I’ve been feeling just a bit curmudgeonly this last few weeks – a combination of living in political chaos, fag end of winter blues, problems with the campervan, rising damp, reading too many books about climate change and wondering how on earth we’re going to sort this mess out.
I do have an antidote for it all – and it’s getting back to the stove – making stock, baking bread, baking cakes, that sort of thing. I also notice that when I’m feeling a bit glum I also eat really badly, and suddenly, cakes, biscuits, toast made from white bread, convenience food and general junk look endlessly fascinating, so getting back to the stove sorts that particular temptation out, well – all except for the cakes. The other antidote, the one Madame favours, is sowing seeds, and so once again I’m sharing the kitchen with a busy propagator.
The last remedy is going through my photos and looking at all the lovely things I spotted last year – and that’s what I was doing when I found this photo, taken by Madame, of me skulking the cliff path at St Davids and making a list. That’s my waterproof notebook in my hand, my stick and my new hat and my old space pen, Swiss army knife, X10 pocket magnifier in my pocket. In the bag too is a copy of Rose, “Wildflower Key” and a couple of fold out keys for grasses and lichens. If you want to know what paradise looks like this is it – although possibly a less knobbly pair of legs would improve it a bit. I couldn’t be more happy than I am when I’m out in the sunshine amongst the plants and insects and birds. Just a little way further down the path last autumn we picked enough wild mushrooms to make the best omelette I’ve ever tasted.
Oh and we’ve got miniature tulips flowering in the window boxes – along with the irises and daffodils – I think that’s quite mad but it’s true. The remnants of storm Ciara are still howling through, and looking out of the window just now, the sky had that yellowish hue that looks like sleet or snow on the way. Our son just rang from Birmingham to say that it’s snowing hard there. These certainly are confusing times, but I try not to let it get to me too much. This week we’ll go and collect a load of hot horse manure for the hotbed and in a couple of weeks we’ll be flat out again on the allotment.
Don’t worry – it gets better than this. Everything of any value was removed from this wreck years ago and all that remains is a heap of rusting steel plus an empty can of cider in the boot. The sheer effort of getting it down a muddy track must have been a piece of heroic, almost Fitzcarraldo stupidity, and a fitting memorial to our culture I think. Anyway there was much more to enjoy today apart from my delight in collapsing sheds and old wrecks. There is nothing quite as exciting or challenging as going out on a field trip – OK a long walk – with some genuine experts on hand. Today we were spoilt for choice with a (county recorder level) botanist, a local historian and naturalist, a leading ecologist and an ex president of the British Mycological Society quite apart from some heavyweight birders and a botanical artist. Walking can get quite slow when the objects of interest are so frequent, and so it took us twenty minutes inspecting a passing stream for Signal Crayfish before we even set off. Apparently a local resident has perfected the art of trapping them and eating them for breakfast! – we found his creel lurking there, baited (we were told) with cat food.
From the outset we were away not with just one heron, but a whole heronry of about half a dozen nests with three birds perched high up in the trees overhanging a Honda car dealer. What was it I wrote yesterday about urban wildlife? As we walked on we saw (and heard) all the usual suspects like thrushes and robins, but also a young buzzard, a kestrel, nuthatch, goldcrest and to cap it all we were shown a nesting site for ravens at the end of the walk inside the Bath Abbey cemetery.
Within the plants, it was good to see rosettes of primrose leaves in the same graveyard (they’re brilliant places for wildlife – you need a PhD to walk through Smallcombe Cemetery with any intelligence). But there were Winter Heliotrope in full perfume for once, and a pair of Arum cousins, one a native – Lords and Ladies and the other its ornamental relative from Italy rapidly making a nuisance of itself in this country and called – surprisingly perhaps – Italian Lords and Ladies.
