“Look here, Fiona, can you believe it”, said Somchai, calling her to see what appears to be a rice plant he found growing in the Burren. He should know what a rice plant is: the flat leaf blades with parallel veins and it is within the normal length 13-30 cm. But this is an unusual environment in which to find it.
Fiona Finnegan from Flaskagh and Somchai Saltang from Chiang Mai province in Thailand, now living in Galway, both study Botany/Plant Science at University of Galway. They both grew up on farms and from an early age they were interested in the kingdoms of life: animals, plants, fungi, bacteria, seaweed/algae and parasites.
Botany is the study of plants which are the source of the food we eat, the oxygen we breathe, most medicines we use, the timbers and fibres which shelter, warm and clothe us. Plants are the core to understanding global climate change, one of the greatest issues of our time. Plants impact how sustainability happens on planet earth.
As Irish people we know our own history as an agricultural country.
In Chiang Mai province where Somchai is from their main crops are rice, cassava (root vegetable asparagus family), vegetables (potatoes, onions, tomatoes), tropical fruit, flowers, coconuts, cashews, tea and coffee plantations, forests, rubber, palm oil. They have fertile soils, rainfall and sunshine. They have adopted a strategy to use their advanced agriculture and biotechnology sectors to produce food-for-the-future such as functional foods, medicinal foods and food supplements. They have been pioneering hydroponics for crop growing. Thailand is located north of the equator: latitude 16°N, longitude 101ºE.
Fiona was excited to think that the cattle wintering in the Burren were enjoying rice …rice plants. The Burren pastures which include blue moor grass (fear boirne) are calcium rich for strong animal bone growth and the minerals in the diverse flora are good for animal health.
When Somchai talked about the possibility of finding rice growing in Ireland, Fiona and her Dad thought it must be wishful thinking on his part. He might be feeling homesick and longing for something that is ubiquitous in his homeland. Her Dad told her about his brothers in Australia singing: “If we only had old Ireland over here. If the Blarney Stone stood out in Sydney Harbour, If Dublin Town to Melbourne came to stay, etc”.
Ireland is not a rice growing country now and one might wonder how the plant got here. A look into “deep time” is a help in understanding Earth’s geological changes and biological evolution over the past 4.5 billion years. The formation of Ireland is the result of volcanoes, earthquakes, the last Ice Age and the country rotated from near the equator to its present global position: latitude 53º N, longitude -8º W.
The Burren hosts a curious mixture of Arctic-Alpine and Mediterranean plant species some of which were probably brought here when glaciers melted roughly 20,000 years ago, sea levels rose dramatically and carried many things around the world on the tides. Seeds could also travel on the winds. Invasive species of plants continue to arrive in places where they are unwanted. Another possibility is that rice may have grown on this land centuries ago, went missing, and when it reappeared we thought of it as a new plant.
Somchai widened his search and found a dozen rice plants. He took photographs and will post his find on the iNaturalist Ireland website. He might research the possibility of growing rice as a cereal crop in Ireland. There are modern methods of cultivation, an enormous number of rice varieties (40,000), genetic modification capabilities, and the possibility of growing two crops a year to make it an interesting experiment, at least, (crop growing time 120 days).
Fiona and Somchai are members of a team working to enable members of the public to become Citizen Scientists. The first Training Module teaches people how to collect data on plants that could be rare, or growing in an unusual place where it has not been recorded before. A person’s own garden, field or places they walk could yield exciting discoveries. The Burren is an ideal place for this training because it is home to 1100 of Ireland’s 1400 plant species.
Another Training Module teaches about insects, how new insects emerge, how some migrate from one area to another, perhaps due to climate change. An example of this is that there are now 10 different kinds of dragonfly in Merlin Woods, Galway, where previously there were 8 different kinds.
Insects need flowers to bloom for them to lay their eggs. If that timing is not synchronised some species wont reproduce and may become extinct. If the weather is milder some birds and animals could be fooled into breeding 2 or 3 times a year which is not sustainable because many of the things they feed on are not there throughout the year.
Bryology, the study of mosses comes under the Biology/Plant Life umbrella. Mosses and bogs are an integral part of the Irish landscape and 65 species of bryophytes have legal protection here (25 liverworts and 40 mosses). It is news to me, but a California company, Freshly Rooted Tribe, sells Irish sea moss as a superfood. They say it can help your mental health, support overall gut wellness, contains 90+ minerals and vitamins and Kim Kardashian uses it in smoothies.
In Japanese culture moss has represented concepts of beauty, simplicity, humility, refinement, transience and imperfection.
I have an aversion to moss in my lawn that comes from childhood experience. When we went to visit our uncles in County Roscommon, Mom talked wistfully about the fertile, brown, free-draining soil and lush meadows there. One of their fields was as good as two of ours for crop production. They didn’t have moss, rushes or wet land. We were always draining, reclaiming, improving and cultivating our small holding to make it more productive.
The Farmers Journal in October 2022 had an article on the EU directive on Paludiculture: wet agriculture, forestry and peatland under CAP. The EU proposes that farmers could rewet land including peatland, cultivate moss, bilberries and cranberries and graze water buffaloes.
Maybe I should stop trying to scarify the lawn and get me a water buffalo!
Babette Bubalus Bubalis
There was an old woman from Dunmore,
who curiously went for a ride on an herbivore?
Babette intelligently brought her back,
and gently dropped her at her door.
P.S. This idea started as a fantasy after I met a student from Thailand in a University of Galway outreach program. Imagine my surprise when I discovered on the iNaturalist website a post from a man in Windgates, Wicklow that he observed and photographed oryza sativa growing there in July, 2020.