Out with an expert
Mountain flora secrets revealed
Phil Houghton looks a little sheepish; that’s not to say he looks like a sheep (much better use of the word if you ask me) but that he looks like he needs to get something off his chest. As it turns out, when it comes it’s really not that big a deal. “You should probably know I’m not a professional botanist,” he says. “More of an enthusiastic amateur.”
The thing about appreciating the flora of a mountainside is that, in many respects, it’s an expertise that cannot be taught. Rather, it is learned by devoted observation and a kind of gradual immersion. Wainwright wasn’t a professional illustrator, let alone a guidebook writer – he was an accountant, for flip’s sake – yet few people would knock his qualification to comment on the fells, or turn down the invitation to take a stroll in his company.
Which is exactly what we’re doing now. We’re in the North Lakes, in utterly gorgeous surroundings that are glowing green with summer. The fells here are wonderfully obscure: Pikeawassa, Loadpot Hill, Steel Knotts. The hamlet-speckled valleys of Bannerdale and Ramps Gill cleave the great rump of The Nab, a statuesque spur from a pile of beautiful fells, where the eye darts and traces routes over unfamiliar ridgelines. But this mega-landscape is purely the backdrop; today, it’s all about the microcosm that makes it.
We’re ledging around on an outcrop between Ullswater and Hallin Fell on a scrubble of contours marked on the map as The Coombs. The map doesn’t matter though; nor the outcrops, the broader context, or the rock itself. We’re focusing on the space between the rocks where a tiny plant is twitching in the breeze. On this scale, you can literally find something of interest every 12 inches. Well – Phil can, anyway.
“Like this... look...” Phil indicates a tiny frond of delicate fern poking out from a nook. It’s barely as big as his finger. “See the way there are two different types of leaf emerging from the same root? You only get this in the uplands. One of these leaf types is fertile and produces the spore. The other is sterile. They love an acidic soil. It’s parsley fern.” I nod in recognition. “Can I eat it?” Phil releases the delicate green leaves and they spring back into position. “Um. No... I wouldn’t.” He looks at me and frowns a little. “Parsley fern.”
Considering how much time I’ve spent in the hills, my own knowledge of botany is pitiful. I know what dandelions are. Cotton grass is pretty easy. Grass in general I can recognise, being of a generally green and fibrous form. Aside from that I can name a couple of seriously weird plants – the insectivorous common sundew and butterwort, which frankly stick out a mile and are effectively apex predators when it comes to plants – but that’s really about it. (This extends beyond the hills, too; I thought our garden veg patch was bearing impressive results with blackberries until my distressed motherin-law told me it was actually a monster crop of deadly nightshade.)
What I found surprising was how much genuinely interesting stuff there is to find out in the hills. Little details. And so many...
“I think with mountain plants… there’s something about their tenacity, the holding on, enduring the elements,” says Phil. “Take the tiny saxifrage, for instance. It’s from the Latin for stone/ rock breaker, given its association with gaining a foothold in rocky crevices. You might encounter it on the exposed ridge of, say, Sharp Edge, with the climber suddenly pulling it into focus at fingertip level. It’s a harsh environment, yet it’s got its grip and it’s in flower.”
Phil Houghton’s eye is remarkably attuned. Partly because the North Lakes is his local patch, with Ullswater its rather pretty puddle; partly because he’s got a lot of knowledge from years of observing. But mostly, simply, because he’s a curious person – and sometimes that’s in its most prolific form as an enthusiasm, rather than a profession, with all its involuntary trappings. Einstein said once, “it’s a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”
Curiosity and an eye for detail goes hand in hand with Phil’s other pastime – his acclaimed poetry. He says, “I was interested in wildlife from a early age, with a focus on birdwatching, but it was my introduction to the mountain environments of the Lakes that drew me to look closer at the detail, probably from finding my first sundew towards Cat Bells... ”
So when’s the best time for mountain plants? As you might expect, but later than you think. “For me, it’s spring into late summer,” says Phil. “Rising from the dales and valleys, there’s an extended newness from the ‘delayed’ season that altitude brings. It’s often behind the lower levels up there. Then there’s the multi-seasonal interest from the vast array of lichens, their many forms visible on rocks and crags, year-round.”
We wander on slowly, in a completely illogical, circuitous figure. Phil points out small plants with big names. We do a lot of bending down. My embarrassment at my own lack of knowledge turns to mild amazement. Phil’s passion for this landscape is infectious, and I find myself pining for similar observational skills. Knowing this stuff really does enrich your day, but it wasn’t something I knew I was missing. Then, suddenly, it’s like I’m missing out on 70 per cent of the walk’s richness and information – the equivalent of going to the cinema wearing earplugs...
Phil recalls a flower he found on Blencathra, a few miles yonder, the previous year. He pulls out an unlikely tool for his observations. “My iPhone is a brilliant asset. Every picture I take is dated and location tagged, so I know when a particular plant came into flower, where and when.”
Among an enormous range of botanical life, Phil lists the saxifrage as especially interesting plants to walkers, and to him. They are a classic species demonstrating adaptation to the changing environments of height.
“Encountering the rue-leaved saxifrage at lower levels, say starting out from a walk, hints at its tenacity from its life on the dale’s drystone wall,” says Phil. “Then higher up you find the starry and mossy saxifrages, two mountain species. They are separated by altitude from their valley cousin, but display the same rock-dwelling habit. Hardy, but with delicate, star-like flowers; a micro-galaxy anchored to an exposed ledge.”
And they can be useful, too – knowing the plants on a particular surface can give you an indication of more than just its soil type. “Take the bright, amber-yellow ‘warning’ of bog asphodel,” says Phil. “Plants appear in dispersed groups, and often indicate where sedge and springy moorland turf changes. This alerts you to more boggy ground just by a greater awareness of the signature species that it hosts.”
We clamber back down to the road edge as afternoon starts to come to a close; the landscape lambent in its late summer coat. Says Phil: “These are big landscapes and as a writer, too, I think of the montane plants and lichens as the pixels that colour the moors and mountains, and build the much bigger picture.”
Parsley fern: just one of the interesting botanical treasures only found in the mountains.