Having just celebrated Earth Day last week, and the welcome return of some lovely spring sunshine, I’ve been reflecting on our relationship to and appreciation of the natural world. As a professional gardener, perhaps that’s not the most surprising thing to be thinking about, but at this time of year, it’s a particularly pertinent meditation.
We’re lucky to have a plethora of quality and entertaining nature programming on our TV screens, ranging from expansive (and expensive) David Attenborough documentaries, to the quieter Gardeners’ World, to the Springwatches. Whilst these are all wonderful, and somewhat seasonal, they’re not exactly focused on Ireland’s own rich biodiversity and landscape. We do have It’s a Park’s Life, an RTÉ show that documents the management of Dublin’s Phoenix Park, but a new series of that hasn’t graced our screens since 2021, and Phoenix Park is an exceptional space that doesn’t reflect the grander national natural landscape.
Faoi Bhláth is one recent show that does explore what grows throughout Ireland. Plus, nearly all episodes are available to watch on the RTÉ player, the remainder still being broadcast weekly on Monday evenings. Aedín Ní Thiarnaigh is our knowledgeable and effortlessly charming host, her passion for rich Irish biodiversity shining through in each episode, which focuses on a different habitat each week, and the different types of plants that grow there, whether that be roadside verge, riverbank, or bog. Many of the plants shown are ones that you will recognise, such as the stinging nettle that haunted many of our childhoods, and then lesser-known flora like bogbean.
Another thing that makes Faoi Bhláth unique is that it’s a natural history programme that also delves into social history. Delivered mostly as Gaeilge, Ní Thiarnaigh introduces us to the flora of our different landscapes both visually and linguistically. Often, the common names in Irish (and English) will point to various traditional uses of a plant, helping us unlock their unique and useful properties. Expert guests vary from botanists and herbalists, to traditional artisans, all of which offer their unique experiences with the plants. Not only are we given an overview of a plant’s botanical life cycle, but also its traditional uses in Irish society, as well as how they are still used today, as food, medicine, natural dyes, and craftware.
The importance of leaving lawns unmowed so that dandelions can flower is something we’ve been hearing more and more about in recent times (and long may that continue), but do most people know much about this plant we see everywhere ? As a gardener, I still find myself having to argue this lovely yellow flower’s case to people who think of them as unattractive weeds. Will that be an easier job if people knew they’re not just great for bees, but can be also be used as a diuretic, bitter salad leaf, a bitter-sweet caffeine-free brew when the roots are roasted like coffee in autumn, and the petals can make a sweet, floral syrup, and a garnish for lamb steaks? With shows so full-to-the-brim with loveliness on our national broadcaster like Faoi Bhláth, distant may be the days that I would be the recipient of disapproving looks from friends and strangers alike as I dove from bush to bush on my college campus in search of a citrusy sorrel or chickweed garnish, and a sprinkling of three-cornered leek to upgrade my burrito bowl…We could all be upgrading our lunches with fresh ingredients, or at the very least, choose not to.