In the great outdoors with PETER FROST

Peat bogs are important and fascinating places. Peat traps carbon and as our planet warms up that becomes more and more important. Sadly that doesn’t stop the less principled players in the horticultural industry still ripping up the peat bogs for the profitable pickings of the garden centre compost trade. In Ireland and on a few Scottish islands they still burn peat as a fuel.

I want to tell you why peat bogs and the plants that grow in them are so important to me. To do that I need to take you back more than 45 years to my early days in the Morning Star offices in Farringdon Road.

I was learning my trade and my politics and one facet of life there was a wonderful comrade volunteer who awakened in me my first ideas on something, not much talked about in those days, called the environment.

She was a country lover and her enthusiasm was contagious.  I had just read John Wyndham’s amazing book Day of the Triffids. I told her I had heard of real if unbelievable plants that actually ate meat – could this be true?

The next week she bought me a small flower pot and in it was a tiny bright sparkling red plant with leaves glistening with sticky glue beads. It was the first sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) I had ever seen and she explained that she had picked it from a peat bog in the New Forest. (Don’t tell me, we wouldn’t do that today.)

She also explained that because peat was so lacking in nutrients the plant had evolved and developed the ability to catch and digest tiny animals. That woman and that plant literally changed my life and cracked open the curtain on an interest in the natural world and how we need look after it that would stay with me forever.

I wish I could remember her name, I do remember the plant, it’s still one of my favourites and I still get a real thrill when I come across a sundew in its natural home in a peat bog.

Sundew hunters need to be careful. Peat bogs can be soggy and treacherous places with squishy slippery soft surfaces ready to suck your feet under, or set you on your backside with a wet bum as a result.

You’ll need to leave the safety of the dry path or boardwalk for a close up look or photo. The best place to search is among the wettest patches of bright green sphagnum moss. Tufted cotton grass (Eritrophorum vaginatum) often grows in close proximity and acts as a marker.

You won’t see the tiny red circular leaves easily but once you get your eye in and you spot one plant they often suddenly appear in glorious profusion. Some will certainly be busy digesting a tasty meal its glutinous hairs curled round the sometimes still struggling prey.

Please don’t pick them – we know better now – not even if you have a young person you want to inspire. Leave them for what they are – a real miracle of life in the peat bog jungle.

This article first published in the Morning Star, 2012


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