanum, which is widely grown as a garden plant in North America and sometimes escapes into the wild. The latter has bright or deep violet-blue flowers.

The Irish name of feilistrín gorm, or little blue iris, is an accurate description, as the plant is a member of the iris family

Better, perhaps, to go with the Irish name of feilistrín gorm, which means “little blue iris” – an accurate description, as the plant is a member of the iris family, with narrow, grass-like leaves that form a miniature fan.

In Bermuda it is officially declared to be “widely dispersed and thriving”, but Sisyrinchium bermudianum has been having a tough time of it on this side of the Atlantic.

“It’s a tricky one,” says Conor McKinney, landscapes manager with the conservation group Ulster Wildlife, which has been working to develop 3,500 hectares of species-rich grassland in Co Fermanagh. “It won’t open up on cloudy days, only when the sun is high in the sky. And it’s very small and quite delicate – so it is easily overlooked.”

He explains that because it prefers a grassland habitat, blue-eyed grass has suffered from the double whammy of land abandonment – where rushes and gorse infest fields that once held hay meadows full of native wild flowers – and overzealous land development.

“Many sites were seeded with very aggressive rye grasses which overtake the native species, of which blue-eyed grass would be one,” McKinney says. “Devil’s bit scabious is another. Farmers were often told to spray fields ‘until that purple flower disappeared’. That was regarded as good farming practice.”

Things are changing for the better, with many farmers in Fermanagh now more enthusiastic about native flora and fauna than the conservationists – so with any luck this particular Irish connection will survive for many years yet. It’s not our only connection with Bermuda. There’s an Ireland Island there, and many other historical links. But we’ll return to those another time.

If you know of an Irish connection that would interest readers of this column, please email awallace@irishtimes.com with details of the story, as well as your contact address

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