Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

REVIEW: Wild Food Plants of Ireland

Tom Curtis & Paul Whelan, The Wild Food Plants of Ireland:  The Complete Guide to their Recognition, Foraging, Cooking, History and Conservation, Orla Kelly Publishing, 2019.

I was looking forward to this book, but it proved to be a great disappointment.  What did the authors mean by ‘the complete guide‘?

Recognition:  usually by using both the text and abundant photographs an edible plant can be confidently identified, but there are some surprising statements;  for example, borage, Borago officinalis is described as ‘a prostrate, hispid, prickly haired perennial’.  In England borage usually behaves as an annual, and is usually erect, does it behave differently in Ireland?  Distribution maps are provided for each species, but these simply indicate the botanical recording areas – vice-counties – in which a species can be found, thus the maps suggest that a coastal species can be present far inland.

Foraging:  the scope of the book is good in that it covers most, if not all, of the wild species which can be used as food by humans in Ireland.  However, 26 of the book’s 259 pages are devoted to members of the Fabaceae (Pea Family) and Poaceae (Grass Family) which are eaten by domesticated animals, mainly cattle, but not collected for eating by humans.

Cooking:  this is the book’s greatest weakness, no recipes are provided, instead the authors provide references to what other writers have said, so users need to seek out these publications for recipes.  The space devoted to plants eaten by domesticated animals would have been better used to provide recipes.  Exceptionally we are told that Curtis ‘has simply sautéed the shoots [of sea-kale, Crambe maritima) in butter’, otherwise the authors seem to have experimented with few, if any, of the plants they mention.

History:  here the authors provide good accounts of where species originated if they are not native to Ireland, and how they have been used both in Ireland and elsewhere.

Conservation: the authors provide concise advice on which species can be gathered without imperilling their survival.

Thus of the five topics listed in the title, the first and second can be said to be adequate, the third as extremely weak, and the final two as good.  We still await a ‘complete’ guide.

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