English or Latin

IMG_5401I learned to love the names of common wildflowers from my mother who never used anything else.  I totally understand why having three plants with the same name and one plant with ten names drives proper field botanists mad, but there’s so much pleasure to be got from the English names which frequently point to a medicinal use like, for instance, fleabane, or refer to an immediately recognisable characteristic.  They can even be downright funny.  Check out Arum maculatum for raunchy English names like ‘lords and ladies’ ‘cuckoo pint’ where the second word is, or should be pronounced to rhyme with mint and refers to a pintle which is the shaft on which the rudder of a boat is fitted. Cuckoo, as in ‘cuckoo in the nest’ needs no further explanation I hope. A supremely naughty plant whose latin name merely tells us what it is.

Anyway, as predicted we went for a stroll around the clifftop below St Davids and in order to facilitate actually going anywhere instead of grovelling around on my hands and knees, I just took my iPhone, a notebook and pen. These coast paths are the most joyful places in spring, with enough wildflowers to keep anyone happy. You’ll see from the list that we began our walk by crossing through a marshy area before we got to the coastpath.  So here they are in no particular order because I started the list halfway round and had to remember quite a few.

 

  1. Red campion
  2. Sea campion
  3. Scurvy grass
  4. Southern Marsh orchid
  5. Yellow iris
  6. Dandelion
  7. Celandine
  8. Buttercup
  9. Ragged robin
  10. Herb Robert
  11. Common Mouse ear
  12. Marsh marigold
  13. Cowslip
  14. Navelwort
  15. Lady’s Mantle
  16. Cuckoo flower AKA Lady’s smock
  17. Primrose
  18. Dog violet
  19. Spring squill
  20. Tormentil
  21. Gorse
  22. Stichwort – forgot to check which one
  23. Bucks horn plantain
  24. Sea plantain
  25. Ribwort plantain – three plantains in a short walk is good going, I think
  26. Red clover
  27. Oxeye daisy
  28. Fumitory
  29. Sheeps sorrel
  30. Upright hedge parsley
  31. Alexanders
  32. Cut leaved cranesbill
  33. English stonecrop
  34. Sheeps bit
  35. Foxglove
  36. Bluebell
  37. Kidney vetch

Isn’t that lovely? – 37 wildflowers – in flower – in a walk that can’t have been more than a couple of miles, and I’m sure that could have been fifty if I’d taken a day over it and carried my mighty copy of Stace and a magnifier. Oh and if I’d not chickened out of the grasses, although I could confidently add cocks foot to the list.

The day started badly, though, with a knackered water pump on the van. We’ve been nursing it along for a year with a leaking gasket, but today one of the spade connectors finally gave up the ghost, having corroded away in the leak. Two faults in two days, but the flat battery may have been connected to the wet contacts.  At least it’s a repair I can carry out myself, and a replacement pump costs about £50 so not the end of the world.

Back to the wildlife, and it’s been a sunny but cool day in a brisk northerly wind. Back on the headland we saw a brief skirmish between a common blue butterfly and a small copper.  I would have loved to be able to say it was a small blue, because the foodplant for the small blue is the kidney vetch which was there in abundance. However the small blue prefers a more sheltered site and is not recorded here. The small copper has plenty of common sorrel and sheeps sorrel to lay its eggs on, and the common blue has a feast of birds foot trefoil at its disposal so enough said. I am condemned to wander the earth encountering and recording the ordinary and everyday, hoping desperately that these ordinary objects of joy  are not about to vanish.

I’ve just finished reading Dieter Helm’s excellent book “Green and prosperous land”. It’s the first book I’ve seen that considers the economic case for what he describes as “natural capital” that’s to say, the natural assets of the world, wildlife, water, clean air which are being destroyed by our present way of life.

Some of the alexanders we saw here were very sick, with every appearance that spray drift from the adjacent field had killed them. It’s difficult to be sure, because it could as easily have been frost damage with such confusing spring weather.  What is certainly true here is that intensively farmed land is butted up against these last strongholds of wildflowers. Surely we have to stop paying farmers simply for owning land, and start re- assessing our entire apporoach to subsidy.

