This section is basically an attempt to start undoing the damage caused by naturalists who lump things together in families. These families are always based on highly dubious principles, usually on the idea that if two things look totally dissimilar, they probably belong to the same family. This is understandable in human society, where most people spend most of their time altering their appearance or moving vast distances in order to be disassociated from relatives, but in higher forms of life, like flowers this is unlikely.
Naturalist tie themselves in all sorts of knots to explain their idea of families. Here is Gerald Durrell in The Amateur Naturalist –
‘Although conifers bear flowers of a sort, there are technical differences between conifer flowers and the flowers of a “flowering plant” which mean that conifers are not included in the group called Flowering Plants. Also, not all conifers are evergreens – larches are conifers but shed their leaves in autumn, and so they are deciduous conifers. And, strangely enough, not all conifers bear cones; the juniper is one that bears soft fleshy berries instead.’
Well, all I can say is that I am glad flowers cannot read, or they would be mightily confused. The way botanists divide up flowers reminds me of the way Africa was divided into countries by politicians.
Here are the main ten types of flower. If any flower thinks he does not fit into one of these, he can contact me chez Hamish Hamilton, but mark your envelope carefully; they publish Mr Durrell’s book as well.
The tiny white (or red, or yellow or blue) flowers are grouped together at the top of the stalk, facing upwards towards the sun or botanist, and so arranged that, when the petals are counted in a circular direction, the one you started from has slightly changed position by the time you get back to it. Somewhat confusing from close up, this plant is probably better identified from a motor car or even a passing train.
Very common in Kent and Surrey, it is equally common elsewhere. The stems are almost invariably green.
Britain’s only exclusively seaside flower, the Stinking Sea Vegetable is found widely in such marine habitats as cliffs, beach huts, sand dunes, yacht trailer parks, golf courses, weed sanctuaries and gardens of cottages called Seaview. Its battle to survive against floods, tides, sand and little boys called Come Here Kevin leave it little time to spend on its personal appearance, and it has become tough, dark green, thick and quite unmemorable.
There is no particular odour attached to it, despite its name; it just looks as if it stinks. The name ’vegetable’ arose because if it is boiled for about half an hour it doesn’t taste much of anything, and was much used in the Middle Ages instead of spinach.
At one time Stinking Sea Vegetable was only found for a restricted period, but now that there is a plentiful supply of cheap imported foodstuff, it is available all year round.
This welcome bloom, the harbinger of spring, is one of the first flowers to appear after the cold of winter and one of the last to go away. But, despite its lone arrival and its distinctive yellow, blue, purple, red, white or orange petals, it is not always easy to identify. The best way is to eliminate all other nine possibilities, as one tends to do when choosing a dish from the menu, and end up with this.
The English poets have always been rather vague about identifying the blooms they are rhapsodising over (cf ‘The flowers that bloom in the spring, tra la’, or ‘The blossom hangs from yonder bough’); in most cases, the ignorant poet had failed to identify The Golden Meadow Thing or, in the latter case, the Climbing Golden Meadow Thing. Some writers have actually done the decent thing and owned up, as in Keats’s ‘I cannot see what flowers are at my feet’, which sounds like a dead cert description of Blind Man’s Moustache.
A tiny flower growing deep in meadowland, hedges or anywhere where it is invisible from full standing height. A simple test is to pass a lawn mower over it; if it is still there afterwards it is Blind Man’s Moustache. Not a spectacular bloom as far as size goes, it more than makes up for this in its range of colours (any hue is admissible) and its tenacity, which is probably due to its unpopularity as an ingredient of bunches of wild flowers (it has no stalk).
Widespread on moorlands and hillsides, it can masquerade as grass for years without its disguise being blown. Botanists have always been puzzled by the way it never grows any bigger – for a time there was a theory that it sprang up overnight to three feet and became Greater Hedge Froth. It has now been watched at night, however, and apparently it just becomes invisible.
A small green plant, it is instantly recognisable for its habit of never being anything but small and green. Close scrutiny will reveal the presence of small green lumps on it. These may be a) small green buds due to flower next month or b) small green seeds left over from last month’s flowering. Nobody has ever been prepared to hang around long enough to find out.
It is possible of course that its flowers are c) small green lumpy flowers.
It grows everywhere all the time.
So called because of its resemblance to a flower growing in profusion in pictures on seed packets. Identification is usually easy because of the tendency to cry, ‘Oh, look, it’s a tiny version of you know, that thing Aunty always has in her garden.’ If this is followed by the observation that there still would be plenty left if we picked a bunch, that clinches it.
This group also includes vegetable-like things which are you are sure you have seen someone on television saying you can cook easily or use it raw in salads. Don’t. Remember how long it took to get used to spinach?
Variously called in different parts of the country honeysuckle or dog rose or eglantine or brilliantine, this is a wonderfully colourful flower which grows to six feet but would fall flat on its face if the hedge was not there. When one sees the Glorious Hedge rambler in all its glory on a summer evening, one cannot help feeling a lump in the throat and a tightness round the heart. Sit down and take it easy. A machine will be along in the morning to flail the hedge until it is nothing but splintered sticks in the ground.
This flower replaces the dandelion and 476 other flowers identical with the dandelion. In future editions we intend to merge it with the Golden Meadow Thing.
Because of its tell-tale habit of stinging, scratching, laceration, bringing out in bumps, laddering tights, ripping jackets and occasionally killing stone dead but always causing pathological rage and tears, this plant is easy to spot but hard to like. A pity this, as closer acquaintance reveals a mischievous sense of humour on the part of the Poisonous Loathsome Prickly which is quite endearing.
It will, for example, deliberately camouflage itself as Blind man’s Moustache in the middle of a picnic spot or hang down across a path disguised as a tree. It also likes growing at the very height where you intend to pick a handful of Golden Meadow Things. Growing in profusion round stiles, at the only gap in a hedge or at otherwise perfect lavatory spots, it will reach a height of anything between the gap between sock and trouser to bare midriff.
Its distinctive green spikes are invisible.
Some blooms are so immediately pretty that the amateur feels it must belong to its own family – what they call violets, primroses, cowslips and so on. This is nonsense; they all fit quite easily into one of the nine previous categories, but it is difficult to resist pressure all the time and so I am creating a special family for the more sentimental reader, i.e. one who has never bought a copy of The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. Personally, I still regret having to do this; I hate looking at a flower and hearing the words ‘For a Very Special Person on his Twenty-First Birthday’ floating through my mind.
Nature Made Ridiculously Simple or How to Identify Absolutely Everything. Pub. 1983