The call of the wildflower - Henry S. Salt - ebook

THE “call of the wild,” where the love of flowers is concerned, has an attraction which is not the less powerful because it is difficult to explain. The charm of the garden may be strong, but it is not so strong as that which draws us to seek for wildflowers in their native haunts, whether of shore or water-meadow, field or wood, moorland or mountain. A garden is but a “zoo” (with the cruelty omitted); and just as the true natural history is that which sends us to study animals in the wilds, not to coop them in cages, so the true botany must bring man to the flower, not the flower to man. That the lovers of wildflowers--those, at least, who can give active expression to their love are not a numerous folk, is perhaps not surprising; for even a moderate knowledge of the subject demands such favourable conditions as free access to nature, with opportunities for observation beyond what most persons command; but what they lack in numbers they make up in zeal, and to none is the approach of spring more welcome than to those who are then on the watch for the reappearance of floral friends.

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First digital edition 2017 by Gianluca Ruffini





























Tantus amor florum.


THE “call of the wild,” where the love of flowers is concerned, has an attraction which is not the less powerful because it is difficult to explain. The charm of the garden may be strong, but it is not so strong as that which draws us to seek for wildflowers in their native haunts, whether of shore or water-meadow, field or wood, moorland or mountain. A garden is but a “zoo” (with the cruelty omitted); and just as the true natural history is that which sends us to study animals in the wilds, not to coop them in cages, so the true botany must bring man to the flower, not the flower to man.

That the lovers of wildflowers, those, at least, who can give active expression to their love, are not a numerous folk, is perhaps not surprising; for even a moderate knowledge of the subject demands such favourable conditions as free access to nature, with opportunities for observation beyond what most persons command; but what they lack in numbers they make up in zeal, and to none is the approach of spring more welcome than to those who are then on the watch for the reappearance of floral friends.

For it is as friends, not garden captives or herbarium specimens, that the flower-lover desires to be acquainted with flowers. It is not their uses that attract him; that is the business of the herbalist. Nor is it their structure and analysis; the botanist will see to that. What he craves is a knowledge of the loveliness, the actual life and character of plants in their relation to man, what may be called the spiritual aspect of flowers and this is seen and felt much more closely when they are sought in their free wild state than when they are cultivated on rockery or in parterre.

The reality of this love of wildflowers is evident, but its cause and meaning are less easy to discern. Is it only part of a modern “return to nature,” or a sign of some latent sympathy between plant and man? We do not know; but we know that our interest in flowers is no longer utilitarian, as in the herbalism of a bygone time, or decorative and æsthetic, as in the immemorial use of the garland on festive occasions, and in the association of the wine-cup with the rose. The “great affection” that Chaucer felt for the daisy marked a new era; and later poets have carried the sentiment still further, till it reached a climax in the faith that Wordsworth avowed:

One impulse from a vernal wood May teach you more of man, Of moral evil and of good, Than all the sages can.

Here is a new herbalism of the heart. We smile nowadays at the credulity of the old physicians, who rated so highly the virtues of certain plants as to assert, for example, that comfrey, the “great consound,” as they called it had actual power to unite and solidify a broken bone. But how if there be flowers that can in very truth make whole a broken spirit? Even in the Middle Ages it was recognized that mental benefit was to be gained from this source, as when betony was extolled for its value in driving away despair, and when fuga dæmonum was the name given to St. John’s-wort, that golden-petaled amulet which, when hung over a doorway, could put all evil spirits to flight. That, like many another flower, it can put “the blues” to flight, is a fact which no modern flower-lover will doubt.

But what may be called the anthropocentric view of wildflowers is now happily becoming obsolete. “Their beauty was given them for our delight,” wrote Anne Pratt in one of the pleasantest of her books: [1] “God sent them to teach us lessons of Himself.” It would somewhat spoil our joy in the beauty of wildflowers if we thought they had been “sent,” like potted plants from a nursery, for any purpose whatsoever; for it is their very naturalness, their independence of man, that charms us, and our regard for them is less the prosaic satisfaction of an owner in his property, than the love of a friend, or even the worship of a devotee:

The devotion to something afar from the sphere of our sorrow.

[Footnote 1: Haunts of the Wild Flowers.]

This, I think, is the true gospel of the love of flowers, though as yet it has found but little expression in the literature of the subject. “Flowers as flowers,” was Thoreau’s demand, when he lamented in his journal that there was no book which treated of them in that light, no real “biography” of plants. The same want is felt by the English reader today: there is no writer who has done for the wildflower what Mr. W. H. Hudson has done for the bird. [2]

[Footnote 2: Unless it be Canon John Vaughan, in those two delightful books of his, The Wild-Flowers of Selborne and The Music of Wild-Flowers.]

