Bog Asphodel © John N Murphy
As we approach July, and what is traditionally a month to head to the bog to stack and collect turf, has this year been hit once more by adverse weather. Even with these adverse conditions and the decimation of our bogs through the practice of mass turf cutting, plants are one of the few life forms to regenerate quickly on these landscapes. With that said, there is one small plant that brightens up the bog, even on the wettest of days.
The Bog Asphodel Narthecium ossifragum is a highly visible plant restricted to acidic damp habitats. These habitats support a range of plants that do not grow elsewhere, and are vulnerable to peat harvesting and land management changes. During July and August the bright yellow flowers of the Bog Asphodel stands out against the muted colour of the heather or dark peat bog lands of Ireland. The flowers of this little beauty are star shaped and within them the stalks of the anthers are covered in dense yellow hairs.
Bog Asphodel grows widely in wet heaths and Sphagnum bogs of Western Europe. The leaves of Bog Asphodel are narrow with parallel veins that appear grass like. The leaves grow at the base of the plant with a few on the flowering stem that can reach 10-40cm in height. As well as producing seeds Bog Asphodel can spread through vegetative reproduction via its creeping rhizomes. This method of growth forms dense patches of the plant. Towards late August and into autumn the seed capsules, stems and leaves turn from green to orange and even in this decaying state they still give good colour to the bog.
The asphodel was considered an immortal flower in Greek mythology and, according to Homer in his Odyssey, is said to cover the fields of Heaven. The species name of “ossifragum” meaning bone breaker derives from the observation that sheep grazing where Bog Asphodel grows had brittle bones. In Donegal it is known as Cruppany grass. Farmers believed that it gave their sheep foot rot or ‘Cruppany’. Old folklore thought that if cattle ate the Bog Asphodel, their bones would also become brittle. This is because the Asphodel grows on land lacking in nutrients such as calcium that are required for strong bones.
Sheep can get brittle bones from eating Bog Asphodel © John N Murphy
In recent times scientist have proven that chemicals within Bog Asphodel can cause brittle bones. Also the dark acidic conditions that the plant favours, provides grazing that is calcium poor which does not support strong bone formation. But be aware, Bog Asphodel does have some toxic properties to livestock. This is why it is not good practice to let cattle or sheep graze on peat lands. Older generations knew that grazing on bogs where asphodel grew could cause kidney or liver damage to their livestock.
So the next time you head to the bog to turn a few sods, remember that those pretty little yellow flowers under your feet could lead to brittle bone if a few mysteriously make it into your ham sandwich.