Photo of snowy Sussex woodland trail Photo of snowy Sussex woodland trail

Where the Wildflowers Are

Walking through a narrow, predominantly damp and shady deciduous woodland yesterday afternoon I was suddenly greeted by sunshine on my right cheek and a group of Early Purple Orchids by my left foot.

The two experiences were almost certainly related. The break in the trees, at a spot where the path had swerved towards the edge of the woodland, had allowed sunlight into the otherwise dark dank green. There had been no orchids for a hundred metres and there were no orchids for the hundred metres beyond that spot. The only environmental variable that I could tell had changed was the amount of light. It would appear that these orchids needed a little direct light to flourish in that soil, on that slope, with that aspect.

But in other places they might not have done. These orchids can thrive without any direct sunlight in many places across the UK and beyond. Therein lies the rub. There is more at play in the world of wildflowers than the dependable arcs of the sun.

For me personally, much of the fascination in natural navigation lies in the areas that do not yield their secrets too readily.

It is very important when you are new to the subject to enjoy the simple strong confidence in direction that the sun or stars can give. But after many years, there does come a temptation for the sun to surprise. In an environmental sense this would be terrifying and catastrophic and so it is good that it doesn’t. The best solar surprises come in strange places, stumbling across an exquisite example of a hemicyclium sundial will do more good than harm.

Once the sun’s arc has been tamed, the less astronomical faces of the subject become ever more attractive. The wind is very easy to use at times and a bit of a tease at others.

Moving further along this spectrum we find the wildflowers. Nature does not have much time for wasted endeavours and so there is always some logic, however well hidden, to the habitat of each wildflower we find. The great challenge comes in the number of variables. Sun, shade, soil, moisture levels, altitude, wind, fungi, animals – including people – and time.

After giving a talk to a wonderful audience at the Daphne du Maurier Festival in Fowey last weekend, I crossed the river to Bodinnick and enjoyed a walk south to the village of Polruan, on a path called, ‘Hall Walk’. There was a moment when the flowers screamed direction at me silently. The left side of the path was sprinkled with the familiar crumbs of daisies, the right was lit with the yellow of buttercups. The two did not meet or cross over.

How beautiful and simple. The daisies love the sun, the buttercups the shade. I must be walking east.

But, double alas. I know from previous fun tangles with the buttercup family that they, like all families, are a diverse group. Some, such as the Meadow Buttercup, like damp conditions. Others, like the Bulbous Buttercup, prefer the dry. At this point it is necessary to read beyond colour. The shape of the plants and their leaves will reveal, with help from a ‘key’ at times, which one we are looking at.

Time adds to the puzzle. At certain times of the year, some verges will receive direct sunlight in counterintuitive ways. Southern verges receive direct sunlight at the start and end of midsummer days, but little or none at other times. Also, I have seen many species come into blossom on two sides of a path, at very different times; their moments of glory dictated by their aspect. Perhaps bluebells that thrive on the north side for a few weeks before bowing, retiring and handing the show over to their brethren on the southern side.

The best puzzles are those that can be solved, but require at least a little patience and dedication. For natural navigators, the wildflowers pass this test, quite beautifully.

It is a great time of year to get into this type of detective work if you have never tried it before. Please do get in touch if you have spotted any patterns near you, you can find my email here. With your permission, I’ll post any discoveries here.