Eye-opener book on Cork wildflowers

AFTER the dry weeks it’s suddenly the rainy season.

Between the showers the sun comes out and the breeze shakes the vegetation that surrounds the yard where lochs of water have collected on the paving slabs. The leaves shine, some with water droplets hanging at the tips, sparkling in the light. A butterfly, a red admiral, lands on the white courtyard walls and then flounces over the white sheets and towels hanging on the line. It isn’t winter yet. Last week, I was surprised to see a few Montbretia still in flower on a west Cork road, the orange flower bright against the hedgebank.

Hedgebank is a word I’ve learned from a botanical milestone of a book, Wildflowers of Cork City and County by Tony O’Mahony, published this month by The Collins Press. It is quite extraordinary in that it deals with the flora of almost every townland in the county. I can look up what flowers I am likely to see if I visit, for example, The Rochestown-Passage West Walkway in June (the curious, brownish-pink, stiffly erect spikes of Ivy Broomrape) or the northern flank of Knockowen mountain in July (Common and Large Flowered Butterwort, both ‘carnivorous’ plants, capturing insects on their sticky leaves) .

While it will appeal to all of us for its encyclopedic coverage of Cork’s flora, its beautiful illustrations and its sheer opulence of information, it is a scholarly book and should not be confused with a field guide. It is a book to keep at home and to consult either before setting out, or when one returns – and wants to identify an unfamiliar species photographed on one’s walk. It provides very interesting reading matter in its own right, detailing the history of early flora recording in the county, the influence of geology on the flora, and the influx of alien species, some of which are naturalised medicinal and culinary plants.

I was fascinated by a section entitled Cork City Wall Flora. I have always thought the botanical display to be found on old stone walls to be a complementary enhancement to the stonework itself, the deep blue cascades of small Ivy-leaved Toadflax spilling down the facades of old buildings in spring, each flower with a bright yellow palate, like tiny snapdragons. A chapter entitled The Flora of Cork City Quays tells me that North American Monkeyflower, Oxford Ragwort, Indian Balsam, Chinese Butterfly-bush and Mexican Fleabane all thrive there. Clearly, Mr O’Mahony writes lyrically of the floral panoramas to be enjoyed: “Cork’s limestone quay-walls and decaying wharf-timbers are similarly floriferous. In April and May, the spectacular alien Greater Quaking-grass (Briza maxima) flaunts its beautiful, large, pendulous spikelets and vermillion-flushed leaves on the old wharf-timbers at Union Quay and Morrison’s Quay”.

But the city occupies no more than a fifth of this substantial hard-backed 438-page volume. We are off to the county then, with chapters entitled The Southwest Peninsulas and Roaringwater Bay; Woodlands and Hedgebanks; The Coast; The Rivers; Mountains and Uplands; Inland and Coastal Wetlands, Ponds and Lakelets.

There is a chapter dedicated to orchids, and another, in which I was particularly interested, dealing with ferns. We take our ferns so much for granted but they are, surely, one of the most striking and attractive of our plants species. Mr O’Mahony’s text tells me that some Cork ferns are very rare, such as the Diaphanous Bladder-Fern, a native of humid areas of southern Europe and the Atlantic isles of the Azores and, prior to 2000, neither recorded nor suspected to occur in either Britain or Ireland. However, it is “frequent over at least a 700m lenght of the tidal Bandon River, near Inishannon village”.

Over 1,200 plant species and hybrids are treated in this lapidary work. The bibliography attached is impressive and the indexes clear and helpful. In the general index, most readers will be able to find reference to their home place. The Index of Plants lists a host of plants and flowers by their English and botanical titles. Wildflowers of Cork City and County is a well-bound, well-made, omnibus of information, beautifully and intelligently presented, for a very reasonable price.

Wildflowers of Cork City and County by Tony O’Mahony (The Collins Press) €29.99.

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