The changeable weather has plunged us back into a wintry mood, though no sane gardener is going to be sorry to see a good spell of much-needed rain. That glorious sunshine of March lulled us into a false sense of security, with spring flowers blossoming before their normal time and perhaps too many vegetables planted rather too soon. At Cabragh Wetlands our iconic Summer Snowflake has been flowering for six weeks already, and it was a surprise to see just how many clumps are hidden in the reedbeds, which some members feel are expanding too far too fast. There is perhaps a danger they will swallow up and strangle isolated plants, which must be struggling to get enough light in the depths of the reeds.
Normally the snowflake flourishes in more open marshy grassland, and it has taken well to the Irish midlands, despite its origins as a Mediterranean plant. Along the Shannon and its tributaries, and of course at Cabragh, the snowflake has adapted like a true native, and this year is rewarding us with spectacular displays of early season flowers, hanging downwards in clusters to protect them from the rain. They provide invaluable sugar for the honey bees and early butterflies.
Prominent at Cabragh is the orange-tip butterfly, already out in some numbers and benefiting from the carefully managed grazing of the surrounding boggy pastures. If controlled, grazing horses and cattle will nibble away excessive vegetation, which can throttle wildflowers in its tangles, and open up the ground to allow flowers to grow and insects to flourish. Their hooves also perform a useful function by breaking up the soil and creating hollows and little banks were insects can shelter and ground-nesting birds find a bit of cover for the breeding season.
The orange-tip butterfly overwinters as a chrysalis, and the heat of March will have encouraged the males to emerge. The specimens we see are most likely to be male, as they enjoy patrolling the countryside, moving from plant to plant and tussock to tussock looking, of course, for a mate. The females are shy creatures, less visible as they hide in the bushes, with greyer wingtips than the bright orange of the men, but living up to their old name of The Lady of the Woods. Continental orange-tips and associated with dawn – the Sunrise Butterfly in Germany (Aurorafalter). As March was so warm, there is a good chance this year that we will see a second brood of adults emerging, which will mean the unusual sight of orange-tip butterflies still around in July and August.
There will almost certainly be orange-tips in your garden, because they are great travellers, working their way along the hedges and woodland fringes and enjoying the food in your spring flowers. Garlic mustard is a favourite, and soon the honesty, rocket and Lady’s Smock will be available. The latter (also known as the Cuckooflower) is a favourite for laying eggs, which are laid singly under the leaf. The green caterpillars are aggressively competitive when hunting for food, and it is estimated that about 10% of them are eaten by their own kind – cannibalism. Starvation kills another 15%, and of course predation by birds and small mammals finishes off many more. Perhaps 30% of caterpillars survive to became chrysalises, which hang from their host plants overwinter, brown or green triangular forms, beautiful as they sway in the breeze, but again vulnerable to predation.
The chances of a butterfly egg surviving to become a fully-fledged adult are tiny – well under 5%. But if we keep the range of habitats healthy and allow the species to connect, work together and support each other, the amazing range of species can flourish.