Tag Archives: botanist

The Feast of Samhain and Wildflowers in Autumn

The Thursday before last (28 October) Zoe Devlin had her latest book launch and I was invited along to Hodges Figgis on Dawson Street in Dublin for the wonderful event. Colin Stafford-Johnson, the globe-trotting Irish BBC wildlife cameraman and film-maker opened the proceedings, and I was also fortunate enough too to meet Richard Nairn who has published many books about Irish wildlife. And here are all three of them:

From left to right: Richard Nairn, Colin Stafford-Johnson and Zoe Devlin.

Personally I have found Zoe’s book ( Blooming Marvellous – A Wildflower Hunter’s Year) is making me pay much more attention to flowers in autumn than I ever would have normally. And I’ve found some very beautiful flowers are still blooming, such as this tiny and magnificent Ivy-leaved Toadflax (Cymalaria muralis) which lives in rocky places, including on footpaths, where I found this one:

   Tuesday was Halloween, the eve of All Hallows, aka All Saints Day, and Halloween is also the ancient feast of Samhain. According to Irish myth and legend an evil spirit, a sort of serpentine creature, was unleashed on the feast, and the ancient Irish would light bonfires and make loud noises in an attempt to scare the creature away. It was eventually done away with by the heroic Finn MacCumhail (or McCool if you prefer). As with many ancient feasts and religious rituals, Samhain refused to disappear and to this day bonfires are lit and loud noises are created (using fireworks) to scare away the monster and all other evil beings from dark places who might walk the land in the dark half of the year. Because of Christianity Ireland has attempted to ignore Samhain, which has absolutely no effect on it, and as a result most of October is filled with the noise of fireworks and the building of illegal bonfires. If an attempt was made to engage with the feast, rather than trying to subdue it,  much less anti-social behaviour and illegal bonfire-related activity would occur, as there would be an outlet for the activities and a point of focus. It’s part of Irish culture, from very ancient, pre-Christian times, and it seems this ritual has no intention of coming to an end, being hardwired into the Irish psyche. Let us not forget that Samhain is the Gaelic name for the month of November. But it is a very frightening time of year for animals, both domestic and wild. And for many people too. However, it is over for another year.


Two Brilliant Books for Summer Outdoor Adventures

Now that we’re in late July many people will be heading out into the countryside on long holidays, and if you have an interest in the countryside and natural world seriously consider getting these books. Firstly, the superb The Wildflowers of Ireland: A Field Guide by Zoe Devlin, which was the second of The Collins Press new style of rugged, pocket-sized field guides (the first being The Birds of Ireland by Jim Wilson and photographer Mark Carmody).

A beautiful pocket-sized book which you can currently find in almost any bookshop and on the NHBS website.
A beautiful pocket-sized book which you can currently find in almost any bookshop and on the NHBS website.

What makes this book especially interesting is that all of the photographs were taken by the author (I actually first met her on a photographic expedition to Wicklow with her husband) and the drawings in it are by her husband and intrepid sidekick, Pete. It’s an extremely easy-to-use guide with the plants arranged not by family but by the colours of the flowers, which makes navigating this guide a truly wonderful experience.

Putting the book to work. To tops of the pages are colour-marked so that you can instantly arrive in the right section. A brilliant design.
Putting the book to work. To tops of the pages are colour-marked so that you can instantly arrive in the right section. A brilliant design.

And, in an important break from convention, this rugged book is only €14.99 ! It’s worth every penny.  But also you don’t feel afraid to carry it, because if worst comes to worst it’s not too expensive to replace, and this is what makes a real field guide. Considering the amount of travel and field outings which were involved getting the excellent photos of these plants, the story behind the book must be a very exciting one.

But the Collins Press has also brought out another incredible field guide, in a slightly different style, with a slightly different format, but equally badly-needed for nature lovers visiting Ireland – Insects of Ireland: An Illustrated Introduction To Ireland’s Common Insect Groups by Stephen McCormack and Eugenie Regan, illustrated by Chris Shields.

