Someone told me the other day that before the industrial revolution the average person could name and recognize over 200 plants, and that now the average person can only name 50. The sad thing is that what surprised me about the quote was that the average person could name as many as 5o now. I suspect it’s less and until a year or so ago I was probably one of them.
I have always liked plants. I brought a tiny money plant from the school market when I was 5 and nurtured it for 20 years, until she (I called her Elvis first, changing it to Elvisa when she flowered for the first time) surcomed to mealybugs and died. I watched David Attenborough’s Private Life of Plants and was enthralled and inspired but I never seemed to learn and retain any information which would enable me to tell what things were when I saw them.
I developed a fondness for cacti as people in the 90s were inclined to do but that doesn’t help you when you’re walking about outside in England and you want to know what things are. Walks in the countryside had the feeling of listening to someone talk to you in a foreign language which you didn’t speak a word of. Everything starts to look the same when you don’t know what to look for and you end up clinging to the hand full of species you at least think you know. You see buttercups and daisies everywhere you look, in a sea of out of focus green.
When I started at Manchester Met Uni as a mature student in 2010 I signed up to a program called Mentor Match. The uni had a list of professionals who were prepared to mentor students with ambitions to enter their field. I found an ecologist called Richard on the list and was matched up with him. We met for a coffee in Chorlton and he gave me advice of how best to supplement my degree with extra curricular stuff. I have followed all of Richard’s advice so far and it’s all been good but one thing in particular stands out.
He recommended I do a Field Studies Council Course called Using a Flora. As he said it he absentmindedly waved an enormous book at me and suggested it would help me identify flowers. There was a course I could do which would teach me how to identify flowers? This shouldn’t have come as such a surprise but before you enter the world of ecology you don’t have a clue what goes on in it and certainly at that stage I was disproportionately surprised quite often.
I signed up to the course and in the summer holidays on 2012 I caught a train to London Euston, a tube to Liverpool Street and another train to Manningtree when taxi took me to the FSC centre at Flatford Mill. Stepping out of a taxi into a Constable painting is surreal. I spent I think four days there with a group of 11 ecologists, most of whom were doing the course as part of a masters. It became clear early on that I was out of my depth but I had nothing to lose so worked as hard as I could. The days were long followed by nights in my room going over and writing up my notes.
The tutor was Ros Bennett, my hero. I had my brain turned upside down over those few days. It was the most challenging educational pursuit I’d attempted before or since and I felt like I learned more in those four days than in the 31 years previously. When it was over I wished I could stay and do it again. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done.
I returned to Manchester armed with my copies of Stace and Rose and set about keying out everything I could find. I’d told friends I was going on a course which would teach me to use a book which would mean I could identify any plant in the UK. I returned knowing that that had been incredibly naive. The plant kingdom I had discovered, does not wish to be identified and makes it as difficult for you as possible. But I was different now. I had a grasp of plant anatomy, a few useful tricks to getting quickly to family for common families, and the confidence to use my keys. These are the tools Ros had equipped me with and they are so valuable.
A year on I am still a beginner working my way through the common plants you need to know before you start getting clever. I enjoy all the ecological things I do, but it’s plants that I think about the most. I pick flowers I don’t recognize out of walls on my walk home, and my small concrete yard is full of old, cracked, giant plastic plant pots with wild flowers and grasses growing in for me to enjoy and examine through their life cycle. This has lead to an ongoing and fruitless battle with an apparently never ending army of tiny slugs hell bent on destroying my garden.
I applied for a grant through the BSBI to fund another flower ID course, was successful and in May this year I journeyed down to the FSC center in Slapton, Devon for another of Ros’ courses. This time Woodland Plants. I didn’t tell anyone else on the course that it was my birthday on the Saturday there. At one point that day the group of us on this course were stood on a country lane looking at a hedgerow. Ros asked if anyone could describe the inflorescence of the Greater Stitchwort growing there. I replied that it was a dichasial cyme. “I’m SO proud of you!” she said semi-seriously and I lit up like a Christmas tree. Best birthday ever!
The point though is that while I am still continuously reminded of how much I don’t know, and often dazzled by how much people I meet do know, it wasn’t so long ago that I felt completely lost when it came to botany. A couple of years hard work is all you need to get you started. Prepare to be humbled, intimidated and occasionally demoralized. In return, in not too long you gain momentum and inspiration and a hobby that you can enjoy for free, pretty much any where.