Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Oxtongue in the City

Bristly Oxtongue, Picris echioides
Urban, and for that matter suburban, landscapes are often thought of as ever changing, ever moving. The commonly held opinion is that building works, cleaning and development in such areas make dynamic habitats that only the most adaptable and durable organisms can make anything close to a permanent home in. Rural habitats, which seem to experience less human interference other than agriculture, should be far more suitable for a larger range of organisms. And generally these two statements can be held to be broadly true. However, as always, there are a few delightful anomalies.
Bristly Oxtongue, Picris echioides
Bristly Oxtongue (Picris echioides) is a large and often quite branched annual or biennial of dry, disturbed ground (1). A common plant in southern England and Wales (2), it is of rare and local occurence in Ireland, being found only with any frequency in the South and South-East (1), and is considered to be nationally rare (3). Such low frequency may be explained by its status as an introduced species, being a native of the Mediterranean (4). P. echioides certainly earns its common name, Bristly Oxtongue as it is is covered in bristles arising from small white blisters all over the plant. In the past the leaves were boiled and eaten (2), possible for medical reasons as there is anecdotal evidence that it has an effect on stomach complaints (5). There may be some truth in this, as the aerial parts of the plant contains sesquiterpene lactones, some of which are seemingly unique to P. echioides (6). Its flowers, which from a distance resemble a number of other yellow Asteracea, reveal upon inspection the most wonderfully delicate sepals.
Bristly Oxtongue, Picris echioides
As it is such a scarce plant, it was with great surprise that I received most welcome correspondnace from one Mr. Pat Dunne of Cork city outlining not one, but two locations for this flower in the city. The first is on the docks of the river Lee, near to the city center. At once this area was a very busy access point for the various industries within the city, but with their disappearance or relocation the docks have become less used and this undisturbed habitat has seemingly proved ideal for P. echioides. Similarly, the second site (located in the city suburb of Ballyphehane) is a small section of waste ground in a now disused factory. While this site was in the past tended when the factory was operational, this no longer seems to be the case, which is, again, a boon for the plant. So while cities as a whole may be never ceasing monuments to progress, there are parts of them that remain refreshingly static and a refuge for wonderful organisms.

  1. Sterry, 2004. Collins Complete Guide to Irish Wildlife p. 252
  2. Philips, 1977. Wild Flowers of Britain p. 94
  3. O'Mahony, 2009. Wild Flowers of Cork City and County p. 73
  4. Preston et al., 2002. New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora p. 928
  5. Hooper, 1817. A New Medical Dictionary p. 629
  6. Marco et al., 1992. Phytochemistry 31 pp. 2163-2164

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