Earlier this week I was on the south coast of England lecturing about how to grow Himalayan alpines. To help pass the time on the train journey back to London I looked out of the very large windows the carriage I was travelling in had, which afforded good views – aided by a lack of window bars I recollect from Indian trains and clear glass.  At various points the tracks were on an embankment, meaning we were looking down upon the trees & shrubs close to the railway.
The first plant to catch my eye was what in the UK is commonly known as ‘Old Man’s Beard’.  This is Clematis vitalba.  The ‘seeds’ are known as achenes, occur in large heads, pubescent with long whitish plumose styles.  Another common name for this woody climber (which has stems to 30m) is ‘Traveller’s Joy’. It is found in hedgerows, thickets & wood-margins, chiefly on calcareous soils. The species is a native of Europe from the Netherlands southwards, N.Africa and Caucasus.
Provided one can recognise what a Clematis is, whether in flower or the fruiting stage (which I observed), then it is very easy in the UK to know which species it belongs to, as this is the ONLY native one.
A few species of cultivated Clematis sometimes escape from UK gardens such as the Himalayan Clematis montana.
A very prominent shrub on waste ground next to railways is Buddleja davidii.  Commonly known as the ‘Butterfly Bush’ this is widely grown in gardens.  It has become extensively naturalised.  It was common on sites which had been bombed during World War II.  A native of China introduced c. 1890.  It has been increasing for more than half a century.
Still being early in February (towards the end of our winter) none of the deciduous trees by the railway were in leaf but ‘Hazel’ (Corylus avellana) catkins were putting on a fine display.  The flora of the UK is well-known.  Up to the 1980s I studied the flora seriously.  This enabled me to familiarise myself with the bark and shapes of the common trees such that despite the lack of leaves, flowers or fruits, I am able to identify them from a distance!
This got me thinking about identifying Himalayan plants from photos that do not show close-up detail – the equivalent of viewing them from a railway carriage……  When I am familiar with a species, I often can RELIABLY name them, even without close-ups but when I do not, it becomes very difficult, at times IMPOSSIBLE, to be certain which species they belong to unless the photos posted show detail of flowers and at times foliage.

Thanks,  … 

I used to do it in my initial phase, particularly for trees along the railway lines and in in Kolkata during bus or car journey. 

For those of us with a winter, deciduous trees often reveal distinctive/characteristic shapes to their crowns which allow accurate identification from a considerable distance, giving a good indication of how common or not particular species are – albeit that many plants close to
habitation tend either to be cultivated or ‘escapes’ from cultivation, rather than native species.
To repeat, “plant or tree-spotting” is a good way for plant enthusiasts to “pass the time” during train journeys.
In the past I have taken a modest amount of interest in bryophytes (mosses & liverworts) but these are obviously too small to ‘identify’ out of a train window!!  Most require inspection with a x10 or x20 hand lens, at times a binocular microscope or even a higher magnification microscope.


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