‘But a little while ago, all the ground was white with snow/Trees and shrubs were dry and bare, not a sign of life was there’.
These few lines are from one of my favourite poems called Winter and Spring, but I have never been able to find out who the poet is. There is a hint of hope and optimism in the simple lines, and on a recent walk I found that life is starting to return to our countryside.
From a distance the little hill looked barren but a beautiful scent carried in the gentle breeze drew me on.
As I got nearer I saw the distinctive leaves and flowers of the Winter Heliotrope growing along the base of an ancient hedgerow.
Surprisingly some species of flowers choose the coldest months of the year to blossom and they bring a touch of welcome colour to our countryside and provide nectar for hardy early insects.
The Winter Heliotrope is a member of the Daisy and Dandelion family and is very common along roadside verges, edges of streams, and as an unwelcome visitor in our gardens.
This perennial flower was introduced in 1806 from the Mediterranean region (Sardinia and North Africa) as a ground cover plant and to provide colour and interest in the winter months.
Naturally enough it liked our climate and escaped from gardens and started to colonize the country.
This must have been a slow process as the plants found in Ireland are all male and therefore cannot produce seed.
They spread by rhizomes (underground stems) that are carried in soil or on mud trapped on the wheels and buckets of excavating machines. It is very invasive and will quickly spread and cover a large area. If you want to grow it in your garden plant in a sturdy container and this will keep it under control.
It flowers from November to March on long pink spikes and the flowers smell like vanilla or cherry pie. It is also known as sweet scented coltsfoot.
Heliotropism is the way that flowers follow the sun throughout the day.
Like a solar panel they want to be exposed to the maximum amount of sunlight so they can create plenty of energy. The name of the Winter Heliotrope reflects this ability. Helio comes from the Greek word for sun and trope means follower - literally the flower that follows the sun. Also, its name in Irish is ‘plur na greine’ that translates as follower of the sun.
As it stretches its flowers in the cold Irish climate it probably wishes it was left in the sun and heat of ancestral Mediterranean home. The second part of its name is patasities and this is another Greek word. The leaves of the heliotrope resemble the felt hats worm by Shepherds and they were sometimes used to protect the head during long hot days of watching their animals.
This is a very important flower for insects as it provides an early source of nectar. It was often planted near beehives and it provided the bees with a good source of winter food.
Traditionally it was used in herbal medicine and its roots have anti-inflammatory properties and can also be used as a pain killer.
It is not used any more as it was discovered that it contained a chemical that damages the liver.
Although when processed by the bees into honey the harmful properties disappear.
Although it has only been here for a few hundred years the Winter Heliotrope has become well established as a wayside wildflower. T
his quick adjustment to our climate is easier to understand when you realise that the Dandelion and the Daisy are in the same family.
As any gardener knows these are two tough and persistent wildflowers that can survive in a range of different habitats and soil conditions.
They can also flower throughout the year and a few feet from where I found the winter heliotrope I found a single dandelion and daisy.
So next time you are out for a walk keep a watch out for some interesting flowers that brave the winter sun.
Albert Nolan is an environmentalist and wildlife enthusiast based in Tipperary Town.
He is available to give walks and talks to schools, community and tidy towns groups and if you have any wildlife questions please contact Albert on 089 4230502 or the above email.