On the trail of the astonishingly potent wild Irish rose

 

ANOTHER LIFE:THE LIFE FORCE of plants can be astonishingly patient, waiting an age for a chance to flower in the sun.

More than 20 years ago, moved by half-remembered scenes from certain arty films of my youth, I filled a sheltered corner with far too many roses. They were the sort that shone out from the terraces of Cocteau’s black-and-white moonlit chateaux, or so I fancied – old and fragrant shrub roses with posh French names.

Set far too close together, and corralled by fuchsia hedges, there were bound to be winners and losers. “Spectacular and carefree”, as was promised in the nursery catalogue, the florid and crimson Roseraie del Hay has long eclipsed Mme Isaac Perriere. “Inclined to walk,” as was warned, Blanc Double de Coubert has extinguished Boule de Neige and half a dozen other neighbours with the spread of suckers bearing moon-white, intensely fragrant flowers.

An early casualty was Cardinal de Richelieu, its puckered-velvet blooms in the darkest burgundy-purple: a rare and sumptuous colour. I mourned its disappearance in the big, tangled mound of prickly stems and then forgot it was ever there. But suddenly last week there were these revelatory blossoms: the Cardinal redux, struggling up through the shadows on a dozen spindly stems.

Its revival is all of a piece with the floral abundance of this summer, not least for the wild roses of Ireland’s hedgerows. For most of them, as with my shrubby cultivars, a few weeks of flowering in June and July is their one, all-too-brief celebration. And telling them apart can be far from straightforward. Their various miscegenations may find a dozen kinds mounting the hedgerows of a single county.

The record probably belongs to the high tiered hedgebanks of Co Cork, where the self-taught botanist Tony O’Mahony, in four decades of systematic wandering, has found a dozen species and another 18 hybrids between them, all with the single blossoms of the native wild gallery.

The common dog rose, usually with soft pink flowers, has big curved thorns to help haul itself upright in the hedge, while the field rose is more of a low, rambling plant, supported by other plants, and its flowers are nearly always white.

The commonest sweet briar is like a weaker-growing dog rose but with deep pink flowers, many red prickles in two sizes and leaves that, rubbed between fingerandthumb,smellof

apples.

Here in Co Mayo we boast nine kinds of rose, from the downy rose of acid hedgebanks to the ground-hugging burnet rose of limestone lakeshores and sandy banks near the sea. The burnet rose crosses with the sweet briar and the downy rose, the dog rose with the downy rose and the burnet, and so on – multiple liaisons that make the study of the wild Irish rose a perplexing affair.

As O’Mahony notes in his recent Wild Flowers of Cork City and County, the Japanese rose, Rosa rugosa, is now commonly mass planted in roadside ornament by county councils throughout Ireland.

This vigorous rose, with its purply-pink flowers, big wrinkly leaves and tomato-like hips, naturalises itself readily near the coast (we have a roadside hedge of it at Louisburgh) and is the oriental parent of the two most ebullient old shrub roses in my garden. We wait to see what its sex life may produce in the wild.

The challenges of wild-rose parentage are given a fresh setting in The Flora of County Tyrone, the latest in the series of big and handsome natural-history volumes published by the National Museums of Northern Ireland (£25).

Its author, Ian McNeill, is a retired maths teacher living in his native Cookstown, another star example of what can be achieved by a dedicated amateur (plus son and son’s friend), building on records from the past and modern environmental surveys.

Co Tyrone, hemmed in from the sea by the North’s coastal counties, may not be the most scenically dramatic of the six, but the book gives a great feeling for the variety of habitat, from the bogland of the Sperrins to lakes and bosky glens. Robert Thompson’s impeccable photography captures the landscape and a token gallery of plants.

Among the natives, the rare cloudberry survives, just about, at a single, bleak site on the high Sperrins, and there are other rarities among the ferns and orchids of the glens.

In the hedgerows the dog roses are abundant and at their usual gene swapping, including the one that gives the plant wine-red stems. Robert Lloyd Praeger, the North’s great botanist, found Tyrone “a curiously negative tract” and the Sperrins “the least inspiring of Irish mountains”.

Ian McNeill, while noting this, does a good job of showing what he missed.

Eye on nature

A badger regularly visits our garden, on the shores of Carlingford Lough. We leave food out and it leaves us its, well, leavings. These are full of crab parts.

I had noticed what we call “badger roads” down on to the beach but didn’t work out that it was the crabs they were after.

Brendan McSherry, Dundalk, Co Louth

A heron has a patch of territory on the River Liffey near the back of Heuston Station in Dublin. Every so often it is mobbed by a flock of seagulls descending from the roof of the station. We see stunning aerobatics (and hear a lot of caterwauling) as a relatively clumsy heron is chased high into the air by far more agile gulls, over Parkgate Street, Collins’ Barracks and St John’s Road, but with the heron always attempting to make a return to the river.

Finbarr O’Malley, Parkgate Street, Dublin

The Ballsbridge-to-Sandymount stretch of the River Dodder, in Dublin, has always been a haven of bird life, with everything from heron to kingfisher.

This spring and summer, for the first time, pairs of grey wagtails, with their bright yellow breasts, have made this area their home. A very welcome arrival.

Rodney Devitt, Sandymount, Dublin


Michael Viney welcomes observations at Thallabawn, Carrowniskey PO, Westport, Co Mayo, e-mail viney@anu.ie. Please include a postal address