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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Buried treasure

Posted on February 22 2012 at 11:54:38 0 comments

Wild daffodils, Chance Wood

Mary Green looks at some British plants that flower from bulbs.

We had a mercifully mild winter on the whole, until the very cold spell and snow in February. I took part in the Big Garden Birdwatch at the end of January, seeing great tits, blue tits, long-tailed tits, sparrows, robin, blackbird, rook, collared dove and woodpigeon. Several people have reported a lack of blue tits at their feeders this winter – I think I’ve got them all!

Despite the cold, I heard the chaffinches start singing their full song earlier this year, at the very end of January. This is one of my annual delights: the chaffinches forget their song over the winter and have to practise it again to get the full song out, and they all seem to do this on the same day!

I am looking this month at a group of wild plants which most of us know quite well and recognise. They are the bulbs, which come from a group called monocotyledons (having only one first leaf coming up from the seed/bulb) and are mostly in the lily family.

Each plant dies back into a bulb after flowering, and produces new growth the next year. They all have long strappy leaves, like large grass. Their petals are in multiples of three, so six petals is the common number, though many are bell- or trumpet-shaped. Nearly all of them are spring flowering, making this is a good time to see them.

An interesting feature of these families is that they are nearly all poisonous or at least inedible. The exception is well known – the onion group. Anything that smells of onion or garlic is edible!

There are several kinds of wild garlic in Britain. The common wild garlic, or ramsons, is a familiar woodland plant. It sometimes grows so profusely that the whole area smells of garlic. The broad leaves appear from February onwards, and are highly edible, either raw in salads or cooked. The starry white flowers come around April and May, a beautiful sight and again a great addition to salads and other savoury dishes.

There are three other kinds you might find: the fine-leaved field garlic, the oddly-shaped few-flowered garlic, and the distinctive Cornish garlic. The Cornish one is also called three-cornered garlic because of the shape of its leaves. It is native to the West Country, where it is profuse in hedgerows, but grows happily here.

I have it in my garden, and the young leaves come up in January in a mild winter and make a lovely early herb. The pretty white flowers, a bit bluebell-like, are lovely in spring, and again can be eaten.

There are also wild leeks and chives – all these are the precursors of our modern onions, leeks, garlic and chives. These plants have been cultivated and eaten for centuries. They were all common foodstuffs in the middle ages and are mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

A good place to see ramsons is by the river Arrow in The Meadows in Alvechurch, in Birches Lane off Cooper’s Hill, and in old native woodland and hedges. Few flowered garlic grows on the verge in Old Birmingham Road, Alvechurch – look in April.

The other really early bulb flower is of course the snowdrop. It starts in January, or February in a harsh winter, and is one of the most-recognised spring flowers, though there is some doubt about whether it’s truly native. There are lovely shows at Cattespool farm, in the churchyard at Cofton Hackett, or an even better one in Chance Wood, which is full of them – directions below. There is a good number now in St Laurence churchyard following a planting a couple of years ago.

The snowdrop flowers around Candlemas Day (February 2), also St Brigid’s Day, which is a Christianised version of the pagan Celtic festival of Imbolc, halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. You are probably also familiar with the tradition that this day forecasts the weather for the rest of spring – Groundhog Day in America.

This year, Candlemas Day was cold and sunny, so I think that counts as “fair and bright” – meaning “winter will have another flight.” It certainly did in February!  Last year it was “cloudy with rain” and sure enough “winter had gone, and did not come again.”

The other really well-known bulb is the daffodil (though I did once hear someone in a London greengrocer’s asking what those yellow flowers were!). However, we mostly see cultivated varieties and the wild one is quite rare now. It used to be really widespread, with special “daffodil excursions” being run on the railways.

It was especially profuse in west Worcestershire and Herefordshire. One of the best surviving places is Farndale in Yorkshire, which is well worth visiting in March because there are fields full of them along the river on a good footpath.

Locally, the best place is Chance Wood, though there are some in The Meadows in Alvechurch, by the river. They are small, pale yellow and delicate-looking, very different from the big, bold yellow cultivated ones.

