Coastal plants


rose, irish

Not so wild Irish rose.

Vacations are for traveling and relaxing, seeing new lands and experiencing cultures other than our own. I did just that this summer on a trip to Ireland visiting the entire coastal perimeter of the country. I am a plant person at heart, so of course I was enamored with the plant life I saw, touched, and even ate and drank. The golden barley in the fields was to become an important ingredient in the Irish Guinness beer brewed in Dublin. We took a tour of the brewery to learn how the fruit of the hops plant and the grain of the barley are turned into the well-loved stout beer.

Guiness

Keeping the husband happy.

Along the coastal route we traveled, we did not see many vegetable farms as they were located more inland where there were better growing conditions and soil. We did see many fields with sheep and cows. Beef and dairy cows were often feeding in fields not used for hay.

cows

Often large fields would have a lone, ancient tree standing within its boundaries, and could be any species that happened to take root on the spot. Our tour guide told us those trees are known as fairy trees which house the fairies of Ireland. Fairies in Ireland are not nice and cutesy like we Americans think of them. In Ireland fairies are tricky beings, and can bring havoc and bad will to those who disturb them. For this reason, farmers will leave a large tree in the middle of his field, even driving around it when seeding and growing crops, avoiding tilling up the area so as not to disturb or offend the fairies residing under it. The superstitions are handed down with the generations, and many stories of them may be found in bookstores on the local legends.

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Fairy Tree

fairy tree, seems a little magical

Magical Fairy Tree. Can you see the fairies?

We passed peat bogs which are wetlands covered in accumulated dead plant material and mosses. Peat takes centuries to form under the acidic and anaerobic conditions. Layers of peat were traditionally cut out of the bog, left to dry and then used a fuel source to burn inside fireplaces to heat homes. Now a day, modern heating is used in Ireland, and bog management laws limits on the amount of peat harvested. Peat moss used in gardens is also harvested from bogs. Since it takes centuries to form, it is not really a very good renewable resource.

 

In windswept, boggy meadows along the seaside were plants that looked like cotton blowing in the wind. It is called bog cotton, Eriophorum angustifolium, a grass-like sedge plant with fluffy seed heads. Each seed is attached to a fluff of hairs/bristles that can catch the wind to be carried far away. Great method of seed dispersal created over eons to ensure the survival of the species.

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Bog Cotton

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Bog Cotton seed head.

Heather grew wild among the rocky areas and tolerated the harsh, windy climate well. It was low growing among the native grasses providing a subtle lavender color to the fields.

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Heather field

 

Foxglove is a native weed just about everywhere in Ireland. Its purple nodding bells arising from waste areas and rock walls. Called Fairy Thimbles in folklore, they are deemed unlucky if you bring them into the house in case you let a naughty fairy into the home. Foxgloves are biennial, with second year plants blooming from June through August.

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Foxglove

I captured (with the camera), this cute little bee coming in for nectar on this non-wild foxglove in a tended garden.

Bee coming in for a landing, Ireland

While in Northern Ireland at Malin Head, I came across the most unusual hedge plant planted in multiple yards and outside several establishments. After asking a local or two, its identity was revealed as Hebe, a broad leaved evergreen plant with showy purple flowers in July and August. It is native to New Zealand and the folks I spoke with weren’t sure how it originally came to their town, but they share it readily with neighbors. Hebe is hardy there, but will not take temperatures below freezing. Even one exposure to a freeze and its top growth will die back. The stands of I saw were happily six feet tall and tolerating even this northern most town on the coast.

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Hebe flowers

 

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Hebe hedge

 

What would a visit to Ireland be without the mention of potatoes? Several museums and tour guides told the history of the Irish potato famine caused by the fungal disease of late blight, Phytophthora infestans, the same disease that infects tomatoes and can wipe out a crop. The English withheld all other food sources from the Catholic following Irish people unless they denounced their religion. Once the potato blight hit for several years, there was no food left resulting in mass deaths and migrations to other countries. Still today, the entire population of Ireland has not reached the numbers it had before the blight hit.

potato blight

 

At the end of our trip, we packed up our mementos of Irish lace and tweed caps along with the rich stories of Ireland. My memory cards are full, both the physical one in my camera, and the one in my head.