There were numerous other goodies around, but having someone on the walk who combined expertise on bryophytes and fungi kept us looking at the limestone walls and paths. Incidentally, he was carrying a second pair of binoculars which he used for close scanning. I tried it on the carpet when we got home but neither of our binoculars would focus down below about 7 or 8 feet. There’s no point in bigging up your knowledge under these circumstances, the best thing to do is watch and learn with your notebook at the ready. I know a few fungi, and they’re not plentiful at this time of the year but we spotted Wood ear and Yellow Brain fungi. My photos weren’t very good because I had only taken my mobile phone.
Yellow brain – Tremella mesenterica
Jelly ear – Auricularia auricula-judae
But the biggest excitement of the day was getting close up to some bryophytes. Unlike most humans, they actually look more and more beautiful the closer you look. The thing is they’re often very small and inconspicuous so you tend to overlook them. That’s not a bad strategy since I’ve just spent over an hour trying to identify one photograph because there are a great number of things that you might (I might) casually describe as ‘moss’, ‘fern’ or ‘liverwort’. Actually until today I had very little idea what liverworts actually looked like, and there’s the best reason for joining a natural history society and going on field trips, because there will be someone that really does know and the chances are they’ll be a great teacher who’s only too keen to share their expertise. So here’s what a liverwort can look like very close up –
Crescent-cup Liverwort – Lunularia cruciata.
Orobus-seed liverwort – Targionia hypophylla
Aren’t they stunning? the textures are unlike anything you can see in most plants. I’m not completely sure about the Targiona hypophylla because I identified it myself, but the other was identified by a national expert so you can bet your boots on it. Even I think I’m sounding a bit breathless about all this but we had such a good time today among some lovely people, we learned a lot from them and, best of all, I discovered that there’s a whole world of winter lists out there to satisfy even my propellor headed tendencies.
And below are a few things I didn’t manage to identify, apart from the Maiden-hair Spleenwort on the left. I was intrigued by the reason for it being so named. A quick flick through Wikipedia suggests it was once used to treat diseases of the spleen, but I couldn’t find any corroborating evidence for that use, only for chest complaints and menstruation problems, for which there are many more commonly used treatments. So it’s a lost etymology as far as I can see. One other interesting fact popped up, though. There is another plant called maidenhair fern – whose leaves are exactly like miniature versions of the leaves of the Maidenhair tree – Ginkgo biloba.
So here’s the rogues gallery of today’s unsolved mysteries. I really like having a few of these because it keeps me going back.
Two days ago I was in the throes of changing my mobile and I wrote that I’d rather be talking about borlotti beans than grappling with passwords and strange operating systems. Then of course it all miraculouly worked and I was so pleased we went out on a photo tour of Bath to test the camera which – I have to say – is extremely clever but a bit baffling a times.
So here, as promised, are the borlotti beans and I think they’re very beautiful. We’re saving half of them for next year’s seed (they’re open pollinated) just to see how they do. I’m not entirely sure how this could be of any great interest to anyone else, but after decades of listening to other peoples’ stories, I know how fascinating the everyday details of another life can be, and one thing I am completely sure of is that I’m no expert and I’d hate for anyone to take me as an authority on any of the things I write about.
Life is a project and every project contains within it the possibility of failure.
That sounds like a chunk of management speak, I know, but a life without any egg on your face is a dull prospect, and if I sow seeds at the wrong time, or misread a recipe then at least I share my idiocy free of charge and without leading a whole country into bankruptcy.
At this moment, however, I am beguiled by plans for next season. In my typically freely associating way (it’s a useful skill and it helps to have some psychoanalytic experiences) I move like a small stream from yesterday’s joy at finding some lungwort, seeing our Sweet Cicily in flower, to thinking about the Mugwort I’ve got stored in a cupboard next to the Christmas cake. From there it’s an effortless step to my growing collection of herbals and thence (you know where this is going to go) to a flourishing physic garden growing somewhere in a corner of my mind.
When I went to theological college there was a fellow student who had experienced a profound religious conversion on the toilet. I have found that the minute detals of conversion experiences tend to figure largely in what’s known in the trade as “testimony”. Anyway, there was more to follow because he also felt compelled to tell us that he had been “deeply involved” with morris dancing which he now understood as being inspired by magic and other devilish practices. Although I found the story hilariously funny at the time, I confess that my own secret policeman is inclined to whisper sweet ‘nothing doings’ in my ear when I stray from the scientific uplands of proper field botany or allotmenteering to the dangerous underground of traditional herbal medicine. “call it a project” I say to myself and feel better at once.
