Hello – do you come here often?

Stone Parsley, Sison amomum,

OK so there’s nothing much to see here; no great rarity except for the fact that I’ve never, ever noticed it before – and I don’t mean I’ve never noticed it here in Bath, I haven’t noticed it anywhere. I was stomping alongside the pavement below Royal Crescent in a barely suppressed rage caused by a third futile visit to the pharmacy trying to get the drugs that were prescribed for me six weeks ago. Nothing unusual there, then, but what was noteworthy was the fact that the moment I noticed this tiny stranger (the flowers are barely 3mm across) my mood changed dramatically for the better.

Look! it’s almost invisible

There’s a big family of wildflowers known as the Apiaceae. They used to be known as Umbellifers but nothing stays the same for long in botany – so think Cow Parsley, Hogweed, carrot; that kind of plant with the flowers gathered in a sort of umbrella shape at the top of each stalk. They can be a bit of a baffling family because it’s so easy to get them wrong. They flower at different times in the season and you rarely get to see them side by side so you can compare them. Over the years I’ve learned to identify quite a few of the common ones – often by looking at the seeds with a hand lens; but with this particular flower I realized that somewhere deep in my memory and in an unconscious act, all the plants I knew by name had passed rapidly through my brain and in an instant I knew that I didn’t know what it was.

So I took some (terrible) photos – not really knowing what I was looking for – and then very roughly identified it at home, starting with Google Lens (feel free to hiss) and then with three or four books I’d got a ballpark idea of what I was looking for. Then armed with one or two key points – the leaves and stalks turn red as they age; the leaves, when crushed, have an unpleasant smell; the seed capsules are very prominent and green and so on. This morning I went back and checked once more. Perish the thought that I’d dare to criticise the experts but the leaves, when crushed, didn’t smell so much of petrol but was more like the smell of the Woundworts. There were traces of red on the lower leaves and some stems which matched the descriptions in colour and shape; so yes I’m satisfied that it was Stone Parsley. A quick search on the BSBI Atlas database revealed that it had been recorded previously in this part of Bath, so it wasn’t rare – it was just rare to me – and I felt the day had been vindicated.

I remember the first time I ever encountered the difficulties of being sure about members of this family of plants. When I discovered that I might have to look at seeds with a magnifying glass, my heart sank and I carried the sense that this was an impossible task for decades. But slowly I learned how to look properly and now I can approach them in the knowledge that close attention to detail is all it needs, and if that doesn’t yield a name, then I am allowed to phone a friend.

Why am I writing this? Well I have so often been put off by well meaning people who will give a Latin name but not talk about the process which leads to it. Being entirely self-taught I am never confident of pronouncing the names I do know, but years of exposure to multiple different pronunciations of the same name by equally competent experts assures me that if I go ahead and mispronounce it with confidence, most people will be filled with doubt that they’ve been saying it wrong. It’s a kind of bluff that usually gets me there.

Of course doing field botany can be difficult and occasionally intellectually challenging, but it’s also tremendous fun; especially if you’re out with a bunch of experts who are also good company and best of all, good teachers. From time to time I like to bang on a bit about the way that so many people assert – without offering any evidence – that nature is good for us. Well perhaps I could offer the idea that mindful and alert walking in nature cheers me up, stimulates the mind and is good physical and even spiritual practice. It can even stop me brooding about the state of the NHS.

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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