Lockdown Botany

Somerset field of Dandelion clocks during COVID-19 lockdown at sunset
A festival of Dandelion Clocks seen in a local field during a lockdown walk at sunset © Karen Netto (Andrews)

The COVID-19 shutdown meant that I couldn’t visit some of my favourite Somerset botanising sites. Some were tantalisingly out-of-reach. I could gaze at the Mendip Hills over the moors, but they were just that bit too far to reach during my daily walks. My favourite coastal walks were also out.

I resigned myself to making the best of sites within walking distance of home. I tried to gain some variation by setting out in a different direction every day. Intensive agriculture does not make for prime botanising. Botany was nonetheless a great way to alleviate lockdown boredom. It was particularly welcome to distract me from the worry of waiting for an operation that was delayed several times due to COVID-19.

Gradually, I worked out a walking routine. I was certainly glad to no longer be cooped up in a London flat. I am lucky to live in such a beautiful area. I had to do some minor zigzagging for social distancing through the village. It was generally easy for me to find myself alone in a wide open space in no time at all. I know many were not so lucky during lockdown.

My walks included quiet country lanes, two woods, hills, fields, an empty golf course, ponds, rhynes, ditches and moorland. Exciting rare plants were not likely in my immediate area. Habitats, normally dismissed as unappealing, proved more interesting than previously considered. As the weeks passed, the range of wild flowers increased. Even the unmown council land opposite the house was suddenly filled with Dandelions and Daisies. Air and water quality were better than previous years. Having moaned about the relative absence of Primroses and Cowslips, I saw many more this year because they were simply left alone to flower.

Dandelion Fest during COVID-19 lockdown during sunset walk
Dandelion Fest at sunset © Karen Netto (Andrews)

The air buzzed with bees. The hedgerows filled with more butterflies than I could recall in recent memory. I found myself watching which pollinators were drawn to which flowers – including all the garden species in the village. I watched their behaviour between each flower. Fascinating. It really pays to slow down your pace and observe Nature quietly.

Simon Leach, one of South Somerset’s recorders, kept all the Somerset Rare Plant Group Members busy with a weekly species list of First Flowering Dates. This is a phenology project that he has been working on for a number of years. With all botanical group events cancelled, it gave us all a connection to botanising elsewhere in the county and a sense of purpose. I rarely saw a plant before anyone else, but it gave me a chance to feel more confident in my identifications, especially in the numerous local Speedwells. I worked on grasses and sedges. I built up my botanical photo library, exposing the main characteristics of common species. I captured the plentiful members of the Buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) at different stages in their life cycle.

Celery-leaved Buttercup, Ranunculus sceleratus
Celery-leaved Buttercup, Ranunculus sceleratus, in a ditch in this spring’s bright sunshine © Karen Netto (Andrews)

Once we were allowed to travel a bit further again, I drove to Cheddar Gorge. I was disappointed that the Long Wood Bluebells were going over. The next day, I found some in full, late flower on the colder side. I was relieved to find a few Orchids and a few rare species shortly before my long hospital stay. June was a botanical write-off for me. Nonetheless, it simply isn’t possible to keep me away from wild flowers for long. I’m gradually building back up. Lockdown and my operation have shown that there is often much more to appreciate close-at-hand, if only you use your eyes to see.

Bluebells at Cheddar Gorge
Relief at Cheddar Gorge that I didn’t miss seeing a carpet of Bluebells, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, altogether this spring. © Karen Netto (Andrews)

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