The ‘nature of things’, seen purely from a scientific perspective seems to me to be a rather ‘thin’ reductive description. ‘Lungwort – Pulmonaria officinalis – is a member of the borage family and used to be thought useful in the treatment of lung diseases’ – so says the dictionary, and it’s true but hardly gathers together the rich strands of usage and history, the religious background, the ‘common sense’ of the day and all the multitude of factors that contribute to the ‘thick’ description of Lungwort, and which transform it from a relic of the ignorance of the past, into a portal through which I can access the past, listen in to its gossip, share its hopes, fears and preoccupations. And so when I walk to a patch of vegetation on the edge of the canal, I greet so much more than just another plant I can name. It becomes the key to thousands of years of communal wisdom, and I learn something about my own fugitive existence on the earth.
There you go – a bit of free association can lead you into all sorts of trouble. Still, I saw the other day, in one of my books, that a cup of mugwort tea at bedtime can bestow ‘lucid dreams’. That would make a nice change and I might give it a go one of these days! Meanwhile the physic garden hovers discreetly at the back of my mind except that almost everything I’d put in it is freely available on the paths and in the parks of Bath – if only I knew what all these plants looked like. Now that looks like a proper project.
Well, Mr Wordsworth, you were right about emotion recollected in tranquility. Our trip to Cornwall was entirely unexpected, and so, with no more travel plans in place, this is the beginning of the rest of the Potwell Inn autumn and today we sat down and reviewed all our summer photographs on a big screen. I was taken aback at quite how intense an experience it was, and this picture of a Sneezewort plant just about had it all for me. As we went through all the new plants, I remembered the exact spot we found this one. It’s not particularly rare and no-one apart, perhaps, the painter Giorgio Morandi, would write poems to its beauty. He’d love it for its restrained colours and I can just see the buff and white flowers somewhere in the background of one of his still-life paintings.
It was the colours that first caught my eye, and then the fact that I’d never seen it before. The identifications you have to work hard for are by far the most memorable and as time goes on I can usually place a plant somewhere in the right family. But once I knew its name I realized I knew a little bit about its medicinal uses in the past and instead of being a stranger it was a friend at the first meeting.
There were lots of meetings like that during the summer and I took hundreds of photographs in which I could instantly recall where they were taken and then refer back to my waterproof notebook to find the name. Sometimes it was easy and sometimes there are a sequence of letters or numbers that mean I had to key it out by answering a series of questions exactly correctly to take me to the right place in the book.
But there was more, because many of the plants had features that just cried out to be painted; the brilliant hues of blackberry leaves, the exact texture of the skins of sloes, the sealing wax red of hawthorn berries and rose-hips. Some of them also stood astride more than one field of interest – illustration, medicine, abstract structure and form, folk names. The natural world suddenly becomes a far richer, more precious place. As I’ve written often before, it populates it with friends whom the prospect of losing fills me with sadness and the resolve to stop that from happening.
I saw at once what I need to get done during the winter months when the allotment takes up less time and I can set up my tiny cramped drawing space once more. I feel blessed and inspired to be back at the Potwell Inn.
I have a very particular name for this sky that I can’t explain and I can’t bring myself to change. “China Blue” is a very potent complex of meanings for me that evokes all manner of happy times and places. There isn’t a watercolour name for it, although cerulean blue comes a bit close – it’s a cool blue that lends the pale summer clouds a faintly rose-violet hue and it’s filled with faint longing and melancholy. It’s the sky that goes away and the season that can’t last after the carnival colours of late spring. The days grow shorter, the hay and silage have been cut, and the harvest is almost upon us. Maybe I should call it the sky of the holiday romance, the smell of suntan oil and ice creams. Or maybe I should just say that yesterday was a lovely day.
