Do you know your Saxifrage from your Stitchwort, your Harebells from your Bluebells? No, me neither. Each May the hedgerows of North Wales, and more specifically the Conwy Valley where I live, are bursting with wild flowers, herbs and grasses, so prolific they are impossible to ignore. Each year I vow to learn to identify some of them. As with most aspects of the Welsh countryside there are strong connections to history. The 15th and 16th Centuries are considered to be the prime time of the herbalists. It was a time of great belief in mystery, magic and superstitions, which naturally gave rise to curiosity and often wildly incorrect conclusions about the properties and values of certain plants.
The ancient woodlands and green lanes here in the Conwy Valley nurture anything that likes a good bog, but then the land climbs towards Tal Y Fan and I find sub species – I think – which have perhaps adapted to a drier soil. It was only when I came to identify the plants on the web that I realised just how vast the subject is, and why this post is mostly pictorial. I know the Latin names are considerably more accurate but I’d never get to grips with that, nor would it evoke much interest if one of my characters were to say Aquilegia spp instead of Granny’s Bonnet.
Time spent gathering this kind of information is never wasted, especially since my fiction is set in this part of the world. Researching is all part of the day job for a writer and, oh … how much richer the story becomes when these snippets are threaded into the narrative. I’m not talking about blocks of description better suited to a Flora and Fauna encyclopedia, it’s the subtle details which underpin that suspension of belief, the transportation into another, possibly alien location for the reader, and hopefully without them realising how you’ve done it.
The absorption of any scene or landscape is not restricted to what we can see, either; smell, touch and sound are also powerful mediums in fiction. Take Wild Garlic. Incredibly pungent and pretty prolific in this area. When the leaves are crushed the perfume wafts a considerable distance and the leaves are indeed edible, but they also happen to look exactly like the poisonous leaves of Lily-of-the-Valley so perhaps edible foraging is best left to the experts. There are in fact many deadly, innocent looking flowers out there which could form the basis of a dastardly plot … so although these pretty hedgerows might be considered pure romance fodder, there’s no love lost when it comes to ingesting some of them.
But I did discover a rather fine recipe for Elderflower champagne. My character, Anna Williams (Wild Water Series) tells me this is the foolproof recipe she always follows, so I think this is possibly a good place to halt my inspection of the hedgerows and start boiling some water!