I hate the term nectaring, mostly because it’s an in-house term that distances the experts from (the) hoi polloi, and so I’ll say that this Small Skipper was feeding on one of the the Potwell Inn Lavender bushes and it was a delight to see it there. One of the claims of gardening in the way that we do is that by planting flowers to attract pollinators, they will just turn up in their thousands. That’s the theory and it’s always good to accrue some evidence. The photo, by the way, was just taken on my phone – a Pixel 5. The phone has become a marvellous tool for natural history, but insects and especially bees and butterflies pick up the least movement. Flies, with their big compound eyes, have almost no blind spots and are able to scarper even before your shadow falls on them. This, then, was a lucky shot.
The perfect way to observe and record very small creatures and plants without frightening them off comes down to a choice between a heavy long focus camera or a pair of binoculars that can focus at close range. I first saw such a pair being used to scout for liverworts on a wall on a Bath Nats walk. Later I saw them being used to scan the ground for interesting lichens. On Wednesday, maybe three years after first seeing them, we went on another event searching for medicinal herbs in Friary Woods near Bath and I spent much of my time talking to a lovely bloke who was an expert on all things insect. We had a County Botanical Recorder leading the walk and a keen birdwatcher with us as well, and so it was an opportunity for some serious learning to happen. By the end of the walk I’d resolved to get a pair of these binoculars for Madame.
It’s not difficult to feel completely intimidated by experts. I never leave home for one of these field trips without being filled with trepidation, and yet as time’s gone on I’ve realized that very few of them are professionally qualified – we’re all mostly self-taught – and I’ve yet to meet an expert (a real one that is), that isn’t willing and usually eager to share their knowledge. If you’ve ever felt too shy to join a group and go on a natural history walk, I’d urge you to give it a try. It’s dangerously addictive! So much so that that Professor Insects and me had a great laugh over one of his friends asking his wife – “has he always been like this?”
Another conversation ranged around the odd name of the Nipplewort. To me at least the flower looks nothing like a human nipple, but rather resembles the grease nipple on an old machine like a steam engine. One of the women on the walk asked me if I was also a steam enthusiast. I’m not really, but I do get very emotional around steam trains so perhaps I’ve yet to engage with that one. Anyway she told me that she’d been dragged around every engine shed in Scotland by her dad who was obsessed with steam and so she knew immediately what I was talking about. Nipple isn’t a word that gets used much in natural history.
So the photo of the Small Skipper at the top of this piece isn’t really where the rubber hits the road when it comes to field botany. The really exciting photos for me were these:
I found this plant while I was scouting around in a patch of rough woodland field edge and I thought I recognised it. I didn’t even manage to get the little clip-on macro lens straight on my phone on the left hand picture. “It’s Rough Chervil” I thought, even though I knew in the back of my mind that wasn’t right. So I trotted up to the Recorder with my trophy and asked her. “It’s Upright Hedge Parsley” she said – without a second glance. “But why?” my mind silently grumbled even as I was thrilled by actually finding one of them after looking – in a more or less blind way – for several years. “Torilis japonica” – what more poetic name could there be? So there’s the learning point; not getting it right but getting it wrong in the company of someone who knew what she was talking about.
I went back to the picture library on my phone where I had a photo of Rough Chervil that had been verified by the East Cornwall Recorder in May. It’s a tiny difference but you’ll notice that the stem joint is slightly swollen in the Chervil whereas in the Hedge Parsley it isn’t. I should say that I was only able to do this because I stuck to my guns and I’ve been laboriously working through all my photos and tagging them properly. Have your eyes glazed over yet? Anyway, joy of joys, not an hour later I found some Rough Chervil and successfully identified it properly. With field botany making a mistake in the right company can get you a two-for-one offer. The plants of the Carrot family – the Apiaceae, or Umbellifers can be very confusing because they can occasionally only be identified by examining a ripe seed with a magnifying glass; but by the end of the walk we’d found Wild Angelica and Fools Parsley too.
So far as finding remnants of a 13th century friary medicinal herb garden goes, we didn’t find anything that couldn’t be found in a dozen other places with no religious associations, but that simply demonstrates how widespread herbal medicine was, even up until the early 20th century. Coincidentally, Madame has been reading “A Midwife’s Tale” the diaries of Martha Ballard, an 18th century American midwife and healer; reading me great chunks of it to whet my appetite. I’ve got half a dozen herbals and what strikes me as I read Gerard or Culpeper is not so much the complexity of herbal medicine as the limited range of complaints it was able to address. 18th century suffering is familiar to all of us; toothaches, boils, broken bones and rheumatic complaints, “womens courses” gets mentioned a lot as do many of the complaints now controlled by antibiotics. The biggest worry is that would-be practitioners and foragers too, really need a solid background in botany unless they want to risk muddling two superficially similar plants with potentially fatal consequences; and I can vouch for the fact that it’s a steep hill to climb.