Sunday, November 18, 2012

Please pick the flowers

A comment by Mike McCarthy, the Environment Editor of the Independent, got me to thinking this weekend. In a panel debate at the New Networks Nature conference, he said it was a pity people didn't pick wild flowers, because it meant they couldn't look so closely at what's around them.

I agree. Of course, we don't want the raiding of red kite nests or the random picking of soldier orchids, but the assumed correctness of 'take only photographs, leave only footprints' has a counter productive side. If we always look from afar, everything is at a remove.

The National Trust has recognised this in a different context. Its recent renovation of Avebury Manor is a flagship for a more involving approach to heritage: please sit on this chair the signs say, do use the snooker table; try bouncing on the bed.  Returning to nature, the Trust's initiative 50 things to do before you're eleven and three-quarters is a laudable example of a hands-on approach to the outdoors.

In my teens I collected butterflies; nobody thought that was terrible, even if it didn't do much for my street-cred. I also picked and drew flowers, captured newts, dipped ponds, trapped moths and ate many a mushroom.  Some of these activities would be frowned on nowadays, but I don't regret them. And being frank, I've encouraged my kids to do much the same - when looking at the fifty things list, there were only four we hadn't ticked.

The other week I wrote a post about a bloody nose beetle describing the feel of its tiny legs padding over my palm - this was intrinsic to the joy, so too the iridescence of its carapace, only visible by angling the thorax to the sun. I put the beetle down in the grass, but it will die as surely as any cut flower - had I bottled it for a collection it would make no difference to the population of beetles in Pembrokeshire.

That isn't always the case, and as I hinted above, indiscriminate collecting is not what I'm advocating.  But unless we look closely and are prepared occasionally to touch, we sanitise and lessen our understanding - and in the long run, that's not in anyone's or anything's best interest.

As Mike McCarthy said, if people picked a few more wild flowers, maybe they'd also care more about the rare ones.  I think there's a lot of truth in that.


  1. Couldn't agree more. I've always promised myself that if I ever have a premium bond win I'll buy a field, plant wild flowers and invite schoolkids to pick some, just like I did when I was their age. The thing about plants is that feeling them, smelling them and even sometimes tasting them is all part of learning about them. I've sometimes taken people on scratch and sniff plant ID walks - once they've smelled something like crushed hedge woundwort leaves or sweet cicely leaves or meadowsweet leaves they never forget it.

  2. As a child I used to pick..a..flower I did not know to take home to be identified, but I was taught not to pick armfuls of flowers which would die swiftly.
    It used to make me despair in France to see people picking large bouquets of wild flowers on a walk, only to discard them before getting back in their cars.
    And as for the English couple, who dropping in on us unawares and finding us not at home, greeted us on arrival with a bunch of the orchids from the field that I had been carefully mowing round...

    Yes, pick flowers, learn if you like butter...but in moderation.

    1. That's the trouble, isn't it, some people just don't know when to stop. Some sort of flower greed takes them over and they rush around picking everything in sight for their own selfish passing enjoyment.

  3. I agree with the sentiments, and the NT interactive Avebury and 'Things to do' list both sound like great ideas. I often think that the pleasure I derive from finding reptiles, bugs and flowers in my surroundings stems from the pleasure I got from hunting these things as a boy. I am hoping that whatever ignorant harm I might unintentionally have done is being more than mafe up for by the efforts I am now devoting to ensuring they have space to live around me.

    1. I think that's precisely the point - by becoming more involved we learn to care and take more notice - I'm sure you are more than making up for childhood hunting. Many of today's top naturalist began their interest by collecting bird's eggs!

  4. my comment disappeared? I think I was saying how I'd forgotten, till I read this post, how I used to pick wildflowers and even eat some of the leaves when I was a kid. I can still recall the taste of one in particular even now. I knew the names of most of them which was great considering our street was the very last on the council estate and fronted onto a farmer's field. (before it became the Tyne Tunnel approach road). If it wasn't for that field and the farm beyond, and it's endless opportunities for a change of pace I'd have had a completely different experience growing up.
    and as I say, I'd forgotten this until I read your post.

  5. I too grew up picking wild-flowers (especially a few bluebells in season) and making daisy chains. I loved picking up feathers too, but could not bring myself to collect birds eggs or moths and butterflies, though I enjoyed looking at them. What matters most is a kind of loving attention to the individual as well as the whole and that can be taught.