The po­etic plea­sure of know­ing a plant’s name

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden - Alan Titch­marsh

ON win­ning the No­bel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture in 1995, Sea­mus Heaney ex­plained that he would spend some of his prize money on an ed­u­ca­tional course that would en­able him, on walk­ing through wood­land, to iden­tify the trees and the plants around him—some­thing he had yearned to do all his life.

I have never for­got­ten the mo­ment when he con­fessed this, as it gave me a cer­tain amount of pride in my own abil­ity. (It was tem­pered by the fact that the lit­er­ary merit of my poetry fails by a sig­nif­i­cant mar­gin to equal that of Mr Heaney, but that’s not the point.)

When I was a stu­dent at Kew Gar­dens between 1969 and 1972, the weekly plant iden­ti­fi­ca­tion test was the bane of our lives. Twenty plant spec­i­mens, gath­ered from the gar­dens’ vast and un­par­al­leled col­lec­tion—un­der glass and in the open—would be dis­played in tall glass jars on the lab­o­ra­tory benches and, in si­lence I would, along with the other stu­dents in my year, pass from one to an­other, writ­ing down, against the cor­re­spond­ing num­bers on a sheet of pa­per, our best guess as to the fam­ily, genus species and va­ri­ety of each plant. A score of 20 out of 20 was a cause for celebration at the end of the week in the Coach and Horses.

Some of the plants I learned I’ve never set eyes on since, but I bless those days—and the daily prox­im­ity to the finest plant col­lec­tion in the world—for ac­quaint­ing me with the won­ders and va­ri­ety of the Plant King­dom at ev­ery time of year. There were cer­tain hor­rors, of course, such as a week in which ev­ery spec­i­men was a species of pine. Pines do vary in their ap­pear­ance when ex­am­ined at close quar­ters—their nee­dles may be long or short and clus­tered in twos, threes or fives—but they send the mind reel­ing when it comes to re­mem­ber­ing which is which.

In win­ter, the puz­zle was fur­ther com­pounded by a to­tal lack of fo­liage on de­cid­u­ous trees, but learn­ing to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between oak and ash, beech and birch has stood me in good stead over the years. There is a de­gree of per­sonal sat­is­fac­tion in be­ing able to tell t’other from which.

Some peo­ple give trees not a back­ward glance when they’re bereft of leaves. They tower over us, naked and threat­en­ing, sway­ing in strong winds, bleak of coun­te­nance and seem­ingly de­void of life, but ob­serv­ing them in this state at close quar­ters is not with­out its plea­sures, from the slen­der quill-like buds of beech to the tightly packed and folded nubs of the oak, en­cased in a plen­i­tude of ru­fous scales.

Ash are easy to spot, their bul­lethard shoot tips be­ing black­ened as if by fire, and, with a bit of prac­tice, you can learn to tell horn­beam a mile off by the won­der­fully stat­uesque wide-open flame shape of its branch frame­work.

Most of my gen­er­a­tion learned to iden­tify horse-ch­est­nut twigs at ju­nior school. ‘Sticky-buds’ we used to call them and we cut 3ft lengths and put them in jars on the high win­dowsill of our Vic­to­ri­an­built class­room to watch the tof­fee-coated leaf scales burst open to re­veal the squashed and hairy um­brel­las of leaf as they ex­panded al­most be­fore our eyes.

They and the ger­mi­nat­ing broad bean seeds, sand­wiched between the sides of an­other glass jar and a cylin­der of pink blot­ting pa­per, were our first in­tro­duc­tions to the magic of plant growth.

I try still to ex­pand my plant vo­cab­u­lary, es­pe­cially in win­ter, when there seems to be lit­tle in the way of botan­i­cal ac­tiv­ity, but this is the time of year when trees in par­tic­u­lar re­veal their se­cret sides—the Jekyll or the Hyde of their char­ac­ter, de­pend­ing on which way you look at it. There’s a par­tic­u­lar kind of plea­sure in iden­ti­fy­ing them in their dor­mant state—it’s the dif­fer­ence between do­ing the quick crossword and tack­ling the cryptic one.

There are some, of course, that sur­prise by the bril­liance of their bark at this time of year: the paper­bark maple, Acer gri­seum, with its peel­ing wafers of ma­hogany; the Ti­betan cherry, Prunus ser­rula, as shiny as any side­board treated with An­ti­quax; and the birches, from ice-white Be­tula utilis var. jacque­mon­tii through creamy Be­tula er­manii to the pink­ishor­ange tones of Be­tula al­bosi­nen­sis septen­tri­on­alis Kansu.

Dor­mant they may be, but there’s still fun to be had from trees in win­ter—not least, re­call­ing how to spell their Latin names.

‘There’s still fun to be had from trees in win­ter

My Se­cret Gar­den by Alan Titch­marsh is pub­lished by BBC Books (£25)

De­spite their bleak coun­te­nance, win­ter trees re­tain a cer­tain charm, as with this beech av­enue near Brad­bury Rings, Dorset

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.