Indeed, the books mostly fail, not only to portray the life of the plant, but even to give an intelligible account of its habitat and appearance; for very few writers, however sound their technical knowledge, possess the gift of lucid description--a gift which depends, in its turn, upon that sympathy with other minds which enables an author to see precisely what instruction is needed. Thus, it often happens that, unless personal help is available, it is a matter of great difficulty for a beginner to learn the haunts of flowers, or to distinguish them when found; for when he refers to the books he finds much talk about inessential things, and little that goes directly to the point.

One might have thought that a new and strange flower would attract the eye more readily than a known one, but it is not so; the old is detected much more easily than the new. “Out of sight, out of mind,” says the proverb; and conversely that which is not yet in mind will long tarry out of sight. But when once a new flower, even a rare one, has been discovered, it is curious how often it will soon be noticed afresh in another place: this, I think, must be the experience of all who have made systematic search for flowers, and it explains why the novice will frequently see but little where the expert will see much.

Not until the various initial obstacles have been overcome can one appreciate the true “call of the wild,” the full pleasures of the chase. When we have learnt not only what plants are to be looked for, but those two essential conditions, the when and the where; the rule of season and of soil; the flowers that bloom in spring, in summer, or in autumn; the flowers that grow by shore, meadow, bog, river, or mountain; on chalk, limestone, sand, or clay--then the quest becomes more effective, and each successive season will add materially to our widening circle of acquaintance.

Then, too, we may begin to discard that rather vapid class of literature, the popular flower-book, which too often deals sentimentally in vague descriptions of plants, diversified with bad illustrations, and with edifying remarks about the goodness of the Creator, and may find a new and more rational interest in the published Floras of such counties or districts as have yet received that distinction. For dry though it is in form, a Flora, with its classified list of plants, and its notes collected from many sources, past and present, as to their “stations” in the county, becomes an almost romantic book of adventure, when the student can supply the details from his own knowledge, and so read with illumination “between the lines.” Here, let us suppose it to be said, is a locality where grows some rare and beautiful flower, one of the prizes of the chase. What hopes and aspirations such an assurance may arouse! What encouragement to future enterprise! What regrets, it may be, for some almost forgotten omission in the past, which left that very neighbourhood unsearched! It is possible that a cold, matter-of-fact entry in a local Flora will thus throw a sudden light on some bygone expedition, and show us that if we had but taken a slightly different direction in our walk--but it is vain to lament what is irreparable!

Of such musings upon the might-have-been I can myself speak with feeling, for I was not so fortunate in my youth as to be initiated into the knowledge of flowers: it was not till much later in life, as I wandered among the Welsh and English mountains, that the scales fell from my eyes, and looking on the beauty of the saxifrages I realized what glories I had missed. Thus, I was compelled to put myself to school, so to speak, and to make a study of wildflowers with the aid of such books as were available, a process which, like a botanical Jude the Obscure, I found by no means easy. The self-educated man, we know, is apt to be perverse and opinionated; so, I trust my readers will make due allowance if they notice such faults in this book. I can truly plead, as the illiterate do, that “I’m no scholar, more’s the pity.” But it was my friends and acquaintances those, at least, who had some botanical knowledge, who were the chief sufferers during this period of inquiry; and, looking back, I often marvel at the patience with which they endured the problems with which I confronted them. I remember waylaying my friend, W. J. Jupp, a very faithful flower-lover, with some mutilated and unrecognizable labiate plant which I thought might be calamint, and how tactfully he suggested that my conjecture was “near enough.” On another occasion, it was Edward Carpenter, the Sage of Millthorpe, or Wild Sage, as some botanical friend once irreverently described him, who volunteered to assist me, by means of a scientific book which shows, by an unerring process, how to eliminate the wrong flowers, until at the end you are left with the right one duly named. All through the list we went; but there must have been a slip somewhere; for in the conclusion one thing alone was clear--that whatever my plant might be, it was not that which the scientific book indicated. Of all my friends and helpers, Bertram Lloyd, whose acquaintance with wildflowers is unusually large, and to whom, in all that pertains to natural history, I am as the “gray barbarian” (vide Tennyson) to “the Christian child,” was the most constant and long-suffering: he solved many of my enigmas, and introduced me to some of his choicest flower-haunts among the Chiltern Hills. In the course of my researches I was sometimes referred for guidance to persons who were known in their respective home-circles as “the botanists of the family,” a title which I found was not quite equivalent to that of “the complete botanist.” There was one “botanist of the family” who was visibly embarrassed when I asked her the name of a plant that is common on the chalk hills, but is so carelessly described in the books as to be easily confused with other kindred species. She gazed at it long, with a troubled eye, and then, as if feeling that her domestic reputation must at all hazards be upheld, replied firmly: “Hemp-nettle.” Hemp-nettle it was not; it was wild basil; but years after, when I began to have similar questions put to myself, I realized how disconcerting it is to be thus suddenly interrogated. It made me understand why Cabinet Ministers so frequently insist that they must have “notice of that Question.” With one complete botanist, however, I was privileged to become acquainted, Mr. C. E. Salmon, whose special diocese, so to speak, is the county of Surrey, but whose intimate knowledge of wildflowers extends to many counties and coasts. Not a few favours did I receive from him, in certifying for me some of the more puzzling plants; and very good-naturedly he bore the disappointment when, on his asking me to send him, for his Flora of Surrey, a list of the rarer flowers in the neighbourhood where I was living, I included among them the small bur-parsley (caucalis daucoides), a vanished native, a prodigal son of the county, whose return would have been a matter for gladness. But alas, my plant was not a caucalis at all, but a torilis, a squat weed of the cornfields, which by its superficial resemblance to its rare cousin had grossly imposed upon my ignorance. It is when he has acquired some familiarity with the ordinary British plants that a flower-lover, thus educated late in life, finds his thoughts turning to the vanished opportunities of the past. I used to speculate regretfully on what I had missed in my early wanderings in wild places; as in the Isle of Skye, where I picked up the eagle’s feather, but overlooked the mountain flower; or on Ben Lawers, a summit rich in rare Alpines to which I then was stone-blind; or in a score of other localities which I can scarcely hope to revisit. But time, which heals all things, brought me a sort of compensation for these delinquencies; for with a fuller knowledge of plants I could to some extent reconstruct in imagination the sights that were formerly unseen, and with the eye of faith admire the Alpine forget-me-not on the ridges of Ben Lawers, or the yellow butterwort in the marshes of Skye. Nor was it always in imagination only; for sometimes a friend would send me a rare flower from some distant spot; and then there was pleasure indeed in the opening of the parcel and in anticipating what it might contain, the pasque-flower perhaps, or the wild tulip, or the Adonis, or the golden samphire, or some other of the many local treasures that make glad the flower-lover’s heart. The exhibitions of wildflowers that are now held in the public libraries of not a few towns are extremely useful, and often awake a love of nature in minds where it has hitherto been but dormant. A queer remark was once made to me by a visitor at the Brighton show. “This is a good institution,” he said. “It saves you from tramping for the flowers yourself.” I had not regarded the exhibition in that light; on the contrary, it stimulates many persons to a pursuit which is likely to fascinate them more and more.

