Winter heliotrope, Petasites fragrans


We think we have identified this correctly! We spotted it on our walk last week, in the field in front of Bell’s Castle, on Slieve Gullion. From what we’ve researched it’s not a native plant but is usually an escapee from a demesne or large garden, where it was planted for ground cover. It carpets damp places, embankments and shady roadsides, all of which makes sense in the location where we found it.

Winter heliotrope or Petasites fragrans, is strongly scented of vanilla, was introduced from North Africa and has spread throughout Europe. It forms large patches of heart-shaped leaves.

It normally flowers from November through to March, although there were no flowers on it last week. The flowers are pale pink, in heads 10-15 mm across and are borne in spikes up to 25 cm long. Male and Female plants are carried on separate plants. From what we’ve read it seems likely that only male plants may be found in Ireland.

Heliotrope, Winter

The leaves are distinctive shiny green and kidney shaped, hairless above and hairy below. It is very invasive as it can regenerate itself from a very small part of its fleshy rhizome and belongs to the family Asteraceae.

Heliotropism is the daily movement of plants in response to the direction of the sun. The flowers and leaves of this heliotropic plant gradually follow the sun from east to west and during the night turn back to the east to greet the next dawn. A very valuable source of winter feeding for bees, Winter Heliotrope was often planted near their hives specifically to provide nutrition to them during winter.

Wood -sorrel

Wood-sorrel on today's walk
Wood-sorrel on today’s walk

The first signs of Spring… wood sorrel beginning to reappear. Look for its distinctive shamrock shaped leaves which fold up in late afternoon or in rain. It’s a native plant to our woodlands and has white bell shaped flowers each with 5 petals flowering from April through to June.

Also called Wood Shamrock its leaves were used to make ointment by early herbalists and some people also use the leaves in salads or soups but beware as large doses can cause oxalate poisoning.


Great Mullein

FullSizeRenderSpotted this growing just as you take “The Cut” down from the top road on Slieve Gullion, think it is Great Mullein, but open to correction!  If correctly identified it is a biennial, during its first year it grows its velvety grey- green basal leaves and in the second year the spike of yellow flowers rises up and can reach to almost 2 metres. The stalk has alternate leaves that clasp the stem, an arrangement that directs rainwater down the stem to the roots.

From June to September, five-petaled yellow flowers 1/4 to 1 inch across bloom randomly in the dense, club-shaped terminal cluster. The three upper stamens, which are short and woolly, contain a sap that lures insects to the plant. The two lower stamens, which are longer and smooth, produce the pollen that fertilizes the flower.

The name “mullein” probably comes from the Latin word mollis, meaning soft, referring to the plant’s woolly stem and leaves. It is also known as “Flannel Flower” and “Woollen Blanket Herb” because of its downy leaves.

A couple of folk names for mullein have more intriguing associations. “Candlewick plant” refers to the old practice of using the dried down of mullein leaves and stems to make lamp wicks. Some say mullein stems once were dipped in tallow to make torches either used by witches or used to repel them, hence another name “hag taper.

The plant leaves are food for the mullein moth caterpillar  and the seed heads are wintering habitat for ladybirds.

Mullein Moth Caterpillar (Cucullia verbasci)  Harecroft Crescent SP 4901 9372 (taken 26.7.2007)_caterpillar




This little flower, Speedwell, was in abundance yesterday along the verges as we walked the forest trail back to the road. It is a fairly common, low growing plant and has bright blue flowers with a white centre. The flowers are 4 lobed with the smallest lobe being lowest. The stalks have two opposite lines of hairs running a long their length. The leaves are pointed, oval toothed and grow opposite each other along the stem. It is a native perennial plant that blooms from May to July and belongs to the Scrophulariaceae family. There are 7 varieties including Germander, Wood, Heath, Wall, Thyme- leaved, Slender and Ivy- leaved, we think this was Germander as the flowers are more blue than lilac in colour.

Interestingly, one of the two smaller ships that set sail with the Mayflower carrying the Pilgrim Fathers was called the Speedwell. Twice the ships set sail for America and twice had to return to England as the Speedwell was found to be leaking. It was later discovered that the crew not wanting to be away from home for so long had sabotaged the ship.