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My Woodland Collection of yarn is hand dyed using materials gathered from the local Loch Ness Woodlands. I concentrate on gathering invasive and problematic plant types, with permission from the landowner, and contribute to wider plans for woodland management.
I'll often work alongside the landowner or woodland manager to build a relationship and find out more about long term plans for an area. Working with trees means adjusting your time frame, short projects are around 5 years and long ones take a lifetime.
In areas where there are access issues or safety concerns I'll always work as part of a group. In other areas, once the landowner is happy, I'll be given permission to work alone.
I'm fortunate to have built up these relationships so that in some areas I have free access and trust to gather what is needed and beneficial to the woodland, and plant identification is an important part of this.
There are a number of mobile apps that help with plant identification, however these rely on having a mobile signal which I don't always have. There are also several very useful pocket guides, that contain large photos and habitat information. These wipe clean easy read guides from the Field Studies Council cover a range of plant types and habitats, for example Guide to mosses of woodlands, and Guide to lichens of heaths and moors.
If in doubt I'll snap a photo on my phone and use a reference book when I get home. This is preferable to gathering a sample, and I'm generally against picking plants without a purpose.
Culpeppers Complete Herbal is a classic reference and works well in the hunt for dye plants as there is often a crossover with traditional medicinal use. Reference books that focus on your particular location or habitat are invaluable if you gather in the same general area frequently. The Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh has produced some beautiful and useful guides that focus on Scottish Plant Lore. This kind of reference book is helpful if the area you work in has regional dialect terms for plants that may cause confusion.
In addition to the formal guides here are some general tips for plant identification.
1) Location, Location, Location - be aware of your surroundings. How far is the plant from the sea and how high up are you? Coastal conditions, height, and latitude help to 'place' your plant very quickly. Plants know what they like and if you are a gardener you'll know how hard it is to persuade a desert plant that it really wants to grow in damp clay soil. This is why plant reference books tend to group into types such as coastal, woodland, heath, Alpine etc. Paying attention to your surroundings will at least get you to the right chapter in the book!
2) Season - Different plants show their identifying characteristics at different times of year. For example the European Larch looks like most other pine trees until Autumn arrives, then it turns golden whilst the other pines stay green. If you are unsure but intrigued by a particular plant you may have to visit it several times throughout the year before it reveals its identity.
3) Switch to widescreen - You may be used to looking only at flowers but identifying wild plants means taking a broader view. Step back and take in the leaves, bark, flowers, fruits, seeds that the plant in producing. Also look at any lichen or fungus on or around the plant, and check out the neighbours. Just as plants can be picky about location, they can also be picky about their neighbours and you'll find some groups prefer to grow together.
4) Likelihood - It may be your dream to view a Grandidier's Baobab but unless you are standing in Madagascar or a botanical garden the chances are you haven't stumbled across one growing on the banks of Loch Ness.
5) Take only memories - don't pick it, taste it, trim it or share it if you are at all unsure. In the UK it is illegal to remove plants from the wild or to gather without the landowners permission. Just because something is natural does not mean that it couldn't cause harm to yourself or another part of nature. So unless you are certain please walk away and gather another day.