Another Life: A seasonal love affair with trees, flowers and the green gift of growth

We’re slowly rediscovering Ireland’s native botanical heritage

Country cures: meadowsweet tea for a heavy cold? Illustration: Michael Viney

Country cures: meadowsweet tea for a heavy cold? Illustration: Michael Viney

 

On the cusp of summer, our armchair view of the sea disappears in a haze of leaves, as the acre’s haphazard trees finish bursting into life – ash, beech, oak, sycamore – in a pristine golden-green glow beyond the window.

This is the month, indeed, when all Ireland celebrates its new love affair with trees and flowers and the green gift of growth. Billowing baskets in every litter-free town, suburbs frothing over with shrubs, garden-centre throngs snatching up plants bred by the million in Dutch polytunnels.

I can remember when it wasn’t like this. A few daffodils in spring and a summer parade of gladioli up to the bungalow door were the ultimate rural bouquets. Could it really have been the Tidy Towns competition, started by Bord Fáilte in 1958, that sowed the seeds of it all? But in the need to smarten up and please the tourists has arrived great aesthetic reward: sheer pleasure in colour and beauty of shapes and textures. And with it, helped by one lovely wild-flower book after another, has come a slow rediscovery of Ireland’s native botanical heritage.

Plants were once the all-embracing world of people everywhere, supplying almost every material and culinary use, every hope of a cure, every need for magic and ritual. In Ireland the importance of plant knowledge was tempered as much by a surviving pagan intimacy with nature as by the herb gardens of the new Christian monasteries.

The great bulk of this knowledge was lost in Ireland’s social upheaval and famine of the 18th and 19th centuries. Wild foods came to be dismissed as relics of poverty and hunger. The steady erosion of the Irish language left rural populations without even the names of plants with forgotten uses.

Generous nature

Ireland’s Generous NaturePeter Wyse JacksonNational Botanic GardensMissouri Botanical Garden

It’s a robust and glossy, lift-with-both- hands tome of a book, with lots of photographs, and elegant botanical paintings, and costs €60 (“in all good bookshops” – but try the author’s bookseller brother, John, at info@zozimusbookshop.com). That’s a high price, even for 750 pages, but cheaper than adding the postage from St Louis.

For Wyse Jackson, with a country childhood, a cottage in Kerry and a taste for culinary experiment, the research in Irish literature has clearly been a long labour of love. Among his recent sources was the work of Cyril and Kit Ó Céirín of Co Clare, and he has followed them enthusiastically in brewing jams, jellies and piquant sauces from plants and berries of every safely edible kind. The umbellifer alexanders (in bloom outside my window) is one of his favourite wild foods, although some people tell him they find it revolting.

Along with proper warnings about dangerous plants – Ireland has several real killers – comes inevitable doubt about the credibility of “cures” recoverable from folkloric evidence, ranging often across an improbable spectrum of maladies. I did, indeed, once try meadowsweet tea for a heavy summer cold, and poured sweat in consequence, but might not have thought of it for diarrhoea, dropsy, scrofula or jaundice.

Such evaluations are necessarily missing from a book of this cautiously scholarly but infinitely browsable kind (one could try a reputable modern herbal), but even without knowing if Biddy Early’s little blue bottles ever worked, it still fascinates to know the multitudinous rural uses of gorse, hazel and willow, the best woods for Irish harps, or the potential of spurge juice and stinging nettles for aphrodisiacal stimulation.

The book’s paintings are by Lydia Shackleton, who in the later 19th century made more than 1,400 botanical portraits for the National Botanic Gardens. Her work is sampled again in the catalogue of Aibítir, the inaugural exhibition of the Irish Society of Botanical Artists, at the gardens in Glasnevin. This celebrated the modern flowering of Irish botanical art by challenging ISBA painters to weave a chosen native plant around a letter of a new Irish alphabet, created by the calligrapher Tim O’Neill.

The exhibition has closed, but it will be staged again at the Playhouse in Derry in August and Belfast Waterfront in September. Meanwhile, the beautiful little catalogue, with all the paintings in colour, has become a collector’s item. It’s available for €12.50, including postage; email info@irishbotanicalartists.ie.

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