The eyes have it, the eyes have it

January 29, 2018

I grew up knowing quite a lot of wild plants by sight and by name (not necessarily the scientific name but the country name). I credit my grandma and father with passing on their knowledge to me as a young child. They had a farming background and where keen observers. They passed on that delight in observing to me. So other species have been added to my repertoire over the years. Having never lived more than a mile from wild or at least uncultivated patches of land and having had employment that took me into the country my basic knowledge has grown. Books have helped me to consolidate such knowledge as I have. Botany is challenging when it comes to the detailed features of plants. I can name the basic parts of plants (sometimes) but the great variety of form and structure is beyond me very often. Fortunately I am consoled by the knowledge that when those who first attempted to classify plants into groupings they relied on observing very obvious structural features. Opinions about the rules on how plants should be grouped change from time to time. There are of course some basic classifications that are relatively easy to deal with, for example those plants that flower and set seed with a protective coating, and those that don't such as spore producing ferns. There are those that produce naked seeds, the conifers. 

My interest for the purposes of this piece are the flowering plants. My own observations are not confined to what grows on The Park but those have been quite important to me over the past ten years. Lets think about plant Families. Botanists group flowering plants (essentially) on the basis of the similarities of their flowers. 

I am very happy with that because looking at the flowers of wild plants is a pleasure and the variety something to be marvelled at. Even if one goes no further than enjoying the aesthetic value of flowering wild plants then that is reason to be thankful. Just looking requires spending a bit of time (as the poet said, Having time to stand and stare). As ever trying to identify an unfamiliar plant requires the use of one's eyes and perhaps a hand magnifying glass. Now it may involve taking a digital photo or two. Then looking at the pictures while drinking a cuppa and leafing through the favourite reference books is pure pleasure. These days there are mobile phone apps to help with identification in the field. So wild flower identification is all about using ones eyes. My go to wild flower books include one with a basic format where plants are not grouped by family or genera but by number of petals and colour of the flowers and whether the flowers are a regular or irregular shape. Having found likely candidates by concentrating on the flowers it may be necessary to take into account the type of habitat, the time of year and the part of the country. So far so easy. Perhaps plant size and the nature of the leaves and stems may be the deciding factor when flowers alone have suggested more than one species. You get the point - using ones eyes and a bit of common sense can get you to the answer most times. If still in doubt consult a second book and ultimately ask an expert. The latter has become possible now with some mobile phone apps. Hours of pleasure can be had if one can get to a small space with a digital camera / phone returning home to tea and cake at the kitchen table while consulting the favoured books. Absolutely no need to pick the flowers!

Situations arise indeed have arisen on The Park where an unwanted plant has raised a sort of moral panic leading to thoughts about removing innocent plants through misidentification. The classic example relates to Common Ragwort (Senecio jacobaea). Ragwort is a member of the daisy family with yellow flowers. It grows to 30-150 cms., and is poisonous to cattle and horses. Consequently it is included in legislation as an injurious weed - five weeds are classified under the Weeds Act 1959: including common ragwort (Senecio jacobaea),  It is not an offence to have these weeds growing on your land and species such as ragwort have significant conservation benefits. However they must not be allowed to spread to agricultural land, particularly grazing areas or land which is used to produce conserved forage. Enforcement notices can be issued following complaints requiring landowners to take action to prevent the spread of these weeds.

It is ironic that ragwort is of conservation benefit because despite its being poisonous it is the food plant for the larvae of The Cinnabar Moth. I like to see ragwort in flower and being munched by the striking black and orange stripped larvae. The removal of ragwort on The Park was judged to be a neighbourly action. No animals graze the site and none of the meadow areas are cut to make hay but there are paddocks with valuable horses within range of blown seeds. Personally I would leave a few of the plants but manage their spread diligently. So that all seems fairly straight forward as year by year for the last ten, ragwort has been removed manually and I believe there are fewer plants growing and flowering now than there were ten years ago. Prior to the development of The Park the areas that have ragwort growing were rough pasture. We are now living with that legacy. Returning to my earlier reflections on plant identification and the need to observe carefully for the joy of looking plus the satisfaction of successful identification. Common Ragwort as I have said is a member of the daisy family and each flower head has typically 14 petals (strictly ray florets). Its leaves are deeply divided and rather ragged in appearance - hence ragwort.

So which plant is the innocent party whose presence is questioned lest it be ragwort. It does have yellow flowers. It typically stands 30-80 cms., so fits within the ragwort size range. Its leaves are rather delicate unlike ragwort. It grows in some of the same places as ragwort clearly or the misidentification would be very unlikely. The innocent party is not a member of the daisy family, is not poisonous but does have medical use. It is a member of the Hypericum family. Many varieties of hypericum are now sold as garden plants and hedging. Here is the real point its flowers have just five petals (nothing like the fourteen of ragwort). It is Perforate St. John's Wort Hypericum perforatum. So even the most basic use of the eyes will tell that it is not the feared ragwort and can be left to go about its business.


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