The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Pleasures of Collecting Plants.
by Herbert D. Geldart.
[Herbert Decimus Geldart, 1831-1902, wrote "Fauna and Flora of Norfolk: Flowering Plants and Ferns" and was a very active member of the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalist Society. He married Fanny Railton and they had two grown children.]
"A plant gathered in some delightful spot is more dear to memory than even a portrait."--Sir J. E. Smith.
All my life long from six or seven years of age, I have been a lover of and collector of plants; and as a somewhat lonely child without much companionship of my own age, I made friends of the plants around me, and with their help tried to "suffice unto myself." Thus my earliest specimens were gathered more than half-a-century ago, and as the habit of collection has been steadily persevered in, of course with many gaps when other occupations interfered, my herbarium has become a sort of history of my life; and not only of my own life; but as in course of time I have absorbed other persons' collection into my own, it is a history of some of my friends' lives, also recalling many memories of them. Almost all my happy holidays are recorded by the plants obtained, and many a day of business has left its mark by a plant or two hastily snatched and pocketed, perhaps in the few minutes spent in waiting for a train.
What glorious scenes and happy days come back to me in looking through these plants; here for instance is the Ivy-leaved Harebell (Campanula hederacea), with its lovely lilac bells, which mat the turf in Gwastad Agnes, the little "Agnes plain," in the Vale of Gwynant, right opposite the waterfall of Cwm Dyli, the Valley of the Floods, with the three grand peaks of Snowdon standing round it; and here the tiny Alpine Rue (Thalictrum alpinum), and the Scurvy Grass (Cochlearia alpina), from the base of Snowdon's highest Peak and the shores of Llyn Glas the Grey Lake, where dwells the magic one-eyed trout; gathered on a day when a mighty thunderstorm broke on the top of the mountain, filling the whole basin of the Lake with dense dark mist, and pouring down sheets of rain, which gathered into torrents and made rocks as big as houses literally "skip." Again here is the little Holly Fern (Polystichum Lonchitis), from that lonely Blue Grey Valley Cwm Glas, between the Stranger's and the Red Peaks; so lonely and desolate a spot that as Professor [Andrew] Ramsay says, often as his Glacier studies led him into it he had never met a single other person there; yet lonely as it is it was in this Valley if the reminiscences of the elder Harry Owen of Pen y Gwryd are to be trusted, that Charles Kingsley (climbing with his friend "Tom Brown"), stripped, waded, and swam to a little island in one of the small tarns to gather a "yellow flower;" which may possibly have been in Kingsley's mind when he wrote "Two Years Ago," and made the Major risk his life for Lucia Vavasour's fancy, and so brought down all that load of ruin on the heads of the mad poet and his wife. Here is also the Moss Campion (Silene acaulis), from Llyn Idwal, and Twl Du--the Black Pit--where it stars the rocks with bright pink blossoms, a relict of the time when ice carved and ground the hills of Wales, and strewed its valleys with big boulders. Tall blue Speedwell (Veronica hybrida), and Cotoneaster (C. vulgaris), gathered on the Great Orme's Head remind me of a time before Llandudno, as a town was built; when the shore of Conway Bay was free from houses, and covered with dwarf white Roses (Rosa spinosissma), and herbage full of little snails (Bulimis acutus), which carried black and white turrets (like little Towers of Babel) on their backs, one of which laid a whole nest of milk white eggs in a pill box in my pocket, on the road to Conway; where in the Castle ruins grew the Ivy Broomrape (Orobanche Hederae), and on the walls of the old city flowered the wild Carnation (Dianthus Caryophyllus.) Here again are the Lanceolate and the Sea Spleenwort (Asplenium lanceolatum and marinum), which grew together on the Gimlet Rock, which guards the Harbour of Pwlhelli, a rock of Syenite, smoothed and polished by ice-action, and yet so hard it blunted, and then broke, the hard steel chisel ere the ferns could be obtained; pleasant remembrances of a sunny day, clear without a cloud, and of pale green-blue sea; charming contrasts to the narrow evil-smelling streets of the little town, which has however a suburb of quaint cottages covered to their chimneys with crimson Fuchsias.
