Want to become a better forager? Want to master the ID skills for when plants are not in flower? Don’t find you have enough time? Brilliant skills require patience and time, but by using just a few minutes per day or per week, you can use this simple and creative method to deepen your plant knowledge and reconnect with the green space around you.
When I first started out learning to forage, I wanted to know everything about botany and identification right away and would study books until I was cross-eyed. However, looking back, I realise that wasn't really how I learned to ID plants properly. Instead, true recognition crept upon me gradually because of I started working on Hampstead Heath, a 70 acre open space nestled within London. The role involved being outside every day, all year round which in turn made me take notice of all the little bits of green that poked out of the soil. As the season grew, so did the plants and as they developed from wee sprouts to proper plants, I could then take the botanical books to them and finally discover its's name. This meant I started to truly recognise each plant like dear old friends - in good lights and bad, from a young age to old.
You don't need to be out all day every day like I was, but the technique can be applied in the same way. By using a few minutes every day on the way to work or home you can do the same thing. Most people navigate the same well worn paths daily - use this time to meet a herb.
Look around on your regular route to work (or elsewhere as long as you go past the same place daily, weekly or monthly). Find a plant that attracts you, even if its the smallest leaf growing out of a wall. Your task is to get to know it in depth over time - and learn a year in the life of a plant! These skills will allow you to understand your chosen plant's formation and growth*.
The best type of plant to start with is a deciduous (leaf dropping) tree – unlikely to get weeded out, available all year round, has drastic seasonal changes ideal for observation and will be easy to identify once in full swing.
- Step back. Observe the plant's overall shape and surroundings, Where has it found to grow? what can this tell you about what environment it likes? how does it affect the landscape around it/how does the landscape affect it?
- Get close. Notice how its leaves grow, how do they unfurl? How are they arranged? Where are its flowers coming from? does it have a scent? texture?
(All these questions and more will come as you get involved with your plant)
Immerse yourself as much as you have time to. Maybe you will just consciously nod at the tree each time you pass, or even take a photograph once a week or once or month. Maybe you want to dedicate a notebook to your observations and/or sketch it every now and then. The most important thing is seeing it change throughout the seasons of the year, reaching its peak and then in turn releasing its energy back to the earth. This is a daily simple 'noticing' that will lead you on a journey to the true in-depth experience of a skilled forager.
You will benefit by learning the changing shapes, colours and scents in your chosen species, whatever the season, and deepen your understanding of botany that will be applicable to other plants. You are also making a friend with a local plant, and that’s nice too. Perhaps you will be later be able to harvest food or medicine from it with understanding and respect.
Identifying your plant
Don’t get hung up about knowing what it is at first. Perhaps it is only the small first leaf sprouting from a seed and the mystery will be revealed as time goes on. This is part of the pleasure and art of understanding the plants essence and growth without pigeonholing it from the first and creating expectations. This is why starting off in winter or early spring is ideal**. In time as the plant develops, with a good ID book or by 'Googling' a list of plant features, you be able to reveal its name.
So... Happy discovery.... We'd love to hear about your plant journeys, let us know below, and maybe we will feature it on a blog with you.
*if you like more in-depth philosophy of science and the interesting ideas of Johann Wolfgang Goethe's Metamorphosis
** but not necessary - any time will do!
Hawthorn in a year:
(Click to move gallery to side)
NB Other examples of plant study below gallery.