The highlight of my year may seem a bit weird
I know exactly how I got here. The seeds of this addiction were sown on the day I realized that not all Dandelions were in fact Dandelions because there were plants like Hawkweeds and Hawkbits and such great multitudes of other lookalikes that I despaired of living long enough to name a tenth of them. Then, when I was working as a groundsman – (all graduating art students have to find some kind of job to pay the rent) – it was in the playing fields of Clifton College that I got lost in the Speedwell zone and gave up. Then 24/7 work took over for 45 years because, believe me, the gig economy was alive and well in the 1970’s (I only got my first proper full-time job when I was 40) and at times Madame and me were each doing three part-time jobs. Then with three boys to feed and clothe, any plant hunting was confined to holidays in Pembrokeshire. I loved my work but I also longed for some space to devote to the natural world and especially plants and fungi.
So when we retired we brought my big collection of underused field guides and a head filled with the extraordinarily evocative names of plants I’d never actually seen. I can still remember coming across Vipers Bugloss for the first time on a clifftop in Tenby and being completely bowled over by its beauty.
As soon as we moved here we joined the Bath Natural History Society – which was the best move we could have made because by going on field trips and attending lectures by real nationally recognised experts our understanding began to increase exponentially; not least because we found that the experts we got to know were eager to teach anyone who showed an interest. Added to that, a course in botanical illustration reconnected me to my artistic background and reawakened my interest in intense observation, plus my longstanding interest in herbal medicine which I’d never been able to explore in depth. These three factors combined: drawing and painting, really good mentors and a passion for wildflowers and their uses, set me on the road which four years ago finally resulted in a head on collision with a plant that’s universally known as a bit of a heart sinker. It was on the allotment site just a single plot up from us on an abandoned plot.
This is not a tale of derring-do on a precipitous cliff face or hacking my way through a jungle. This pretty plant practically threw itself at me about five feet from our path. It was tall – a couple of feet tall anyway, rambling, fragile and faintly resembled a sweet pea flower but the leaves were wrong. I got the genus name right off – it was a Fumitory, a Fumaria ‘something or other‘. but to get the species was a world of woe away. Once I’d spun my head a few times in the field guides I knew that getting the species right was way above my level of competence. The differences between the ten British and Irish species are very small and demand experience, accurate measurements and even a low powered microscope. So I turned to a friend – Rob – who’s way better than me and – bless him he wandered up to the allotment and his ID was pretty provisional, plus I didn’t think he was keen on volunteering to carry a burden that was rightly mine. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had cause to be grateful to someone who has given me the confidence that I’ll eventually be able to solve a problem.
Happily we had a lovely holiday in Cornwall this year and the coast path yielded two slightly different Fumaria species which, by that time, I’d learned to key out for myself. I photographed, inspected and measured them before submitting them to the County Recorder who to my great surprise accepted both ID’s. By this time I knew which parts of the plant demanded that intense attention to detail I wrote about earlier, so I sent off for the BSBI monograph on Fumitories and suddenly the light began to dawn. However there was one further obstacle to overcome. Confirmation bias afflicts keen amateur botanists as much as it wrecks the judgement of players in any other discipline. There’s no point in picking the rarest of a bunch of species and then only looking for evidence proving the hypothesis. But refusing on principle to believe that your specimen is that rare plant is equally daft because – well, it might be. My Fumaria by this time had migrated into the garlic bed and was wreaking havoc in the leeks. The word “ramping” attached to some of the species is more than appropriate.
Eventually, after much head scratching it occurred to me that it might (just) be Fumaria bastardii – a thought that I squashed immediately because even a cursory glance at the map showed that it just didn’t grow here. So I sent the photos and measurements to the North Somerset County Recorder suggesting it might be Fumaria Capreolata. She emailed back and said she thought it was more likely Fumaria Muralis but also suggested I send the details to the National Referee for Fumarias and very quickly he replied that it was Fumaria bastardii var. hibernica – the very one that doesn’t grow here. So – going back to the photo at the top, there’s now a list for this area on the national database which includes my solitary record which I’ve highlighted. There’s also a single red square on the map that gives the approximate location – this is done to protect vulnerable plants like orchids from predation by collectors. And finally I had an email saying my find had got on to the Somerset Rare Plants list as well as on the annual Bath Nats report.
The key point in all this is that if I can make a small difference, then trust me – anyone can. My little find is only rare here in Bath – in Ireland for instance – it’s everywhere; and I couldn’t have got near it without the knowledge and skills of three volunteers who gave me the time to finally get the ID. My biggest contribution is in noticing the plant and then banging on about it. I’m stubborn and I don’t like being beaten!
So my main – possibly entire – indelible contribution to field botany might well turn out to be a single dot on a map, and I’ll settle for that. Nerdery has its own rewards and my sense of pride in getting that dot on the map more than vindicates the hours I spent achieving it.