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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Daisy, daisy. . .

Posted on August 18 2012 at 1:10:25 0 comments

Woolly thistle

Mary Green introduces members of the daisy family.

This is a good time of year to look around our environment to see how truly “green” it is. Unfortunately a lot of the “green space” round here, as around many villages and towns, is just mown grass or intensive cereal crops, neither of which is diverse or sustainable.

In a diverse environment, there will be late flowers full of butterflies and other insects, and fruit, nuts and seeds setting on the trees and bushes. This rather changeable summer has given a long flowering season to native plants.

Within Worcestershire, there are grass verges designated as roadside nature reserves. Most of them are in the south and west of the county, but some are not far away from here. I visited two recently. One is near the Waseley Hills car park, and the other at St Kenelm’s church near Romsley.

The first one has what used to be common flowers growing among varied grasses. There are knapweed, buttercups, clovers, vetch and stitchwort, and it looks like a bit of hay meadow.

The one opposite St Kenelm’s is even better. It is a big verge on a curve, and the first thing I saw was a swathe of common spotted orchids. Then I found dyer’s greenweed, a really old meadow plant used for dyeing cloth. There were lots of moon daisies, several kinds of clover, and yellow hay rattle, the archetypal meadow plant.

It was a reminder of what roadside verges used to be – corridors of flowers full of insects and birds – sadly lacking round here now. Yet it would be so easy to re-establish them.

They need mowing once a year at the end of summer, like hay meadows, and the clippings taken away. Flowers will come back. Even a reduction to two mowings a year will help.

Oddly enough, some of the verges around Alve-church went unmown for a while because of the wet weather. The patch opposite Cooper’s farm shop on the corner with Sandhills Green became really flowery, a lovely approach to the village.

Even round the streets, the unmown strips of grass began to carry clover, bird’s foot trefoil, self-heal and medick flowers, though by the time I got to them with my camera they had been mowed to plain muddy grass again.

It’s interesting to watch the changes as ground is managed differently.This time last year I wrote about the piece of old Crown Meadow where the ground was disturbed for the dead-arm canal works. It had become full of arable plants – poppies, camomile, weld, bistort.

This year these have all gone and it’s becoming a meadow again, with yellow-rattle, clover, bedstraw and knapweed.

Meanwhile, the stretch between the Wiggins meadows and Old Rectory Lane, where the footpath has been resurfaced, has taken on arable weeds, especially camomile, bistort, tare and fool’s parsley.

At this time of year, some of the flowers still out are those of the daisy family. In Latin this used to be called Compositae but is now Asteracae. In fact, you can probably find something in this family flowering at all but the coldest times. The family is easy to identify so long as you know what a daisy or dandelion looks like!

Each “flower” is actually composed of lots of little flowers called florets. They usually have a set of inner florets called disk florets, and outer, longer ones called ray florets.

Individual species are more difficult to identify, especially the many tall single-flowered all-yellow ones (like tall dandelions) variously called cat’s ear, hawkbit and hawk’s beard.

There is a late summer version, very tall and strong, usually called autumn hawkbit, common now. Alongside the canal is the rarer bur-marigold, mostly orange disk florets with very few rays, still flowering in September.

Throughout the late summer the bigger yellow-and-white daisy types have been flowering, and still are. These include the large moon daisies or ox-eye daisies, which start in April or May but often flower again especially on grass that has been cut just once.

Very common too are the camomiles. These are shorter, growing in thick masses, and have more feathery leaves. They are old cornfield weeds, but also grow on waste ground.

There is a variety without any ray florets, just a conical yellow centre, often found in farm gateways. This is rayless mayweed, often called pineapple-weed. Crush it and sniff – it smells unmistakably of pineapple.

Another cornfield flower is the beautiful all-yellow corn marigold, now quite rare. There is a shorter, stockier all-yellow daisy-like flower called fleabane, which is more common and grows in damp places.

The tall plant with small daisy-like flowers, pretty and scented with rounded white petals, is called feverfew or bachelor’s buttons. The name gives it away as another herb, used to treat fevers. It’s thought “bachelor’s buttons” meant it was used as a free buttonhole flower.

A similar flower but with white disk as well as short white rays is sneezewort – a cold cure. This grows in wet meadows and moorland, including the Wiggins meadow patch in Alvechurch.

