I’ve been thinking about wild flower guides, especially following my last two posts.
I have a book blog over at The Year of Random Reading. It’s tied into my work, but it’s also an attempt to get me to re-read books I already own rather than buying new ones (sooner or later I’ll be on Extreme Hoarders, but with books and wool and plant pots rather than plastic bags). The whole idea is to roll the dice and read what they determine, and they gave me a couple of plant books. I’d not have blogged about these over there, as they’re a bit specialist for a general book blog – but I was fascinated by these two and the change they represent. So they’ve migrated. Or perhaps that should be ‘extended their habitat’.
One is the splendid 1950 Penguin title, Uncommon Wild Flowers I by John Hutchinson; I’ve no idea what happened to UWF 2, but I want it. It’s beautiful, and it even smells right – second-hand bookshop smell par excellence. Amazingly, the spine is still intact (wonder how many modern books that will be true of in 62 years’ time?), even though it’s obviously been used a lot.
The other is one of Roger Phillips’ photographic books, Weeds, published in 1986. I have a feeling that this series of small photographic guides didn’t last very long, which is a huge shame. The selection can be a bit random, but they’re portable and I dearly love a photo when it comes to identification.
But the main difference between the two is in the sheer quantity, and the sheer depth, of the information they contain.
Uncommon Wild Flowers was the third of the author’s books (the previous two were Common WF and, surprise, surprise, More Common WF) and it is, as he says, ‘a somewhat arbitrary choice of species’. It is also charmingly idiosyncratic, if sometimes irritatingly so, especially in view of the discovery reported in my last post:
‘Certain young people who have written to the author may be disappointed that no orchids are included. It was hoped to include a limited number, but the generally bad weather during 1948 and restricted transport prevented him from making drawings and descriptions of them in the woodlands and fields as he had intended.’
Well, darn it. Because had he been able to persist with that bad weather and terrible transport, his book would undoubtedly have answered the question (asked by Christina in response to my last post) of whether bee orchids set viable seed.
I don’t know – no persistence, some people.
Uncommon Wild Flowers, as you can see, is beautifully illustrated – but in the classic botanical tradition of old herbals, though there are two extensive sections of black and white photographs. As you can also see, there’s also much more text than you get in a modern wild flower guide. This is a (somewhat abbreviated) flora, really, designed for students of botany as well as general readers, and it certainly assumes a depth of understanding about, for instance, the parts of a plant.
But the text is a bit too idiosyncratic to be limited by that, thank heavens, and Hutchinson’s curiosity about plants often leaps out at you. Did you know that dwarf elder could poison turkeys, or that the Cloudberry found in Spitzbergen was mainly sterile? Now you do. Or take the page above, for instance, on the Cherry Laurel. There’s plenty of botanical information, then a bit on it as a garden shrub – hang on, I thought this was Uncommon Wild Flowers? – and then this: ‘The fresh leaves are sometimes used for flavouring sweetmeats, custards, creams, etc., but they should be employed with great caution as they have poisonous qualities (prussic acid).’ Now there’s useful information.
You couldn’t hope for a better contrast than Roger Phillips’ Garden and Field Weeds.
and this doesn’t include hints and tips for young poisoners, either. Though there are some remarks about ergot in the Corncockle entry that could be useful if you were that way inclined…
I have to say that I find Weeds invaluable. It’s a great guide to those anonymous rosettes of greenery that spring up: is it a bird? is it a plane? is it something which needs to be removed from the vegetable bed immediately in case it spreads like wildfire?
Unfortunately it doesn’t answer the question of how the heck you remove oxalis from your onion bed without either uprooting the onions or spreading the ******** oxalis, but nothing’s perfect. And it is due to this book that my garden is largely a groundsel-free zone. It informed me that groundsel can germinate within a week, and that the resulting seedlings can themselves be producing seed within five weeks. ‘Thus,’ continues Phillips, ‘one seed can theoretically produce a thousand million plants between spring and autumn.’ A thousand million. And that’s why I am ruthless and uproot even the teeniest, weeniest seedling.
Yes, Weeds is great, and it serves its purpose well. But, as a generalisation, I frequently feel the need for more information in my wild flower guides, and that usually means more technical information. Without it, you almost inevitably rely on the flower alone, and sometimes things are awkward and aren’t in flower (or the flowers have blown away in the gales). I don’t often feel like a dinosaur, but comparing these two, and then checking out some of the current offerings in a local bookshop has made me wonder. Dumming down? Hm.
Now all I need is a book that tells me how to stop my ash trees from dropping branches in the current hurricane. That’s as opposed to the hurricane we had last weekend. OK, I’m exaggerating but only a bit, and the branches are a pain. Grumble, moan. Where’s summer gone?