Going on a road trip by myself has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember. When I started my PhD, I made the decision I would go on a road trip around England when I handed in my thesis. Well, on Friday 28th August 2020 I successfully completed and handed in my thesis, so you know what comes next!
For two weeks, I’ll be travelling around England and identifying some iconic plant species in each of the places I stop in. In this post, I’ll cover a few of the plants I spotted in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset, including an unlikely inhabitant of a burnt down church, one with a different reproductive system and one with a whole Japanese festival tied to it.
We’re starting on a very exciting note. Over the first weekend of my road trip, I went to visit family in Devon and meet my niece for the first time! I have never seen a newborn before so I was equal parts nervous and excited. She’s so beautiful and already showing an interest in plants. Well, I think she is. She seems excited by roses anyway!
While in Devon, I went on a little excursion to Buckfastleigh. Buckfastleigh was on my radar after reading Wild Ruins by Dave Hamilton, which was gifted to me by some of my good friends after finishing my PhD. In it, he introduced me to the Holy Trinity Church which was burnt down in 1849 and was the inspiration for The Hound of the Baskervilles. Here’s a fabulous post about its checkered past.
While exploring the ruins, I stumbled upon a window in which a hanging basket was placed. In the basket grew Sweetpeas (Lathyrus odoratus) and beside them was a bottle marked “Please feel free to water hanging basket if you are passing. Thank you.” The mysterious Sweetpeas added a little life to an otherwise shell of a church.
As the name suggests, Sweetpeas are a member of the Pea family (Fabaceae) and have a sweet fragrance. They are a climbing plant and so have little curling tendrils which aid the stem as it creeps and crawls up whatever is living close by. Sweetpeas are my favourite flower, so perhaps a spotlight post dedicated to this beautiful little plant is needed.
Luxulyan: Soft Shield Fern
One morning over the weekend, I decided to head off to Cornwall by myself for a walk. In Wild Ruins, Luxulyan Valley (pronounced Lux-uh-lee-un) is listed as one of the most romantic ruins to visit, so I took it as a morning for self care and introspection. Luxulyan Valley is densely wooded and has the River Par flowing through it.
In the Valley, the industrial remains of a 19th century aquaduct and viaduct can be found, making it a wonderful walk with lots of history. Nearby, there’s also the Luxulyan Quarrey, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, where Luxulyanite can be found. This is a rare type of Cornish granite, named after the village of Luxulyan.
Whenever I wander Cornwall, there’s one familiar frond I can always count on seeing. Soft Shield Ferns (Polystichum setiferum) are iconic in the Cornish landscape and as evergreens, you’re guaranteed to see them any time of the year. In the image above, you can see yellow sori growing on the underside of the frond. These are involved in the reproductive system for ferns, as they evolved before flowering plants (angiosperms). Sori are collections of sporangia which produce spores.
Ferns have multiple life stages, which you can see in this very basic infographic I made. In a haploid phase, the cells of the plant only have half the number of chromosomes (genetic material) they normally would. This doubles in the diploid phase, by combining the genetic material of the egg and sperm cells.
Wells: Common Hollyhock
After saying goodbye to my family, I started heading back north. On my first stop, I decided to go to a village I’ve always wanted to visit. Wells is a small city in Somerset, so small that it is often referred to as England’s smallest city. As well as being home to some historical landmarks, Wells was on my list because it is the home of the 2007, action comedy film, Hot Fuzz.
Hot Fuzz stars Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, acting as police officers in the village of Sandford (Wells). I tried to tick off as many onscreen locations (which you can see below), including the Market Square, The Crown at Wells pub, St Cuthbert’s Church and the Swan Hotel. With Hot Fuzz being one of my favourite films of all time, it was a real treat to wander the same streets I’d watched on screen so many times.
As I looked around St Cuthbert’s Church, reminiscing about the village fair scene, came across a beautiful pink flower growing by the church wall. This gorgeous bright bloom is easily mistaken for a Hibiscus, but it’s actually its cousin a Common Hollyhock (Alcea rosea). Both Hibiscus and Hollyhocks are from the Mallow family (Malvaceae).
When I posted the image above to Twitter, one frond mentioned that the Hollyhock is really important in Japan, where it is known as “aoi” and every May 15th they have the Aoi Matsuri (Hollyhock Festival). This gives us a clue to the plant’s origins. Hollyhocks were introduced to Britain around the 15th century from China and were given the name “holy hoc” because of their ties to Christianity.
This post was comprised of three locations close to my heart for a variety of reasons. Meeting my niece, seeing an old friend and finally visiting one of my favourite film sets. It just goes to show that no matter where you go or what you’re looking for, amazing plants with wonderful history can be found growing anywhere.