Not today, though. We knew the rain was coming and set up the campervan for a 24 hour siege with a full water tank and empty cludger, milk and bread, a barra brith loaf and a couple of projects. Madame had gathered a bag of shells and seaweed from the beach to draw and I was going to complete the plant records for the last three days. When the rain finally came at around three am – beating loudly enough on the roof to wake us it lasted for only two hours and then diminished to a fine drizzle that brushed rather than rattled the van in the brisk winds. It was slightly disappointing after all the build-up. On several occasions in the past, the roof has leaked just enough to drip on to the bed, allowing us to be heroically galvanised with bowls and paper towels while thunder and lightning shook the van. The only consolation was to wake up in a thick, glowering mist (I know it’s a cliché, but mists have their moods and this one was decidedly edgy).
So yesterday was as blue and expansive as today is clenched grey. First thing we took our favourite bus to St Davids to stock up at the supermarket. We used to shop in the bijou artisanal organic sourdough deli which survives by charging twice as much as anybody else; but now we have joined the local middle classes in sneaking around to the supermarket and pretending we’re ‘just looking’. Along with the staples I’ve already written about I was charmed by a display of very retro ‘pastes’ – sardine and tomato, tuna and mayonnaise (an upstart) and beef. My heart pounded at the thought of paste sandwiches and so I brought them back to the van. I wouldn’t normally check the ‘best by’ dates on canned and bottled food, but there was a thick layer of dust on the top of the beef paste and so I became suspicious and checked. It was over a year out of date! Naturally I was too fired up not to make the sandwich but it had no flavour, in fact it probably never did have any flavour even sixty years ago when it was a treat. Packed lunch was abandoned in favour of another walk in the sunshine.
This time we took the footpath across to Treginnis and on to Porthlysgi Bay past a pond that was alive with large powdery grey-blue dragonflies – I haven’t got the field guide here so no name I’m afraid, but elsewhere there were abundant electric blue damselfiles. As we walked we heard a very loud voice in conversation with another, quieter one. we paused for a bit but there was no alternative but to overtake them. She of the very loud voice was taking a photo and so – out of politeness I asked if she was photographing the dragonflies. No, and then she laboured at great volume and length to explain that in fact she was photographing the reflections that were ……. my eyes glazed over – anyone with a milliwatt of social radar could tell I was exchanging a pleasantry not asking for a tutorial. Madame had taken the wiser course and waited by a stile for me to escape. Porthlysgi Bay was alive with a different sound, the joyful screams and shouts of about twenty children who were having the time of their lives, courtesy of a local adventure centre. Onwards then to Porthclais via the coast path and back home on the brilliant little bus that always has Radio Wales playing at full volume, and a driver so used to the road that he takes the idea of slowing down as an affront to his skills.
However, field botanists, even extremely lowly ones like me, walk very slowly with eyes swivelling wildly from side to side, as if we’ve forgotten our medication. Keen walkers crash by thinking only of the twenty miles ahead. Some people pause to see what I’m doing, some even ask what I’m looking at- the honest answer is usually ‘no idea but I’m keen to find out”. On one remarkable occasion in Marloes I inadvertently gathered a party of five together and they followed me on an impromptu guided walk. I thought they’d soon find me out and rough me up a bit before handing me over to the Warden to have my binoculars confiscated, but no such luck. I was barely a sentence ahead of them in the textbook, but, come the end, they were having such a good time I feared they would pass the hat around and give me a tip.
