Cabragh Wetlands - a natural oasis of beauty on the outskirts of Thurles
The growth of flowering plants in particular locations is not as random as it may seem.
Looking across the vastness of the reedbeds and open meadows at Cabragh, it is obvious that growth has occurred in one great spurt over the last number of weeks as the great flowering is underway.
The growth of flowering plants in particular locations is not as random as it may seem. The citizen scientists, many of them teenagers, such as the Ursuline secondary school students that come to Cabragh on a regular basis use quadrats and line transects to establish a hierarchy of plants that depend on factors like water retention capacity of the soil, the management of the reedbed etc.
A close uninterrupted expanse of wet reed would be beneficial to many invertebrates and a small number of specialist bird species such as the reed warbler although in plant terms it would be species poor. On the other hand, grazed areas of reedbed or areas cut in summer or winter have a great bounty of low flowering plants which we will deal with next week.
From farmland or woodland to water, the plant life ranges from nettle and meadowsweet through willowherb, iris and bedstraw to loosestrife and reedmace. There is an eternal struggle for light with all sorts of strategems being employed such as the hooked purple vetch but it is the tall ones that stand out.
One of the great plants of herbal medicine is the beautiful white, tinged with pink, common valerian. It grows tall on the edge of the large pond at Cabragh and on the Aran Islands it was traditionally used to make a tea which helped in the alleviation of depression. All the old chemists’ shops sold a tincture of valerian. It grows to about two metres tall and is like a hidden jewel among the yellow flag and meadow sweet of the pond margin. Apart from depression, it is also used to treat insomnia, headaches and stomach and intestine problems.
Another very common pink flower , just beginning to bloom, is the rosebay willowherb. It occurs in great stands about 11/2 metres tall all over the wetland and it establishes large colonies as it spreads by means of underground rhizomes. The flowers at the tip may still be in tight bud when the lower ones have formed long cylinders of fruit. It thrives too in disturbed sites such as woodland clearings, river banks, roadsides and where ground has been burned. Its fruit capsule contains numerous fluffy seeds. The leaves are used as a substitute for tea particularly in Russia.
Walking in Cabragh on a warm summer’s evening, the nose is assailed by a variety of wonderful scents. Underfoot the smell of mint rises, in the hedgerow honeysuckle or woodbine is probably the most fragrant smell of the evening but in a light breeze with the sun beating down, the signature smell of the wetland is meadowsweet. A member of the rose family, its creamy white flowerheads are seen in great masses across the marsh. It was valued for its use in flavouring beer or mead and for strewing with rushes on the floors of rooms to keep them fresh and fragrant . It is unusual in that, although the flowers have a sweet scent, the leaves have a different sharper and more bitter smell leading to its cynical Yorkshire name of “Courtship and matrimony”.
It was considered to one of the most sacred herbs of the druids and was also called Crios Chúchulainn or Cúchuainn’s belt. Its name has nothing to do with meadow but comes from the Anglo-Saxon for mead sweetener. It has a beautiful Irish name-Airgead Luachra which means the silver of the rushes.
The tallest of the plants are the reed mace and common reed. The dark brown spikes of reed mace or bulrush stand out against the buff or green background of the reedbed for several months of the year. They reach three metres in height and the chocolate brown heads are densely packed with seeds.
Later on in the year the cottony capsule virtually explodes. They are to be found in abundance in the right hand section of the main pond at Cabragh. Both English names are somewhat banal but the Irish name is magical-Coigeal na mban sí-the banshee’s distaff or cleft stick holding wool ready to be drawn from when spinning - an exact description of the bulrush in late autumn. The reedbeds, stretching from the river Suir almost to the Yellow Lough are the heart of Cabragh Wetlands thanks to its present owners and previous generations who conserved it. Cabragh Wetlands hopes to continue to manage this natural jewel.
Stay safe. Slán go fóill.