-Carol Quish, all photos copyrighted by CQuish

potatoes

 

IMG_20170702_114322695One of the best things about summer in Connecticut is the easy drive to the Connecticut shore as almost any point in Connecticut is no more than a 1 ½ hour drive to the Long Island Sound. Although Connecticut is the third smallest state area-wise (5543² miles) we are ranked either 17th or 20th in total ocean coastline. The 20th ranking is from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) which includes tidal inlets and the Great Lakes in its calculations. Our 17th place ranking says that we have 96 miles of coastline while the 20th place gives us a grand total of 618 miles. In fact, if every citizen of Connecticut stood very close (and held our babies and toddlers) we could all stand along that 618-mile coastline! I must admit, as we walked along Sound View Beach over the 4th of July weekend it felt as if that scenario was taking place.

But walking a little further away from the sea of humanity is when the real appeal of the Connecticut shore happens for me. The diversity of the plants and vegetation that can be encountered never ceases to amaze me. Even though hydrangeas grow all over Connecticut, including in our yard in Enfield, they never seem as deeply blue as they do when there is a touch of salt in the air…

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…the honeysuckle smells sweeter…

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…and the beach rose hips are the size of cherry tomatoes!

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The Connecticut coastal region has a longer frost-free season than most of the state of Connecticut, 15-35 days longer depending on where you live. I would love an extra 35 days of growing time for my gardens but I don’t know if I would be willing to exchange those extra days just to worry about the salinity tolerance of my plants, sandy soils that may drain too quickly, or high winds. Those are all a part of the ecoregion along the Connecticut shore and each of those factors play a part in selecting plants for landscaping in that area.

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Salt can affect and potentially kill shoreline plants in two ways; either through salt spray that can damage leaves and plant tissues or through groundwater where salt water is brought in on daily tides. Where the groundwater is highly concentrated with salt water plant tissues can be damaged as with salt spray but additionally they will suffer with water uptake issues. When the concentrations of salt in the soil surrounding the roots of a plant become too high the plant may be forced to accumulate salts in its root cells to compensate for the higher levels outside. Expending energy to facilitate these functions means less energy will be directed toward the growth and vigor of the plant, sometimes causing the roots to go dormant, and resulting in a poor or stunted appearance.

Have you ever noticed how plantings along the shore seem to almost hug the ground? When salt is dissolved in water it separates into equal ratios of its two ions: sodium and chloride. It is the build-up of chloride ions in plant tissues such as the stems and leaves that will present as browned, bronzed, or ‘scorched’, leaf edges.

scorched

Even the slope of the land or whether there is a sea wall present will influence the amount of salt damage that can occur. Within the same property or area several different salinity levels may be present as plants that are on the lower end of a slope may receive twice-daily infiltrations of seawater at high tide. And an area that slopes up will be more affected by salt spray. In fact, unlike the effect of elevated levels of salt in groundwater which tend to be localized, salt spray can reach plants several miles inland.

Fortunately, many species of plants that are native to Connecticut have developed the ability to thrive in these conditions and are categorized as highly salt tolerant, moderately tolerant, and least tolerant. Using plants that are highly tolerant as a buffer to shield less tolerant plants from salt spray, winds, or that simply increase the distance from areas of salty groundwater is a good option. The Connecticut Coastal Planting Guide from Connecticut Sea Grant/UConn has a great listing of trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials, and groundcovers and their salt tolerance levels. Our recent trip to the shore showed some wonderful examples.

IMG_20170711_112627268   Sassafras

Mountain Laurel     IMG_20170711_115224655_HDR

IMG_20170711_113134395   Viburnum

Trumpet creeper           IMG_20170711_182901348_HDR

Through UConn, the College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources has a resource that, through a step-by-step process, will help you prepare your site and choose plants that will have a better chance of survival in the coastal environment, prevent erosion, and provide needed food and protection to coastal wildlife such as this great white heron.

Susan Pelton

All images and videos by Susan Pelton 2017