Stop and smell our wild flowers

Damien Enright on a new guide to hedgerow beauties

THERE is so much to learn and enjoy in the new pocket book from the Sherkin Island Marine Station, entitled A Beginner’s Guide to Irish Wild Flowers that I cannot imagine anybody, other than an expert, requiring more.

All the flowers we regularly see are there, well illustrated and described, some 160 flowers in all. Twelve years ago, the author, John Akeroyd, compiled a watershed work, The Wild Plants of Sherkin, Cape Clear and adjacent islands of West Cork. That was a volume for an expert, albeit accessible to the interested reader; but this latest is a book perfectly made and edited for the ordinary man.

It is tailored to fit the pocket both in size and in price. It provides illustrations and descriptions enabling the walker to identify almost all of the wild flowers he or she is likely to encounter on an Irish walk.

Identification is the main purpose of the book, with education as a corollary. For the amateur, the table in the introduction is invaluable and makes the whole business easy; it is often difficult without such a scheme. It is worthwhile my noting how it works, because it is a major recommendation for the book, along with its other practical and aesthetic attributes.

“What flower is it?” is the heading of the page. Beneath it, are three sub-headings reading, from left to right, “If it has…” “…and also has…” “…look in the family…” Beneath “If it has…” are boxes containing options such as “Leaves floating on water”, “Four similar petals, flowers flat and blue” or “Hanging bell-like flowers”.

We pick the latter and move on to “…and also has…”. Beneath this we find five options and pick the third, which says “Tall spikes of large, purple-pink flowers” with a small illustration of such flower-heads alongside.

Now, we move to “…look in the family…” and are directed to “Foxgloves etc....” Page 140.

Turning to the page we find ourselves looking at a colour photo of foxgloves, Digitalis pupurea, Lus mór in Irish. We are told its habitat is banks, heaths and open woods, that it grows up to 180 cm tall, is absent from part of the midlands, and is poisonous but produces heart drugs.

What a fine, quick way of discovering just what flower it is we’re looking at. And while most of us will know a foxglove when we see one, we will — with a little help from Dr Akeroyd — soon know wild thyme from watermint, ling from bell heather and kidney vetch from broom.

The production of the booklet should also be lauded. It is shiny but sturdy, very much like Sherkin Marine Station’s A Beginner’s Guide to Ireland’s Seashore, with excellent full-colour photos by Robbie Murphy and easily-read print. It costs only e7.50 and no household or classroom should be without a copy.

Often, children will know the names of common birds and a few of the animals, but rarely do they, nowadays, know the names of the wildflowers common in the vocabulary of their grandparents.

This ignorance is because they have not been taught. Their parents, leading busy, urban lives, may not know these names themselves or pay much attention to the blooms that annually enhance the waysides and road verges. This booklet offers the chance for parents and children to learn together because on any country walk at this time of the year, numerous wild flowers will be encountered. Examining them will bring to notice their which otherwise may be passed by.

On the subject of country walking, what we do for pleasure was, in the past, done from necessity and prodigious distances were covered without remark. Reading Wuthering Heights, I note that ordinary people walk 12 miles to Thrushcross. They walk 60 miles to Liverpool in a single day, and after a day of business, walk back. Sixty miles a day? Fifteen hours at four miles an hour? Similar distances were, no doubt, covered by cattle drovers en route to fairs in Ireland. No wonder they noticed the wild flowers. And what mighty folk our ancestors were.


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