Rambling about, looking for wildflowers

Tuesday, Jun 03, 2014 at 14:50


We have all heard the story. Travellers who say, when asked if they have seen wildflowers “I drove down that road two days ago and there was nothing to see”. But when you drive that same road there are plenty of wildflowers. What is going on here?

You have come prepared; you have done your research. You have arrived at what should be a good wildflower spot, at a time of the year when blooms should be guaranteed. So how do you actually find them? That might seem like a strange question, but surprisingly, many people do seem to have a bit of trouble with that crucial step.

Sometimes we get lucky and are confronted by a mass of colour spread across the landscape - it’s hard to know where to look first. More often though, we might need to look a bit harder to find flowers. How do we actually do that?

Looking, observing, seeing detail – some people can do it easily, while others struggle. For everyone it is a skill that can be learned and improved with practice. Once you get the knack you will be surprised at how much you can see, and if its flowers that you’re after you will even spot them while driving down a road at 100kph. Remember though that a fleeting glimpse is not really “seeing” in the sense of close observation of detail.

Louis Pasteur observed “in the fields of observation, fortune favours the prepared mind”. But how do you prepare your mind to find wildflowers? For students of Botany – those who make a formal study of plants, there are time-honoured methods of observation, built around the collection of plant specimens, and drawing or painting plants to ensure close and accurate observation. It’s pretty hard to draw something accurately and in detail if you haven’t looked at it very closely, maybe with the assistance of a magnifying glass or microscope. There is an interesting article here that expands on this idea.

Valerie Oxley in her book “Botanical Illustration” gives this advice to those starting out drawing plants: “It may seem strange to talk about absorbing the plant material in front of you but it is necessary to look carefully at your plant and then look again. I am often surprised by the different levels of observation; it seems impossible to see everything first time. At first we may see size, shape and overall colour, but as we look more closely we notice the attachment of leaves, the shape of the stem and the position of the flowers. On closer observation the venation on leaves and petals and surface texture start to emerge. Next we might notice the subtle changes in colour throughout the whole plant, and as we look even more closely we see the flower itself in more detail. Mother Nature it seems loves to catch us out; it is only when we stop looking that disasters occur. Train yourself to be inquisitive, aim to look with understanding at the plant in front of you before you start to draw.”

Now I’m not suggesting that we should become trained botanical artists before we set out on our next trip, but that quote sets out very well the level of detail that is there to be observed. My point is simply that if you can build your observation skills to see that level of detail, you are likely to find a lot more things in the first place.

Another time honoured method used to observe plants has been to collect plant samples including leaves, flowers and seed pods. These were preserved by pressing them between sheets of absorbent paper to dry them out. If done carefully the resulting herbarium specimens last for decades, even centuries. Joseph Banks who was with Captain Cook when the Endeavour arrived on the east coast of Australia in 1770 collected thousands of plant specimens. His herbarium specimens accounted for about 110 new genera and 1300 new species. Most of those specimens are still kept in the British Natural History Museum in London, while 600 specimens are now at the National Herbarium of New South Wales at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney. As an aside, Banksias are named after Joseph Banks, and Botany Bay is so named for the wealth of unknown plants Banks found there.

Likewise, the Herbarium of Cambridge University holds over 900 sheets of specimens collected by Charles Darwin on the Beagle voyage during the 1830s. A herbarium is a collection of plant samples preserved for long-term study. Herbaria are usually associated with universities, museums, or botanical gardens. The first is believed to have been established in 1570 in Bologna, Italy. There are now over 300 million specimens stored in around 4,000 herbaria in over 165 countries.

But I digress - I’m not for one moment suggesting that we should become skilled botanical collectors before we attempt to find wildflowers (and these days collecting is definitely frowned upon unless you have a permit that entitles you to collect for purposes of research). Rather I want to to show that observing plants is part of a long tradition with deep historical and scientific roots. We continue that tradition when we travel following the tracks of the early Australian explorers. Many of them were searching for grazing land and they made detailed observations of the vegetation of the country as they passed through. Our enjoyment of the country, its plants, animals, rivers and rocks is in many ways just a modern version of what motivated those earlier explorers.

Those explorers, adventurers and scientists required skilful observation, patience and some knowledge of plants in order to build their collections. These are still essential qualities for wildflower enthusiasts. But these days there are laws regulating who can collect plants, and where it can be done, with stiff penalties for picking plant material without a permit. So a better approach is to collect only photographs. While we will have more to say on that topic in another blog, for now it’s enough to realise that better observation will give us better photos.

So, back to finding wildflowers. Once you have spotted some flowers, or even if you think you are in a likely wildflower spot, you really must get out of the vehicle. Walk over the ground. Take your time. Look around you, and especially look down at the ground. Peer at and into bushes and shrubs. Watch where your feet are going, you don’t want to tread on that elusive threatened species.

Practice by sitting in a not-very-well tended patch of grass or garden bed. Look at it closely, from a distance of about 30cm or even closer. Yes you might have to get into an awkward or even funny position, but hey, no pain, no gain! How many different plant shapes, sizes and colours can you see? Can you find a flower with a tiny insect inside it? Do some of the plants have flowers or seedpods? Practice like this a few times and you will be surprised at the amount of detail you start to notice.

Here’s another observation exercise, one that children might enjoy. Make a collection of small items each about 1 or 2cm in diameter. Include objects of different shapes and colours - say 20 items including small coins, paper clips, sweets, dice, screws, nuts (edible or wheel). Scatter these over a few metres of rough grassy ground, and then see how many you can find. You will probably have to look closely to find your objects – and that is an indication of how closely you need to look to find some of the smaller wildflowers, including those special cryptic ones like ground orchids and some carnivorous plants.

Larger flowers, especially the really eye-catching ones present their particular challenges. It’s tempting to think you can see all there is to see at a glance. Remember Valerie Oxley’s advice, be inquisitive and look again for real appreciation.

Among trees and particularly in thick forest there may be fewer flowers down on the ground. There will probably be other interesting plants, including those that don’t actually produce flowers such as ferns, mosses, fungi, liverworts. Flowers may be up in the treetops, and hard to see from ground level. But by watching the ground you can often find fallen flowers, fruit and even animal scats, and from those clues you might be able to spot flowers and even animals and birds feeding or just resting in the treetops.

We don’t want to be weighed down with gear on our wildflower walks but sometimes a few small items can aid our discoveries. Our first bit of gear is a good camera. If you want to try to identify plants later on then a notepad (to sketch in and record relevant information about the plant) is almost essential. A magnifying glass or hand lens, and binoculars will be useful too. With this gear you can record details of the leaves, flowers and fruit/seed pods of each plant - you will need this information if you aim to identify your plant later on.

Happy wildflower hunting!
J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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