project reflections #28

Upperthorpe Botanicus

Poor flowers in the flower beds of manicured gardens.

They look like they’re afraid of the police …

‘Alberto Caeiro’  from The Keeper of Sheep XXXIII

Feeling conscious of the absence of an introduction, I thought that it might be worthwhile to draft a short conclusion to the project reflections that I have written about the botany of the Upperthorpe, Netherthorpe, Shalesmoor, Neepsend and Wardsend edgelands (project reflections 1, 3, 4, 5, 14, 19, 20, 22, 24, 26 and 27 respectively).   

The aim, in principle, was to create a tentative psycho-botany of the various weeds and invasive plants that thrive on “disturbed ground” around the edges of habitation; to not only describe these ‘flowers that grow in the wrong places’ in botanical terms but to examine – at least in brief – their cultural significance.

Also, last weekend, whilst in conversation with a botanist friend, I was reminded of the fragile precariousness of this urban weed-ecology. Essentially most of these transitional or pioneering plants (poppies, buddleja, Rosebay willowherb etc.) will propagate only in areas of vegetation clearance; in the course of natural habitat development they will soon be deprived of light by forest canopies and, given time, will simply cease to exist. It is a transitory, human-determined and human-dependent flora that has been created in these areas.

In terms of the way that we have become accustomed to contemplating nature, I’m therefore left with somewhat conflicted feelings – where’s the (cleansing) spiritual connection? This is – it would seem – a somewhat muddied, muddled, mitigated nature; perhaps a somewhat less than fully ‘natural’ nature – in comparison to what we might hope to see in a timeless, ‘pristine’ ecology – perhaps in Alaska, for example …

In terms of structuring the texts, I quite enjoyed the caprice of writing the introductory (in bold) paragraphs in the ‘voice’ of an nineteenth century naturalist – a voice that I hoped would contrast with the ‘thick description’  or fact-heavy content of the remainder (culled heavily from Wikipedia but also informed by other texts including The Unofficial Countryside by Richard Mabey – and by a few personal experiences).

I also enjoyed the way that, at times, the language of botanical description formed a dense, impenetrable ‘thicket’ – growing from Greek and Latin roots. This was particularly evident when the botanical description of the complex structure of the common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale – project reflection 22) lead to a baroque profusion of technical terms: bracts (modified or specialized leaves, especially associated with reproductive structures such as flowers, inflorescence axes, or cone scales – from the Latin bractea, thin metal plate, gold leaf variant of brattea … of obscure origin); glabrous (having no hairs or protrusions – from Latin glaber – bald): involucres (a series of bracts beneath or around a flower cluster – French from Latin involocrum – wrapper, envelope); pappi (a modified calyx composed of scales, bristles, or featherlike hairs, in plants of the composite family, such as the dandelion and the thistle – Latin, old man, down on certain seeds, from Greek papposcalyx (the sepals of a flower collectively, forming the outer floral envelope that protects the developing flower bud – from Latin, from Greek – kalux shell, from kaluptein to cover, hide …

The reason for choosing Rosebay willowherb, bindweed, Japanese knotweed (donkey rhubarb) and dandelions was simple – they all feature on the weed control section of Sheffield City Council’s website. Poppies, bracken and briar, sycamore and buddleja were all chosen because they also fall within the categories of pioneering or invasive plants – and they all, on investigation, yielded surprising amounts of cultural – psycho-botanical – reference.

Paul Evans, 2012

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