It has a common close relative, the yarrow, with a solid head of tiny white flowers and fine, feathery leaves. This often has a pinkish tinge and is bred in other shades of pink and red as a garden flower. All these are still around in September.

The daisy itself is one of the few flowers that can bloom all the year round in a mild year, truly an old favourite. It can even manage on mown lawns! Less well known ones are also early flowering: the pink winter heliotrope grows along the canal by Tardebigge, and the larger pink butterbur grows in early spring along the Arrow.

The butterbur has flowers first, then huge leaves later, which used to be used to wrap butter. Another plant that has flowers first then leaves is the very early yellow coltsfoot. This is an ancient cough-cure, and some people still collect it to make soothing tea.

Some of the family are blue or purple. One of the best-loved and least-seen these days is the cornflower, which has been weedkilled almost out of existence and is more likely to be found in gardens and urban planted meadows. Chicory is a paler blue, and also quite rare – I have seen it, but not round here.

By the sea, especially in salt marshes, you can find sea aster, looking like a little Michaelmas daisy. The Michaelmas daisy itself is an old garden flower, but is often naturalised along motorway verges and railways.

It flowers for Michaelmas on September 29. Florists now call it September flower, presumably because people don’t know what Michaelmas is any more.

The most common purple one is knapweed, which has bigger and smaller varieties. This is common in meadows, pastures and unmown verges, and has beautifully colonised the Wiggins meadows in Alvechurch where it is now plentiful.

It has a smaller, unusual relative called saw-wort, which grows in old meadows like Eades and also on cliff tops.

These both look like un-prickly thistles. True thistles come in all sorts of varieties, from the common marsh thistle to the rarer and beautiful woolly thistle. Some are not really prickly, like the meadow thistle and the interestingly-named melancholy thistle.

Thistles remind me that there are lots of things we see as troublesome weeds in this family. There is the dandelion of course, highly edible and containing useful herbal properties. There is groundsel, which used to be fed to chickens.

There is ragwort, tall and with heads of smallish all-gold daisy-like flowers. This is probably no use to anyone and is highly poisonous to animals.

But the edible herbs predominate. One of my favourites is tansy, which has a head of little yellow buttons and beautiful, sharply scented feathery leaves. It grows in Meadow Lane, in the station, and by the canal and Arrow in Alvechurch. Its leaves have a preservative quality.

The huge burdock, also about now, has childhood associations. The burs were a favourite for sticking in other people’s hair! But it also made that popular old drink, dandelion and burdock.

There is another flowering at this time which doesn’t really look like one of the family. This is the fragrant mugwort, another old herb with soft green feathery leaves and mealy pale flowers.

Some of it by the canal got to about eight feet tall this year! And another favourite, which grows in Alvechurch churchyard, is the bold orange fox-and-cubs – such a good name.

All this family are beloved by butterflies, bees and other insects. They probe each tiny floret, which are nectar-rich. The plants spread like wildfire because they have winged seeds, often in heads called “clocks.” Children blow these to “tell the time” and at this time of year you can see clouds of thistledown – and flocks of gold finches feeding on them.

The best “clocks” are the huge ones on the flower called goat’s beard or Johnny-go-to-bed-at-noon. This stays closed most of the day, giving it a pointed appearance with the yellow petals just visible. But it forms a huge spherical seed head, very attractive.

In fact all the daisy family seeds are loved by birds, as well as insect-eating birds feeding on the insects that like them. You can see what useful plants they are – food for birds and insects, herbs for human beings, even human food.

Wherever we use the ground sympathetically, they will come and flower, bringing insects and birds along with them, and making sure the land remains diversified and sustainable.

My poem this time is one I wrote a few autumns ago. It is a sonnet.

September first

My body knows that summer’s almost done.
Horse chestnut leaves the first to turn to earth
Sweet blackberries are jamming in the sun
And hawthorn berries make a flaming hearth.
Behind them, bonfire smoke wakes up my nose
The morning sun is cold against my skin
Children chatter to school in their new clothes
The field are harvested and hoovered clean.
Plums on my tongue are sweet as honeymoons
The world is full of fruit, the fridge of beans
Mallards have stolen all the pheasants’ hues
And silent mushrooms rise in me like dreams.
Wired like the swallows I must sweep and clear.
This, not January, is the true new year.


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