A beautiful and distinctive cover showcasing the incredibly detailed illustrations inside.
A beautiful and distinctive cover showcasing the incredibly detailed illustrations inside.

Don’t let the subtitle scare you, this is an extremely user-friendly book and designed to help the user identify the common insects he or she is most likely to notice. Of the two authors I know Eugenie Regan from the National Biodiversity Data Centre’s Butterfly Monitoring Scheme, which kicked off in 2007. Eugenie was a regular on TV and the radio, but has since moved on to other conservation projects.

Although this book is not designed to fit neatly into the pocket, the wider format allows for a level of detail which in some areas is beyond that of any field guide I’ve ever seen. Chris Shields illustrations are absolutely incredible throughout, although I must especially praise the amazing section on ladybirds which features detailed pictures of the adult and each of the very distinctive larva of each of the species known in Ireland (19 altogether). This section of the book alone would have been enough to encourage me to buy it.

Outstanding illustrations and an excellent distribution map for each species. Need I say more?
Outstanding illustrations and an excellent distribution map for each species. Need I say more?

However, it also draws attention to the fact that few of the caterpillars in the butterfly section are illustrated, which should be considered for subsequent editions. But considering this book is €14.99 and not designed to be exhaustive, it packs quite a punch, and should whet the appetite of anybody with the remotest interest in insects to learn more about them. I must applaud everyone involved in its production.




Book launch!

Last week I attended the launch of botanist Zoé Devlin’s beautiful new book Wildflowers of Ireland: A Personal Record. Zoé was on hand to sign autographs of this magnificent tome – the book is a quality publication, produced by the Collins Press. There was a time when such lavishly illustrated books on Irish nature were unheard of, but the Collins Press have made a name with prestige volumes of this high quality, and it is very fortunate for anyone with an interest in Irish wildlife. That said, the book is heavy in construction (if you should find yourself in front of a firing squad it would be helpful to have a copy tucked under your shirt!), but laden with superbly-written information and detailed maps for each plant species, and absolutely fantastic photographs taken by Zoé. Anybody who is familiar with this blog will remember reading in June of how I came to meet Zoé and her husband John as they searched for rare Sea Kale along the Wicklow coast in June.

Zoé Devlin with her beautiful and lavishly illustrated Wildflowers of Ireland: A Personal Record.

The Collins Press produce books designed to stand the test of time, so although this a bit too heavy to serve as a field guide, it is a perfect reference, and the descriptions of folklore, medicinal application and personal encounters elevate this volume to a status far above anything you are likely to find in a typical book on the subject. For example, here is part of her description of Silverweed – Potentilla anserina:

“My first record of this plant is from the Vartry Reservoir near Roundwood, Co. Wicklow, in 1976 and I photographed it at Tacumshin Lake, Co. Wexford, in 2008.

Also called ‘Argentina anserina’, many of Silverweed’s names refer to its leaves; in French Richette and in Dutch Zilverkruid. These same leaves were, at one time, used as insoles in the shoes of tired walkers to ease their feet. The plant was also used as food for geese, hence its species name ‘anserina’ (anser = goose in Latin). In early times the roots of this plant were cultivated in some of the Scottish islands until potatoes were introduced. It is said that they taste somewhat like parsnips. The dried fruits were also ground and used like flour in bread-making.”

The beautiful cover: you can judge this book by it's cover! It's superb.
Just a sample of the layout of the book: each page contains superb photographs and detailed information, and beautifully-written anecdotes.

Clearly the sort of book that will be of interest to botanists, general purpose naturalists, folklorists, foragers, cooks, medicinalists and, of course, survivalists (so if you’re a fan of Ray Mears I’d say this book is for you).

There were quite a few scientists and TV personalities at this book launch, and the event was hosted by Gerald Fleming, known as the “winking weatherman” from his broadcasts on RTE television.

Cornered by two people armed with cameras, Gerald Fleming contemplates the inevitable photographs.

For anyone interested in spending the money on Zoé’s magnificent book (money well spent!) follow this link to Amazon.co.uk (which lets you see more content too):