I’m currently re-reading Richard Mabey’s uplifting masterpiece, Nature Cure. The book describes Mabey’s more-or-less enforced transplantation to Norfolk, and the reawakening of his love for the natural world, following a two-year period of bed-ridden depression. At one point, he tells the tale of going on a ‘plant twitch’ in search of the yellow star-of-Bethlehem, Gagea lutea, in Wayland Wood, part of his new local patch:
A quarter of a century on […] I’d still never seen the plant, and knew it only from illustrations in books, where it looked rather like a diminutive and unprepossessing celandine. I had no idea of its jizz, or the sort of spring weather that might overcome its notorious disinclination to come into flower, or even the kind of woodland niche it favoured. I was a trufflehound without its nose. So I quartered the wood, tacking across its mysterious earthworks. I peered round all its inner recesses, in the coppice glades, along the edges of the rides, in the patches of dapple under the taller trees. I tried to be clever and nudge my way down tracks that had brushwood piled in front of them, thinking that this might be a deliberate deterrent to Gagea stalkers. But I knew I was hunting blind. I didn’t find a thing. I was a stranger and a train-spotter and it served me right.
A (mostly) clueless amateur plant-spotter like myself can take immense comfort from the idea of such an authority on wild flowers as Richard Mabey blundering around a wood, not at all sure if he’s seeking his quarry in the right place, or in the right conditions. It’s a feeling I know all too well—although, in my case, the blundering has been mostly around bogs.
For many years, I’ve sought in vain for a particular wild flower on my own local patch. It’s up there, I’m sure, on my beloved Moor: I feel it in my bones. A plant that inspired my hero, Charles Darwin, to write an entire book on insectivorous plants: the round-leaved sundew, Drosera rotundifolia.
Drosera rotundifolia is a plant which grows in waterlogged, acidic, nutrient-poor soils—for which, read peat bogs. It acquires the precious nutrients it needs from insects, which it traps in the sweet, sticky droplets it secretes on its leaves (the eponymous dew of sundew). Once an insect becomes stuck in the droplets, the sundew slowly wraps its leaf around the doomed creature to ingest its bodily fluids. Animal-eating plants: what’s not to like?
I’ve kept my eye out for Drosera ever since I was transplanted from the Wirral to West Yorkshire twelve years ago. We have peat bogs coming out of our ears up here. But no joy. I’ve had tip-offs about where to look for sundews, but, the problem is, I don’t want to see them on any old moor; I want to see them on the Moor—my local Moor—Moor with a capital M.
I’m up on the Moor every week or so, but have so far failed to spot a sundew. Then, a year or so back, I saw Alan Titchmarsh talking about Drosera rotundifolia on the telly, and realised I’d been getting the scale all wrong. It’s hard to judge a plant’s size from a book illustration. When I imagined Drosera rotundifolia digesting insects, I had heather-flies and horse-flies in mind. It turns out those would be a bit of a mouthful for poor Drosera; gnats and midges are more its size. The plant is a far smaller than I’d expected. Time to look more closely…
1st August, 2013. Yorkshire Day. What better excuse do I need for getting out on to the Moor? The weather might be oppressive, but the words just haven’t been flowing. I need to clear my head. The Moor is the best place to do that.
I head up the track, through the stile, and on to the Moor proper. Meadow pipits scatter into the purpling heather. Sheep raise their heads, then return to their grazing. A grouse clucks somewhere in the distance. After the recent thunderstorms, I thought it safest to wear my boots, but the first bog is almost dry, with only a couple of small pools glinting through the rushes. I follow the flagged track through what’s left of the bog, then turn left, up the final steep climb, and wind my way through the quarries and heather to the trig point.
As always, I touch the whitewashed concrete column to make it official, then turn to take in the view. Good grief, it really is muggy! Anyone might think those were clouds shrouding Stoodley Pike, but it’s just a humid haze; the real clouds are much higher.
I turn along the edge. Without warning, a grouse explodes out of the heather at my feet, causing me to emit my customary startled-by-a-grouse bellow: HUUUUUUUUURRRRRR! Bloody grouse! I don’t deal with sudden shocks at all well. Over the years, the local grouse have reduced me to a nervous wreck. Then, a split-second later, two further explosions. The grouse head off low across the heather, disappearing over the camber of the hill.
I pause to regain my composure, then continue along the edge and drop down, taking a narrow track across the expanse towards the air-shafts. There are some particularly boggy patches over this way. The trick is to search for cotton grass. It’s on its way out now, after June’s spectacular show, but there are still plenty of white seed-tufts bobbing in the light breeze. Cotton grass seed-tufts a sure sign of bogs (so are its rusty stalks, once the tufts have gone).
I circumnavigate a couple of pools, stepping gingerly from tussock to tussock, crouching down every so often to peer and prod amongst the mosses. There are plenty of flies around, but no sign of Drosera. Then I spot a movement to my right, out of the corner of my eye. I turn, but there’s nothing. I must have imagined it. I return my attention to the moss. There it is again: definite movement! I turn to see a fat, squat creature sloping off into a clump of rushes. A newt! I haven’t seen a newt since I was about nine! All the years I’ve been coming up here, and I had no idea there were newts on the Moor. I am elated, but decide to leave the poor creature alone—even though I’d dearly love to photograph it.
A few more pools, and I decide it’s time to head for home. No, I didn’t manage to track down my elusive sundew. Not today. But where would the fun be if such things were easy? The whole point of having a local patch is to get to know it as well as you can. What better way to explore the Moor really close-up than by going on a wild Drosera chase? If I hadn’t, I would never have discovered there are newts on the Moor. Newts: who’d have thought it? So what if I still have no proof that Drosera is up here? There’s always next time. There always is, on your local patch.