Midsummer sky – China Blue

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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.

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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).

IMG_5781That’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.

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Field trip? Well, we’re in a field

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.

IMG_5751.jpgThe 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.

Potwell Inn – the return!

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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.

 

 

Country cousins

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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.

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.

 

Fumitory, and more reasons for botanising.

Tall Ramping Fumitory – Fumaria bastardii

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!

More lists?

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.

So no list today, but this has been a lovely day.

Ivy Leaved Toadflax

With Sarah and Pete to Newborough Warren, Anglesey.

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The view across the Menai Straits from Llanddwyn Island

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Sea Holly – Eryngium maritimum on the same wall as the Red Goosefoot and Spear Leaved Orache below

 

This is Red Goosefoot – Chenopodium Rubrum I’m sure. The only other plant it could be is Saltmarsh Goosefoot – Chenopdium chenopoides but checking the current BSBI list that doesn’t apear there or in Ellis whereas Red Goosefoot does in both lists. What was interesting was that it was growing alongside Atriplex prostrata – Spear Leaved Orache on the same wall, which – I don’t know why – seemed a bit strange. Growing in amongst it is Sea Sandwort – Honckenya peploidesA highly specialized environment I think on a sea wall constantly breached by wind and waves.

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I had no idea what this was until I spotted a smaller one nearby and I recognised it immediately as some kind of Lycoperdum. I had to wait until I got back to Tan y Fford to identify it as a Pestle Puffball – Lycoperdon excipuliforme – which has an astoundingly thick and long stalk, unlike any other puffball I’ve seen. A very striking find.

I think this is the first two star nationally rare plant I’ve ever identified. It’s called Round Leaved Wintergreen – Pyrola rotundifolia. Just look at that phallic flower! It was in the red woodland trail through the edge of the woods. Bit of a poster boy for field botany!

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This is Vipers Bugloss – again on the island.

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Sea Rocket – Cakile maritima

So that was the botanical bit, and very good it was – at least when we got home to Tan Fford. We had driven up to Anglesey to stay overnight with Pete and Sarah who were renting a cottage there. Llanddwyn Island is very beautiful and full of surprises apart from plants. There are a number of buildings including St Dwynwen’s church. She was a 5th Century saint and there’s a lighthouse, coastguard cotages and several prominent crosses. The present church building is a ruin. The best thing about the island apart from the plants are the fabulous views of the mainland

Fish and chip supper and a good deal of wine knocked us out by about 10.30 and I slept soundly but not well, dreaming that the end of the bed was a huge icefall – which discouraged me greatly from going for a piss.