A few weeks ago we set off for a trip to the incredible Sugarloaf mountain in Wicklow.
In 2006 I had lived in Wicklow for a year but I had never climbed the mountain itself. Since my photographer and I were doing our write up and photographing the amazing Powerscourt gardens for my Irish Independent Weekend Magazine articles it made sense to finally climb the beautiful volcanic shaped mountain. In the grand scale of things, the Sugarloaf isn’t a very tall mountain-it is only 501 metres high and yet is has a very majestic air about it. It is set in a stunning part of the country, surrounded by beautiful nature and many historical and natural highlights.
It took us a while to find the actual approach to the mountain, the snaking road seemingly doubling back on itself. Serious fun to drive. This search brought us around to a parallel road which overlooked the mountain from a distance. There were sheep and wild horses and an incredible vista which opened up right to look at the mountain and beyond.
What is fascinating about this mountain is that though it looks almost like a volcano, according to Wikipedia, it is in fact an erosion-resistant metamorphosed sedimentary deposit from the deep sea and is are from Cambrian qaurtzite.
This is where we found the fascinating plants which can be seen scattered all over the base of the mountain-Gorse.
Gorse -European Gorse / Furze / Whin
Ulex europaeus . Flowering time: All year, peak flowering April. Evergreen shrub. Native.
Gorse is that amazing deep yellow thorny shrub that we see in so many places in Ireland at this time of the year. On our drive up to the Sugarloaf we opened the car windows and the scent of these shrubs came acting in-Coconut and Vanilla. It is absolutely delicious. This shrub is evergreen and has extremely prickly foliage. Gorse thrives in poor growing conditions including drought and the salty sea air of Ireland. Where little else will grow the Gorse shrub often thrives and covers areas of land quickly, sometimes becoming invasive.
Gorse is often used as a fire climax plant as it is highly flammable and can clear large areas of land when burnt and is often used in land reclamation such as when mines are abandoned -as seems to be the case at the foot of the Sugarloaf where there are masses of this plant.
Gorse is also a valuable plant for wildlife and it gives great cover to nesting birds. Wikipedia says that ‘In Ireland, it is particularly noted for supporting Dartford Warblers(Sylvia undata) and European Stonechats (Saxicola rubicola); the common name of the Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra) attests to its close association with gorse’.
At this time of the year, gorse really makes this landscape different, the yellow hue of the plant giving the brown-grey heather covered mountain an almost golden glow. Stunning.
There are not many plants that are as rewarding all year round as the Winter flowering Heather. Here in Ireland we have quite a few varieties of Heather growing wild in our boglands and mountains. The latin name for Heathers is actually Erica and they are related to other acid loving plants such as Azaleas and Rhododendrons. The fact that most species like a more acidic type of soil means they thrive in our peat lands where the PH levels of the soil provide perfect growing conditions for heather. There is nowhere more beautiful than the Irish landscape when the Heather is blooming in all its glory.
The lovely Heather pictured above, which I sourced at Homeland in Sligo (Homeland.ie), is the Erica × darleyensis ‘Ghost Hills’ and is a great plant to use as groundcover in the garden. The plant is evergreen and looks good at all times of the year but in late Winter or early Spring it has an abundance of pale pink-lilac, bell shaped flowers. The flowers often last for a long time too and can often still be admired in April. Heather is not just a beautiful plant, it also provides a valuable source of nectar for honeybees and other pollinators so is a perfect plant for encouraging wildlife into the garden.
Many people think that Heathers are tricky plants to grow successfully but if you consider how it grows abundantly in the wild all over Ireland then it must like our climate. If planted in the right conditions-a slightly acidic soil and adequate drainage, this Heather needs very little care. After it has finished flowering, simply use your garden shears to trim the plant and encourage growth. It is also a good idea to apply some well balanced fertilizer during the growing season.
From a design perspective I think Heathers are often used in a way that looks too contrived. The best idea is to look at how it grows in nature. I love seeing Heathers planted in the way they would grow naturally, softly mounding over an uneven landscape and forming mats of evergreen clumps.
Interestingly, Heather has a long history of uses and folklore attached to it. As a flower it has long been thought to bring luck, particularly the more rare white variety which is often carried by Scottish brides as they walk down the aisle. In aromatherapy the Heather plant is used to treat many ailments from digestive problems to skin problems and insomnia. The woody, mossy scent of the flower means it is often used to create deliciously scented perfumes, soaps and other beauty products and due to its musky scent, can often be found in masculine beauty products.
Apart from its benefits in the world of cosmetics Heather has a long history of uses in the home and has been used to create many things such as thatched roofs, brooms, rope, baskets and more. I actually remember coming across an old abandoned house in the countryside years ago on my rambles and seeing a mattress made out of fabric stuffed with Heather. Apparently a Heather mattress was not only considered extremely comfortable but even aromatherapeutic. What a wonderfully versatile shrub.
Sources and Credits
We stayed at the amazing Powerscourt resort and Spa as part of the ‘Powerscourt in Bloom’ package. Thanks to Kristi Kudisiim @the Reputations Agency Dublin. Our drive was a pleasure thanks to BMW @ Martin Reilly Motors Leonie wears The North Face @Call of the Wild, Sligo.