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.

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