Known unknowns and unknown unknowns.

The advice from the BSBI (Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland) is pretty unequivocal.  Don’t submit a record for a plant unless you’re absolutely certain of it, or if it’s been counter-checked by someone who actually knows what they’re doing. There was me galloping through the Pembrokeshire list and today I suddenly got cold feet.

It all started so well when I spotted a plant on the wall in the middle of St Davids, as we were going to the supermarket. I didn’t know exactly what it was but I was sure what family it belonged to, so – easy peasy – straight to the books where I just couldn’t find it where I expected it. So I go into pondering mode – what does it remind me of? ….. Coltsfoot ……… they’re an early spring flower so it can’t be that.  OK then – it sort of reminds me of Stonecrop when I look at the fleshy leaves.  Bingo – it’s a Rock Stonecrop – Sedum forsterianum – a two star or even three star rarity growing on a wall in a busy street near a supermarket.  But here’s the thing, it’s nice to find a rarity but it’s one of those plants that it would be hard to confuse with anything else.

I’ve had a busy time and the list has now reached a tantalising 99 plants identified – BUT – looking through my notes today I discovered a couple of ID’s that I made when we were here in May and now I’m not so sure. Yesterday I ID’d a plant and accidentally wrote down the wrong name.  I only discovered my mistake when I found a close relative today and had to double check yesterday’s work. In the midst of feeling rather pleased with myself I realized that competency in field botany is a much slower process than I thought. Any progress I’m making is at a more general level, and I’m much better at reognising families of plants – which brings a bonus in saving time when it comes to sorting out the species. As for species and sub-species, I discovered when I found the exquisite little Eyebright on the top left photo, that it belongs to a large bunch of subspecies (75) that even baffle experts. I’ll have to let it go at Eyebright and remember how beautiful it was, nestling on the clifftop. I think I’m a while away from feeling confident enough to submit my own records.

IMG_5783But after a damp start early this morning (with a view like this even damp starts are magical), the sky cleared slowly and by the time we got back from St Davids and had a greedy bacon sandwich, the sun was shining, we whacked on our boots and went for a long walk with me ticking off plants as we went. I’ve now found four of the five Plantains here and I found the other one in the middle of Bath a couple of years ago, so that’s a botanical royal flush. As we walked we wondered if we’d somehow wandered into paradise:  the sea, the sun, the wildlife and flowers  feeding our souls as we went along. Even the discovery that the Willowherbs are a much more complicated family than I’d imagined couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm – every dificulty became an opportunity  – hooray, more features to look at and absorb – even my knackered knees felt as if they were enjoying themselves.

Why should anyone be remotely interested in all this? Search me! I only know that this is a blog about being human, and when I do this kind of thing – when I can call plants by their names, when I can draw and paint them and grow them and understand their properties and something about the lives they lead and how they survive, it makes me feel more human, more embedded in this staggeringly, promiscuously over-generous world.

When I was a curate, training to be a parish priest, my boss thought that every moment not spent working was a moment wasted. I became friends with the owner of a fishing tackle shop who seemed to take to me. I would go out on an imaginary ‘visit’ and drink cups of coffee with him and his wife in their back room behind the shop – needless to say they never darkened the door of a church.  Bob would collect me every Wednesday morning after the ten o’clock communion.  I would wear my fishing clothes under my cassock and at the end of the service I would bolt across the churchyard, through the house and out into the back lane where Bob would be waiting (hiding) in his three wheeler (honestly!)  to take me to one of his favourite spots.  One day we were sitting in complete silence on the riverbank and he said “you know, I never felt the need for church when I could come here and watch the water and listen to the birds singing”.

He wasn’t wrong.

And to finish, a little bunch of purple numbers we spotted today – two are in the same family, but which two?

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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