Daffodils take their name from “asphodel”, showing they belong to the lily family. The true asphodel is a beautiful alpine lily, which I have seen growing profusely in the meadows of the Spanish mountains. We have a relative in Britain, the bog asphodel. It grows in wet mountain areas, and is common in Scotland, sometimes covering boggy slopes in gold in summer.

Daffodils are poisonous, and there are cases of people eating them by mistake for onions and becoming very ill. They contain a drug called galanthamine, which also occurs in snowdrops (Latin name galanthus). The drug is now extracted from daffodils as they are so much bigger, and is used as a treatment for the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. So these cheerful plants have a cheerful purpose as well.

If you want to walk in Chance Wood, it is a nature reserve and beautiful in March. It is near Kinver, at grid reference SO 845858. It was partly planted as an ornamental wood, much of it in the 19th century. It’s on a hillside leading down to the River Stour, on quite dry, slightly acid soil.

You get to it off the A458 Stourbridge to Bridgnorth road, about half a mile past the Stewponey crossroads. It starts with a bridlepath going south off this road opposite a lane going north (Greensforge Lane). Park on the verge, making sure not to block access. (Alternatively you can park in proper parking spaces by Stewponey Bridge and walk up the road).

Start by walking down the clearly marked bridleway between the houses. The bridleway goes past an interesting old house with a lovely mossy wall. It becomes a footpath, then you will see a little gate to the right into the reserve.

Take the gate into the wood. There are various paths in the wood, and it’s too small to get lost, so wander! The open aspect of the wood means there are wonderful flowers. Go in February and you will see a carpet of snowdrops – the wood is locally famous for these.

Go in March, and the wood is full of little native daffodils. Later, of course, there are bluebells, and later still foxgloves and wood-sage. Because of the acid soil, there are lots of rhododendrons, giving a blaze of colour in late spring.

Some of the trees are quite old and big, and include lots of sweet chestnut, and also beech, oak, hazel, and hornbeam. To one side of the wood are younger conifers, not so interesting for flowers, but they do have fungi in autumn. These are quiet and open woods, well-looked after and easy to walk through even in wet weather.

There is a real curiosity in the middle of the wood – a Victorian dogs’ graveyard at the top of a little hill. There are several graves, including one dog which was shot, and one killed by the railway train!

At the bottom of wood another little gate takes you back on to the main footpath, which you can walk back up if you like. There are a lot of links to other footpaths, too, if you want a longer walk. However, Chance Wood itself is enough for a visit in its own right, and is one of my favourite February and March woods.

I have mentioned here many times the bluebell, another much-loved bulb. Look out for it in any of the old woodland walks that I have covered in the past, in late April and early May. I will be leading an Alvechurch Village Society walk in May to look at them in Beaconwood. But there are other less well-known bulbs. Round here you might find some scillas, like a smaller bluebell – there are some lovely ones in Aqueduct Lane, probably a garden escape.

Fritillaries, sometimes called snakeshead, are possibly the most beautiful bulb flower. I don’t know anywhere they grow wild round here, but they do elsewhere. They are often found in old meadows, churchyards, and locally you may find them on the grassy lawns of stately homes.

The summer snowflake is a beautiful and little-known flower. It’s like a larger, multi-headed snowdrop, flowering later in the spring or early summer. It is not native round here, growing further west, but has certainly become established here in the wild.

The best ones I know are on Sandhills Green between Cooper’s Hill and Barnt Green, near the railway bridge (Sandhills Green is also good for snowdrops earlier, so don’t confuse them).

There are a few in one or two other places round here too. Look for them in April or May. Please don’t disturb them if you find them. The related, much earlier, spring snowflake grows wild in Cornwall, where I found it flowering at Christmas in 2007.

Later in the year, some bulbs flower in autumn. The best one to look for round here is the rare meadow saffron. This looks like a crocus but is another member of the lily family. It flowers plentifully in Eades Meadow in late August and September. You can see the big strappy leaves in the spring: they die down and the flowers appear nakedly in the autumn. It’s worth a trip just for these, at a time when most of the other meadow flowers have finished.