Finally then, back to the walk, and what about plants? Well Tuesday yielded 31, Wednesday 33 more and yesterday another 27 making a grand total of 91 plants recorded and that’s about 15% of the total on the recording card. Is it wrong to be a bit proud of that? Favourites of the day were the large patch of Dodder – Cuscuta epithymum, on the clifftop, and which is a ‘vulnerable’ species not recorded on the county list; Scented Mayweed – Matricaria camomilla, which looks like a garden weed but smells heavenly; Greater Sea Spurry – Spergularia media, because I’d never heard of it – let alone seen it which made it a laborious plant to identify; Betony – Betonica officinalis, because I saw it for the first time two weeks ago in a very similar location on a clifftop in Cornwall. Although it’s also a heathland plant, it’s described as a plant of ‘woodland rides, grassy rides and hedgerows – very definitely not windswep clifftops. I was delighted to read in Stace that when these plants find themselves in unfavourable situations they can become quite dwarfed. And finally I was pleased to see Buckshorn Plantain – Plantago coronopus, just because it’s always nice to find one of the more unusual plantains. It’s always possible to make identification mistakes, and mortifying when you’ve already published them, but I feel pretty secure about this list because I’ve checked it so carefully and even been back for second look. Anything doubtful went back to Stace (3rd edition).
That’s it for now. The internet connection here is very temperamental, and the phone signal pretty spasmodic too. I snatched a photo of Madame’s drawing in progress and then took another of my notebook – “Rite in the Rain – Model 973T – as previously drooled over, as proof that I actually do write things down. Finally some pictures of yesterday’s finds.
But the photo was taken yesterday and today, as I write this, it’s raining, Ramsey Island has disappeared into the mist, the St David’s lifeboat just launched and I hope no-one’s in trouble out there because the sea is fierce in a brisk SW wind.
The idea was to take a break from the allotment, and so we watered thoroughly on Sunday afternoon and set out first thing Monday morning to come to the most westerly point in Wales. I’ve got bit of a thing about West. I’ll compromise with Devon and Cornwall which are South West, but North and East don’t do it for me. This is a favourite campsite, not least because the wildlife is so rich. In fact the gauntlet was thrown down as we parked when I spotted a whole group of Woundworts growing three feet away. I’ve still yet to find Betony, and yet the plants in question shared the leaf shape but that made it most likely taht they were/are Marsh Woundwort. It’s taken 48 hours to establish that this apparently dry hedgerow is actually quite wet at times, wet enough to support several specialist plants.
I’ll just check out the plants in front of the van.
The road to hell being paved with good intentions I thought I’d make a start with the grasses – principally because I’m not very good at them and since they’re ubiquitous it would immediately up my success rate. This is one everyone will recognise – it’s the grass that you pull the seeds off between thumb and finger when you’re a child, and it’s called False Oat Grass – Arrhenatherum elatius – and when I pulled a bit up because I was curious about how it spreads I discovered these beautiful bulbules at the root. Of course five grasses in and my appetite was well and truly whetted and so I started listing all the plants in the hedge – which brought it up to 32 before Madame threatened to throttle me.
Since it was raining when we got up, I was searching out my waterproof jacket to pack, and I discovered my favourite pen inside the lining. I lost it three weeks ago and it’s been bugging me. Quick confession time, my obsessive traits don’t end with gardening and botany. I’ve also had a lifelong thing about stationery and I reckon I have the perfect tools for field botany, bird/butterfly watching, and shopping lists. The pen is called a Space Pen – designed for US astronauts, and writes upside down in rain or snow and at any temperature. It even writes underwater. The notebook is another American invention called “Rite in the rain” and I particularly like the 973T size and the combination means I can take notes at any time regardless of the weather.
And so today when we went for a walk I had a bit of a spring in my step and managed to get the total number of identified plants up to over sixty. It might go up or down when I finish double checking tomorrow – I had no idea there was more than one Hedge Bindweed because I’ve never really looked at them that closely before. I have to go back and check whether the epicalyx overlaps ……. I told you I was obsessive. Back at the van I double checked and then filled in a County record card for the first time in my life. There are probably over a thousand plants this county, but to have found 6% of them in one day feels like an achievement.
I didn’t photograph what, for me, was the highlight of the day – a very small pink umbel of Upright Hedge Parsley peeping through the gorse, neither the Smith’s Pepperwort which I’d never even heard of, but I like the mundane just as much. Here’s some Water Mint and, on the right, part of an enormous flock of sheep a farmer was moving to another field. He had three dogs working and he simply put them into the field and let them gather the sheep and and take them into a lane without uttering a single command. It was magical to watch, just as it was thrilling to see Cormorants diving in Ramsey Sound. The sky has finally cleared and the sun is dazzling across the water.
