A great friend and mentor of mine; a parish priest like me, was leading the graveside prayers at a burial service when he lost his footing and very nearly went down with the coffin. He was held firmly by one of the pall bearers who whispered in his ear “Wait your turn, Sir – wait your turn!”.
It would be comforting to think of nature as a basically static display of plants that come up in the spring and die in the autumn. Except it isn’t like that at all. The emergence of the first spring flowers depends on a whole heap of factors like ambient temperature, day length, amounts of sunshine and space to grow. This year, for example, the first Celandine we saw was here on the Lizard exactly as it was last year, but 13 days later. That was it – the only Celandine in flower in a five mile walk. Look closely at the photograph and you’ll see that there’s another plant there that’s growing fast enough to steal its sunlight in a week or two. Cleavers is an extremely vigorous climber – you’ll know it from the burrs that stick firmly to most clothes by way of the tiny hooks which were the inspiration for Velcro.
Look closely at the hedgerows around this time and you’ll see the first leaves of many plants which follow in strict succession right through to late autumn, and all timed like a glorious firework display to flower and fruit in their unique optimal conditions. Not all buttercups are buttercups and not all dandelions are dandelions (in fact they’re so complicated they can’t even make their own minds up). Some will flower for weeks and with others you can blink and they’re gone. Nothing stands still for a moment in nature and for me the first Celandine is both a joy and a warning that from now on it’s an unstoppable torrent of flowering and fruiting that will change the whole appearance of fields and hedgerows every couple of weeks. The succession of the plants ensures that each one has its own space. Cow Parsley gives way to Hogweed and so forth. It can be exhausting trying to keep up, especially for Madame who will beg me to leave the notebook and hand lens behind and just go for a walk . I note, however that she always takes her binoculars out – “just in case”.
Today we started on the Lizard Green and walked down the lane to Church Cove and then took the coast path as far as Housel Bay and then turned off to avoid a monumental flight of steps and took the easier path to the back of Lizard Lighthouse stopping for some food and then back to the car park. Ten years ago we’d have bounded up those steps without a care, but one of the less talked about advantages of getting quite old is that we walk rather slower and so we see much more. This was a walk we tried to do on Saturday but the coast path was rammed with runners doing a 100 mile ultra marathon. I bet they’ll be walking slowly with ultra knackered knees long before their 70’s.
Anyway, the short cut was marvellous because we caught sight of a very big Buzzard eating his/her kill on a Cornish wall. Within ten feet of the Buzzard there sat a lovely Carrion Crow waiting apparently unafraid until the superior hunter got bored with lunch and flew off – whereupon the crow hopped sideways along the wall and polished off the remains. That was surprising enough, but half a mile later we saw the same two birds repeating exactly the same routine. It was clearly a relationship of more significance to the Crow than the Buzzard but I suppose the crow – Corvids are among the smartest birds – probably reasoned that it was best to keep your friends close and your enemies closer. There was no way that the Buzzard could launch a surprise attack from ten feet. But whatever the rationale it looked as if both birds were in fine health and as fat as butchers’ dogs – which is the closest I could get to an appropriate metaphor.
There was another surprise on the walk because I’ve been spending some time trying to identify a species of Gorse called Western Gorse – Ulex gallii. It’s one of the plants that are plentiful around the Lizard and Kynance Cove but rare everywhere else; but which is very similar to its larger cousin Gorse – Ulex europaeus. The difference between the two comes down to size – ordinary Gorse is bigger; its thorns are longer and deeply grooved, like the one in the picture. But the clincher was (note the past tense) the fact that Gorse ordinaire flowers all year round, but Western Gorse flowers in summer. Or at least that’s what the books say, but unfortunately plants don’t read textbooks and today we found hundreds of Western Gorse plants around the coast path, and many of them were in flower.
The Lizard peninsula has two things going for it. One is its unique geology which gives a home to hundreds of wildflowers some of which are only found here. The other thing derives from its geography. It’s the furthest southerly point in the UK and it enjoys a unique climate as well. It’s warm. On first seeing it many years ago it looked completely wild and windswept – and indeed it is, but its warm microclimate means that some wild plants better suited to better to warmer places actually thrive here.
Good news too on the recording front because the County Recorder emailed yesterday and accepted both records I’d submitted. I’ve already posted a picture of the little perennial Leek – Babington’s Leek yesterday. He was kind enough to say that I’d found two sites where it hasn’t previously been seen. The other plant was a real outrider – Wireplant, Muehlenbeckia complexa a New Zealand visitor and that one passed as well. Three more little red squares on the national map.
Approaching retirement I often wondered what I would do to fill my time. The idea of voluntary work often came to mind but I never fancied any of the options because many of them felt like not retiring at all. But this combination of allotmenteering and field botany have turned out to be my happy place. Spring? Bring it on!