 

 

Hi Veronica – Hi Violet

So there were mouse ear, bluebell, red campion, herb Robert, violet, celandine and wood anemone, all growing within a small area and there were many more, including primroses, marsh marigolds and little spurges. I had to stop.

In a ideal world- that’s to say the one we don’t actually inhabit – I would organise my botanising a bit better – but what I mostly do is start out resolved not to spend the whole walk rooting around at ground level, and then reinforce my decision by leaving behind everything I will eventually need.  Field guides – out, pocket magnifier – out, camera with ridiculously expensive macro lens – out. Mostly, then, I take my mobile phone a weatherproof notebook and a space pen that writes in the wet.  Serious field botanists are the ones that walk around with a permanent crick in their necks carrying a clipboard with the vice-county list on it and they know the plants by heart. I’m so unconfident that I could easily persuade myself that a dandelion might not really be a dandelion at all, but any one of a dozen similar looking plants.

This is a serious challenge, although I joke about it. I was in my twenties before I realized that not all dandelions were dandelions but could be cats’ ears or hawkbits; and even dandelions live such promiscuous lives that their microspecies number in hundreds. There are people out there who can sort them out, but not me. So I muddle along like all self-taught amateurs, fearful that I’ll make a complete idiot of myself by mispronouncing a name or fail to get even close to identifying a plantain properly.

I know that the proper way to do it is to gather all the information I know I’ll need but in reality I never do.  My phone photos don’t have sufficient depth of field and so the very detail I need is just out of focus and useless.  I fail to observe the shape, pattern and placing of leaves, or whether the roots are creeping, and if the stalk is square or hairy, and don’t even ask about flowers! I found a despairing note today in my journal from three years ago where the identification of a very common plant hinged on my understanding what a ‘hemi zygomorph’ might be. Aaargh.

Some families are real killers – Apiaciae, umbellifers to most of us, are stinkers and I’ve spent hours getting them wrong.  The culprit at Heligan last week was Angelica sylvestris  – wild angelica – which I can’t say I’ve ever noticed before.  But our walks took us through a very wet and marshy habitat which has a flora all of its own. All of which grumbling is a long way of saying that my resolve to list all the flowering plants we found has been frustrated by my inability to nail the second plant from the left, top row because I only had a rubbish photo.  The closest I can get is one of the forget me nots, but which one I can’t say because I didn’t get enough information. Veronicas and Violets have the same capacity to drive me mad because even with 100% hindsight there’s no substitute for plodding through the keys with a hand lens and a partner with more patience than Madame posesses. Enough! There’s a daisy and a dandelion there that I am confident I recognise and can name, except the dandelion will have to be Taraxacum agg, which is scientific for WTF?

Why am I writing this? I love every moment of it, and every foray into the ordinary everyday plants that I vaguely recognise (like most people) makes the world feel richer, deeper, more complicated, more generous and simply more beautiful.

Potatoes, however, are easier to list – I just had to walk up the rows at Heligan and write them down.

  1. Pink fir apple
  2. Shetland black
  3. Lumpers
  4. Tyecroft purple
  5. Herd laddie
  6. Ninetyfold
  7. Vitelotte noir
  8. British queen
  9. Beauty of Bute
  10. Edgecote purple
  11. Early market
  12. Snowdrop
  13. International kidney
  14. Forest gold
  15. Myatts ashleaf
  16. Lord Rosebery
  17. Royal kidney
  18. May queen
  19. Early rose
  20. Sharpes express
  21. Red Duke of York
  22. Epicure
  23. Arran pilot

On the allotment ths year we’re growing pink fir apple, Arran pilot, jazzy, red Duke of York and sarpo mira. I love the fact that these old varieties are being kept alive because we may well need their genetics in the future, but I’m grateful for the efforts of plant breeders who can increase blight resistance in a potato like sarpo mira to the point where they’re safe to grow, even in our blight ridden weather.