Sadly our week in Cornwall is almost over. We’ve walked somewhere in the region of thirty miles, identified no end of new plants (to us) including one (subject to the opinion of the County Recorder) that isn’t on the vice-county list. I’ve slept with a bunch of Mugwort next to my nose, in pursuit of lucid dreams – I certainly slept well, but I would need to talk to my analyst about their lucidity.
We’ve found moths, butterflies and birds that we’d not seen before and I managed to keep the blog going without an internet connection at the price of my entire data allowance. Life is good then.
I mentioned the multi sensory nature of field botany previously, but didn’t really explain what I meant by it.
The visual is obviously top of the list because we normally see things before we do anything else. Colours draw our attention as does anything unusually tall.
But touch too is diagnostic- today I was distinguishing between three kinds of Cleavers – Goose Grass or whatever. Proper Cleavers has rough stalks whereas the other two didn’t. Of the others, one was white flowered and the other yellow flowered, so that’s probably Hedge Bedstraw and Lady’s Bedstraw respectively. Square stalks too can point you in the right direction.
Smell – well try Hedge Woundwort for starters. Hemlock has a ‘mousy’ smell, dill, fennel, Ground Ivy, Mint, Elderflower- and many more – all easily identifiable when you crush the leaves or flowers in your fingers and smell them.
Taste – well yes – I’ll often taste things as long as I’m quite sure they’re not poisonous. It’s not always pleasant but you can often place a plant in the right family by taste.
Finally there’s sound. Try Yellow Rattle, for instance. OK after that I’m a bit stumped for sound, but you get my point I hope, identifying plants means pressing all the senses into service.
Why is this important? Well it seems to me we’re in a race to preserve not just rare species but the ordinary everyday ones as well, and unless we can know and name them they’ll slip away and we’ll lose a great chunk of our culture. As Robert Macfarlane argues, if we lose the names, the words, the properties, we lose bits of ourselves and we are impoverished.
Who on earth would actually want to be the last person to see a Barn Owl flying silently, low along a hedge in the twilight? How could you teach Hopkins’ poem ‘Windhover’ to children who had never seen a kestrel? and how ‘Kes’ for that matter. How the novels of Henry Williamson – notwithstanding his abhorrent political views? How Ezra Pound to anyone who has never seen an olive tree (same reservations!).
How Elgar to someone who never heard a lark sing? Now I’m getting emotional!
The New Testament word for “daily bread” is untranslatable because it doesn’t occur anywhere else but I’d argue that ‘epiousios’ means more than bread, however San Francisco and right-on sourdough! Perhaps it means something more like the everyday, around and about us things that give us meaning, nourish us culturally not just by maintaining our body. The plants, the birds, fishes, animals and the weather sustain us in ways we can barely understand. That’s it! end of lecture and back up the M5 to see the allotment in the morning.
A month later a leisurely and dusty tramp, plump equatorially and
slightly bald, with his hands in his pockets and his lips puckered to
a contemplative whistle, strolled along the river bank between
Uppingdon and Potwell. It was a profusely budding spring day and
greens such as God had never permitted in the world before in human
memory (though indeed they come every year), were mirrored vividly in
a mirror of equally unprecedented brown. For a time the wanderer
stopped and stood still, and even the thin whistle died away from his
lips as he watched a water vole run to and fro upon a little headland
across the stream. The vole plopped into the water and swam and dived
and only when the last ring of its disturbance had vanished did Mr.
Polly resume his thoughtful course to nowhere in particular.
A change turned out to be every bit as good as a rest, and the trip to Wales – although it involved as many hours of wildflower hunting as we would have spent on the allotment – was a complete change of tempo. I photographed the angelica in the photo above on the allotment yesterday. It really is stunningly beautiful, as are many of the other Apiaceae (carrot family) herbs that we grow.
