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Keywords:

  • palynology;
  • Erica erigena;
  • scanning electron microscopy;
  • phytogeographical elements;
  • Irish flora

Abstract

Scanning electron microscopy combined with pollen, spore, rhizopod and fungal analyses of two peat profiles at Claggan Mountain, Co. Mayo, sheds new light on the Holocene history of Erica erigena in western Ireland. This heather is referred to the Mediterranean-Atlantic group in the Irish flora, and is remarkable for its disjunct distribution in Europe, where it occurs in Ireland, Bordeaux in France, and in Spain and Portugal.

Scanning electron microscopy has proved a powerful tool, allowing the unambiguous identification of ericoid pollens to species level and it is used to identify the first occurrence of Erica erigena pollen in the peat profiles. Radiocarbon dating of the profiles shows that Erica erigena is a relatively recent arrival at Claggan Mountain, appearing for the first time in the historic period at 1431 AD. The details of vegetational changes associated with the expansion of E. erigena have been explored by conventional pollen, spore, rhizopod and fungal analyses. Drying of the peat surface and replacement of bog vegetation by ericaceous heathland during a period of marked agricultural activity in the region was associated with its spread.

The relatively recent arrival of E. erigena at Claggan Mountain, suggests that introduction might explain its presence here, and its disjunct distribution in Europe. Documented trade and pilgrimage routes between Ireland and those areas in Europe where the heather occurs may have allowed its recent introduction into Ireland. Further pollen analysis work, using SEM techniques, will be required if an earlier occurrence for the heather in Ireland is to be proved. The combination of techniques described here may prove useful in the study of the history of other plants with pollen that is difficult to identify using conventional light microscopy.