Keep an eye out for Ireland's own Eyebright variety
Published 21/07/2015 | 00:00
Eyebrights are pretty little plants that are in flower at the moment on seaside sand dunes, short grasslands, heathy and heathery places and on rocky ground.
Classical herbalists gave the plants their name as they used them to treat eye conditions. The implication is that following successful treatment the patient would again be eye-bright.
It is believed that we have about 11 different kinds of Eyebrights in Ireland but since they are all very variable, overlap in their characteristics and hybridise freely it is difficult to tell where one species ends and another begins.
A project is under way at the University of Edinburgh using DNA profiling to try to clarify how many discrete genetic Eyebright units exist in Britain and Ireland.
Because of the complexity in telling the different species apart, no Eyebright has a common name; the sole exception is Irish Eyebright.
However, to split a hair, Irish Eyebright is not regarded as a species but is believed to be a variety of a species that grows throughout mainland Europe. Growing only on our western seaboard from Limerick to Donegal, Irish Eyebright is unique to Ireland.
The parent species is common in the Alps and the Pyrenees, and it, or a closely related form, occurs further north in Scandinavia and south-eastwards to Turkey and Crete.
Irish Eyebright is the only Eyebright that is easy to recognise as it has two distinct characteristics not shared by any other member of the group: it is the only Eyebright with a complete absence of hairs on the upper margin of its heart-shaped fruits and its narrower green leaves are often flushed with a bronzy colour.
All Eyebrights are partly parasitic. As well as making their own food they tap into the roots of neighbouring plants and extract some of their nutriment from that source. However, since they are all annuals they do no lasting damage to their hosts.
Eyebrights in bloom are immediately recognisable by their distinctive open-mouthed, two lipped flowers.
The upper lip stands smartly upward and has two short and shallow lobes pointing upwards while the lower lip spreads out in a fan and is deeply divided into three long lobes.
The ground colour of the petals is white. The veins are dark purple and the petals are variously suffused with tints of lilac. The central lobe of the lower lip nearly always bears a bright, mustard-yellow smudge.
These pretty little flowers are worth watching out for.