Flora vernalis II

When I first started school my teacher told us that if you could put your foot down in a patch of grass and stand on nine daisies in one footstep then spring had arrived. Of course at that age I took it a bit too literally, and went round the lawn in my back garden to see if I could stand on nine daisies in one go in order to determine whether or not it was really spring despite the proliferation of tulips and birds’ nests in the rest of the garden…

In fact the wild flower guide lists the humble Bellis perennis as having a flowering season of Jan-Dec. Perhaps nine at once is the key. Flowers are something that everyone associates with spring, but in some ways it would seem this association is for many people more of a conceptual ideal than a tangible appreciation for the first wild flora of the year. After all there are plenty of wild flowers around all year, even in winter, but earlier spring flowers are significant and noticeable after the duller weeks of winter. Their appearances depend not only on temperature (which is why we sometimes get daffodils in December when it’s warmer), but also daylight, which explains their increased numbers around and after the vernal equinox no matter how mild the winter has been. The name daisy is in fact a corruption of day’s eye, because their lash-fringed peepers only open up in daylight and close when it’s dark.

I don’t know when I started noticing wild flowers. I don’t mean this spring – which would actually have been winter as I saw my first violets in January – what I mean is that I don’t remember seeing wild flowers other than the obvious dandelions and daisies in the verges, but they must have been there. Maybe I didn’t spend as much time out of doors as much as I do now. Maybe I did and I just wasn’t looking. Once you start noticing them, however, they’re everywhere. The more you look, the more you see.

For myself I really started noticing them, I think, when I started recognising them. I really had to start paying attention when studying ecology at university as I needed to be able to identify wild flowers and plants in order to compile habitat surveys and vegetation classification analyses of varying scales of botanical and educational importance. Of course the more you know, the less time you have to spend leafing through the ID guide trying desperately to key out something that it little more than a green shoot and a curl of foliage.

Naming something always gives you a handle for recognition. It’s like those memory aids you can use to help remember long lists of things: thought-association strengthening the connections and speeding up recall. Common names are usually descriptive in some way or another, often visually: bluebells being among the most obvious of these. The three-cornered leek looks like every other wild garlic/onion/allium family species until you notice its three-sided stem, triangular in cross-section.

Some plants are named for what they were used for: such as the scurvygrass I spotted the other day, which were used by sailors to prevent the eponymous illness. Others are less obviously descriptive: look a little closer at the word primrose and it’s easy to see that they are prime roses, in the sense of being among the first of the floral favourites of the year.

Some common names are so bizarre it makes the wild flower guide good fun just to flick through, though there’s probably a historic method to their madness if you were to investigate the origins of some of the sillier monikers. Congested wood-rush, shaggy mouse-ear hawkweed and sneezewort are probably some of the more sensible ones. In the book Weeds and Wild Flowers, a beautiful edition of etchings by Jessica Greenman and poems by Alice Oswald, some of the funnier examples are taken advantage of with Oswald picking a bunch and playing around with their idiodyncratic names in her poetry, creating little anthropomorphic personalities for species unlucky enough to be lumbered with a label like stinking goose-foot or bargeman’s cabbage.

When it comes to Latin names they can seem less accessible because of the unfamiliarity of the language. However we’re lucky in that a large part of the English language is Latin based, so they do seem to get easier the more familiar you get with them: the more you look, in fact the more you start to recognise. This system works well because it means a species is identifiable by the same name to everyone, wherever you are. Some common names vary throughout Britain: in Scotland harebells are called bluebells, but so are bluebells. Some common names were attached before the plant was properly classified and are completely misleading, like the burnet saxifrage which neither is nor looks like a burnet nor a saxifrage, but belongs with umbellifers like cow parsley and alexanders.

During the eighteenth century Swedish ecologist Linnaeus invented the taxonomic system used internationally by the scientific community today. The system is relatively simple and involves classifying species according to their characteristics and relationship to other species into groups. Groups are then broken down into families (whose Latin name will always end in –ceae), genera (genus) and species (the individuals). Each species has two Latin names, like a first name and a surname – except like Chinese names the surname (capitalised) comes first and the given name after (not capitalised). For example the Figwort family, Scrophulariaceae, contains the genus Veronica, the speedwells, which includes slender speedwell,Veronica filiformis, and twenty five other speedwell species and subspecies.

Sometimes the Latin can be a bit tricky to get your head round (let alone try and say/spell) but the names can be more self-explanatory than they at first seem. Apart from those species that are named after a particular person, often the name will be descriptive of its owner’s identifying characteristic just like common names. Certain terms crop up again and again, like vulgaris which means what it sounds like: Primula vulgaris, the common primrose, is not vulgar in the sense of rude or disgusting, but it is quite frequently found, so vulgar as in common. A toadflax you’ll find growing out of walls bears the name Cymbalaria muralis, with mural being to do with walls. The barren strawberry, whose petals are notched like tiny hearts compared to the plainer petals of the ordinary wild strawberry, bears the word sterilis as its species name: it might flower, but it won’t produce edible fruits.

I said of wild flowers that the more you look the more you see. It’s true in so many ways. The closer you look, physically at the flowers themselves, then at home with the guidebook in front of you, the more you find out. The names are just the beginning, and even those can tell you more than you bargained for. The best thing about spring flowers though is that they’re daily on the increase, both in abundance and variety. It’s been a week since I posted those photos in Part I, but if I were to do the same today I could probably double the number, so many more have shown their faces with a few more days of sunshine. Cyclamen, wood anemone, sea campion… the more you look, the more you see.


More on this?

Weeds and Wild Flowers (2009) by Alice Oswald and Jessica Greenman is published by Faber and Faber, ISBN 978-0571237494

Species ID guides are very much a personal preference thing so it’s best to go to a bookshop that holds a few in stock so you can decide for yourself. I’ve got Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland (2003) by Marjorie Blamey, Richard Fitter and Alastair Fitter, published by A & C Black, ISBN 978-0713659443. It’s probably the most comprehensive small(ish) guide I’ve come across and the illustrations are amazing, but it doesn’t have a key for quick identification. Mind you, I think flicking through is half the fun.


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