Beautiful as are the ferns as a class, none is more lovely than the Brittle Fern (Cystopteris fragilis), this came from that most lovely and characteristic of England's vales, the Valley of the Wharfe, not far below the Strid at Bolton, within sight of the Abbey, where it grew with the Beech and Oak Ferns (Polypodium Phegopteris and Dryopteris); whose nearest British ally, the Limestone Fern (Polypodium calcareum), I found when a boy, in the deep cracks of the broken limestone country at the foot of Inglesborough, growing with that very virulent poisonous plant, the Baneberry (Actaea spicata); and from the same wild district, wisely labelled "Craven" only, for fear of extirpation were the exact locality made know; I have the Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium calceolus), the Queen of English Orchids, gathered seventy years ago, by one of the best known field botanists of the day. From a little further Northward come the Dwarf Willow Herb (Epilobium montanum var.) and Enchanter's Nightshades (Circaea), of the shores of Derwent Water, perfect in flower and fruit, and yet not one of them two inches high; and from close by from the curious upland valley of Watendlath, beloved of artists; with its giant firs overlooking the weedy tarn, its Roman bridge, built of slate on edge, and its old houses with walls of several feet in thickness, and doors studded and bound with iron, remains of a village, sacked, and all but destroyed in the rebellion; come the Parsley Fern (Cryptogramme crispa), and not far off; where Brund Fell overlooks the "Castle Rock" of Borrowdale, and the double Bridge of Grange; I have seen Heather growing more than waist-high, from which, as I waded through it, the pollen floated down the wind from off the purple bloom in a thick yellow mist.
Turn a little Southward, and we have Arnside Knot, overlooking the fatal sands of Morecambe Bay, where grows the Rigid Shield Fern (Lastraea rigida); and that most fairy-like of all British wild flowers that I have ever found, the pure white single-flowered Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia var). A little further Southward, to the sandy shore of Lytham, with its almost unique Winter Green (Pyrola maritima); and little Centauries (Erythroea pulchella), perfect plants, hardly an inch high, crowned with one rosy five-rayed star. South, again, to the plains of Cheshire, where I have measured Horsetails nearly ten feet high; thence to the classic ground of Dovedale, with its memories of Isaac Walton, represented by white Saxifrage (Saxifraga hypnoides); as in Matlock, by its Arenarias; and Castleton by Yellow Pansies (Viola lotea), with their thread-like stems, which gild the moors; and bright Red Campions (Lychnis diurna), so thickly grown they make the mountains blush; and on the side of a hill at Cressbrook, there grew one year in May; a carpet so close you could not see the ground beneath, of intermingled Forget-me-not (Myosotis sylvatica), and Woodruff (Asperula odorata); blue as the sky, and white as snow, and as sweet scented as it was pure in colour. Here too, are Rushes, grown in Yardley Chase; hard by the giant oaks now crumbling to decay, who, could they speak, might tell strange tales of what has passed beneath their shade from the days when they were young.
A long leap southward to the Ferns of Devon. Shield Ferns taller than oneself, and lovely little Maiden Hair (Adiantum capillus Veneris); and from the cliffs of Babbicombe the pure white Rock-Rose (Helianthemum polifolium). So might I go on recalling happy times marked each by plants from many parts of England, but I must not forget my own county, Norfolk; the "meeting-place of north and south," botanically speaking.
What can be more beautiful than a marsh of many acres in extent, lying in the sunshine, purple with Orchis, white with Helleborine (Epipactis palustris), blue with Forget-me-not, and here and there golden with late-flowering Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris var?) What more quaint than the old-world looking little Orchids (Liparis Loeselii), and (Malaxis paludosa), with their minute pale yellow flowers, which still survive in some of the ancient bogs? What more curious than the Sundews of three different sorts (Drosera angelica, intermedia and rotundifolia), which lie in wait for heedless insects; catch them, suck out their juices, and fling away their empty cases?
Go to the north-west coast of Norfolk, stand on one of the low hills overlooking the salt marsh and sandy shore. What is that purple haze that seems to hang over the western marsh? It is thousands of flowers of the Sea Lavender (Statice Limonium) basking in the sunshine. Why does the purple yield to blue where the sand just beyond the marsh gets a little harder? Because the species of Sea Lavender which grows there is different (Statice auriculoefolia), and where the sand gets drier still, the haze is mauve--again another change of species, a third Sea Lavender (Statice Caspia) has taken the place of the other two.
Go to a Norfolk Broad. I do not mean a public one, frequented by " 'Appy 'Arry" and his mates; but a small secluded one where nature is allowed to have her way, and what a wealth of flowers you find, tall yellow Loosestrife (Lysimachia vulgaris), and purple Loosestrife (Lythrum Salicaria), Winter Green (Pyrola Rotundifolia), and Butterfly Orchis (Habenaria bifolia), brighten the grassy margin of the land; on the water float white and yellow Water-lilies, with their broad green leaves, and here and there are patches of the Water Soldier (Stratiotes aloides), bearing its pure white blossom in the centre of a tuft of serrated leaves, looking like a diminutive aloe gone to sea; and bright yellow Bladderworts (Utricularia vulgaris), spring each from its tangled mass of bladders, only their stem and flowers above the surface of the water. All these and hundreds more of wild flowers, each and all worthy of notice, find a resting place upon my shelves.
