What began as a wildflower awakening back in February has slowly blossomed into bit of an obsession. Now, I notice wildflowers wherever I go. More and more of them are becoming well known to me, usually just by their common names, but sometimes by their botanical ones too, so that I greet them as old friends as I go by. (Sometimes, I even know an interesting historical, ecological, etymological or culinary fact about them – or even, sometimes, a poem.) But there are still many new acquaintances to be made. A little window on a world previously unknown to me as suddenly, wondrously, swung open.
I think I know the reasons why. I get easily overwhelmed by stimuli and tend to experience a kind of tunnel vision when walking down a busy London street. When I worked in Central London I had to dodge a gauntlet of taxis, delivery lorries, shoppers, fellow workers, roadworks and chuggers to get from the tube to my office. No chance to spot and observe nature.
Nowadays, I have to navigate my way around wonky paving slabs, dog turds, fly tipping and broken glass, while calling to my young daughters not to dawdle or run too far ahead. The birds flit too quickly between the treetops for me to identify them, and even the trees, which tend to stay in one place, give me a dizzying dose of reverse vertigo as I squint up into their canopies in an attempt to discern their leaf shapes. But, like my children, wildflowers are small and close to the ground; I can keep an eye on one and an eye out for the other at the same time, without getting dizzy or disorientated.
On our eight-minute school run or 15-minute daily walk round the block, I might encounter patches of Jersey Cudweed, Creeping Wood Sorrell and Cornsalad livening up the paving cracks; clumps of Greater Celandine, Herb Bennett and Comfrey jostling for space in a tree pit; and crumbling front garden walls festooned with Ivy-leaved Toadflax and Black Medick.
When we make it to a park, verge or green space away from a busy road, I can let down my guard a little. Here I might spend a happy few minutes deciding whether a flower that I would once have dimly mistaken for a Dandelion is in fact a Hawkweed or Cat’s Ear or else discover a new (to me) species of Violet or Speedwell, while my daughters equally happily sow dandelion seeds, make friends with a bee or construct a ‘nest’ from leaves and catkins. On a rare recent outing to the hairdresser without kids, I missed the bus while fawning over a bank of Buttercups and Cuckooflowers.
Admiring and identifying wildflowers is not without its perils. Each week I try to take part in the #WildflowerHour challenge on social media, which might be to spot and share a photo of a yellow wildflower, a wildflower growing on a wall or an invasive plant, for example. During the Tiny Geraniums challenge I spotted a patch of Shining Cranesbill in the corner of the school playground and managed to snap it just in time before the school gates shut on the three of us.
But as is often the case when I am just getting to know and love something new – I find it under threat. The very next day after our Shining Cranesbill escapade, the school caretaker meticulously cleared the playground edges of ‘weeds’ and I met a council worker uprooting the gutter weeds with a shovel on our road. The next day I noticed that some of the paving wildflowers had turned a suspicious shade of yellowy brown and acquired a pungent chemical odour.
I was hoping that my local park and verge wildflowers might escape the attack. This year, more and more gardeners and councils have been following the advice of Plantlife’s annual No Mow May campaign and putting their lawnmowers away for the month of May. Allowing lawns, verges and park meadows to grow wild during May provides a valuable source of nectar for struggling pollinators. Sadly, however, Haringey Council doesn’t seem to have got the memo. Yesterday, I was dismayed by the sight of my favourite wild verge needlessly reduced to lines of hay.
Luckily, wildflowers grow and spread their seeds quickly. Already, there are dandelions, sow thistles and patches of Groundsel, Shepherd’s Purse and Hairy Bittercress poking up through the paving cracks just feet away from their poisoned counterparts.
And luckily, I am not the only one noticing the wildflowers more. Plenty of my neighbours were similarly displeased by the recent mowing of our local wildflower verges. Perhaps, if we make our voices heard, next year will be a different story. In the meantime, I’m grateful that some people where I live have front lawns like this: