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Herb paris from my illustrated magical tale The Herbarium

 When I was first learning my plants as a teenager, I had an advantage: there were no identification apps, no smartphones to download them onto, indeed no computers at all so far as ordinary people were concerned. If you wanted to find out what plant you were looking at, you used a handbook. I say this was an advantage because there was no instant identification – you had to slog your way through the book, compare the pictures, learn the botanical terms and generally put in a bit of work to find the name of your plant. It was slow, but you learned an awful lot along the way. Another benefit was that you looked at all the other pictures in the process and began to realise how many other wonderful, colourful and interesting wild plants were out there waiting to be found. Many a dark winter’s evening I spent poring over my book, anticipating what plants I might see in the coming year.

One of those I dreamed of finding was herb paris. Was it the intriguing name? Yes. Was it the strange appearance? Yes, again. Four flat leaves with an odd knotted bunch in the middle.  It could have been beamed down from a passing starship.

I longed to see one for myself, but I had a very long wait – the better part of fifty years. Deferred gratification taken to extremes, you might say. As I walked through a Dorset woodland one early summer day, my eye was caught by a patch of yellow among the trees. The plants were past their best, the leaves turning, but I recognised them at once. They were unmistakably herb paris, and every bit as weird and alien-looking as I had imagined. It was an extraordinary moment of wish fulfilment. I had finally seen my mysterious herb paris after so long!

Now tell me, could someone walking along using an app to identify the plants they see ever experience the sheer joy I felt at that moment? ‘Oh,’ they might say, ‘it’s called herb paris. Strange looking, isn’t it?’ and walked on. But for me the plant, until that moment just a picture in a book, had become an almost supernatural being – the possibility of ever finding one had haunted the back of my mind whenever I walked in unfamiliar woods. Yes, it was all in my head – of course – but that is the magic of nature at work over a lifetime, isn’t it? It’s not very scientific, but I don’t think I’d want to see either nature, or the herb paris plant, in any other way.

My illustrated, magical, nature-inspired tales The Herbarium, The Chesil Apothecary and Dropwort Hall are available from www.veneficiapublications.com