There are, after all, over 900 Irish species. However, cheap digital cameras and camera phones have made the task a lot simpler. For conservation reasons it’s inadvisable, and sometimes illegal, to pick a flower and bring it home.
However, you can bring home a selection of pictures of the plant — flowers, leaves, stems, fruits or seeds — and then consult a book or a website. I rely heavily on Zoe Devlin’s excellent Wildflowers of Ireland and her website www.wildflowersofireland.net.
The only thing you need to check is that your camera or phone has a reasonable macro facility — in other words, that it can take close-up pictures of the detail on small plants without going out of focus. This is also useful for identifying insects, if your interests extend that far.
It’s also a big help to learn the meaning of some botanical terms. You can build up this knowledge gradually and many books on wildflowers have a glossary which helps to do this. If you know what a sepal is, or a drupe or a stamen or a pappus, it makes using the book or the website much quicker and easier.
Zoe Devlin has a section in her book on techniques for plant identification and she recommends a few other simple pieces of equipment which can be carried in a pocket. The first is a magnifying glass. It’s amazing the detail that’s revealed by a decent hand lens of X10 magnification. This not only helps with identification, it also adds to your appreciation of the beauty of our wildflowers.
She also brings a red clothes peg. She uses it to pin back the surrounding vegetation without damaging it so that the subject of the photo is revealed clearly. The peg is red because this makes it less likely to be overlooked when she walks off after taking the picture.
A very good suggestion is a small ruler, to be included in some of the pictures. When you look at the images, which may be some days later, and try and make the identification it’s remarkably easy to forget the size of the actual flower or leaf and the precise scale that the ruler adds is invaluable.
Finally, a very practical suggestion for anyone contemplating field botany in Irish conditions — a plastic bag big enough to allow you to kneel on it on damp ground.
It’s true, of course, that you don’t have to know the name of a flower to appreciate it. However. anyone with an interest in nature derives some satisfaction from a slowly growing list of plants they can identify from memory. Everyone knows what buttercups and daisies look like so we all have a foundation to build on. Adding to the list probably has something to do with the collector’s instinct and it’s very enjoyable!