Connie Doxat speaks to botanist and writer on plant folklore, Roy Vickery about his memories growing up exploring the flora of the Marshwood Vale
When I arrive, Tooting Common appears nothing more than a pleasant patch of greenery; a place where locals come to escape the hustle of South London. After joining Roy Vickery on a guided plant-walk, however, this slice of scrubland feels like a teeming and exotic jungle. Over an hour, Roy shared snippets of his wisdom on the plants here and their weird and wonderful folklore as we meandered across grasses and woodland.
Roy has built-up his encyclopaedic knowledge over a lifetime dedicated to collecting, writing and sharing information on plant-lore and botany. For over 40 years, he worked at the Natural History Museum; beginning as a scientific assistant in the Lichen Section in 1965, and then moving to the General Herbarium, where he was in charge of the curation of around three and a half million specimens of flowering plants. He has also served as a vice-president of the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland, and on the committee of both the Folklore Society and the Society for Folk Life Studies. Although he retired in 2007, Roy is still active, frequently giving talks and guided urban walks on the array of plants most of us brush past without even realising. He has also written several books on the subject, most recently Vickery’s Folk Flora, a fantastic and extensive work mapping the folklore of British and Irish plants from A-Z, charting the staggering cornucopia of local names, herbal remedies, traditional customs, riddles, legends and uses of them through history. Currently, Roy also remains a Scientific Associate at the Natural History Museum and is President of the South London Botanical Institute.
Despite living in London for over 50 years now, Roy tells me how his obsession with flora spawned from a childhood spent roving the leafy depths of the Marshwood Vale. ‘My first flowering encounter was inauspicious; I picked some flowers of herb-Robert, brought it indoors and placed it in a jam jar, where to my disappointment it rapidly shed its petals. I went on to have a quiet appreciation for herb-Robert for as long as I can remember. I’m intrigued by the smell when its crushed; it’s difficult to categorise whether it is pleasant or unpleasant. Some people detect the odour of foxes and hence it developed the term fox-geranium as one of its 130 local names. Alternatively, in Cumbria it was known as death-come-quickly, possibly relating to the rapid shedding of its petals, and it was said that if children picked the flowers one of their parents would die. In County Cavan, people boiled and then drank the resulting liquid of the plant to treat kidney trouble’.
Roy was born in March 1947 in an almost tumbledown cottage on the Sadborow estate, where the Dorset, Somerset and Devon borders converge just outside Thorncombe. He tells me the cottage was primitive; actually condemned unfit for human habitation, it was brought back into use following the post-war housing shortage. Roy’s father was a tenant farmer on the estate and so from an early age he remembers being encouraged to help on the farm. He recounts one of his more minor tasks as a young boy collecting goosegrass, or cleavers, to feed to the young turkeys in a bid to bolster their poor immunity—a remedy that he has not come across elsewhere, although the use of stinging nettles for such purpose was widespread.
Other than Roy’s younger brother Roger, children of his age were thin on the ground when they were growing up; ‘Looking back we had a very isolated, rural childhood really. I guess it was due to this social isolation that I had to make my own entertainment, and so I spent a lot of time walking through the woods looking at the plants and animals that filled them’. He tells me of how they did lots of walking as a family, usually on summer evenings once his father had finished his work on the farm. A curiosity for flora also rolled down through two generations; Roy’s mother always enjoyed collecting wildflowers and her mother before that harboured a great interest in garden flowers.
As he grew older, Roy tells me he began venturing further afield to gather flowers and remembers seeking certain plants in the build-up to the much anticipated annual flower show at Holditch. ‘One particular flower which I remember searching for was the autumn lady’s tresses, which grew on the south side of a local hill called Devil’s Three Jumps. Roy tells me this name arises from a local legend after the Abbot of Forde Abbey had an argument with the Devil and kicked him off into the air. Clumps of trees allegedly grew up on the three hills where he bounced as he flew through the air across the Marshwood Vale, before splashing into the sea at West Bay. Roy also tells me that his trips here paid off and he invariably won the first place prizes of 15p at the flower show.
After leaving Woodroffe School with biology A-level, Roy went on to find a job working in a local butter factory at Chard junction. ‘The days were long but I enjoyed my work there—the factory workers were natural, straightforward people. After a while though I wanted to get away and do something else, and so I wrote around to various places. The only place with a direct reply was the Natural History Museum who told me they were having interviews next week if I’d like to go along. So I went and I got the job—a sort of apprenticeship—and I ended up staying there for over 40 years’.
I was curious after over 50 years living in London, to ask whether Roy has ever craved the abundance of country flora again. ‘Much to many people’s surprise I actually think you tend to see more in urban areas. You often see really exotic plants springing up randomly in parks, like people being drawn into cities from across the world I guess. The wildlife is also often easier to see; in London squirrels will come towards you, raising their tiny fists and demanding food, in the country they sprint away. It’s similarly paradoxical to what happened when I was plant collecting in Costa Rica in the early 1980s. Due to various mishaps our equipment arrived late into our trip, and so consequently instead of going off to conduct macho collecting in the rainforests, we concentrated on urban and rural areas. I found I was fascinated by the thriving European plants that had been introduced there—seeing gorse and white clover flourish I realised the exoticism of what grew back home. I enjoy learning about the folklore of new plants outside of the city, but there is just so much to see on your doorstep that you don’t realise’.
Roy tells me although he doesn’t practice or advocate many of the traditional uses or herbal remedies he encounters in plant-lore, they are more widespread than we think: ‘sometimes I ask people if they know of any traditional remedies, and often the immediate answer is no, almost as if insulted; they are ‘modern’ people and don’t rely on old wives’ potions. Then I ask what they do if stung by a nettle: the responses is always ‘rub a dock leaf of course’.
Alongside the array of fascinating walks, talks and articles Roy keeps himself busy with, he also has a website, www.plant-lore.com, which is an open archive currently holding nearly 9,000 items of information from around 3,000 contributors on plant folklore.