The Key to your wild garden

The Key to your wild garden

I think I am quite reasonable at plant identification but confess that I come at it from a foraging perspective, so many of the plants I recognise are known because they have uses such as being edible, used as a medicine, tinder, cordage, basketry etc. I use a wild flower key to identify plants, and for a while, carried one with me on every walk to use as a reference. My own one is well thumbed and a little grubby from being juggled and dropped while trying to hold a plant and use the key at the same time. It was invaluable in helping me to learn plant physiology and the weird language of botany, as well as for plant identification. However, once I reached a stage when I knew the most common plants I came across, I started leaving it at home and relied on memory. But there are around 3500 species of plant in the UK and I don’t know enough of them.

I must be honest, although I am often accused of being a slow walker because when out I am peering into the undergrowth at the plants and taking pictures to identify them when I get home, I had not investigated my own garden to see what wild plants lived there. But this last year, I have been working from home and being cooped up in the summer house all day in front of a screen gave me the motivation to do some exploring in the garden. So, I got out the wild flower key and took a look at the plants that were hiding (often in plain sight) in the garden. It gave me a break from work, which I think was a bit of mental health first aid, as well as enabling me to be both curious and brush up on my plant physiology. Why not try it yourself? A 30 minute break from work for all those working from home, or while you are waiting in for that parcel to arrive could be spent both productively learning and also relaxing at the same time.

It could be an opportunity to learn how to use a wild flower key and get to grips with plant anatomy at the same time. Or if you already know how to use a key, brush up on your family and species identification. You could always take pictures and use an app such as ‘Seek’ to identify your wild flowers, but there are a couple of reasons why it might be great to take the opportunity to use a wild flower key.

Firstly, although they are getting better, these apps can make mistakes, and in my experience they do so often enough for me not to totally trust them. Last year before a foraging course I found a plant in one of our woodlands that I was not sure of. I used one of the plant ID apps as a quick reference… it came up with Yerba Mansa (Anemopsis californica) which is native to south west United States / north west Mexico. I immediately knew it wasn’t that, but imagine how it could have ended if it had misidentified something like hemlock (Conium maculatum) which is poisonous. I later used my plant key and it was redshank (Persicaria maculosa).

Secondly, I believe we feel a greater connection to the world around us by observation and interpretation, and investing the time to learn some plant physiology, and use it to investigate in detail the plants around us, puts us more in tune with nature. For me, it is like the difference between watching a lion on a David Attenborough documentary and going to Africa and seeing a real-life lion in its environment for yourself – you’re unlikely to forget that!

Finally, I have realised that for me, a plant ID app is a bit like a satnav. If I rely on a satnav to get me somewhere, I don’t actually remember how I got there! So every time I want to go back to the same place, I have to use the satnav instead of being able to navigate there on my own i.e. I don’t actually learn the route. In the same way, I feel that if you automatically reach for the plant ID app, you may not learn the defining features of the plant in the same way you would if using a plant key, and so will rely on an app each time instead of learning the plant.

I have mentioned wild flower keys a number of times now and you may not know what one is! In short, a wild flower key is a book that helps you identify plants by asking a series of paired descriptive questions about plant features such as:

6 Flowers regular go to 7
Flowers irregular go to 11
7 Petals and sepals free go to 8
Petals and sepals joined; plants usually roughly hairy; leaves alternate; calyx and corolla 5-lobed; 5 stamens; ovary deeply 4-lobed (flowers of Echium are slightly irregular) Boraginaceae (with Hydrophyllaceae) (p. 372)
An example of a flower key structure.

By following the answers to these questions, you will firstly narrow down the search to family and then keep funnelling down the options until you get to the species (sometimes via genus). Each individual species will also have a full description and usually a picture, which will include the salient descriptive details so you can visually compare it with what you have found.

Please don’t be put off by the use of botanical language to describe parts of a plant. The good plant keys such as Collins Flower Guide by David Streeter et al and The Wild Flower Key by Francis Rose have a comprehensive glossary. It may seem a little daunting to begin with, but it is worthwhile persevering with it as you will soon get familiar with the common terms. You will also find that the more you use the key, the quicker you will become at reaching an identification. You will be amazed at how soon you jump straight to the family and shortcut the process.

So many things hiding in plain sight
So many things hiding in plain sight.

So this is my garden, it’s not been planted with wildflower mixes or anything. In fact it’s a bit bland… I am not a gardener! But even in here, I have found a variety of wild flowers including:

  • Dandelion (Taraxacum spp.)
  • Red Clover (Trifolium pratense)
  • Hairy Bitter-cress (Cardamine hirsuta)
  • Groundsel (Senecia vulgaris)
  • Primrose (Primula vulgaris)
  • Maidenhair Spleenwort (Asplenium trichamenes)
  • Procumbent Pearlwort (Sagina procumbens)
  • Common Sow-thistle (Sanchus oleraceus)
  • Thyme-leaved Speedwell (Veronica serpyllifolia)
  • Ivy-leaved Speedwell (Veronica hederifolia)
  • Great Willowherb (Epilobium hirsutem)
  • Field Forget-me-not (Myosotis arvensis)
  • Mouse-ear Chickweed (Cerastium fontanum)
  • Common Ragwort (Senecia jacobaea)
  • Common Centuary (Centaurium erythraea)
  • Purple Toadflax (Linaria purpurea)
  • Daisy (Bellis perennis)
  • Common Dog Violet (Viola riviniana)
  • Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris)

So, try it out and let us know how many different species you find in your garden. Maybe even follow their lifecycle through the year to see how they change. I hope you find it a nice relaxing way to spend some time without having to travel anywhere and discover what a fascinating diversity of plants you have literally on your doorstep. Maybe once you do this, you may see them as something other than weeds, but as flowering beauties as wonderful as the ones you planted in the borders. The added bonus is that if you used a wild flower key, you may have improved your knowledge of plant physiology and become closer to being fluent in the language of botany as well.

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