Thursday 22 March 2018

Review: Nature: The Wildflowers Of Ireland - A Personal Record by Zoe Devlin

The Collins Press, €29.99

Any low-flying insect would be well advised to give the flower pictured on the left a very wide berth. With its spiky purple leaves it seems to offer a seductive stopping off point for passing bees, flies and insects. If they land, however, they may never take off again.

This is the Round-Leaved Sundew, a native Irish insect-eating plant. It may promise a sweet drink of nectar, but as soon as an insect lands, the purple spikes close over, trapping the visitor. Death is painful and slow, as the flower dissolves the captured body.

This exotic-looking plant may seem like something one would find only in the tropics. But it's Irish, an ancient native wildflower and just one of the 400 plants featured in a magnificent new coffee table book titled The Wildflowers of Ireland -- A Personal Record. The author is Dublin woman Zoe Devlin, not a professional botanist, but a very informed amateur who has had a lifelong interest in wildflowers and had been studying and photographing them for years.

The book was launched at the National Botanic Gardens recently by RTÉ weatherman Gerald Fleming, who said that his work "concerns nature at its least benign, whereas Devlin's work shows nature at its most benign". Well, yes, apart from the insect-eater mentioned above.

Ireland's countryside teems with wildflowers, each an intrinsic part of the landscape and of an ecosystem that supports birds, insects and other wildlife.

Perhaps because Devlin is not a professional botanist her book succeeds in presenting our wildflowers in a way that those without botanical knowledge can understand. Using this book, people will be able to identify our wildflowers and gain a greater understanding of the subject.

Devlin's interest in the subject began as a child when a relative showed her a wild orchid.

Her interest over the years has developed far beyond just learning the names of the wildflowers. In the book, the names, descriptions and photographs of the plants are embellished with literary references and related Irish folklore. It makes an endlessly fascinating treasure trove of information. You never know what's going to pop up next.

The descriptions also include references to the herbal uses of many wildflowers, something we are rediscovering these days and learning to value again.

In all, more than 400 commonly found Irish wildflowers are covered in the book. It's a miracle of nature that so many still survive given the demands of modern agriculture, climate change, acid rain and so on.

"Conservation of our wildflowers is of the utmost importance as they are now facing threats on several different sides," Devlin says.

"But, through education and awareness of the diversity of our wildflowers, perhaps, just perhaps, the tide can be held back a little longer."

This book is an important step forward in that process.

Sharon O'Neill

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