Pass we now from the farthest East of England to the farthest West of Ireland, to damp, barren Connemara; here are London Pride (Saxifraga umbrosa), which grows there wild by gardens-full, and pale yellow Butterworts (Pinguicula lusitanica), and strange heaths; cross to Anchill, that island of black bogs, beggars and desolation, how vividly the hay-scented Fern (Lastroea foenisecii), after forty years still sweet; recalls the miserable little Inn, choke-full of guests, and nights spent on a shake-down on the floor in company with rats, mice and the pursuing cat.
Southward again to beautiful Killarney where the "grass is the greenest, and the cabbages are the biggest, and the women are the fairest," in all creation. Killarney had three specialities--the noble Arbutus, glorious in its season with scarlet berries; the Bristle Fern (Trichomanes brevisetum), with dark green dripping fronds; and the grand deep purple Butterwort (Pinguicula grandiflora), which carries flowers as large as halfpence, a possible survival of the mystic "lost Atlantis," but anyway a member of perhaps the oldest flora in the British Isles; most likely telling of a time when Ireland and the North of Spain had some connecting link. Where else too could you see that arch of Royal Fern (Osmunda regulis), a dozen feet long, its roots in the bank and its tips gracefully dipping in the water; which lines the river between the lakes, where the saucy waterfowl swim secure, half hidden by the veil of drooping fronds.
And Mucross, also represented by a few small wall-plants, where, in the Market-place, on the Fair-day, the bold, but very tipsy peasants fought with sticks--in two factions--till the ground was red with blood; strange to say, for no reason whatever that could be learned, except that there was a grudge left over from some former Fair which they could not forget, and had come determined to fight out.
Across the Irish Sea again and go Northward, to the Highlands to Deeside the bonny "Queens Country," where a Southerner can hardly take the shortest stroll without meeting with new plant faces; climb dark Loch-na-gar, does not the trailing Azalea (Loiseleuria procumbens) bring back that stormy day when all the party--not weak men either--were knocked down, some more than once, by the tremendous gusts; and the Club Moss (Lycopodium annotinum) does not that recall that other rainy day when on the flanks of the same Mountain the stately Red Deer, eight of them, two Harts with noble heads and their attendant hinds, marched for some distance on the brae on one side of a burn, right opposite to us; whilst we walked on the other, and they shewed no sign of fear. Thence too comes the White Heather, sure harbinger of luck, which after all brought nothing but ill-fortune. And the the Coials overhanging Ballater, huge masses of lava and of Serpentine harder then the hardest granite; where grow Alpine plants far below their usual level, and where the Ring-ouzels flew almost in one's face swearing lustily in quite unnecessary fear for their young broods.
Another day spent at Loch Bulg, the home of Char, lying close under the mighty bulk of Ben Avon is well recalled by the strange-looking floating Bur-weed (Sparganium affinis), and is never to be forgotten for the bitter snowstorm--it was in the month of August too--and the long toilsome journey home, wet to the waist with fording through the almost ice-cold water of the river.
May not such memories as these be justly called the "pleasures of collecting." If as Bacon tells us in his Essay "A Garden is the purest of human pleasure," and "God Almightie first planted a garden," surely the love of wild flowers must be the next most pure pleasure, and as "God Almightie" must, I suppose, have created the wild flowers before he planted a garden, I should almost be inclined--without in any way wishing to lessen the pleasures of a garden--to claim the first place for the natural love, rather then for the artificial pleasure. Certain it is that the love of flowers, whether they be in their natural state or fostered by art, is an exquisite delight, which, unlike too many other pleasures, leaves behind it no remorse nor any regrets. Again, if "on Earth a Flower only can be perfect," as Nathaniel Hawthorne thought, surely the love of God's most perfect creation must be a form of natural religion, carrying with it high and holy thoughts which should be encouraged to the utmost.
"Flower in the crannied wall,
If, as Tennyson has told us, the highest mysteries of all God's works are wrapped up in a plant, and may possibly be revealed to a soul even unconsciously seeking the Creator through the medium of His most perfect work; is not the study of such perfection a thing worth fostering, especially among the young, who will only too soon rub off the bloom and freshness of their minds in the turmoil of the busy lives before them, and be apt to lose sight of the search after perfection, in the dust and racket of their daily pursuits?
Setting aside altogether the mere scientific aspect of the question, and the delight of feeling oneself gradually becoming master of a subject, is it not worth while to try and interest a child in a study which, while it affords a pleasant occupation in the present, stores up memories for the future, if it be persevered in; of boyhood, youth, manhood, and middle-age against the time, not too far off from any of us; when staleness and lassitude begin to take the place of energy and strength, when the long ramble or the steady march of many miles, once so eagerly looked forward to and so keenly enjoyed, becomes a thing to be thought of twice before it is undertaken once; and every year it grows more pleasant to turn over the treasure gathered long ago, and mentally to see the scenes and faces of old friends, and to hear the voices now to be seen and heard in reality no more; in place of setting out to see new acquaintances, whether places, plants, or persons?
Proofread by LNL, July, 2023
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