The Attack of the Killer Rhododendrons (7 page)

BOOK: The Attack of the Killer Rhododendrons

When I finally found Newcastle West and my hotel, I called the rental car agency’s roadside assistance hotline. I was told that my super-duper, extra-costly, truly special, all-inclusive insurance package included everything except tires. If the car had gone over a cliff, they would have been straight out with a replacement vehicle, but I was on my own when it came to the punctured tire.

Of all the towns in southwest Ireland, I had chosen to spend the night in Newcastle West because of an entry in my guidebook that described Duggan’s Pub on Bridge Street as having a fine selection of beer. Trying to walk off the tension of the day, I followed street signs toward the town centre, reasoning that Bridge Street would have a bridge, that a bridge would cross a river, and that a river would be a good place for a town centre. When I found Duggan’s Pub, a sign above the door proclaimed Frank and Kathy Duggan as Proprietors. A big metal gate barred the entrance, and the welcome mat, buried under competing levels of dirt and junk mail, hadn’t welcomed a drinker in quite some time. My guidebook was clearly in need of an update.

I am told that the Atlantic Ocean’s Gulf Stream carries warm water north from the Caribbean to the coast of Europe, keeping Ireland unusually warm for its latitude. I am also told that some experts fear that global climate change brought on by greenhouse gas emissions could cause the Gulf Stream to stop flowing. On a cool and drizzly evening in Newcastle West, it was hard to believe
that the Gulf Stream hadn’t already come to a screeching halt. As I trudged back to the hotel, I stumbled across Newcastle West’s Famine Cemetery. Now little more than an overgrown field twice the size of a tennis court, it is the resting spot for locals who had perished in the famine following the potato blight.

that the Ring of Kerry around the Iveragh Peninsula was beautiful beyond belief, and that no trip to Ireland’s southwest could be considered complete without its circumnavigation. It should be just the place to find my first rhododendrons. My guidebook suggested that, without detours, the 180-kilometre road around the Ring of Kerry could be driven in three hours. This might be true for a professional driver in a Ferrari with racing suspension if the road was closed to all other traffic. I began to suspect that the woman who had written the guidebook had never been to the Ring of Kerry. Or indeed, to Ireland.

The roads were twisting and painfully narrow, and I found I could afford only brief glimpses of the hills around me. Dairy cattle that dotted the hills were befriended by a smaller number of sheep. Stone houses, stone bridges, and stone walls were constructed from pickings of the stony soil. I needed a break, and pulled over at a wayside rest stop populated by an elderly gentleman who offered to take my picture with his donkey. I declined, and stared out over the hills, which were decorated in a thousand shades of green, punctuated by periodic flashes of blinding golden-yellow gorse bushes.

The donkey, his handler, and I were soon joined by two tour buses, which disgorged their passengers to share the view with us. The visitors were all from New Jersey, and I indulged in my hobby of offering to take their photos with their cameras. Over the next ten minutes, the photo groups got bigger and bigger, and I had to step further and further back to get everyone in. I bumped into the donkey.

Highway officials in Ireland are an optimistic lot. They seem to have no reservations about posting 100 kilometre per hour speed-limit signs in spots where that kind of velocity existed only
in dreams. I had trouble averaging 50. White lines had been neatly applied to the road, but wherever it became too narrow for two lanes of traffic, the lines simply trailed off into the adjacent field. It didn’t help that touring cyclists lurked around every corner, and where no footpath existed, trail walkers tromped the middle of the road.

I got my first good look at rhododendrons as I approached the community of Waterville (An Coireán), toward the far western reaches of the Ring of Kerry. Waterville knows full well that it is a resort town, and has no pretence about being anything else. It is the sort of place that you might want to visit for a week during the worst weather of the off-season. You could walk the whole town in your first two hours, confident in the knowledge that you had absolutely nothing else to do for the remainder of your stay but rest.

I was particularly keen to see palm trees and fuchsia plants promised by my guidebook. Both were introduced to Ireland, and both were beneficiaries of the Gulf Stream’s warming influence. I found a few palm trees, but a lot more palm bushes, mainly in front of the Butler Arms Hotel. After two hours of walking up and through and around Waterville, I had seen not a single fuchsia.

