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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Buttercups overfloweth

Posted on June 21 2008 at 12:44:29 0 comments


High summer holds many joys for Mary Green, who also uncovers some surprises about the humble yellow buttercup.

The bee orchids next to the canal came back again in June. I was a bit worried because the patch was mowed later than last year, dangerously near their growing and flowering time, but it was fine as the orchids came up later this year.

There don’t seem to be any this year on the patch at Romsley, though there are plenty of common spotted orchids there. Sadly, the poppies near Bewdley have disappeared almost completely, the land being used for crops, and presumably treated.

The alternating warm and cold spells in spring and early summer mean that things continue to be a little late. The hawthorn was wonderful in the warm days of late May, the best for years. On a walk nearby, I met a couple of retired women who were revisiting the cottage they grew up in.

They were admiring a hawthorn tree, and saying they had never seen the flowers so thick on the branches. The apples flowered and set well too. However, the earlier flowering plums, sloes and damsons don’t look so well set, as frost and snow came after they blossomed.

July and August are high summer in the countryside. One of the most famous bits of weather lore focuses on St Swithin’s Day on July 15. If it rains on St Swithin’s, it will rain continuously for forty days afterwards.

Like many of these old sayings, this relies on the generalisation that fine weather in summer comes from an area of high pressure which, once established, is likely to continue for a while – and vice versa. Last year it was definitely vice versa.

Swithin was an interesting saint. He was a bishop of Winchester in the 9th century who, legend has it, asked to be buried humbly in the churchyard. When his wishes were disobeyed, it rained for weeks until he was re-interred where he had asked.

However, we have to remember that rain in July used to be welcomed in some places, as being good for the apple trees. Here in the Midlands, the apples were said to be “christened” on St Swithin’s Day.

The feast day of St Laurence is on August 10, and used to be celebrated in Alvechurch with a big fair. The hot sultry weather common at this time of year was called St Laurence weather.

I found out recently about an academic study of buttercups, which can help to establish the age of meadows. I used this as an opportunity to look closely at the buttercups in the fields near me. There are four main kinds of buttercups around, two of which are the most common.

These are the meadow buttercup and the creeping buttercup. (The others are the somewhat less common bulbous buttercup and Goldilocks buttercup). In my field, there were lots of meadow and creeping ones.

The creeping buttercup is known by many as a garden weed, but is fascinating. It has dark-gold flowers and distinctive three-part leaves, and spreads by runners rather than reproducing sexually. This latter feature means that mutations in the flowers gradually increase as the plant spreads and ages.

All buttercups usually have five petals. Old creeping buttercups may have up to nine. In the nearest field to me I found patches where nearly all the flowers had six, seven or eight petals. Some looked like true double flowers. I think this means the meadow is relatively old and neglected!

At real, old, properly-managed meadows, like Eades Meadows, the buttercups are mostly meadow buttercups. These are taller, and have more delicate finely-segmented leaves and a mid-yellow flower.

In case you’re curious about Goldilocks, this is an early buttercup with fine leaves like the meadow one, characterised by often having petals missing so it rarely has five. The bulbous one is less common here but recognisable by having turned-back sepals (the bits at the back of the flower.) So this very ordinary flower, which children still hold to your chin to “see if you like butter”, has an intriguing diversity.

As for July, in this area it is full of scents and colour. The canal banks are thick with meadowsweet, willow herb and loosestrife. Meadowsweet is another plant you can use in cooking.

It smells lovely, a bit like marzipan, and was once used to flavour mead. It is widespread in any damp place. You can use the flowers in stewed seasonal fruits for an extra heady sweetness, a bit like elderflower.

Loosestrife is the big showy purple plant growing in spikes, adding a strong colour. There are several willow herbs but the best-known ones are rosebay and great willow herb.

The first loves waste land and grows in a cone-shaped head of pale pink flowers. The second is often called costards and cream (the costard is an apple) because of its large deep pink flowers with creamy centres.

In the meadows, and on verges, flowers abound through July and August. Poppies and chamomile dominate in some places, cranesbills or betony in others, but the key meadow flowers of this period are the knapweeds and scabious, growing tall and purple or blue.

Even where there are few flowers, the meadows are full of beautiful grasses, which I wish I knew more about! The “new forest” planted between Alvechurch and Hopwood already has lovely long grass now the fields aren’t grazed.

Near water you will find the intrusive alien Indian balsam, which is huge, pink and pretty despite its rampant habits. On my stretch of canal is the much more delicate orange balsam, together with the attractive pink marsh woundwort. 

One of the most attractive summer plants is tansy, with its feathery leaves and heads of yellow button flowers. It isn’t common round here but grows well at Alvechurch railway station. It has lots of herbal uses and can be baked into a lovely cake.

Its near relative, ragwort, is all too common. It is hated by farmers as it is poisonous to livestock, but it does look quite dramatic and golden in the wild.

Throughout the hedges, honeysuckle continues to flower through the summer, scenting the air especially in the lengthening evenings, when you might see bats flitting past.

A key flowering plant of late summer is heather. There are three common kinds – ling, bell heather and cross leaved heath.

In this area it is uncommon as it needs acid soil, but you can find it on part of the Lickeys and one or two other local patches, including Hartlebury Common and the delightfully named Devil’s Spittleful near Kidderminster.

On a sunny day it smells lovely and is usually full of bees. In the same habitat you will usually find bilberries – our native equivalent of the blueberry – which you can pick in August and stew or make jams and jellies.

Insects thrive at this time, including the midges and mosquitoes we’d rather do without. But there are beautiful ones, too. In the meadows are butterflies – peacock, red admiral, painted lady – and the striking red-and-black burnet moth, which loves knapweed and scabious.

Damsel flies across water are joined by other dragonflies, the big golden and brown hawker and chaser varieties. Ants we would again probably rather do without, but it fascinates me the way flying ants all choose the same day in July to swarm.

Last year I watched them swarm outside a building in Kidderminster and got home to find another lot had invaded my kitchen. I discovered that this synchronisation usually happens, and helps them in their mating patterns.

At some point during this period you will suddenly realise that the birds have gone quiet. Of course, individual birds will still sing, but the massed dawn and twilight choruses have gone. On the water, the mallard drakes will have lost their colours so that it looks for a time as if there are only females.

Summer is ending, and August is the start of autumn. Blackberries are ripe, hawthorn berries and rosehips have set, and I will soon start making hedgerow jam from any berries available – blackberries, elderberries, crab apples, wild plums, hips and haws.

Writing this in June, I don’t know yet whether we will have a good summer for everyone’s holidays and celebrations. I hope so.

The poem, written by Holly Timmermans, is about last summer.

Submerged Fire

The roses open into rain and rain and rain
shimmering skeins of it pouring itself
into the overflowing bowl of the earth.
The roses open like water lilies,
floating their heads in downpours.
Blooming and fading into jewelled blueness
dropping their petals on the dancing pools
Drop after drop after day after week
soft soaking, mud bearing,
its bank breaking power to wash away
hold captive.
Submerge the fire of the year.

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