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Wild about wildflowers

Wildflowers of IrelandIt’s an incontrovertible fact that when wildlife flies, jumps, crawls, slithers, swims, grunts or shrieks it is generally a lot more noticeable than when it doesn’t. Things that just sit there, by and large, go unnoticed.

As a survival strategy that’s probably no bad thing, but it’s also a shame, because some of the wildlife we routinely overlook is every bit as fascinating, diverse an striking as that grabbing all the attention.

Take plants, for example. Plants are nowhere near as prominent as birds, mammals or insects, but they’re infinitely easier to get close to, exquisitely adapted to their environment, incredibly varied and critically important. Plants underpin almost every functioning ecosystem on the planet: without them the rest of the wildlife we see would exist at all. In fact, neither would we.

But despite their many merits plants are sometimes treated as second class citizens in the wildlife world. We step over, around, and even on them in pursuit of quarry that’s more nimble-of-foot or fleet-of wing. I’m guilty of it myself, I often overlook plants right under my nose, only noticing them when something more active inadvertently lands on them.

Plants suffer from an undeserved image problem: because we can’t see them doing a lot (producing the occasional flower, shedding the occasional seed) it’s easy to think of them as, well, just a bit dull. The truth is they’re anything but. Thanks to a new book by Dublin born botanist Zoë Devlin I’m rediscovering the wonderful world of Ireland’s wildflowers, and it’s a revelation.

Wildflowers of Ireland: a Personal Record” is a catalogue of the wildflowers Zoë has personally found and photographed all over Ireland in a longstanding love affair with plants that spans almost 40 years. It is, in every way, an impressive body of work.

The first thing you notice about the book is its size. This is a hefty tome: a book for leisurely perusal at home. You certainly won’t be carting it with you as you explore roadside verges and field margins. It is a reference book, not a field guide, but not one of those stuffy old books full of lifeless facts. This reference book has personality.

Zoë opens with a look at the history of wildflowers in Ireland, their importance, how they’re built and how they work. She goes on to explore the life cycle of flowering plants, how we name and group them, the habitats they live in and offers a checklist to help the beginner with wildflower identification. All of this sounds a bit “stuffy and scientific” — but it’s not. Zoë brings her boundless enthusiasm to bear, and her prose is it once both engaging and fascinating.

That enthusiasm is best encapsulated by Zoë herself in the introduction where she says: “Although I try to take on board the scientific aspects of wildflowers, it is a sense of wonder and awe that tend to take over when I look at these delicate, beautiful creations”.

The rest of the book is given over to species profiles of the more than 450 wildflowers that Zoë has recorded in Ireland. Each profile includes a detailed description, a distribution map showing where the flower occurs, a legend showing in what months the plant blooms, and striking photographs taken by the author herself. All of this information is presented in a way that’s informative and accessible to the botanical novice.

While the book will undoubtedly help you put names to the wildflowers you encounter, I can’t help feeling that it achieves so much more. Leafing through this book doesn’t just draw you in… it also makes you want to get out and look for wildflowers. That, of course, is the whole point… and is a much more significant accomplishment.

Like many other types of Irish wildlife our wildflowers are being besieged on all sides. Habitat destruction, pollution, climate change, invasive alien species… plants have a lot to content with, and while the furred and the feathered tend to have many championing their cause, those that go unnoticed could do with a few more people fighting in their corner.

“Wildflowers of Ireland” is a beautiful book that brings our wildflowers out of relative obscurity and puts them in the spotlight, promoting awareness and encouraging us all to get out for a closer look. It would make a wonderful addition to any bookshelf. Based on my experience reading it though, it’s not a book that will stay on the shelf for very long.

Check out Zoë’s website for a detailed online guide to Irish wildflowers.

“Wildflowers of Ireland” by Zoë Devlin is published by Collins Press and is available online or in all good bookshops priced €29.99.


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