I searched for famine victims in the churchyard of St. Michael’s and All Angels, but found none. I did, however, find a lot of Huggards, some of whom had survived the potato blight, including

Elizabeth, wife of Richard, died Dec 21 1904, aged 80;

Martin, son of Thos, died 17 Sept 1896, aged 88;

Mary, died 23 Sept 1896, aged 86;

and Rebecca, died 9 December 1879, aged 40.

Only then did it occur to me why I was likely having such trouble finding the headstones of anyone who had died in the famine. So rapid was the crop damage brought on by the blight, and so reliant was the populace on potatoes, that people in this part of Ireland died so quickly that the survivors were unable to keep up with the niceties of formal burials and fancy headstones. There were probably the
remains of a lot of famine victims in mass graves. After giving thanks for my life of abundance, I sat on a stone wall and ate my grocery-store lunch of French apple lattices, individually wrapped cheeses from Denmark and Holland, and apples from Brazil.

Rhododendrons became more common as I drove further around the Ring. At Sneem (An Snaidhm), I found them growing in abundance, first as roadside hedges, and then in bunches at a newly constructed Garden of the Senses. Away from this bit of tranquility, the south half of the Ring of Kerry was so rugged that almost every precious chunk of dry flat land had been snatched up for houses. Homes that hadn’t made a reservation early enough were left clinging to rocky slopes.

Before leaving Canada, a colleague with Irish roots had insisted that I visit Staigue Fort. The fort is four kilometres up a single-cart track, at the top of a deep gorge, next to a sweet spring. Dating from the early centuries CE, Staigue was one of the largest and finest of Ireland’s pre-Christian stone forts. As befits a stone fort, the walls, six metres tall and four metres wide, were made entirely of stones with not a brick or dab of mortar in sight. Chinks between boulders were filled with stone flakes. The fort has not been properly excavated by archaeologists, but that hasn’t stopped experts from speculating that it had been built by a wealthy landowner or chieftain in need of great security. At one time, the fort presumably housed wooden buildings or tents, but those were long gone. The interior wall provided nine sets of switchback stairs to the wall tops. My guidebook told me that it was “fun to climb to the top,” but a big, official-looking sign asked me to “PLEASE KEEP OFF THE WALL TOPS BY ORDER OF THE OFFICE OF PUBLIC WORKS.” I was serenaded by the bleating of sheep and the laughter of four German visitors who hadn’t paid the €1 trespassing charge requested by the farmer who owns the field.

After settling in to my bed and breakfast, I wandered the streets of Kenmare (Neidin) as evening fell. My search for a good meal gave me further reason to doubt the accuracy of the guidebook. It suggested that I was in for a “big treat” at a vegetarian restaurant
on Henry Street. Having walked the length of Henry Street three times, I can state categorically that such a restaurant doesn’t exist. Thinking that I must have purchased a horribly out-of-date guidebook, I checked the publication date. It was one year old. Then I checked the book’s back cover and found that I had paid $26.95 too much for it. The town’s church bells rang the supper hour. Settling on a pizzeria, I was surprised, but not pleasantly surprised, when my vegetarian pizza arrived with more sausage than crust.

On my post-dinner stroll I found Kenmare’s neolithic stone ring was right where it was supposed to be, peering down on the River Finnihy. At the centre, one really big stone was perched neatly on some smaller stones. This was surrounded by a ring of fifteen stones of various sizes, with a diameter of about seven metres. A circle of cedars had recently been planted outside the ring, and they should be quite impressive in about thirty years. Just down the hill, three sheep got into a bleating match.

so m
out of Kenmare, the N61 reaches mountainous country where sheep pick at miserly grass beside deep gorges. As everywhere else in the southeast, the road was narrow and twisting, and as I approached the pinnacle at Moll’s Gap I felt the first twinges of motion sickness.

On the far side, I stopped at a pullout at the south end of Muckross Lake to settle my stomach. I found a sign indicating that the region had suffered a recent outbreak of
Phytophthora ramorum,
another parasitic water mould and the causative agent of sudden oak death. The sign explained that
an introduced, yellow-flowered tree, and
Rhododendron ponticum
were particularly vulnerable to attack by this parasite, so that neither species should be taken from the park under any circumstances to avoid spread of the disease.

