Not that long ago, I was writing about the wonders of winter. Now, I’m full of the joys of spring. And so far my spring this year has been all about wildflowers. Yes, I smile at the sight of daffodils growing on well kept verges and in the formal garden sections of my local parks, but it is the scrawny little weeds springing up through the paving cracks that really gladden my heart.
I got a lot of odd looks back in November when I closely examined and photographed each of the trees on my street in an attempt to identify their species for National Tree Week. If my neighbours thought my behaviour was odd then, I wonder what they think now when they see me crouching down on the pavement amongst cigarette butts and crisp packets to snap weeds growing in the cracks, gutters and tree pits.
I think it must be the simple, delicate, easily overlooked beauty of wildflowers that enthrals me, together with their resilience and hardiness. And how they manage to be both delicate and hardy at the same time is a pleasing anomaly. Urban wildflowers are a sign that nature always finds a way, despite overzealous council mowing, unfortunate tarmacking of tree pits and the odd weedkiller application. Many of them line the roadsides in pretty little rosettes, while others sprawl over verges and under railings in a feathery tangle.
Then there are the common names: Herb Robert, Dove’s Foot Cranesbill, Shepherd’s Purse, Speedwell, Stitchwort, Hairy Bittercress… They reveal so much about the character of each wildflower and encourage me to look closer for little details. Speedwell really does seem to rush over banks in greeting and shepherd’s purse keeps its seeds in dainty heart-shaped purses.
I haven’t been neglecting trees though, for many of them have flowers too, and not just the cherry and plum trees with their showy, fragrant blossom, but birch, hazel, field maple, alder… These flowers are often tricky to spot because they are small, high up and quickly obscured by emerging foliage. We passed a hazel hedge on our daily walk yesterday and, barely visible, on the twigs, amongst the male and female catkins, were some tiny crimson bristles.
For identification purposes, I have been using a handy, free and easy-to-use app called iNaturalist. I simply upload images of my finds and add the location to receive an instant list of possibilities. Then, there’s Twitter. Every Sunday evening between 8 and 9pm it’s #WildflowerHour on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, during which botanical enthusiasts share photos of the wildflowers they’ve spotted during the week. It has been wonderful to discover that so many other people share my love of weeds and wildflowers and has also widened my awareness of wildflower subspecies. Who knew that there were so many different species of speedwell? Common Field, Ivy-leaved, Thyme-leaved, Slender, Garden, Corn, Water… (Over 18 according to my Ladybird book of British Wildflowers.)
I also have several lovely second-hand plant reference books at my disposal. But the wildflower guides I have been turning to most this spring are Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairy books. Each flower fairy poem within the books charmingly embodies the spirit of the flower it represents, while the illustrations are both beautiful and botanically accurate. One of the books is called Flower Fairies of the Wayside. And, with the Covid-19 pandemic restricting my wildflower hunts to my daily walks through my local streets and green spaces, I am finding this one particularly relevant and useful.
The first poem in the book, entitled ‘Open Your Eyes’ perfectly sums up my urban spring wildflower awakening:
'To shop, and school, to work and play, The busy people pass all day; They hurry, hurry, to and fro, And hardly notice as they go The wayside flowers, known so well, Whose names so few of them can tell. They never think of fairy-folk Who may be hiding for a joke! O, if these people understood What's to be found by field and wood; What fairy secrets are made plain By any footpath, road or lane - They'd go with open eyes, and look, (As you will, when you've read this book) And then at least they'd learn to see How pretty common things can be!'
My children love these poems too. If they had to pick their favourites, I think Josephine would plump for Daisy, while Gwendolyn would be torn between Coltsfoot, Speedwell (the colour matches her eyes) and the ‘Dauntless’ Dandelion, but I think that my favourite Flower Fairy poem, and my favourite wildflower of this spring so far, has to be Lesser Celandine:
'Before the hawthorn leaves unfold, Or buttercups put forth their gold, By every sunny footpath shine The stars of Lesser Celandine.'
Last week, after envying others’ photos on #WildflowerHour, I stumbled across my first patch of Lesser Celandine of this spring, under some railings on the way back from nursery. It was the first warmish, spring-like day of the year, my daughters were skipping along merrily, and when I saw the yellow star shaped faces shining up at us it felt as though I had struck gold.