By Mavis Gulliver
As the snowdrops faded, yellow became the colour of early spring. Gorse, Ulex europaeus, also known as Whin, had a spectacular early flowering. In between strong winds and sudden lashings of hail, bursts of sunshine brought out the heady, coconut scent of the blooms. It is possible to find a few flowers at any time of year, a fact which gives rise to the old saying, ‘When gorse is in bloom, kissing’s in season.’ The main flowering is usually around late May but this year we had to start picking the flowers for The Botanist gin in April. There may be another good flowering to come but with demand for the brand increasing it is a risk we cannot take.
The pioneering botanist, Carl Linnaeus (1707 - 1778), was so enamoured of Gorse that he tried to grow it in his native Sweden. To his great disappointment, winters there proved too harsh for it to survive. On a visit to England he first saw it flowering on London’s Putney Heath. It is said that he was so overcome with emotion at the long awaited sight that he fell to his knees and wept.
Lesser celandines and dandelions added bright spots to roadside verges. Primroses, in paler shades dotted the cliffs, but it was daffodils that dominated many corners of the island. Unfortunately, these are not the native wild daffodils that Wordsworth knew in England’s Lake District. Islay daffodils have been brought in as bulbs and many varieties can be found in gardens and in woodlands.
A rather chilly easter did not deter plant growth. Under sheltering trees wild garlic broke through last autumn’s debris. Also known as Ramsons, the pungent leaves can be used to make a tasty pesto. Just blend a big bunch with extra virgin olive oil and a handful each of walnuts and grated parmesan cheese. Interestingly, both Chicago, and Ramsbottom in Lancashire are named after this plant. Chicago (from Chicagoua) a Native American name for a related species and Ramsbottom being the hollow of the wild garlic.
In wet grassland, the flowers of Lady’s Smock, Cardamine pratensis, added a delicate shade of lilac. Also known as Cuckoo Flower or Milkmaids, it is the most delicate member of the Cabbage family. Shakespeare, in Love’s Labors Lost, wrote of lady-smocks all silver white painting the meadows with delight. This puzzled me for a while until I saw a swathe of blooms by moonlight when they did indeed acquire a pale silvery glow.
As visitor numbers increase the otters retreat to more secluded areas of the island. Their footprints along the beaches are no longer a daily reminder of their presence but there are signs aplenty if you know where to look. While we were away from home Roe deer, taking advantage of our absence, decimated the lower branches of many of our shrubs, leaving a distinctive browse line a metre above the ground.
Geese returned to their breeding grounds and summer visitors took their place. Arctic terns, creaking like rusty gates frequented Kilnaughton Bay. Willow warblers added their downward trill to the songs of blackbird and thrush. Robins, no longer aggressively defending their territories, paired up and began to build their nests. On the shore, a gannet lay with wings outstretched. A sad sight after years of unrestricted flight, but one which enabled me to see the full extent of its impressive two metre wingspan.
Now, in damp hollows and burn sides, Marsh Marigold, Caltha palustris, forms huge clumps and swathes of colour. Gerard, in his Herbal (1597) described the leaves as ‘somewhat round, smooth, of a gallant green colour, slightly indented or purled about the edges’; and the blooms as ‘goodly yellow flowers, glittering like gold’. It would be hard to better this description. And it would be hard to find a more cheerful sight on those days when the sun is hidden behind cloud and a chill wind blows from the north. For such is island weather. Yesterday everyone wrapped up warm against the blast. Today the sun is shining and coats are left behind. The Marsh Marigolds are oblivious to the change but they look even more spectacular with sunlight on their petals.
Mavis Gulliver’s passion for islands and wildlife dominate her writing. Her work is based on close observation and a sense of place. Her poems appear in magazines, anthologies and in her two collections, Slate Voices: Islands of Netherlorn and Waymarks. Her children’s fiction allows her imagination to run wild through landscapes that she knows well. Cry at Midnight, Clickfinger and The Snake Wand are set on islands and each has a Facebook page. Her website gives further information and includes a monthly blog detailing her activities. She is working on a poetry collection entitled From One Island to Another.
All photographs courtesy of the author.