With plenty of time before my scheduled afternoon meeting with a rhododendron expert, I went for a hike along an asphalt path by the lake. I tried desperately to ignore the lady squatting immediately beside the path to pee, and was almost as successful as she was in pretending she was squatting to look at moss.

I could not ignore the small rhododendron plants popping out everywhere along the path. They didn’t look particularly nasty or dangerous. The trail took me to Dinis Cottage, once a hunting lodge, later a tea house, and now under renovation. The cottage was surrounded by huge, beautiful rhododendron bushes. As the asphalt path ended, a dirt trail beckoned me forward to where I found small rhododendron plants growing as epiphytes on the branches of oak trees, receiving better light than they would on the ground, but taking nothing away from the oaks. I felt relieved that, despite persistent recent efforts to eliminate rhododendrons from the park, I was able to spot a few.

Further north in the park, I stopped for a hike at Torc waterfall, where the constant crash of water tried to drown out the voices of woodland birds. Past the falls, I got my first real sense of the killer heart of
Rhododendron ponticum.
Growing in the form of a densely matted bush, but reaching three times my height, leaves survived only as a cheap crown at the top. Under the tortured rhododendron canopy, no light reached the ground, and no plants of any sort grew. Here and there an old sessile oak tree was holding its own against the newcomers, but the next generation of oaks was nowhere in sight.

There are ever so many reasons why this particular rhododendron species is such a horrible pest in Irish oak forests. Their seeds are tiny and in a good wind can disperse a kilometre from the parent plant. It is likely that the seeds are also carried on fur and feathers. The moderate climate of southwest Ireland must remind this rhododendron of home, because once the seeds settle down the plants grow rapidly, and they are tolerant of the region’s slightly acidic soils. The plants contain toxins so that deer and sheep won’t eat them. These rhododendron plants grow so densely that they prevent virtually all light from reaching the ground. It isn’t that they kill mature oak trees, but rather that they keep new seedlings from light, so that as the forest ages, recruitment of new plants is impossible.

Just how bad was the situation for the oak forests in Killarney National Park? I had lined up an expert to tell me. Chris Barron is
an education officer with the Killarney National Park Education Centre. He had generously agreed to take me to spots in the park that were heavily infested with rhododendrons and where clearance efforts had removed them. Finding rhododendrons was easy, but finding Barron was going to prove a bit difficult.

That morning, a lady at the Kenmare tourist information office had assured me that the Killarney National Park Education Centre was in Killarney town (Cill Airne), at the north end of the park. I shouldn’t have trusted her; she also told me that Kenmare’s stone circle dated back to the eighth century, while standing beside a display indicating that the circle was over 3,000 years old. After following a series of “i” signs to the tourist information centre in Killarney town, I was assured with absolutely no doubt or uncertainty that the Killarney National Park Education Centre was situated in the park at Muckross House, back south along the road I had just travelled. I was unable to conjure up any surprise when a young employee at Muckross House assured me that the Killarney National Park Education Centre did not exist.

Much to his credit, this young fellow skipped his coffee break to take me to the office of someone who had heard of Chris Barron and had a directory with Barron’s cellphone number. At a pay telephone, I tried again and again to complete the call, only to be told by a mechanical voice that the call was impossible as dialled. I managed the impossible when I realized that Barron’s cellphone number counted as an international call.



“It’s Glen.”

“Glen who?”

“Glen Chilton … The biologist from overseas … We were going to meet today to talk about rhododendrons …”

“Oh. Was that today?”

“Yes. Is it a bad day for you?”

“No. Where are you now? Muckross House? I’ll meet you there at half-three.”

Barron is an ecologist by training, and his car reflects it. It is a bit ratty, which is a perfect situation when you spend your day jumping in and out with muddy boots. The car was decorated throughout with bird feathers, seashells, sea urchins, and an assortment of outdoor clothing. Barron had earned a university graduate degree in Wales for his studies of rhododendrons. Most field biologists come to be very fond of their study species. Not so Barron. He hates rhododendrons, and hates the grazing sheep that wander illegally into the national park from surrounding areas. Barron’s wife was also a biologist who had just finished a major report on rhododendrons in the region. Barron’s brother also has a job eliminating rhododendrons, demonstrating that eradicating introduced species can be a family affair.

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