by Paul Cormacain
WE did not notice it at first. When we saw one however, we started to see many of them. 'Them' was sea holly, a lovely flower of our shores. It can also be a lovely flower of our gardens, for it has been cultivated, and introduced, into gardens as a border plant with strong effects.
The flowers are pale blue, and the flower heads are dense. Because of where they live, the sea holly is very susceptible to dehydration, and have had to develop a hard outer surface. As the name suggests, it resembles holly in so far as it can prick you if you get too close.
So here is a flower, lovely to look at, hard of skin, and with the ability to pierce human skin. Humans have been known to attack the flower, especially after a good sting, and some folk believe that numbers of sea holly have been decreasing because of attacks by people.
Sea holly used to win more popular approval. Part of its scientific name is Eryngium, and this comes from a Greek word. This Greek word means a plant which cures indigestion and wind, `so the suggestion is that sea holly has medicinal properties.
This holly was also reckon to he an aphrodisiac, and its potency was thought to be particularly good for the elderly.
It also had culinary properties. In part. of south east England, over hundreds of years, the roots of this holly were candied and sold. The custom has died out in the last two centuries, but I often wonder how it would be if someone was brave enough to re-establish the system. Could they make a living out of it, or would they make a fortune?
Sharing the same locality as the sea holly, just off a seldom-used beach, was cow parsley, our most common umbillifer, or umbrella-carrying plant. The shape of the flower head is supposed to represent the shape of an umbrella, hence the scientific name.
Where you get many cow parsley growing, there is a distinct odour given off. The flower is completely harmless, but by association it is shunned by some. Other similar-looking flowers are hemlock, and fools parsley. The story is that Socrates was given hemlock to drink for his death, and since there was no. alternative he drank it even before he had to. And promptly died!
Fool's parsley is not supposed to be good for you, either.
On the cow parsley flower heads were insects at intervals. Walk past half a dozen plants, and you would see no insects. Then on the next plant there might be a dozen of them, obviously holding a meeting. Some of these flower heads were great meeting places, with couples courting, insects walking around each other, other arranging dates and hoping to meet up later.
We saw so many of them that we even knew to look under some flowers, and to and behold there were insects there also. Now you would think it would be easy to name an apparently common creature. But you would be wrong.
I checked out a number of books, which I thought had very comprehensive
description of all the creatures in the country, but could not find a trace
of our strange friends.' As I write, I have just checked these books again,
just in case I had missed something. But I can still find nothing.
I hope those creatures are there still the next time I go back. I really want to identify them.
Sundays 6th July to 31st August: Coney Island Boat Trips, contact Lough Neagh Discovery Centre for more details, phone 028 3832 2205.
Tuesday 1st July to Thursday 31st July: Wetlands Olympics at Castle Espie, phone 028 9187 4146 for more information