Bushes have always had a pretty rough deal in nature books. This is not because people dislike them – on the contrary, everyone likes a nice bush, especially if you’re a gardener with an awkward gap – but because they occupy a clumsy halfway stage between flowers and trees. They get an after-mention in flower books and they receive grudging appraisal in tree books, but very few books come straight out and say, I am a book about bushes.
Bushes, in fact, are rather like those weights in boxing which are neither glamorously heavy and muscular, nor small and light on their feet, but intermediary like light-weight welter or semi-demi-featherweight. Or perhaps they are like those showbiz stars who are big enough to appear as guests on other people’s shows, but not big enough to have shows of their own. Or maybe like those towns which are too close to London to get their own share of the limelight, such as St Albans, Hatfield, Welwyn Garden City, Hitchin or Basildon. Or even like… but you get the idea.
The fact is – and no-one ever admits this - the fact is that deep down we all feel that bushes should not exist. There should be no halfway stage between flowers and trees, nothing that smells and looks pretty like one, and gets big and strong like the other. There’s something, well, a bit funny about bushes. They’re not gay or anything, but, you know, it’s odd that they can’t make up their minds what they really are, that’s all I’m saying. They marry and have families, but is their heart really in it? Still, to show that I am not prejudiced, unlike other nature guides, I am dividing them into exactly the same number of species as flowers and trees.
Bushes being such a doubtful quantity, the study of them has languished far behind other nature studies. This explains why words appertaining to bushes are so often old-fashioned; whin, for instance, or brake or covert. Or wayfaring. Nobody says wayfaring these days. I’m going wayfaring to Mallorca in May. Or, I found this delightful restaurant while wayfaring in Yorkshire.
Nevertheless we have a wayfaring tree. All this means is a tree that was planted with other trees but travelled a few hundred yards to get away from them and then turned into a bush. They stand by themselves, looking ever so slightly exhibitionist, with bright berries, flowers and other kinds of make-up.
Honestly, I’m as tolerant at the next man, but it does look a bit odd, doesn’t it?
SALTY TWISTED STUNTY THING
A sort of leather-jacketed bush that hangs around at the seaside. It is recognisable from its bad posture and tendency to drop one shoulder. You get the impression when you see it that it has a motorcycle parked round the corner, on which it came down that morning from Hatfield or Basildon.
It tends to live on strange-flavoured crisps or savoury rings. At least, packets which have recently contained these are usually found in its spiny fleshless branches. It is the only known kind of bush which has bad breath.
Like the previous, but with a criminal record. Gangs of them can be found at otherwise pleasant beauty spots, ensnaring the innocent passer-by and getting them into fierce arguments. They are usually studded with ferocious barbs, hooks, claws and spikes. The Guardian would blame this on social deprivation. Personally, I wouldn’t, but as I said, this is a tolerant book.
ELDERS AND BETTERS
Some bushes have to suffer the indignity of having their blossoms and fruits wrenched off to convert into home-made wines, though secretly they probably enjoy it. They are instantly recognisable from the heavy sprays of flowers and berries which bedeck them. And from the fact that we use words like “bedeck” to describe them, they probably wouldn’t shrink from words like “bedizen” or “guerdon”.
The sad fact about elder bushes is that they are most often found outside cottages leading a sort of double life. Well, as I said, this is a tolerant book, and I only mention it in passing.
Still, and all.
Gorse, or furze, or whin, is the only plant that flowers all year round. If you know the way that nature operates – a short burst of violent activity, followed by a lengthy period of fainting, sighing and insensibility – this makes the gorse suspect immediately. What does it know that we don’t?
The answer is, it has a sublime disdain for what people think about it. It produces its yellow flowers and spiky punk thorns all the year round, and just couldn’t care less. Whatever it’s at, it’s at it all the time. No wonder they say: When gorse isn’t flowering, kissing’s out of fashion.
(I ought to point out, in passing, that kissing is now more in fashion than ever. Almost everyone I meet these days I am forced to kiss on both cheeks, even if I know them perfectly well already. It’s all to do with the modern habit of calling strangers by their first name, I think, especially on TV chat shows. Three cheers for Marghanita Laski who once was called Marghanita on ‘Any Questions’ on Radio 4, and answered: “My name is Miss Laski!”
Still, perhaps this is beyond the scope of this particular book.)
A quisling oak is any bush that started life as a tree but decided in its teens that it liked life better as a bush and refused to grow any further. You can recognise them from having totally normal tree leaves but being squat and densely packed with shoots and twigs, rather ostentatiously so. Older readers will probably have the urge to say: Get your hair cut.
Nobody quite knows why this happens. Some scientists think it may be a disease of some kind. Others trace it to an overpowering parent. I think it is a mild form of transvestism, and if a tree wants to dress up as a bush now and again, well, why not? Just as long as it doesn’t go any further.
The commonest bush in town parks, Victorian suburbs and driveways up to hotels. It has dark green leaves, a smart turn-out and a slightly military air, as if it always wore a great-coat. There is something rather butch about it, to my way of thinking, and I prefer a bush that slops about a bit, but this may say more about me than the bush.
An odd one, this, which seems to occur only on the promenades of seaside towns in the south, though they are said to have been spotted in the north of Scotland, probably asking for political asylum. The theory is that they can only survive in warm quasi-tropical conditions, though I have only seen them in rainy windswept conditions which seem to have driven off every other bush in sight. They are nature’s equivalent of the Italian teenager sent to a language school on the South Coast for the summer and wondering what on earth he is doing there and why he can’t pick up local girls.
The bush almost always features palm-like leaves or sword-like spikes, which have usually worn off near the top leaving a bit of trunk like a vulture’s neck. No wonder it can’t pick up girls.
ORNAMENTAL LABELLED HORTICULTURAL DISPLAY THING
Occurs only in parks, Wisley and the garden of Mr and Mrs Beverley Anstruther, open once a year to the public in aid of a hospital fund. It is heavily made up, far too closely trimmed and even wears a label round its neck, probably the only example of nature going in for fashion accessories. It is excessively pleased with itself, for no discernible reason.
THE LAST REMAINING BUSH
Go up on the moors, past the last house, past the last tree, and there you will see, far out on the lonely expanses, one single, huddled bush all by itself. How brave, you think; what a sturdy little thing to have grown where nobody else dares. How wrong you are - this is the last remaining relic of a forest that used to grow there. It is like the member of a youth gang whom nobody likes, and who looks round one day to say: Hey – where has everyone gone? Don’t try to feel sorry for it, or you will be infected by its hopeless introversion and start feeling miserable yourself. There must be a reason for a forest to leave it behind. Five million trees can’t be wrong.
The main thing to remember is that bushes are all going through a period of adolescence, with all the troubles and traumas that teenagers get. The fact that they are going to remain adolescents all their lives has not dawned on them and probably never will; even if it does, they will deal with it no doubt, just as humans in the same position do.
Nature Made Ridiculously Simple or How to Identify Absolutely Everything. Pub. 1983