22nd November 2020 – a confusion of fumitories

Today I’ve treated myself to a visit to Kew Gardens and I’m exploring the plants and a variety of weeds round the evolution garden despite the unremitting drizzle.

The delicate pale pink and crimson flower spike of a fumitory catches my eye in a corner of rough grass and I inwardly groan. The difficulties of identifying members of this genus in the poppy family have been dinned into me but ever optimistic I’m prepared to give it a go.

I’ve always struggled with the idea that they’re called fumitories after the Latin fumus terrae – smoke of the earth – which my Harrap guide attributes to “the masses of finely cut leaves”. Smoke would never occur to me as I look at this plant.

Making the assumption it will one of the two most likely fumitories, Common Fumitory or Common Ramping Fumitory, I use my hand lens check for their distinguishing features.

  • Flower size – Common: 6-9mm. Common Ramping: 8-13mm. While there’s overlap these flowers are definitely around 8mm.
  • Lower petal shape – Common: like a spatula. Common Ramping: with parallel sides. It’s not definitive but closer to spatula I think.
  • Sepals – Common: irregularly toothed. Common Ramping: toothed towards the base. Frankly I’m finding this very difficult to see, not helped by the rain, (and it’s at this point I come up with my suggestion of a collective noun, a confusion, for this group.)

In my efforts to improve my botanical skills I’ve been practicing using identification keys and this is fraught with frustration. If you’re a birder you might think botanists have the advantage because their subject doesn’t fly away just as you’re trying to identify it. It’s swings, roundabouts and messy though and on probability I eventually conclude this one is Common Fumitory.

Becoming a bit gloomy as the rain sets in, I’m cheered by hearing a repetitive buzzing call and looking up to see an unmistakable Goldcrest in an elder tree. Perhaps birders have it easy!

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