Fairie trails of hazel and juniper

Outdoor Living

FOR THE PICKING Juniper scrub forms a splendid mosaic of colour, form and fragrance.

Country Sights and Sounds
Michael Kingdon

Finding ourselves already at winter’s outer fringe we look for signs of spring. Hazel catkins catch a stray beam of sunlight to bright the woodland path like so many fairie lanterns; primrose plants spread new, already wrinkled leaves beneath the hazel hedge; the lower twigs of wych elm are easing into life, even as the distant string of birch deepens to a new hue, purple and rich with promise of green to come.
I would walk at the water’s edge, where this year’s coltsfoot already breaks the soil, somehow forcing compacted earth aside with just a tender stem. How fine it will be to have those golden flowers stewing in the pot, their honey taste and sweet aroma the perfect cure for winter ills.
There is some controversy in regard to using coltsfoot medicinally. While past generations valued both flowers and leaves highly as a treatment for cough-related illness, modern research suggests that chemicals contained within the plant may be harmful to the liver. Just because something grows wild and comes with grandma’s recommendation, that doesn’t make it safe. Moderation is the key.
Where the river runs from the lake the water is grey and heavy. It spills over the weir as a noisy froth that turns back on itself to churn in a great whorl at the bank, gathering strength before charging seaward. Drier days will lessen the flow; then a week of warm sunshine will draw such life from these river pools that we would scarcely know where we were. Such hopes lighten our step and make the road home more short.
Close by, at the edge of the water meadow, where green fields yield place to the wild, we find ourselves in what might be Ireland’s oldest habitat type, where little will flourish in poor soil, where straggling gorse and juniper grow slowly and with enduring patience.
Juniper: the very name evokes vivid imagery and gets the taste buds tingling.
We know it mostly as a flavouring in various distillations of gin. I wonder if those men who made, or, dare we say it, still make poitín use the berries in the same way? If not, they surely ought, for there is nothing to capture the full flavour of mountain and moorland quite like the aromatic berries of this native shrub.
On the fractured sheet of limestone that borders large parts of our great lakes, juniper scrub is reasonably common. Even so, most of us will go through life without venturing out to gather the double handful of berries that would help us through the last of these long nights.
There is a harvest to make, even now. Juniper berries take two years to mature, at which time they become almost black. Then they are suitable for adding to sauces, where their unique, rather medicinal flavour adds a new dimension to any meat dish.
Now, while the fruit that set, not last summer but the one before, is still green yet plump and round, we pick these as another late winter tonic. Crush the berries to release the oils before steeping them in your favourite spirit. For the fullest flavour, be sure to share what you have.
The very term ‘scrub’ has a negative connotation, yet this is some of the most valuable habitat in the country. Go into any mature native woodland, where oak and beech close the canopy, branch on branch together, where we find birds above and a few flowers below, and we gain the impression of rich diversity.
Enter the dark and solemn silence of any non-native softwood forest and there is little to stir the heart. Light is excluded from the forest floor, where only the occasional bramble scrambles for a fleeting moment of life-giving sunlight. Fox and badger use traditional trails to pass through, resident deer use the dark as a refuge and there are goldcrests in the tree tops where they feed on spiders, but that is pretty much it.
Now walk through and among the juniper! The tallest are ten or twelve feet at the tip; others have a different growing habit and spread less than a foot high, but fifteen wide. All are crooked, like old men and witches’ hats.
Though the ground itself is poor the life sustained is remarkably diverse. Juniper scrub forms a splendid mosaic of colour, of form, of fragrance. To experience it at its best, go now, and again when you can.

Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.