Finding Wildflowers the Old Fashioned Way

This month I haven’t identified any wildflowers. We travelled to South Africa (and Namibia) and back and we’re currently coming to terms with the winter months in Ireland while isolating at home, thanks to Omicron. So, I haven’t had many opportunities for nature walks.

Beautiful Babylonstoren in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

After ten months of identifying wildflowers in Ireland, I think it’s time to give a brief overview of how I go about this process. The first question most people ask me is, ‘Do you use an app?’ No, I haven’t used an app. Yet. This conversation has come up, somewhat awkwardly, several times when I’ve been out for a walk with friends and I’ve spotted a flower or plant I’d like to identify. I usually try to photograph the flower discreetly, but I inevitably end up explaining that ‘No, it’s not (really) for Instagram, it’s just that I’m on a mission to identify wildflowers and learn about Ireland and the natural world…’ More often than not the response is, ‘Oh, you know there’s an app for that?’ ‘I know,’ I’ll say, feeling a little foolish, ‘but I like to do it the “old school” way, with a book (and an online library called the internet).’ My decision not to use an app is not just down to stubbornness, there are some good reasons why I’m using a book.

Here’s what I do: I start by taking photographs on my phone. I’ve learnt a few lessons over the months. It’s often not enough to take a pretty photo of the flower or tree, the details are important. I’ve learnt to look more closely at the shape and texture of leaves, the colour and number of a flower’s stamens, or the shape and number of flower petals, etc. These details can be crucial to making an accurate identification. Sometimes the scent can also help you differentiate between plants that look very similar, like mayweed, for example. I am, however, reluctant to pluck or even touch plants I don’t know. Firstly, if you pick a flower, you remove it from its environment. The BSBI has some useful guidelines in their Code of Conduct booklet on picking flowers:

“This section provides guidance for people who wish to pick plants for pleasure, pursue botanical studies, collect specimens for educational purposes or gather wild food for individual or family use. It does not address commercial gathering of plant material. The aim is to promote the conservation of wild plants, whilst encouraging the enjoyment of the countryside. This means that picking is acceptable in some cases, but in other circumstances plants are better left for others to enjoy. If in doubt always follow the ‘one in twenty rule’ unless the plants are covered by any legislation. If there are twenty, it is reasonable to take one. If you wish to take two, there should be forty, etc and do not uproot.”

Secondly, I’ve also learnt how many plants are toxic. Symptoms can range from mild to severe skin and/ or eye irritation (spurges or hogweed, for example) to more serious illnesses and even death in exceptional circumstances.

“Every part of the yew, except the red aril, is poisonous because it contains taxicantin. Eating as little as 50-100g of chopped leaves would be fatal for an adult.” Quote from The Hidden Wisdom of Trees by Fred Hageneder.
Illustration of fox-and-cubs in Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland

I’ll only take a flower or sprig to examine more closely at home if I’m certain I know what plant it is and if it’s growing abundantly. I’m also trying to teach my almost-two-year-old to respect the natural world and to be mindful of poisonous plants. Those red berries from lords-and-ladies are highly attractive, for example, grow everywhere in our area, and are highly toxic when ingested. But they do look very appealing… So, setting an example (and keeping a close eye!) is the best way to ensure she learns about the natural world respectfully and in a safe way.

Once or twice a week I’ll go through the photos on my phone and page through Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland. This often happens late at night, after my daughter is in bed, when I have a few quiet minutes to myself. Sometimes I know more or less what I’m looking for and it’s incredibly rewarding when my hunch is correct. Other times, I’ll spot a plant I’ve been stewing over for weeks by chance. Then there are times when I’m stuck on a plant for weeks and I comb through the book, back to front, front to back, (or trawl through the internet) swearing under my breath and muttering that everything looks the same! This has helped me in several ways. I’m starting to see patterns and connections between plants. Different types of speedwell can look very different from each other, for example, but after searching through the book for answers, I’ve come to recognise certain characteristics and I’m better at identifying speedwells. On a few lucky occasions, I’ve even spotted a flower on a walk and recognised it from the book. It’s absolutely thrilling, I promise you. I always double-check my initial identification by looking the plant up on the internet. Despite this, I’ve made a few mistakes! It is frustrating but I try to look at this as part of my learning curve by investigating why I misidentified the plant.

One of the drawbacks of the illustrations in Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland is that, beautiful as they are, they are not always accurate representations. There have been several occasions when I thought I had identified a plant only to discover the images on the internet look nothing like the image on my phone. http://www.wildflowersofireland.net/ and https://www.irishwildflowers.ie/ have become my go-to websites to search for and double-check plants. I’ve also joined the British and Irish Botanical Society and I’m hoping to learn more and to get more involved in the following months. As for using an app? I’ve decided I will use an app at the end of my 12-month journey to identify plants I couldn’t find in my book or through my internet searches. I suspect many of these are garden escapes that aren’t listed as wildflowers. It’s been an incredibly rewarding and educational process and I look forward to learning, and sharing more with you, over the next year. Wishing you a wonderful Christmas and New Year, from Chantelle at the Wild Library blog.

2 thoughts on “Finding Wildflowers the Old Fashioned Way

  1. Thanks for sharing your process Chantelle. I admire your process and that you take your daughter. I’ve used some books, but mostly I’m content to simply enjoy the plants and flowers or learn them being around people who know. Happy Holidays!

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