Moving up from “What is it?” to “What sort of ‘what’ is it?”

Burdock – but is it Greater or Lesser? – Taken on the Panasonic Lumix + Leica macro lens

Coming back from the Two Valleys walk I wrote about on Monday, the new edition of Concise Flora of the British Isles by Clive Stace, was in the post box. I ordered it ages ago but publication day must have slipped a bit. The full edition of Stace 4 weighs in at two and a half pounds and this concise edition is both smaller and lighter at just over one pound. Neither edition has either photographs or paintings apart from some severely technical illustrations which, as you learn to use them, are incredibly helpful.

Stace 4 is a kind of botanists’ bible; the final arbiter on the current state of plant ID in the British Isles, and its austerity is something of a challenge. In a sense, you need to know quite a lot about the plant you’re looking at before you turn to Stace – as someone jokingly remarked, plant keys are only any use when you already know the answer. However, as time goes on, most amateurs like me move beyond Buttercups, Dandelions and Daisies to ask “which buttercup?” – there are around ten lookalikes; and don’t even ask about Dandelions. The gleeful pursuit of a better answer is always the ultimate aim, and once you’re bitten you can turn into the annoying child who exhausts you with an ever regressing set of “why” questions. In Stace, the answer is always couched in quite technical language for good reasons, because any ambiguity in a plant description is likely to lead to a poor ID. Consequently there’s no alternative but to learn the technical language. Luckily I’m the sort of weirdo who positively loves to know the difference between proximal and distal, and is ever willing to describe a trowel as being perfectly trullate.

Stace 4 is too back breakingly heavy to cart around in a bag, not least because I’m not completely weaned off the pictorial plant guides and so I would need to carry around two books rather than one. I still need the security of a set of stabilizer wheels on the botanical bike. “One day” I think to myself, “I’ll step out with just the “Concise Flora”. The book goes to bed with me and I study one plant at a time in the hope that something at least will stick to the empty cavity of my mind, and that one day I’ll be able to engage in learned discussions with all the other propellerheads on a field trip. I’m obviously a very needy person!

Anyway, enough of that flowery stuff. I’ve been mulling over the relative merits of my Pixel 5 phone camera against the Panasonic Lumix + Leica macro lens. This ought to be a no-brainer since obviously the Lumix with a fast, purpose built macro lens is going to be better. The downside is that you have to lug it around and make on the spot notes of the location and ID, not to mention negotiating the plethora of decisions about shutter speed, aperture and ISO. The ultimate downside is the shot that demands a tripod and even additional lighting. The only way to decide is to ask “what’s the ultimate aim here?

If the aim is a perfectly exposed image of gallery quality then the camera wins every time. But as a notebook, to record a plant for future reference or identification it’s hard to beat the phone camera. Control over the shutter speed really helps when you’re photographing a plant that’s waving in the wind, or tracking a butterfly and being able to exploit the macro lens capacity for creating a bokeh effect, blurring out the background and foregrounding the central image, makes for a great close-up. So I guess the answer to my question is both.

Further evidence that the wildflowers on the allotment are really working to attract visitors came with finding a Marbled White butterfly inside the polytunnel yesterday. We also noticed what is probably a Frog Spider setting up its stall on the flower of one of the Achilleas near the pond.

It’s hard to overstate the pleasure that these visitors give us. While I was watering early this morning I realized that probably half our energy now is going into feeding them. That said, the smell of beetroot wafting through the flat as it steams in a pressure cooker is a reminder that the peas, raspberries and beets we picked today are both fresher and far tastier than anything we could buy. Sometimes it seems a sin to cook them at all – who doesn’t pick peas or beans and eat them greedily on the spot? I know that I have some readers with a somewhat unhealthy interest in Borlotti beans, judging by the number of hits those posts attract, and so I’m putting up a photo of some Borlotti in full sensuous bloom. Please use them wisely!

Aside from that, everything’s going full throttle on the Potwell Inn Allotment. This is one of those times in the season when we’re being driven by the plants. The Bindweed (we have to contend with two Bindweed species and last week I identified a third on the walk), – so the Bindweed is ramping through everything. We tear it off as near to the ground as we can and then it dies back and its skeletal remains reproach us until next year. There are also photos of the peppers, runner (string) beans, tomatoes and melons. Here in the UK we’re preparing for a heatwave; further evidence of the approaching climate disaster. With the government in chaos the siren voices of the dirty fuel lobby are rubbing their hands at the thought of yet more easy profits with no coherent opposition.

How to change the world

If only it were so easy. I was originally going to call this post “The morning after”, if only because, having done a fair bit of research and finding several target species I wanted to emphasise the fact that as sure as night follows day, there’s always a stack of work to do. I was feeling mightily pleased with myself and I envisaged myself cantering towards the finishing line and pressing the send button on the reporting software. Pleased, that is, until I started to look more closely at the photos.

I’m very used to the dead hand of confirmation bias when I’m out and about looking for a particular plant. I find something that looks a bit like it and instantly every nerve strains towards putting the tick in the box; even – or perhaps especially when there’s something that doesn’t quite fit the frame. As I was writing that sentence I thought of one of my most forensic, and therefore valuable tutors at theological college who would seize on the slightest mention of any hard work that had gone into the draft sermon I’d just delivered and say – “really Dave; no-one wants to listen to you pissing from the pulpit!”