Later today we’ll be up at the allotment.  The potatoes are very nearly ready to ridge up for the first time.  We’re expecting warmer weather for at least a week, and every day we creep closer to the time when our tender plants won’t be ravaged by a late frost. Happy days.

No more lists, I swear – well just one then.

 

I was determined not to compromise what’s supposed to be a relaxing break, so I left binoculars, cameras and books back at the Potwell Inn and came down to Heligan with nothing more than a mobile, a notebook and a pen. When we set out on a walk in the sunshine this morniing I lasted about six paces at proper ‘going for a walk’ speed before I noticed the abundance of rather early wildflowers and that was that. At best I’m an indifferent botanist, and so identifying the most ordinary things takes an age but, on the other hand, I like the ordinary. So there were mouse ear, bluebell, red campion, herb Robert, violet, celandine and wood anemone, all growing within a small area and there were many more, including primroses, marsh marigolds and little spurges. I had to stop. Heligan has a series of different habitats and attractions and today we spent most of our time in the woodlands.

IMG_5212Yesterday I forgot to take the camera and so I couldn’t photograph the navelwort – or pennywort as it’s also known; its Latin name is Umbilicus rupestris, and there were several noteworthy facts we found out.  Firstly I’ve always seen it on walls and never looked for it anywhere else, but here it’s quite common at the bottom of tree trunks.  Secondly its succulent leaves are apparently good to eat and thirdly if you scrape the back of the leaf off it exudes a sap that has healing, coagulant properties and will – if you care to try –  adhere to your skin like a natural elastoplast. Isn’t that fascinating?

IMG_5218Back at the veg garden we made a list of the 23 varieties of potato they’re growing this year.  Yesterday’s tour leader talked a little about these heritage potatoes and said that although they all tasted good, they were tricky to cook correctly and if overcooked they would become waterlogged and collapse. Many of these varieties, regardless of their quality, are not on the EU permitted list and so cannot be sold. We’re growing three of their varieties this year on the allotment, along with two more modern cultivars.  But we really envied the space they have here to experiment. After we’d finished the list we sat enviously in front of their rhubarb patch.  Again, so much space – and yesterday we tasted rhubarb in a way I’ve never even thought of – in a salad. I suspect it was very lightly ‘fridge pickled’ and we both thought it was delicious – time for an experiment in the Potwell Inn kitchen. I think the starting point for us will be a poaching liquid with raspberry vinegar, water and a little salt, brought to the boil and simply poured over the sliced rhubarb. I’ll report back later.

IMG_5222Then we moved on to the apples where we had a good look at the pruning method they’re using here. It looked very like the Modified Lorette ststem that we last saw in the National Trust gardens at Dyrham Park.  It involves cutting back very hard in the winter and then again in the summer.  It’s not a system either of us knows but it looks very productive.  The gardener at Dyrham Park said it was very slow to establish but, on the other hand it seems capable of sustaining excellent crops. So much to learn! So many lists!

 

 

Natural – Wild – Ordinary

I photographed these lovely spring wildflowers today, all within a few yards of one another in the bottom of a hedgerow. So clockwise from the top there are Red Campion, Alexanders, Daisies and a Dandelion, a Lesser Celandine most of whose leaves are obscured by young shoots of Cleavers and probably Hedge Parsley, and finally some flowering Gorse. It seems a bit daft to talk about plants being happy, but these are definitely very happy indeed. Through long naturalisation in a setting and climate that suits them perfectly, they thrive in a way that most of us gardeners can ony dream of for our own produce.  Further up the same lane and outside a house there were Daffodils that stood out- I should say shouted out  as unnatural additions to the landscape.

