This is a big book in every sense of the word. It weighs 4.25 kilos and has 864 glossy full-colour pages. It has 15 introductory chapters which put the authors’ 35+ year study of the flora of Fermanagh into context with learned descriptions of the geology, soils, climate, agriculture, and woodlands of the county. These chapters have been contributed by experts such as Philip Doughty, James G. Cruikshank, Nicholas L. Betts and Samuel B. Morrow and Hannah Northridge and they set the scene for this mighty study. The main authors also contribute chapters on the history of botanical studies in the county and on their own methodologies.
From these we learn that while the earliest scientific records of plants in Fermanagh date back to the beginning of the 19th century there are only 59 records prior to 1825. By 1925 there are 2,070 and by 1975 there are 10,067. However it is only in the last quarter of the 20th century that the recording work really intensifies and Robert Northridge is credited with collecting a staggering 126,040 records of plants in Fermanagh. The total number of species recorded in Fermanagh is 1,172, of which 78% are to be found among Northridge’s records.
It is not surprising therefore that a book as big as this is required to do justice to this extraordinary feat of scientific exploration. It is, after all, one thing to amass data, it is another huge task entirely to process the data, analyse it and present it in a form that is intelligible and informative, and indeed most attractive.
Here the authors and the publishers have triumphantly succeeded. Almost every page, with the exception of the index and bibliography has full-colour photographs and maps. The photographs are not only of the plants but also of the habitats and even people who have lived all their lives in Fermanagh will be amazed by the diversity of landscapes shown here. If you think you know Fermanagh, think again!
Each one of the 1,172 species is discussed and there are many snippets of interesting information included. Elecampane, for instance, which was grown in medieval monastery gardens, is still to be found on Devenish island. The salting of roads has led to the spread of salt-tolerant plants. We are told on page 285 that some of these ‘have been noticed advancing inland from Belfast along the M1 motorway toward the county.’
This encyclopaedic study of the flora of Fermanagh is hugely important. Doubtlessly it will bring visitors to the county and will be the envy of other counties. But it is primarily a great scientific record of the current state of the flora of Fermanagh. In years to come it may be used to measure the effects of climate change and the ecological damage caused by fracking.
And right now it illustrates and celebrates the wonderful natural treasure that is Fermanagh. At the bargain of the year price of just £25.
Published by National Museums Northern Ireland 2012 ISBN 978 1905989 28 7 £25.
(c) Séamas Mac Annaidh