We grow carrots and parsnips, parsley, coriander, caraway, celeriac, chervil, celery, lovage, dill, angelica, fennel and sweet cicily – all in the same family. In fact without them our cooking would lose most of the interesting flavours. But like all good families there are black sheep and the umbellifers can boast (if that’s the word), some of the most deadly poisonous plants we have – like hemlock water dropwort for instance – that tastes rather sweet (so they say) and kills you without any ado.
But this particular group of plants have a reputation for being difficult to identify and before we went to Wales I bought a copy of the BSBI handbook no 2 “Umbellifers of the British Isles” by TG Tutin (of Clapham Tutin and Warberg fame). Anyone who knows me will know that I find the dense descriptions of botanical language a bit daunting, but they gradually penetrate my stubborn mind and I find myself consulting the glossary few enough times to take away some of the pain. I know parsley from dill, but could I tell dill from fennel at ten paces and without crushing the leaves and smelling them? In his introduction Tutin suggests that the sheer usefulness of some of the family probably drove the need clearly to identify them. The line drawings in the book are exquisite in their sheer usefulness.
Botanical photo books have improved so much over the years that if I’m stuck I often use them to make a start, but when you get down to the difference between a greater and a lesser pignut, it’s out with the hand lens and a key – and there begins the hand-to-hand combat with the truth that any beginning botanist will reconise. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel by the Jabbock brook, we demand “what is your name?” and the plant usually refuses to tell us until we’re half dead with exhaustion.
The process involves all the tools books and instruments I’ve already mentioned, but beyond that there’s the intangible sense that birders call “jizz” which surely must be the product of memory and experience. My problem with jizz is that sometimes there’s so much background noise that I don’t pay enough attention to it. Like bumping into an old school friend fifty years on, you know that you know them but the name just won’t come. It happened twice in Wales with two plants I had the strongest sense of familiarity with and yet I couldn’t force my brain to make the connections.
Fumitory – Fumaria officinalis
Four photos of two plants, but in each case the photo on the right was taken in St Davids and the one on the left was taken on the allotment. The top pair gave me most trouble and yet, side by side it’s so blindingly obvious that they’re country cousins I could kick myself. On the left some chard in the process of going to seed on the allotment. On the right the plant I found on the coast path and vaguely recognised but coudn’t quite name. When we went to the allotment yesterday the connection was instantaneous – my coast path plant is, of course, sea beet.
But sometimes the information flows the other way. With the lower pair, I found the clump of pink flowers and with very little effort recognised it as exactly the same plant that infests our ground on the allotment. So it was fumeria – end of! – until I got back to the van without bothering to take a sample, and discovered that there are no less than thirteen contenders, more than a Tory party leadership contest but considerably prettier. So there was nothing to do but find another one the next day, hoping that it was the same plant, and do the hard work all over again. Quick cheat – it’s a good idea to take a copy of the BSBI recording card for the county you’re in, and you can quickly find out which of the family don’t even live where you are and can be discounted. Needless to say I hadn’t done this so all thirteen contenders needed to be interrogated. But we got there in the end.
I don’t think there’s any happier feeling than sitting identifying plants outside the van in the sunshine and with my books all around me, but needs must – and we desperately needed to water after a week of warm sunshine. Madame set out more tender plants and I carried down some half rotted leaves that the council had dumped on the site and mixed them with two big bags of grass mowings that our son had passed on to us. Grass mowings on their own make a filthy anaerobic mess, but mixed with some high carbon dry material they’re plentiful, free and useful in the compost heap. If I’ve come back with one lesson it’s that the natural world doesn’t divide itself conveniently into domestic and wild plants. They’re all country cousins.
Thinking on from yesterday’s post, here are some extra reasons why learning to identify plants is a great thing.
Field botany – like astronomy – is one of those activities where amateurs can really make a contribution.
The healing properties of plants are not just historical memories, they have real significance for the future of medicine but unless we know what plants we have, we’ll lose them without ever exploring their possible benefits.
Knowing your plants is the best way of finding butterflies, moths and even birds. A bit of botanical knowledge feeds into the whole of natural history.
