Hi Veronica – Hi Violet

So there were mouse ear, bluebell, red campion, herb Robert, violet, celandine and wood anemone, all growing within a small area and there were many more, including primroses, marsh marigolds and little spurges. I had to stop.

In a ideal world- that’s to say the one we don’t actually inhabit – I would organise my botanising a bit better – but what I mostly do is start out resolved not to spend the whole walk rooting around at ground level, and then reinforce my decision by leaving behind everything I will eventually need.  Field guides – out, pocket magnifier – out, camera with ridiculously expensive macro lens – out. Mostly, then, I take my mobile phone a weatherproof notebook and a space pen that writes in the wet.  Serious field botanists are the ones that walk around with a permanent crick in their necks carrying a clipboard with the vice-county list on it and they know the plants by heart. I’m so unconfident that I could easily persuade myself that a dandelion might not really be a dandelion at all, but any one of a dozen similar looking plants.

This is a serious challenge, although I joke about it. I was in my twenties before I realized that not all dandelions were dandelions but could be cats’ ears or hawkbits; and even dandelions live such promiscuous lives that their microspecies number in hundreds. There are people out there who can sort them out, but not me. So I muddle along like all self-taught amateurs, fearful that I’ll make a complete idiot of myself by mispronouncing a name or fail to get even close to identifying a plantain properly.

I know that the proper way to do it is to gather all the information I know I’ll need but in reality I never do.  My phone photos don’t have sufficient depth of field and so the very detail I need is just out of focus and useless.  I fail to observe the shape, pattern and placing of leaves, or whether the roots are creeping, and if the stalk is square or hairy, and don’t even ask about flowers! I found a despairing note today in my journal from three years ago where the identification of a very common plant hinged on my understanding what a ‘hemi zygomorph’ might be. Aaargh.

Some families are real killers – Apiaciae, umbellifers to most of us, are stinkers and I’ve spent hours getting them wrong.  The culprit at Heligan last week was Angelica sylvestris  – wild angelica – which I can’t say I’ve ever noticed before.  But our walks took us through a very wet and marshy habitat which has a flora all of its own. All of which grumbling is a long way of saying that my resolve to list all the flowering plants we found has been frustrated by my inability to nail the second plant from the left, top row because I only had a rubbish photo.  The closest I can get is one of the forget me nots, but which one I can’t say because I didn’t get enough information. Veronicas and Violets have the same capacity to drive me mad because even with 100% hindsight there’s no substitute for plodding through the keys with a hand lens and a partner with more patience than Madame posesses. Enough! There’s a daisy and a dandelion there that I am confident I recognise and can name, except the dandelion will have to be Taraxacum agg, which is scientific for WTF?

Why am I writing this? I love every moment of it, and every foray into the ordinary everyday plants that I vaguely recognise (like most people) makes the world feel richer, deeper, more complicated, more generous and simply more beautiful.

Potatoes, however, are easier to list – I just had to walk up the rows at Heligan and write them down.

  1. Pink fir apple
  2. Shetland black
  3. Lumpers
  4. Tyecroft purple
  5. Herd laddie
  6. Ninetyfold
  7. Vitelotte noir
  8. British queen
  9. Beauty of Bute
  10. Edgecote purple
  11. Early market
  12. Snowdrop
  13. International kidney
  14. Forest gold
  15. Myatts ashleaf
  16. Lord Rosebery
  17. Royal kidney
  18. May queen
  19. Early rose
  20. Sharpes express
  21. Red Duke of York
  22. Epicure
  23. Arran pilot

On the allotment ths year we’re growing pink fir apple, Arran pilot, jazzy, red Duke of York and sarpo mira. I love the fact that these old varieties are being kept alive because we may well need their genetics in the future, but I’m grateful for the efforts of plant breeders who can increase blight resistance in a potato like sarpo mira to the point where they’re safe to grow, even in our blight ridden weather.

Later today we’ll be up at the allotment.  The potatoes are very nearly ready to ridge up for the first time.  We’re expecting warmer weather for at least a week, and every day we creep closer to the time when our tender plants won’t be ravaged by a late frost. Happy days.

Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

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