Speed Well and Stay Safe: Identifying Wildflowers in March

This is a catch-up post covering my March Wildflowers series. If you want to know why I’m on a quest to identify as many flowers, trees, shrubs, and grasses as I can this year, have a quick look at this post.


We spent more time outdoors as the days became warmer here in Ireland. It was incredible to see the first spring leaves shimmering on trees and shrubs and the forsythia and magnolias blooming in suburban gardens re-energised my lockdown spirit with their magnificent yellow and cream flowers. This time last year I was impatient with the trees. The winter had been too long and to see most of the trees still bare well into March made me feel like I was being deprived of something. I don’t know what. My right to spring? We didn’t know it at the time, but in March 2020 the pandemic had barely begun as we entered our first lockdown around this time. Perhaps it was the uncertainty that made me greedy to see new life and new leaves. This year, despite the ongoing lockdowns and restrictions, I didn’t feel the same pressing need for spring ‘to arrive.’ Instead, I watched with newfound interest as the trees readied themselves for the new season. Which trees would unfurl their new leaves first, who was slow to join the party, which trees do the magpies choose to build their nests in? There are a pair of nesting magpies in the Norway Maple outside my office window and they’re a wonderful distraction when I’m supposed to be working/studying/writing. Our street is lined with large Norway Maples and it’s interesting to see how some trees started their show of bright green flowers much earlier than others. I guess this has something to do with their location in relation to the sun or their exposure to the elements, but I’m not sure. The early cherry trees, or Japanese Flowering Apricots, are also a delight. Their white and pale pink blossoms against a cold white March sky momentarily turns the world into a dreamlike wonderland.

This was a wonderful time to start identifying new plants. Many plants were blooming or spouting new leaves and it’s a feast for the senses. Even though I felt excited to start this new hobby, I was also uncertain how to approach this project. I decided that trees might be an easy place to start but as I was confronted with the glaring gaps in my knowledge, the task soon became more daunting. The more plants I attempted to identify, the more I realised that making an accurate identification is far from simple. Take willows for example. I know a willow by sight as those yellow blooms, like tiny fireworks, are unmistakable. But which is it, a Grey Willow or Goat Willow, or perhaps a hybrid which seems equally likely? Sometimes it’s small things, for example, are the twigs ridged under the bark (Grey Willow) or are the leaves downy at first, then hairless and soft to the touch (Goat Willow). I had no idea. I realised I had to go back and spend some time with these trees and really take it all in. I’m learning to look differently at plants and trees and to take notice of the details. It’s also prompting me to carefully observe the ‘bigger picture.’ Where are the plants growing, what type of soil is in the area, at what stage is the season?

One sunny afternoon late in March we went for a walk in a nearby wooded area. This small patch of trees seemed suspended in a timeless winter, oblivious to the early-spring activity all around. With the sun shining furtively through the branches, it was a magical experience, though. My daughter and I collected Larch branches with cones. Larches are Britain and Ireland’s only deciduous conifers, and their ornate cones can survive on the trees for several years. It seemed a shame not to do something with these beautiful cones and they now decorate my indoor pot plants. The very first flowers I identified using ‘Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland’ were blue anemones. These woodland flowers are some of the first to promise spring, along with the brittle bladder ferns, who seemed to spring up overnight under trees on our local walks. This might sound silly, but I was incredibly excited to identify my first flower. I had picked one blueish flower and one leave and I had absolutely no idea where to start! I paged through the book, trying to spot an illustration that matched it or a family group that looked right. It took me a while because I have a habit of paging through a book from back to front, but I found the anemones at the very beginning of the book on page 30.

I also enjoyed identifying and reading about speedwells. Some people see them as weeds, but they are pretty and tough, what’s not to like about them! According to wildflowersofireland.net ‘there was a tradition among seafaring folk… to give travellers a little bunch of blue flowers and wishing them ‘Speed Well’.’ I find the irony of this bittersweet in a time when travelling, in any form, seems like a luxury due to the Coronavirus-pandemic. Wishing others ‘speed well’ has been replaced by ‘stay safe’. So, while we are attempting to stay safe, our worlds have become smaller again. And not small in the way I used to think of it: ‘Oh, it’s a small world, my South African friends and family are only a flight away.’ No, our world is truly smaller, here in Ireland we could only travel within five kilometres from our homes for months. But something interesting has happened in my small world. As my focus shifted towards smaller and smaller details, a new world opened within this bubble, a vastly populated and very interesting world of weeds and flowers and insects, and birds… I’ve noticed other things too, like how much better I know my neighbours now that we walk the same footpaths. We engage in more small talk, something I used to avoid, because we need to connect with other people. We all need to feel connected to a larger community. I’ve noticed how we appreciate the small indulgences like a takeaway coffee and pastry while restaurants and pubs are closed. I’ve experienced so much kindness and small acts of reaching out, and it made all the difference. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t so impatient for spring this year. The small things have become the big things. And perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.

Plants Identified: 15

Brittle Bladder Fern, Blue Anemone, Flowering Current, Silver Birch, Wild Cherry, Broad Buckler Fern, Forsythia, Larch Tree, Norway Maple Tree, Lungwort, Alexanders, Field Speedwell, Wild Cherry Tree, Dutch Crocus, Spring Crocus

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Chantelle

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