On Botany

The Best Australian Essays

View Original Article

Illustration by Neil Gower

Brontë-esque moors; “Wind in the Willows” woodlands; the sprawling floral frontispieces of William Morris. One of English literature’s tricks is to lull us English-speaking foreigners into a false sense of familiarity with the landscape. I knew British flora before I set eyes on any of it. But it was a hand-me-down knowledge, a botany-by-fiction. I’m a stranger in this country, and this country is strange to me.

I moved to Britain from Sydney in 2008. I’ve tried to befriend local species in the part of Oxford where I live. It’s down in the Domesday Book as meadow, and between buildings there is an unkempt cemetery and a scrap of swamp, choked with Coke cans and cow parsley. My walks trace rivers out of town: the Cherwell to its upper flanks, and fields with signs announcing their Special Scientific Interest. Or the Isis to its neglected elbow above St Aldate’s, where the boatyards at Osney now subsume the ruins of the abbey. This path brings me out at Port Meadow, to find slow-grazing cattle and a stretch of water that comes and goes as it fancies.

It’s slow going. For one thing, I’m forced to learn these plants back-to-front. We usually see plants as a part of their surroundings, and only later learn their names. Here, however, the names are what I know—from literature, or human namesakes, like Heather and her ilk. My task is to pin the names back on the plants. But names can also confound: England’s oaks are utterly unlike the she-oaks ubiquitous in my corner of Australia—Charles II would sooner have sheltered behind a birch than bother with these spindly creatures. The “she” is no compliment—the early white Australians found its wood a lesser lumber, too soft for sound construction. But why “oak”, anyway? She-oaks, actually Allocasuarinas, have their own, un-oak-ish virtues: fortifiers of soils and hosts to orchids, they provide shady spots free of snakes. And she-oaks —among the earth’s first evolved trees—have a special, sombre grace. But none of this helps me to pick an English oak from a line-up.

And there’s another, thornier issue obstructing the acquaintance. I harbour a visceral dislike for some English species, a feeling stemming from the fact that, in Australia, a vast majority of what are now invasive weeds were introduced from England. The weed invasion closely tracked the human one—about 15 years after the First Fleet landed in Botany Bay in 1788, Robert Brown found 29 species of European plants growing wild in the region. The number of escapees from English-style gardens has grown spectacularly since, with over a thousand species now naturalised in New South Wales. Australia’s weed problem costs it A$4 billion (£2.3 billion) a year—a big reason why our quarantine officials come across like petit fascists.

It’s unfair, I know, to hold this prejudice against English plants. Especially here, where they’re within their native entitlements. But my ambivalence persists, something like that expressed by the late Judith Wright, in her poem “Oaks etc”:

It isn’t that I don’t like
European trees,
Why my great-grandfather came from…
Some of my best friends are…

The nub of it is that my eye is trained not to admire these species, but to see them as unlovely and rapacious. Consider common broom. Native to Britain, it’s so respectable here that it lent its name from the Middle Ages, “planta genista”, to the House of Plantagenet. But it is also uniquely adapted for incursions in warmer climes—its pods split open in heat, expelling seeds at speed. It’s invasive in many countries, Australia included. There it has spread across the Cumberland plains to the south-western suburbs of Sydney, squeezing out native flora and fauna. In that light, broom doesn’t seem so pretty. It’s a common tale—Canberra, coveting the look of English garden cities like Letchworth, slapped a decades-long ban on front fences in an attempt to get residents to grow hedges. Now that hedge species run rampant in surrounding forest, the hedge city aesthetic is less appealing.

Last summer brought something of a rapprochement. The brambles started it. Another British native, they’re among Australia’s worst offenders, and hellishly hard to clear—goats eat them only if nothing else is going, and in unfenced country any infestations tend to be sprayed with poison. The spraying makes the idea of picking wild blackberries foreign to Australians. The day I ate my first few berries from an English vine, I felt the frisson of tempting fate. Would I fall ill from poison-berries, the foolish heroine in a cautionary children’s tale? But now I forage freely, my appreciation for the vine growing with each sweet-staining fruit.

What’s more, background checks reveal many of the pests to be mongrels, only partly (if at all) British. Plenty of “cottage garden” plants that went to Australia via England were exotics here, too. Like the bindweed that, in Oxford, masses obscenely on the banks below Magdalen Bridge, erupting in white or purple trumpets—this lush green vine of the Convolvulaceae family is originally of Mediterranean stock. Another exotic with a European backstory is the weeping willow, whose fallen limbs sprout as new trees along riverbanks. The tree is native to China, although legend has it that England’s weeping willows all descend from one Spanish twig, planted by Alexander Pope in Twickenham in the early 1700s. Or the sickly-sweet freesias that bedevil the west coast of Australia—cultivated in Europe, they are in fact hybrids of Cape of Good Hope species.

Plants move by intricate routes, with effects that take time to assess. People are the same. In Oxford, I’m only just waking up to the sleeper result of my own relocation. It’s a discernible shift in aesthetic sensibility—and certain weeds, I now see, are rather becoming plants.