In the middle of the first coronavirus lockdown I find myself stranded in South-West London. This part of the city is never particularly noisy, but now it’s almost silent. Few planes are in the air. Birds seem to be singing louder. There is almost no traffic, people are cycling or walking when they leave the house for the one period of exercise the government allows per day. Pedestrians step out into the road to let others pass at the required two metre distance. Many smile and thank each other for the curtesy. It’s spring, but clouds and rain are rare. Every day, it seems, the sun is shining.
The distant sirens of ambulances are the only reminders that we are in the middle of a pandemic. As surreal as this idyll feels, the external threat has heightened my appreciation for my surroundings.
For a few weeks now my Englishman and I have been going for walks around the neighbourhood. Our outings have become the daily highlight – particularly because of the trees. Along the streets and in the front gardens they keep unfurling flowers and leaves in the most life-affirming awakening.
I used to think going for walks around the same few streets each day was boring. But I was wrong. I have rarely experienced spring as intensely as this year.
About four weeks ago I developed an enthusiasm for Amelanchiers. Their beauty is subtle. From a distance, their tiny white petals and the reddish-brown of their branches melt into elegant copper that in the sun glistens with restraint. I had overlooked amelanchiers until now. What a mistake.
Double cherry blossoms are hard to miss. To me, their numerous petals have always had something over the top about them, something unnecessary. But the recent walks have softened my judgment. The carefree abundance of too many petals in the spring sun is extremely attractive, even after they have fallen onto the pavement.
It is only in the last ten years that I have learned to appreciate flowers. Before that my plant love was mostly focused on leaves. I think the leaf-obsession arose from indoor plants that I had to content myself with until I had a garden. Said obsession eventually took me as far as the Amazon. Now I understand the appeal of flowers. However, sometimes, especially in spring, fresh green leaves still beat them.
When it comes to attention seeking, red leaves are somewhere between flowers and ordinary leaves. When the sun is in the right position, they can even outperform flowers, like the spherical Japanese acer (Acer palmatum) we saw shining in a driveway.
On our walks we sometimes come along a street with large, red-leafed trees. I had always assumed they were copper beeches (Fagus sylvatica f. purpurea). Then I suddenly noticed a different leaf shapes in one of my photographs, but couldn’t quite identify it. On our next walk we looked more closely and, no, they are not all copper beeches, there is also a Norway maple (Acer platanoides). Yet from a distance the trees look identical.
I wish I had a botanical education. Maybe it will happen one day; until then I continue to learn slowly, often from my Englishman. Yet frequently on our walks both our knowledge fails and we can’t identify a particular plant. So we speculate: ‘I think it’s a plum and not a cherry, but are there double flowering plums? The bark has the horizontal pattern, so it must be a cherry. And the deep red flowers there, do you know which tree that is? Maybe an apple tree? But aren’t apple blossoms always white? I think it’s a red flowering plum. Or a crab apple?’ And sometimes one of our hunches is correct. But an unpleasant feeling of ignorance remains.
Increasingly we are replacing this dilettantish approach. For instance, we kept noticing trees with bundles of frothy white flowers. They looked a like elders, but weren’t. We tried identification apps and books but no description fitted properly. Then we walked past one of the trees again and suddenly I realised the leaves looked like those of the ash tree in the garden of my childhood. A little more research and I found there is a frothy-flowered Manna ash.
With all my deficits in botanical knowledge there are lots of plants I have learned to identify with confidence. When I see a wisteria or a red hawthorn it seems strange to me, that one would not know their name, like not knowing that a chair is a chair.
I would like to be able to identify plants, not to be able to boast with latin, but to be able to see differently. Goethe wrote ‘We only notice what we know and understand.’ Having learned the names and characteristics of several trees this spring, I look at them differently now, they have become individuals, lifted from an undistinguished mass of green. It must be amazing to be able to identify the plants one comes across.