For no tramps, can be pleasanter than those in quest of wildflowers; especially if one has a fellow-enthusiast for companion: failing that, it is wiser to go alone; for when a flower-lover tramps with someone who has no interest in the pursuit, the result is likely to be discomfiting--he must either forgo his own haltings and deviations, with the probability that he will miss something valuable, or he must feel that he is delaying his friend. In a company, I always pray that their number may be uneven, and that it may not be necessary to march stolidly in pairs, where “one to one is cursedly confined,” as Dryden said of matrimony; or worst of all, where one’s yoke-fellow may insist, as sometimes happens, on walking “in step,” and be forever shuffling his feet as if obeying the commands of some invisible drill-sergeant. It is not with the feet that we should seek harmony, but with the heart. My intention in this book is to speak of the more noteworthy flowers of a few distinctive localities that are known to me, starting from the coast of Sussex, and ascending to the high mountains of Wales and the north-west: I propose also to intersperse the descriptive chapters, here and there with discussions of such special topics as may incidentally arise. And here, at the outset, I was tempted to say a few words about my own favourite flowers not such universally admired beauties as the primrose, violet, daffodil, hyacinth, forget-me-not, and the others, whose names will readily suggest themselves; for, lovely as they are, it would be superfluous to add to their praises; but rather of some less famous plants, the saints and anchorites of the floral world, the flower-lover’s flowers, not the popular, but the best-beloved. On second thoughts, however, I will leave these choicest ones, with a single exception, to be mentioned in their due place and surroundings, and will here name but one of them, a flower which is among the first, not only in the order of merit, but in the order of the seasons.

The greater stitchwort, as writers tell us, is one of “the most ornamental of our early flowers”; but surely it is something more than that. The radiance of those white stars that stud the hedge-banks and road-sides in April and May, is dearer to some of us than many of the more favoured blossoms that poets have sung of. The dull English name quite fails to do justice to the almost ethereal lustre of the flower: the Latin stellaria is truer and more expressive. The reappearance of the stitchwort, like that of the orange-tip butterfly, is one of the keenest joys of spring; and one of our keenest regrets in spring is that the stitchwort’s flowering-season is so short.


Salt and splendid from the circling brine.


WHERE should a flower-lover begin his story if not from the sea shore? Earth has been poetically described as “daughter of ocean”; and the proximity of the sea has a most genial and stimulating effect upon its grandchildren the flowers, not those only that are peculiar to the beach, but also the inland kinds. There is no “dead sea” lack of vegetation on our coasts, but a marked increase both in the luxuriance of plants and in their beauty.

