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Book Review: Ireland’s Wild Orchids, A Field Guide

Irelands Wild OrchidsIreland’s orchids are a fascinating group of plants, and are among our most  beautiful and evocative wildflowers. There’s always a thrill when you spot the flower spike of an orchid thrusting skyward through the grass or pushing through the surface of a bog.

Then comes the tricky part. You know it’s an orchid… but which orchid is it?

That’s exactly when you should reach into your day pack for “Ireland’s Wild Orchids, a Field Guide” — a new book designed to help you determine just that.

Irish orchid specialist Brendan Sayers, overseer of the Glasshouse Collection at the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin, has teamed up with award-winning plant artist Susan Sex to produce this delightful guide dedicated to the orchids you can find growing in the wild in Ireland.

Published by Cork based publisher, The Collins Press, the roughly A5 sized hardback volume is slim enough to slip into your backpack, but offers enough space for the stunning illustrations to really have an impact. This is in every way a field guide, and is designed for reference use when out looking at plants in the field, but it’s so beautifully put together — both in terms of the book’s quality, and the quality of the content — that I often found myself leafing through it at home for the sheer pleasure of it.

A lot of thought has gone into this book. It starts, in true field guide style, with an introduction and some general information on orchids, their conservation, the tricky ID conundrum created by the the orchids’ tendency to hybridise readily, and the obligatory “How to Use this Book” section. All of these are concise and to the point, offering enough information without labouring the point. So often with field guides authors can overdo the preliminaries; it’s almost as if they feel compelled to validate their expertise up-front. Not so here — after the brief yet complete preamble we’re straight into the meat of the book — the accounts of the carious orchid species found in Ireland arranged by genus.

Where there are several species in a genus the section begins with an easy-to-use illustrated “key” — a quick-reference ID pointer to get you to the relevant species page fast. Each genus has an introductory page with a concise description… with a space for field notes on the facing page… not something you find often in field guides, and not something I’d use personally, but a thoughtful addition nonetheless.

The species accounts themselves are a joy — with each species taking up a double-page spread.

Species account of the Pyramydal Orchid
Species account of the Pyramydal Orchid from “Ireland’s Wild Orchids, a Field Guide” by Brendan Sayers and Susan Sex

In the left hand margin you’ll find essential ID information like height, habitat, the flowering period and distribution, along with a handy distribution map showing where in Ireland the particular species has been recorded. A really thoughtful touch here is an illustration of the flowering orchid against a greyed out book to demonstrate the comparative scale of the plant next to the field guide. It let’s you use the book as a useful measuring tool to help gauge species ID — a neat trick that I haven’t seen before.

Alongside the margin there’s a concise description of the species and a series of excellent colour photographs showing the plant “in-situ” in its favoured habitat, and a close up of the lower spike and/or individual flower structure. The facing page is dedicated to Susan Sex’s fabulous illustrations of the species in question with helpful ID pointers where necessary.

One of the reasons for the delay in reviewing this book (my apologies to the authors and the publisher) is that it has been out and about with me most of the summer, being used “in anger” to identify orchids in the field… it is a wonderful book that does exactly what it sets out to do… but also manages to offer more, somehow. It’s a book that engages and delights on a level that field guides rarely manage — a book you’ll pick up and read for the sheer joy of it — and in a field guide that’s a rare quality.

Hats off to the authors and the publisher. If you don’t already own a copy, get one — it’s excellent.

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