The Casual Gardener: Zoë Devlin's passion for Irish wildflowers

In a relatively short time Zoë Devlin has gained a reputation as Ireland's foremost authority on wildflowers. She tells John Manley how her new book provides an insight into more than mere flora

Wildflower collector and author Zoë Devlin

ZOË Devlin came to publishing relatively late in life but her passion for wildflowers dates back more than six decades. She spent her childhood in what was then the sleepy village of Dundrum on the outskirts of south Dublin.

While her mother was a passionate gardener, growing vegetables in the family garden, young Zoë's eyes were drawn to the ‘weeds’ that grew between the rows of cabbages, lettuce and spuds.

“I loved the tiny flowers that sowed themselves so freely,” she recalls.

As she got older her curiosity grew and by the 1970s her hobby was seeking out, photographing and recording wild flora.

In 2000, after retiring from her job as PA to the managing director of a petrochemical multi-national, she absorbed herself entirely in the subject, taking botany courses at UCD and Glasnevin National Botanic Gardens in Dublin.

By the end of the decade, Zoë had created her own website, which brought her to the attention of Collins Press.

First came Wildflowers of Ireland: A Personal Record, then the extremely popular Wildflowers of Ireland – A Field Guide. Her latest book is Blooming Marvellous – A Wildflower Hunter’s Year, a collection of passages documenting her encounters with particular flowers.

“There’s a lot more of my personality in this book,” she says. “While flowers provide the theme, there’s a lot more in there – the people, places and nature that are encountered on my various quests. I guess you’d call it a potpourri of anecdotes – some funny, some quirky, some dark.”

Zoë also writes about the family members, such as watercolorist and great-aunt Gladys Wynne and her cousin, 1916 veteran Dr Kathleen Lynn, a prominent nationalist, feminist and socialist, whose influence on her young relative was manifold.

It was on a Co Carlow hillside many years ago, that her cousin introduced Zoë to the beauty of wild orchids. The seed was sown, so to speak, and the fascination with flowers has blossomed ever since.

"I am so grateful to her for her generosity of spirit when she took me up that hillside many years ago and I wonder if she had any idea how much of a gift she was giving me when she showed me my first orchid," she previously wrote of her cousin.

The Burren in Co Clare boasts 70 per cent of Ireland's wildflower species

Each chapter in this book, which is illustrated with her own photographs, celebrates a particular month, capturing the beauty and joy it has to offer: birds, butterflies, mammals and even tasty recipes, from nettle soup in April to blackberry-and-apple jam in September.

“The idea is that it’ll be much more engaging and much less dry than a textbook,” she says. “I’m hoping the personal tone and the my memories will help inspire a few people who wouldn’t ordinarily go looking for wild flowers.”

Zoë's favourite months for wildflower hunting are on either side of summer:

“I love the excitement and anticipation of spring so I really love April and May,” she says. “But then again I love September and October for the colours.”

And her favourite places for seeking out flora?

“For years I’ve enjoyed an unchallenging walk around Vartry Reservoir near Roundwood in Co Wicklow – the sight of celendine there in the spring always thrills me,” she says.

“And of course there’s the Burren in Co Clare, which boasts 70 per cent of Ireland's wildflower species. I try to get there at least one a year.”

She also loves Donegal, west Cork and Co Fermanagh.

“We’re so priviliged in Ireland to have so many habitats, whether it’s bogland, on the coast, or in the mountains,” Zoë says.

She does, however, have concerns about the Irish biodiversity, highlighting threats on the three fronts from climate change, invasive aliens and intensive agriculture.

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