Knowing your plants helps to understand dozens of references in Shakespeare and across the whole of literature.
Making lists is fun
Fresh air and exercise are better for you than train spotting!
So back to Fumitory which seemed, when I first I/D’d it here, seemed to be the end of the matter – until I checked in Rose “The Wildflower Key”, which is an excellent guide, and discovered that my name was only part of the story because there are in fact thirteen representatives of the family in the UK. So today’s mission was to find another plant and identify it fully. Luckily it’s abundant hereabouts so that bit wasn’t hard at all. The identification involved a hand magnifier and a lot of hemming and hawing because confirmation bias is alive in this amateur botanist’s mind. It’s all too easy to read through one description and say “that’s it” and then read another and say “That’s it too” . So what you have to do – and it can be pretty tedious – is go through all the possibilities, narrowing it down one by one, until there’s only one left. It’s called “keying out” – and it’s a steep but worthwhile learning curve. Anyway the final result – in which I’m pretty confident – is that my Fumitory is Fumeria bastardii – result!
Apart from that my list of plants in flower has reached 65, with some lovely finds today. I won’t give the whole list – because there are no rarities on it at all, apart from a little Centaury which I think is Centaurium erythraea var capitatum which is not rare but very local and pretty too.
Aside from the plants we saw 2 chough, 2 oystercatchers nesting unexpectedly high on a cliff, being pestered by a crow, 2 gannets, swallows in abundance, a kestrel, 2 Canada geese, and some shags apart from all the usual gulls. A stonechat came and showed off only a dozen feet away.
Later we sat with a glass of wine on our campsite overlooking the Bitches in Ramsey Sound as the sun sank through the sky into a sea of pure silver. It’s three days after the full moon and a very high spring tide was flowing and even at a distance of half a mile we could hear the menacing sound of the flow which was generating some big standing waves. A large sail cutter and two canoeists navigated through the waters, the canoeists needed to put hardly any effort into rowing as they swept past the headland. That’s what we come here for. Our walk today took us along the coast from the lifeboat station to an old mineshaft where we turned back across the fields where we feasted on wild mushrooms last autumn. So no more than three miles of coast path and 65 wildflower species in flower. Happy days!
No I can’t inflict another list – but carrying on from yesterday I found 18 more plants in flower, bringing the total up to 55. I’m completely aware that my sense of pride and joy makes me a total propellor head, but today we took an appropriately slow and stately walk around the coast path so I could find a few more flowers and it made me very happy. Why on earth photographing and identifying plants should bring such intense pleasure, I don’t know except that knowing the names of things really does. I suppose you could liken it to moving to another town, like we did when we retired. After living in a village for 25 years we knew pretty much everyone, but when we moved to Bath we had to start all over again, learning names, figuring out relationships and understanding where every one lived. Three and a half years on we’re slowly getting there.
So imagine going for a walk in a beautiful place like St Davids and not knowing the names of any of the flowers. You could certainly get around the coast path quicker than we do, but we have the pleasure of greeting old friends. Doing just a bit of botany enables us to recognise families and relationships, to enjoy the successions of the flowers through the seasons and to see how well, or badly, the landscape is doing. So one reason for knowing the names is that you’re always surrounded by friends.
But another, equally good reason is that if you don’t know the names, you’ll never know when they start disappearing. Caring for the environment is just about the most important thing we can do at the moment because it’s ailing. At home we care for it in the way we grown things and the things we eat. Here we care for the things that – because they’re simply beautiful in their own right – make us richer. Knowing the name of a plant means we’re in some kind of relationship which brings responsibilities.
Learning to identify plants involves a level of attention that makes the world infinitely richer. The differences between members of the same family sometimes demands profound attention to tiny details – the shape of a leaf, the disposition of the flowers or a row of hairs on the stem that can only be seen with a hand lens.
Finally, although there are many more reasons for doing a bit of botanising, there’s the aesthetic dimension. Flowers and plants are simply beautiful. They can be enjoyed with most of the senses – by sight obviously, but by smell and taste and even sound. It makes me want to paint them in order to understand them better.