25th January 2021 – expanding my circle of plant friends

Shush! I’m almost embarrassed to admit it but, as a suburban botanist in learning, the smaller numbers of weeds in flower this month is welcome. It gives me some time to take my relationship with some of our most common London weeds to the next level. Total standing-on-my-head with-my-eyes-closed familiarity is my ambition. I’m only going to be sure that a plant isn’t say Thale Cress if I’m as familiar with the plants I do know as I am with the appearance of my close friends.

The sun finally emerges over Sydenham Hill ridge as I set off to walk Southwark’s south eastern boundary today. This is the third section of the borough’s limits which I’m exploring for pavement plants. Unusually for a botanist I’m looking for the common rather than the rare and I want to find the same things over and over again.

I pass a few boundary markers on route showing the limits of the parish of Camberwell which is the southernmost metropolitan borough of the three which became Southwark in 1965. From the top of One Tree Hill I look north across the borough at the familiar skyline near the Thames. But that’s the only time I think about buildings this morning and it’s eyes down for the rest of the way.

To expand my plant social circle, I’ve been using flashcards to learn the common names of wild flowers which can be identified just from “portrait” photos. It’s a surprisingly and mindful way to start each work day. Portraits aren’t enough for plant identification though. For the tricky groups I’ll be adding key features to my flashcards including smell and feel as well as any microscopic details to look for. That’s why today I’m stroking and sniffing a lot of plants.

I take what I’m assuming is a sprig of Annual Mercury home with me so we can spend some time together. This plant is in the spurge family and the catkin-like spikes tells me that this one’s male. It has a faintly bitter smell, perhaps because of the poisonous alkaloids it contains.

Before we become new BFFs, I check with the twitter botanists if my identification is right. (Btw does a “like” mean they agree or they just like that I asked?) I suspect that understanding the nuances of social media etiquette is far harder than the botany challenge I’ve given myself. London County Recorder Mark Spencer quickly responds to kindly confirm my identification.

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