Zoe, the grand dame of the ditch

YOU wouldn’t really want to be a passenger in the car when Zoe Devlin’s doing the driving — she’d have you in the ditch, within minutes, one way or the other.

But, if you were to end up in the ditch, you’d not have better company, or more fragrant finds: the Dublin woman’s a mine of information on Ireland’s wildflowers. And, now, after thousands of ditch-crawling miles around Ireland, being driven by ‘roadie’ husband Pete, she’s written the book on it too: ‘Wildflowers of Ireland, a Personal Record’ (Collins Press).

It’s the culmination of a life spent with eyes wide open. “You should give children a magnifying glass, they’ll use it for everything, flowers, bugs, moths and more,” she urges, thinking of the bigger picture.

Now retired from the world of work, the mother and grandmother has kept a record for 37 years of her plant-spotting and identification, but that came on top of notes and diary entries from earlier childhood days, when she first savoured The Observer’s Book of British Wild Flowers (a First Communion present) and followed it up with the classic David Webb’s An Irish Flora (1943) one of the earlier Irish identification guides, after botantist Robert Lloyd Prager’s own pioneering work over a century ago. In fact, Devlin generously enthuses, Webb’s book is due an eighth incarnation very shortly, via Cork University Press.

There’s a fair bouquet of flower books, with an Irish twist thankfully, and Devlin’s is a personal, yet wholly knowledgeable, intervention and addition, hugely enhanced by her lucid and loving-lens photography. Recently, she’s been busy revisiting other previous wildflower finds, capturing familiar and less-spotted species in a digital SLR camera format. She tracked a 1970s glimpsed rare Kerry Lilly down to the very same Sneem location 30 years later, in 2008.

The Devlin family, with daughter Petra and son Nik, were reared in the outdoors. Their father, Pete Devlin was into birds and binoculars and Devlin family holidays were spent in Kerry and Galway. No surprise that Petra inveigled Zoe into making use of her burgeoning photo gallery and masses of notes, about seven years ago.

Zoe’s website www.wildflowersofireland.net went live in 2008, and is a huge boon for those trying to identify Irish wildflowers with a variety of search tools, including the so-obvious and simple ‘plants by colour,’ a sort of scan over nature’s own attempts at ColourMeBeautiful. Publisher Con Collins, a fanatical hill-walker, mountain-climber and environmentalist, trawled Zoe’s website a few years ago, and enthusiastically planted the seed for a book, Wildflowers of Ireland, in Zoe’s mind, which has now blossomed under his imprint.

Digital photography, and websites (another good one is www.irishwildflowers.ie), have made identification and appreciation easier than ever before, and taking a hedgerow snap with a camera phone for later comparisons with books or sites is an exercise anyone, of any age, can enjoy if you don’t have a guide book to hand. Needless to say, picking rare species to take home is a no-no. Check www.biology.ie for updates on the 2011 wildflower survey, and www.ispynature.com for younger fans and school projects.

In fact, the on-our-doorsteps world of Irish wildflowers could well be about to enter a Golden Age of appreciation, as hobby walking reaches new heights here in Ireland and we want to see past the cheerful swathes of montbretia and fuchsias to tinier glories — ironically, even as species’ numbers dwindle through habitat destruction, climate change and challenges from invading species and garden escapees.

Devlin features about 400 wild flowers in her book, out of an estimated 1,000 around the country, and she provides useful maps showing geographical distribution, more graphics show flowering months, while the first eight chapters simply sow seeds of knowledge, plus give a glossary.

Her book bursts into a suddenly ‘spoiled for choice’ category, as another major work, The Wild Flowers of Ireland: The Habitat Guide by botanist Declan Doogue and photographer Carsten Krieger came out with Gill and Macmillan just a year ago, documenting some 300 wildflowers and their habitats. Devlin’s own work, words and pictures, is added to by her folklore references, herbal, historical and literary associations, nomenclature in English, Latin and Irish, random asides, and personal accounts of first sightings, back to, and even before, 1950.!

Showing the amateur’s sweep, as in love of her subject, Devlin also liberally scatters the poetry of others among her own informative and descriptive prose and quotes from poet Anne Stevenson’s ‘Himalyan Balsam:

“Orchid-lipped, loose-jointed, purplish, indolent flowers,

with a ripe smell of peaches, like a girl’s breath through lipstick,

delicate and coarse in the weedlap of late summer rivers,

dishevelled, weak-stemmed, common as brambles.”

* Wildflowers of Ireland, A Personal Record by Zoe Devlin is published by Collins Press, €29.99.

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