Sussex is rich in “shingles”, flat expanses of loose pebbles formerly thrown up by the waves, and now lying well above high-water mark, or even stretching landward for some distance. One might have expected these stony tracts to be barren in the extreme; in fact, they are the nursery-ground of a number of interesting flowers, including some very rare ones; and in certain places, where the stones are intersected by banks of turf, the eye is surprised by a veritable garden in the wilderness. Let us imagine ourselves on one of these shingle-beds in the early summer, when the show of flowers is at its brightest: and first at Shoreham, “Shoreham, crowned with the grace of years,” as Swinburne described it.

Alas! the Shoreham beach, which until less than twenty years ago, was in a natural state, has been so overbuilt with ship-works and bungalows that it has become little else than a suburb of Brighton; yet even now the remaining strip of shingle, stretching for half a mile between sea and harbour, is the home of some delightful plants. In the more favoured spots the gay mantle thrown over the stony strand is visible at the first glance in a wonderful blending of colours, the gold of horned poppy, stonecrop, melilot, and kidney vetch; the white of sea-campion; the delicate pink of thrift; and the fiery reds and blues of the gorgeous viper’s bugloss and when a nearer scrutiny is made, a number of minute plants will be found growing in close company along the grassy ridges. The most attractive of these are the graceful little spring vetch (vicia lathyroides), the rue-leaved saxifrage, and that tiny turquoise gem which is apt to escape notice, the dwarf forget-me-not, a trio of the daintiest blossoms, red, white, and blue, that eyes could desire to behold.

Shoreham has long been famous for its clovers; and some are still in great force there, especially the rigid trefoil (trifolium scabrum), and its congener, trifolium striatum, with which it is often confused, while the better-known hare’s-foot also covers a good deal of the ground. But there is a sad tale to tell of the plant which once the chief pride of these shingles, the starry-headed trefoil, a very lovely pink flower fringed with silky hairs, which, though not a native, has been naturalized near the bank of the harbour since 1804, but now, owing to the enclosures made for ship-building works, has been all but exterminated. “This,” wrote the author of the Flora of Sussex (1907) “is one of the most beautiful of our wildflowers, and is found in Britain at Shoreham only. Fortunately, it is very difficult to extirpate any of the leguminosæ, and it may therefore be hoped that it may long continue to adorn the beach at Shoreham.” The hope seems likely to be frustrated. Among the rubble of concrete slabs, and piles of timber, only three or four tufts of the trefoil were surviving last year, with every likelihood of these also disappearing as the place is further “developed.” The second of the Shoreham rarities, the pale-yellow vetch (vicia lutea) has fared better, owing to its wider range, and is still scattered freely over the yet unenclosed shingles. It is a charming flower; but its doom in Sussex seems to be inevitable, for the bungalows, with their back-yards, tennis-courts, “tradesmen’s entrances,” and other amenities of villadom, will doubtless continue to encroach upon what was once a wild and unsullied tract.

Still sadder is the fate of the devastated coast on the Brighton side of the harbour-mouth, where the low cliffs that overlook the lagoon from Southwick to Fisher’s-gate have long been known to botanists as worthy of some attention. Here, on the grassy escarpment, the rare Bithynian vetch used once to grow, as we learn from Mrs. Merrifield’s interesting Sketch of the Natural History of Brighton (1860); and here we may still find such plants as the sea-radish, a large coarse crucifer with yellow flowers and queer knotted seed-pods; the blue clary, or wild-sage, running riot in great profusion; the fragrant soft-leaved fennel; the strange star-thistle (calcitrapa), so-called from its fancied resemblance to an ancient and diabolical military instrument, the caltrop, an iron ball armed with sharp points, which was thrown on the ground to maim the horses in a cavalry charge; the pale-flowered narrow-leaved flax; and lastly, that rather uncanny shrub of the poisonous nightshade order, with small purple flowers and scarlet berries, which is called the “tea-tree,” though the tea which its leaves might furnish would hardly make a palatable brew.

Below these cliffs, on an embankment that divides the waters of the lagoon from the seashore, there still flourishes in plenty the fleshy leaved samphire, once sought after for a pickle, and ever famous through the reference in King Lear to “one who gathers samphire, dreadful trade.” In this locality, there is no dreadful trade, except that of reducing a once pleasant shore to an unsightly slag-heap.

Let me now turn from this melancholy spectacle to those Sussex shingles on which the Admiralty and the contractor have not as yet laid a heavy and ruinous hand. On some of the more spacious of these pebbly beaches, as on that which lies between Eastbourne and Pevensey, the traveller may still experience the feeling expressed by Shelley:

I love all waste and solitary places, where we taste the pleasure of believing what we see Is boundless, as we wish our souls to be.