Almost nothing marks out the seasons like the cycles of plants. For now their full glories exist mostly in potentia: a bud, a stem, a seed, a dry frame of twigs, all waiting for the tilt of the earth’s axis to point them once more toward the sun. But balmy days are not so far away. With each nightfall and sunrise we lean a little closer. And the appearance of small, delicate flowers is one of the best first signs that the year truly is waxing, and that light and colour are returning to overwrite the comparatively subtle, monochrome hues of winter.
And forget planted bulbs, snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils* all, lovely as they are. The real stars that bring in the spring are the native wildflowers, daintily unfurling from a woodland floor. Violets, the bright yellow celandine, primroses (not actually native I think, but I’ll let this one off), and the perfect white fresh-pressed linen dress of a wood anemone. I can hardly think of a better form for a flower than this last, perfect in its simplicity, a vision of purity in the leaf litter. Worthy of a spot in any naturalist’s year-end rundown. It also nicely illustrates why I have concentrated on plants with pretty flowery bits. Surely novice botanists can be forgiven starting with the shiny ones?
I don’t know whether it was a particularly good orchid year – I’ve not heard as much – or whether I’d been walking around with my eyes closed for the best part of three decades. I couldn’t help noticing them this summer, starting with early purple orchids, through common spotted, and then pyramidal and lady orchids. It would seem that common spotted orchids are, as the name suggests, actually quite common. Which is not to detract from their spectacular visual appeal, or the interesting variety in their shades from site to site, even between neighbouring flowers. I noted them ranging from near-white to a quite vibrant mauve in locations strung across the south-east from Kent to Wiltshire, but I’m led to believe the darkest common orchids of all grow in Cornwall. Well, they do like to do things a bit differently down there.
One of my biggest plant disappointments of the year was a serious lack of wild garlic in the woods of Kent, where I was living during the appropriate season. Wilted into a creamy mash or a light frittata, it’s a favourite wild food. Usually its scent hits you on the breeze long before you see it, so surely I would have found any significant clumps that were present. The flowers are attractive, too, white and spiky, and also edible. Quite dainty decorating a spring salad. Enough with the recipe tips: I suppose as a nature conservationist I should be a slightly uneasy forager, wondering whether something else might have appreciated eating what I was currently snipping, tugging or plucking from where it grew.
But that view would be too redolent of the contemporary separation of ‘nature’ and human habitats for my liking. A little recreational hunter-gathering in the right places joins those two worlds back together, however briefly, is a great way in to learning to identify a few plants and is unlikely to do very much damage. At least unless all 60 million or so residents of the British Isles forgo Tesco and became over-enthusiastic wild food foragers overnight, which seems unlikely to say the least.
As an alternative crop to sate my free-food hunger I did learn to identify wild marjoram***, which grew plentifully on the downs near our temporary Kent home. Despite such abundance I was careful to take just enough for a single omelette, avoiding land technically marked as a nature reserve and leaving most of the tangled hillside of marjoram (pictured below) and other herbaceous plants to clouds of chalkhill blues that briefly thronged across the downs during a window of warm weather in July. A plant of understated beauty that feeds both man and bug, and thus is well deserving of a top spot for the year.
Whilst on the subject of edible plants, I was taken aback in August by the appearance of spiky burdock balls, winner of the prize for 2012’s wackiest looking wild plant and one that fans of Dandelion & Burdock have much to be grateful for. Somehow another plant that had passed me by as I had absolutely no idea what it was when I stumbled across it. A sensation that is hard to come by with birds now. Not that I could possibly tire of them!
Here ends our modest journey through last year’s plants. I’ve no doubt an ardent plant conservationist will tell me I’m underplaying their hand, and that plants are far more complex than I could ever know, but as I see them plants are the structural supports of a habitat: the static framework (at least in that one usually needs a slow motion camera to catch them moving) on which the rest of life’s pyramid rests. In other words, for each plant there’s probably at least one animal which finds at least part of it quite tasty, indeed I think some of them are quite tasty, and the world is unimaginable without them. In fact, from a naturalist’s point of view the world doesn’t make very much sense without plants, and thus I’m aware that brushing up on botany needs to be close to the top of my ‘career development’ to-do list for 2013.
Photos from top to bottom: Field scabious and bee, wood anemone, common spotted orchids, ramsons (wild garlic) in April 2011 – that’s what I’m talking about!, buttercup hosts a beetle party, greater or edible burdock, wild marjoram (among other plants) with chalkhill blue.
*I would quite like to see the wild version.
**Richard Mabey’s classic little book by this title comes highly recommended.
***It’s basically the same thing as oregano, and therefore reminiscent of a good spaghetti sauce and quite easy to track down with your nose to the ground…