Bugle – Ajuga reptans

Indeed not, but I hope I’m making a point of general interest here. Point one is that there are an awful lot of little white flowers around at this time of the year. They’re often quite tiny and inconspicuous and I usually have to prostrate myself with a hand lens and take a closer look. Point two is that a phone camera with a decent zoom capability is the most useful gadget in the world for recording a pile of information you didn’t notice at the time you were squinting at the specimen, but discover you desperately need when you start leafing through the 1266 pages of Stace 4 (no pictures) at home. Macro photos are so immensely useful for identification that I even bought a little clip-on macro lens which makes life even easier.

Nonetheless, the morning after feeling creeps in like mental wet rot as you stare at the photos and realize that in the cold light of day, Hairy Bittercress; Alpine Pennycress, Dwarf Mouse Ear, Common Whitlow Grass and even Barren Strawberry look like – how shall I put this delicately? – cousins, and my report if I ever send it will be seasoned with doubts. Today at a Bath Nats meeting I shared some of those doubts with a really ace botanist; so good he can enlarge at any length you like on the 275 plus subspecies of Blackberry. I say I shared, but as soon as he discerned the drift of the conversation he paled visibly and offered to look at my emails in the same tone of voice you might use to say ‘you must come round for supper some time’ – with not the least intention of specifying an actual date.

So maybe it would be better to have walked on by and enjoyed the lovely skies last week; but here’s the point. After you’ve sat and struggled with an ID for a while, the world becomes an infinitely richer place. Instead of noticing the little white flower and passing by, you now understand that it could be one of … who knows; it could be hundreds! Suddenly the world needs to expand to accommodate this new piece of knowledge because now there are five new friends where there was once only one.

Changing the world, especially at the moment, seems like a fruitless and depressing waste of emotional energy but changing it just by making it bigger, more diverse and more beautiful than it was before, is achievable. These little white flowers aren’t especially rare, although they can sometimes survive in a place that no other living thing could survive in. However they are under threat and whilst I’ve no pretensions about my own modest abilities, we footsoldiers; the botanical infantry if you like, can record them so that they can’t become rare or even extinct without someone noticing.

Oh yes there are!

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I’m not sure whether what we do here amounts to serious research of any kind, but when noticing plants or wildlife takes a step up and becomes systematic, the data that’s recorded takes on a life of its own, especially in unregarded areas where developers may try to push plans through without leaving time to do proper longitudinal surveys.  These kind of surveys are the lifeblood of natural history, and over time the gathered data becomes more and more significant, because what’s never been recorded can’t be counted as lost. For once it’s a great help to be old, because we know what we’ve lost – but it’s not a great experience.

We have a favourite walk into town which – if we walked the quickest route would take us right to the centre in ten minutes. But if we follow the river to the point where the canal enters it, and then follow the canal as far as Sidney Gardens, doubling back through the gardens and up Pulteney Street it’s about five times as far but a hundred times more interesting.

Spotting plants can sometimes be a race against the strimmers, for instance the Tansy I photographed only a few days ago had been strimmed off when I went back two days later. On the towpath, tidiness reigns – it’s an unnecessary pain, but the council seem unable to resist it.  The riverbank is a different matter, though, and all sorts of anarchy  breaks out there, offering a feast of weeds both rare and common as muck, growing through the supermarket trolleys.  Who cares? they’re all lovely.  Then there’s the park, where there’s always something unplanned happening in the borders and the long grass – (steady on, I’m talking about plants here) – and finally the streets which have a good deal more botanical interest than you’d ever imagine. What the long route takes in time it repays in interest and, over the years, you get to know where to look for old friends with the ever present possibility of spotting something new.

IMG_20191228_141232I wrote yesterday that I was just longing for some sunshine and a few flowers, and today I half hoped I might spot an early flowering Coltsfoot so I had my eyes firmly on the canal bankside when I spotted a plant in flower. I’d seen the leaves in a dense patch for a couple of years, and I’d guessed it might be Coltsfoot or Butterbur but I couldn’t be certain.  It was one of those plants that you know you need to identify properly but never get round to doing because you half know the answer. The fact that my mystery plant was in flower today – at the end of the year – meant it could only be Winter Heliotrope, a close relative of butterbur and, for that matter, Coltsfoot too.

I can’t tell you how happy I was to have named the plant.  It may be as common as could be, but suddenly a stranger became a friend, along with all the others I’ve identified along that length of the canal. The last time I spotted a large clump of Coltsfoot I was on my bike cycling around the Severnside villages after a snowstorm. They glowed at me from the verge and I could almost warm my hands on them. I knew those villages and their plants really well after 25 years, and after 4 years in Bath I’m just beginning to experience the same feelings. Finding a new plant can almost make you break out in a jig.

So today was a day in which at least one wish was granted, but there was another. I mentioned the other day that I was lusting after the 4th edition of Clive Stace’s “New Flora of the British Isles”. I was taking a secretive peep on the computer this morning and Madame said “why don’t you just buy it?” . “Because it’s £59”, I said, in an outbreak of inexplicable candour – I usually lie about these things and round them down a bit, well a lot. “You’ve got a book token and some loyalty card tokens – use them too” .  I needed no persuasion and so at the end of our walk we wandered into Waterstones and I ordered it. The shop assistant looked it up and said  – I guess trying to warn me – “It’s £59“. I raised myself to my full 5’8”, put on my most condescending smile and assured him that I did know – it was such a delight! I love books.  I even sniff them when I think no-one’s looking, because no Kindle ever came close to the smell of fresh printing ink and good paper.

So that’s two lovely things about today, and the third was the roastie tonight when I cooked our own potatoes, celeriac and parsnips. I boiled them for as long as I dared and then dumped them in olive oil in a horrendously hot oven, giving them a little crush about halfway through. They were the crispiest, fluffiest roasties I’ve ever done. Life is good.

 

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