Of the plants I photographed, Red Campion doesn’t seem to be edible but was once used to cure snake bites, and the roots contain saponin which has soap like qualities. Alexanders really is edible, especially when young, but I’ve never eaten it so I couldn’t say whether it tastes good. Daisies – not really, Dandelions make good salad leaves and the flowers make really good wine but I’d beware of collecting any flowers at dog level for obvious reasons, and I should point out that the local name from my part of the world used to be “pissabeds” – you can draw your own conclusions.  Dandelion roots were dried and toasted and used as a coffee subsitute during times of hardship and they’re probably best when only used in desperation. Lesser Celandine is also known as Pilewort due to the acrid sap which was used to shrink hemorrhoids and although I did read somewhere that the leaves are edible I think they look prettier and safer in the ground. Gorse smells heavenly, especially when it’s got the sun on it and the flower buds are reputely good to eat. So I guess if I had been foraging today I could easily have picked a few leaves and flowers and enjoyed eating them, but I’m pretty sure I’d have still been hungry when I got home.  Nature is not our servant and does not exist completely to furnish our needs and so it has always been a basic aim of agriculture and horticulture to improve, encourage and refine those essentials offered to us by the truly wild.

It’s hardly a pearl of wisdom to say that the farming landscape is far from  natural. Here in the UK – excluding the National Parks and wilderness areas – there is hardly any natural landscape left.  The total overuse of the word in advertising gives a clue to its power through appealing to our emotions. My usual retort to those who abuse it is to say foxgloves and arsenic are natural, as is oil and coal, but that doesn’t give them a free pass into general use. The word “wild” isn’t used nearly as much in advertising because its connotations are not so good at shifting product, and shifting product is what our greedy culture is all about.  The only exception to that is when the word can inflate the value of the product beyond measure.  One of my sons – a chef – once had to deal with a whole box of Pignuts, probably dug up from a pristine site and sold at ludicrous prices. Wild sells truffles but probably not dogs or cats; salmon and Ramsons but not Blackberries (unless you’re a highly specialized plant hunter who can distinguish between over 250 hybrids.

In fact farming, horticulture, and even allotmenteering are all attempts to improve on the natural and, in the case of extractive farming, to bludgeon nature into conforming to our greedy desires. The Potwell Inn and the allotment have heated propagators under electric daylight lamps. We have a greenhouse, a hotbed, cloches and fleece – all of which we use to persuade tender plants that the weather is better and the days are longer than they really are – and so we are able to grow tropical and subtropical crops, the like of which you would never encounter in any wild setting in this country. Some we win and some we lose, but I don’t think anyone would argue that aubergines, chillies, peppers, even the humble potato and runner bean, belong in the Flora Britannica.

Organic gardening (and farming) are a wise and timely attempt to mitigate the worst effects of industral farming – and I’m bound to say, of industrial overeating as well.  Permaculture goes a step further and tries to rely more heavily on perennials and, in essence, returning to a foraging lifestyle. Vegetarianism and veganism focus on achieving something of the same ends by focusing on and changing what we consume. Even the most traditional farmers are beginning to see the benefits and opportunities of locally sourced and sustainably produced foods. It’s crazy for those of us who care about the natural world to pick fights with one another and – rather like Brexit – spend our lives in pointless posturing and squabbling about minor doctrinal differences while industrial farming, environmental degradation and climate change go unchallenged.

A friend of mine was in a hospital visiting her uncle when she heard a commotion on the opposite side of the ward. A fierce family row had broken out across the bed, and my friend noticed to her dismay that the occupant had actually died. It was she who called for a nurse to attend to the deceased person, not the squabbling family.

I don’t need to labour the point of telling that story here, the parallels are all too painfully clear. But to finish on a brighter note, I know that many natural historians love to go after the rare specimens, but I want to put in a word for the ordinary. The ordinary is the bit we don’t notice because it’s there all the time – at least it used to be there all the time but now it’s disappearing because of our abusive relationship with the environment. So I want to campaign for the ordinary because that way it can’t disappear without anyone noticing. Recognising, naming and treasuring our wildflowers and native fauna is the most powerful way of energising the fightback against extinctions. The ordinary is special.