August got its name from the Emperor Augustus and August 1st is the festival of Lúnasa and also the first day of Autumn. It was named in the honour of the God named Lugh. The rituals centred on a hilltop gathering of the whole community and a feast centred on the newly ripened crop. The celebrations were often transferred to the last Sunday of July or the first Sunday of August so that a working day was not lost. August 1st is also known as Lammas Day. The word Lammas is thought to mean LoafMass, the bread being made from the first corn harvested. Trees, especially Oaks, put on a second flush of bright leaves known as Lammas growth in August. This is because of the large number of insects that feed on Oak thru'out the summer leaving the original leaves in tatters.
Autumn is also known as "the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness". This originates from John Keats' (1795-1821) poem, To Autumn:
SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.
Wild Autumn Flowers:
Although well past midsummer and with day length decreasing, many wild flowers can still be seen. These include the poppies. Believe it or not, but a poppy flower sheds its petals after only a single day, but a vigourous plant may produce more than 400 flowers in succession during the summer. The common poppy is a plant of disturbed ground and crop fields that have not been treated with weed killer. The common poppy has no nectar, but the flowers provide pollen for bees.
Some people think of wild flowers as weeds when they find them in their garden. But many are really pretty and can look great alongside cultivated varieties. For a wildlife friendly garden it is probably best to have some wildflowers and some more exotic kinds. Try to leave some wild flowers such as daisies, foxgloves, buttercups or poppies and see what insects visit them.
Another wild plant in flower at the moment is the Bindweed. A walk along a country lane will provide a show of hedge bindweed. The beautiful white flowers are spectacular, especially in the late evening. Although they don't have a scent they still attract the hawkmoths, which use their long tongues to remove the nectar from the base of the flower.
Because of the way in which the bindweed twines around plants in the hedge, it is sometimes known as rope-weed. many gardeners consider this plant a pest in the garden, but in a hedgerow, it can only be admired for those wonderful flowers.
A walk along a country road or railway embankment this month will provide a spectacular show of Rosebay Willowherb in full flower. This plant thrives on disturbed ground and frequently colonises ground that has been cleared by fire. One of its alternative common names is "fireweed". Next month the flowers will have given way to fluffy seeds will be dispersed by the wind, especially along railway tracks when a train passes.
Many plants have now gone to seed. The thistles which were in full flower last month are now producing seeds and before the month is out the skies will be full of "ginny-joes" floating along on wind currents, hoping to land in a spot that might allow them to germinate and grow into a new plant. The thistle is one of the earliest plants to set seed and is a sure sign of impending autumn.
Just take a look in the garden or at the trees along the roadside. Rowans are in berry at the moment and look spectacular. This tree is also called the Mountain Ash, but is not related to the Ash tree, rather it has similar leaves. At present its red berries provide nutrition for blackbirds, thrushes, starlings and many more birds. A variety of this tree, Joseph Rock, produces yellow fruits, and it is said that the birds are not as fond of these yellow berries as they are of the red ones, only feeding on them when all the red ones are exhausted. For this reason, the yellow berries tend to remain on the trees for longer.
The berries are an important food source for birds at this time of year. But it is a two way arrangement. The birds are also doing the parent plants a favour. They eat the fruit, with the seed enclosed. The bird digests the fruit but not the seed. The seeds then pass thru' the digestive tract of the bird and out the other end. This helps to disperse the seeds far away from the parent plant. In this way the plant can colonise new areas and all the seeds don't land under the parent plant and compete for the same resources. It has also recently been discovered that seeds that pass thru' the digestive tract of a bird do better than those that fall directly onto the ground. Researchers from the University of Bergen in Norway collected rowan seeds from thrush droppings and compared their germination with seeds from intact fruits and those that had been manually separated from the fruit pulp. The seeds that passes thru' the birds' guts germinated first and their seedlings grew faster.
Lords and Ladies:
What a lovely name for a common hedgerow plant that is fruiting this month. The roots of this plant were gathered for their high starch content and in years gone by and were used for stiffening clothes, e.g. lace collars and cuffs. However, the berries are poisonous, especially to children, and can cause acute gastro-enteritis, vomiting, weakness and collapse. The juices can also cause dermatitis.
This is the time of the year when you will see baby hedgehogs out with their parents. Sadly far too many hedgehogs are being killed on our roads, often leaving young on their own, like this little one, only the size of a tennis ball which was found in a local park beside a main road. This little fellow was lucky. He is now being looked after and hopefully will be fully fattened up before it is time for hibernation. He will need to reach the critical weight of 600 grams before the weather turns very cold if he is to make it thru' the winter. Remember, if you are leaving out food for hedgehogs, don't leave out milk. Feed them on dog or cat food and leave out a bowl of water as well. If you are lucky, like me, they will ramble in to the garden, have a feed and ramble off again.
Hedgehogs are often referred to as "the gardener's friend". They can eat 200 grams of garden invertebrates, such as slugs, snails and caterpillars every night. There are no slugs or snails in my garden and I never have to use slug pellets!
If you live near a country estate, you may notice an increase in pheasants at this time of the year. Pheasants are reared on many country estates and released for the shooting season which takes place between November and January.
Pheasants exhibit sexual dimorphism, that is, the male and female are totally unalike. The male has striking bronze plumage, red face wattle, shiny green neck (sometimes with a white ring) and a very long pointed tail. The female is yellow brown with dark speckles, and somewhat shorter tail. The reason for this difference is because of the roles each play. The male is brightly coloured to attract a female and the female is camouflaged against the background where she lays and sits on her eggs. Even though the male is brightly coloured, it is not always easy to see him as he cautiously makes his way thru' the long grass.
A walk in the Phoenix Park this month will give you a chance to see the young fawns out feeding with their mothers. The fawns were born in June or July and are now becoming well established. You will also notice that the males and females are keeping well apart. The males are those with the antlers, and the females lack antlers. Notice the different markings, ranging from very light to a very dark brown. You may also notice that the majority of the deer are tagged. This is part of a long term study of the deer by Dr. Tom Hayden of UCD. We will be coming back to the Park in October for the rutting season.