Sunday, 8 May 2011

Mother's Day Special--A Bouquet of Cornish Wildflowers

Since I was a little girl, I have had an interest in learning the names of all the organisms in my immediate environment. I've always held a special admiration for people who have mental catalogs of names and natural history information of the wildlife around them; one of my strongest early memories is going on a nature hike with my dad at Conkle's Hollow, in the Hocking Hills region, and being completely impressed by our guide, who could identify many, if not most, of the birds, trees, and wildflowers we encountered.

When I got my first field job in college, I learned to identify many local plants while doing vegetation surveys; when I then went back home to my parents' and grandparents' houses and saw the newly-familiar species in their yards, I couldn't believe how different everything looked and felt. It was like I had walked through a doorway to a whole new magical world, where knowing the names of things and a little about their natural history suddenly gave me a better perspective on the ecosystem as a whole. I liked it.

Since then, I've rarely been without all the appropriate field guides, from ferns and wildflowers to trees and fungi (and, of course, animals, but that's a whole other story since those are related to my scientific research). Before moving from the US to the UK, I put together a donation box full of books that I would no longer need; at first my US wildflower book was included, but then I retrieved it because I just couldn't bear to be without a guide that I had used for so long, even if I would need to refer to it in the future.

Prior to our recent trip to Scilly, I purchased a guide to wildflowers on the islands, and since returning to the mainland I have acquired the beautiful Collins guides for both trees and flowers. Yes, it is time to become really acquainted with my new home.

One of the weird things about Cornwall is how much of the flora is foreign. Indeed, throughout much of the UK there are plants that have been imported from the former British colonies--not just several species that I recognize from my homeland, but also a variety from Australia and New Zealand, the Caribbean, and, especially, southern Africa. Of course, plants were also brought by friends and visitors, so there are species from Asia, the Mediterranean, Scandinavia, northern African...the list goes on. Many of these have since escaped from gardens and farms, and can now be found in what now look like fairly random locations; some are regarded as pests and invasives, while others are considered to be naturalized (the distinction between these being made less by science than emotion).

All of this can make plant identification quite tricky, but also very fun--there is such a huge diversity of species around here that it is not hard to continually find new things; thanks to the fairly mild climate, you can generally find something flowering at pretty much any time of the year; and, because of the frequent morphological similarities of plants in the same family, you can often learn a whole suite of plants together and advance your familiarity with the ecosystem in leaps and bounds.

During our time on the Isles of Scilly, I photographed many wildflowers so I could later study the photos and identify them. Back on the mainland, I've begun using my iPhone to photograph plants while I'm out walking, for the same purpose. My husband tells me this is really nerdy, and I suppose it is. But look at some of the interesting species I've encountered:

(Thrift, Armeria maritima. This grows in vast patches, coloring cliffs completely pink during spring and early summer.)

(Lesser celandine, Ranunculus ficara.)

(Sea radish, Raphanus raphanistrum ssp. maritimus. This is in the rather huge family Brassicaceae, which contains numerous other edible plants--rocket, cabbage, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, mustard, etc.)

(Arum lily, Zantedeschia aethiopica. Although you can't really tell from this picture, these are quite large, like teacup-sized versions of calla lilies; their impressiveness stems not only from their pristine coloring and texture, but also their size.)

(Cuckooflower, aka Lady's Smock, Cardamine pratensis. The first name originates from the fact that these flowers first come into bloom when the cuckoo arrives in the spring.)

(Western ramping fumitory, Fumaria occidentalis. In the background, you can also see the invasive three-cornered leek (aka three-angled leek or three-cornered garlic), Allium triquetrum. Anyone who is familiar with pagan artifacts or has recently seen Thor should appreciate the Latin name of this species--the "triquetra" is a three-part pattern used often in Germanic pagan art (e.g., Thor's hammer) and in Celtic images.)

(Hottentot-fig, Carpobrutus edulis. This is an overzealously productive plant from South Africa, now found crawling its way along shorelines throughout SW England, where it is a serious threat to native plants. The flowers come in both all-yellow and pink-and-yellow varieties. Like many of the introduced shrub-and-chaparral biome species, it is a succulent; this is one of the easiest characteristics to use when determining whether you are likely to be looking at a native Cornish plant or not.)

(Bermuda buttercup, Oxalis pes-capre. This is one of those species that makes you wonder who gave certain people the authority to name plants. This is neither a buttercup nor a Bermuda native; it is actually in the Oxalidaceae family and was introduced from South Africa.)

(Cleavers, Galium aperine. If you were judging solely on flowers, you'd probably not give this plant any awards for beauty. But the whorls of leaves around the stalks are quite delicate and pretty--I'd admired the plant long before it began blooming. I was quite surprised to find out that, despite its dainty appearance from afar, it is covered in clingy hairs that make it feel like a cross between Velcro and a cat's tongue.)

(Yellow iris, Iris pseudacorus. You might be tempted to think this is an escaped garden flower, but actually it's a native wildflower. They appear to like their privacy--I've only ever seen them growing in singles, and then far from their conspecifics. They seem to like wetland areas quite a lot, where they stand out against the reeds and rushes.)

(Smaller tree-mallow, Lavatera cretica, aka Cornish mallow. In case you're wondering what it's smaller than, the answer is:...)

(Tree-mallow, Lavatera arborea. This species is a boon to migratory birds on the Isles of Scilly. In other migration stopover locations, the birds would eat insects in/around budding trees, but Scilly has few of these; instead, the birds can find this food source in the abundant coastal mallows.)

This is only a small portion of the pictures that I took; there are still several that I need to go through so I can make species identifications. After that, there are many more than I need to photograph on my next few walks--and that will only just begin to cover the flowers that have been blooming so far this spring; many more will emerge as the summer goes on.

One thing I am particularly eager to do is become more familiar with the edible plants, since wildcrafting (harvesting from nature) is a fairly common activity here in Britain--particularly of berries, such as sloes and blackberries. Besides fruits, which are fairly obvious targets for wildcrafting, there are also some more subtle treats, such as chamomile and mint (for tea), samphire and rocket (for salads and wilting in hot dishes), onions, garlic, and leeks. Wildcrafting should always be done away from roads, where plants that are exposed to car fumes will incorporate components of the exhaust into their bodies--leading not only to a nasty taste but also potential toxicity. It's also best to avoid harvesting anything that is below waist height, just to ensure that nothing has been bathed in a shower of dog urine. Happily, natural areas in Britain abound, and the country is criss-crossed by public footpaths offering access for both plant-watching and plant-collecting.

I've been told that there is nothing better than firing up a grill on the beach and cooking some freshly-caught fish with some wild leeks and rock samphire, then eating it all straight from the fire. That sounds like something I should make it a goal to achieve before the summer is out--I've been wanting to break out the fishing rod and get my first taste of fishing on the high seas. Stay tuned to find out whether it happens!

Since it's Mother's Day, I'd like to give a shout-out to my mother, my two grandmothers, my two mothers-in-law, my sister-in-law, and my cousin, for whom this is the first of many Mother's Days to come. Thanks everyone, and keep up the good work!

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