Where bulb flowers are common, picking them does no harm, but the foliage needs to be left to die down to make food for next year’s growth. Remember, though, never to pick flowers in nature reserves or on private land. And never dig wild-flower bulbs up anywhere.

You may have noticed that I’ve mentioned several times that bulbs grow well in churchyards and even lawned gardens, as well as in old meadows, woods and fields. Their survival here is probably due to their spring-flowering nature, and the underground bulb itself. In the days when grass was only mowed once for hay, lots of flowers bloomed in these places.

Now that grass is mowed again and again during late spring and summer, the bulbs are often the only flowers that survive. In woods, they flower early enough to be out before the leafy canopy closes over and blocks out the light.

Bulbs spread by dividing underground. They also sometimes move quite a long way. They are able to coil and uncoil their roots to move themselves up, down and along. They can also move because of soil movement caused by water or animals. Some, like snowdrops, seem to spread quite fast: others, like bluebells, take a long time to establish and spread.

You can “naturalise” wild flower bulbs in your garden – they are especially nice under trees or alongside a hedge. The way they move and divide makes them slightly unpredictable, which is lovely.

Most of our cultivated garden bulbs were originally native, and some survive in their native form as rarities. These include crocuses, lilies of the valley, Solomon’s seal, and star of Bethlehem. When you read this in March, though, the daffodil will be king. I think it was adopted quite late as the symbol of St David of Wales (his day is March 1) due to his main symbol, the leek, being not quite so nice to wear!

And of course it inspired one of our best-loved poems, by Wordsworth. His daffodils are still there in the Lake District, often causing chaos to the local tourist board, as they refuse to flower dependably at the time when all the daffodil excursions are arranged!

My poem was written last spring, on a theme chosen by the Withybed Poets.

Rites of Passage

I stand in the churchyard. It is spring now
Snowdrops have crept over the grass and
A few lilac crocuses mushroomed overnight.
The chaffinch sings his first song of the year
Buds like breadcrumbs encrust the cherry plum
And somewhere a thrush is just about singing.

I want to be buried here. Why would someone like me
The old atheist, the original material girl, want that?
Not just so I can ask for an untidy grave
With no mown grass, and wild roses, and bees
But because of my rites of passage, knowing that
Closure and moving on are the new superstitions.

I was christened in a church. In those days,
The hopeful postwar world where Rosie the Riveter
Hung up her hammer and women stayed at home,
There were no birth rituals, so the christening was it
With the dodgy uncle as godfather, the family white dress
But no silver spoons and no photographs.

No rituals for puberty either, something you hid
Just an embarrassment during sports, even the first kiss
A secret, so Confirmation had to do it
Downmarket, low church, in my white school shirt
I fell over in the road, scuffling on my way there
So my bruised nose glowed red at the bishop.

Adulthood was all leaving home, new duffel-coat,
Northern city with black stone and smog, cigarettes
No rituals here, so the wedding had to do it
In the family white dress, old Minnie on the organ,
Brown ale bottles on the piano, flowers for free
Getting a lift to the honeymoon, signing the new name.

My rituals stopped. Others’ rites of course: christenings
Weddings, then suddenly funerals, funerals
With their buffets and poems and proper dark clothes.
For me, new jobs, new houses, divorce, travel
New friends, lovers, all without blessing, all passage,
Retirement speeches and flowers like wedding bouquets.

So I lived many lives with few rites of passage
But all my lives join a web of other lives,
Of births, loves, marriages, leavings and deaths.
My body is not just my own, but has the signs
Of my mother’s chin and my father’s thumb, and
Bears the marks of all the hands that have touched me.

And none of my lives have gone. The cross-eyed girl
The hippy rebel, the trapped wife, the passionate teacher
Live still with forget-me-nots I picked, the banners I carried
The singing in the streets, the smell of classrooms.
There is passage, but you slip through, the veil unbroken.
So bury me with my lives, and I will root in the others.

 


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