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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Favourite flowers

Posted on October 26 2009 at 5:20:53 0 comments

Bluebells in Peck Wood

Mary Green finds plenty to love growing wild around our villages.

Old ones, new ones, loved ones, neglected ones ...Apologies to readers too young to remember the quotation! My theme this month is not old songs, though, but a hit parade of flowers.

You’ve probably noticed that wild flowers are my wildlife passion. In October I was on holiday in the Lleyn peninsula in Wales, and we found 129 different wild plants still in flower. There will not be so many about in November, though, so you can curl up by the fire and reminisce about them with me.

The lovely golden October weather as I write this has prolonged the summer, but it seems to me the tree colour is not as good this year, at least not yet. People who live in cities and drive on town roads often perceive autumn colour as coming much earlier. That’s probably because the non-native trees – ornamental maples and oaks – and the birches, hazels, guelder rose and dogwood planted along bypasses all turn early. Here in the country the native oaks and ash are still green.

I was surprised this week to see the rare (around here) barnacle goose on the canal again, the same time as last year. I wonder if it’s the same one or a coincidence. I guess it’s on the same flight path somewhere, as it didn’t stay long, again.

My first favourite flower is one you may even see now – the daisy. It flowers all year round, though especially in the spring, and its name means “day’s eye”. The Latin name is bellis perennis, beautiful all year. It is a flower of children, and I can remember myself at four years old sitting in the grass making daisy chains when I first moved from Birmingham to the country.

It’s an old flower, described with love in Chaucer and other medieval writing. It has given the informal name to a whole family of flowers, the compositae or daisy family. This family includes Michaelmas daisies, goatsbeard, hawkbit, dandelion, ragwort, chamomile, tansy, cornflowers and thistles – lots of old meadow and pasture flowers.

The daisy is one of the few flowers everyone recognises, so the family is familiar to people too. The flowers are all attractive to butterflies, and many are edible.

Another good old flower is the bluebell. England has most of the world’s population of bluebells, and we all know them. Many older people can remember the days when there were train trips to well-known bluebell woods, and these woods have a feeling of romance about them.

The English bluebell is thought to be under threat from the tougher Spanish variety, common in gardens. The English one is darker blue, more delicate and has a down-drooping head. Fortunately, most of the bluebell woods round here seem to be good havens of the English kind.

Bluebells are in the lily family. This family includes lily of the valley, garlic, fritillary, scilla, asphodel, snowdrop, daffodil and meadow saffron. Apart from garlic, most of them are inedible, and apart from saffron, most of them are spring-flowering. They are much-loved signs of spring, associated with ancient woods and meadows.

New plants, introductions from abroad that have naturalised here, are often viewed with suspicion. Indian balsam, rhododendron and Japanese knotweed are obvious examples. A really interesting introduction is the Duke of Argyle’s tea tree. This was introduced, apparently, by the said Duke under the impression that it was a tea plant. It isn’t.

It grows near me here in a hedge, and is quite widespread in hedges – I’ve found it in Suffolk too, for example. It is in the same family as the potato and tomato, and flowers are recognisably similar, small and violet-coloured on long whippy branches with lots of small thin leaves. It often flowers twice, in spring and late summer. Sometimes it has long orange fruits, though the one near me doesn’t set.

When you see them you realise this plant is a type of goji berry, that so-called superfruit. I’m not sure if the English variety is edible or not. This family, solonacae, is an odd one, as our wild species include really poisonous plants – deadly and woody nightshade, henbane – while the varieties from abroad include tomato and potato.

There are two more flowers that everyone knows, and associates with love. One is the rose. Wild roses grow profusely round here, though not many people realise that there are different kinds. The commonest is the pale pink dog rose, flowering in June.

Also common round here is the white field rose, slightly larger and slightly later. If you’re lucky, you might find the sweetbriar, which has smallish leaves that release a sweet scent when crushed. In the north you can find the darker downy rose and soft-leaved rose, and near the coast the small white burnet rose. Most are scented, though the dog-rose not very strongly so. All these roses have a short flowering time, so often symbolise the fleeting nature of love.

Of course, the cultivated kind have been bred to flower for longer, so we can have roses in our garden most of the year. Cultivated roses have been around for a long time, with medieval gardens featuring rosa gallica, damasks and other beautiful scented kinds.

The rosa (rose) family is interesting, too. It includes, among others, all the sorbus trees (rowan, guelder rose, whitebeam), the hawthorns, pear and apple, blackthorn, meadowsweet, strawberry, salad burnet, blackberry, raspberry. As you can see, it is a very edible family. Rose flowers can be eaten, and the fruits (hips) have always been eaten too.

Apple and pear have beautiful blossom, and the later fruit, though sour in our native varieties, were always a valuable source of food in winter. “Roasted crabs” in Shakespeare are, of course, crab apples, hissing in the bowl of punch. All the rosa berries must have been very valuable to our ancestors. In fact, I don’t think any member of the large rose family is poisonous.

The other flower of love, the honeysuckle, is not edible, though you can suck its nectar. It’s one of those flowers you can hardly believe grows wild, so beautiful and scented, and filling the hedges in the late summer when a lot of other flowers have gone. It has a much longer blooming time than the rose.

Its old name is woodbine, and it grows in woods, pushing its vines up through the trees in early spring while the light still comes through the canopy, strongly enough to damage small trees. By the time the leaf canopy closes over, it has found its way to where there is enough light to flower. It is nectar-rich, and loved by bees, butterflies and other insects.

In the same hedges, in June, you will probably find foxgloves. They are best in June but I saw some still blooming in October this year. Again, everyone knows them, and children love to put the little “gloves” on their fingers.

Their Latin name, digitalis, reminds us of their use as a heart medicine. Like all drugs, they are poisonous, and there are stories of people suffering after confusing their leaves with edible comfrey leaves.

Foxgloves have interesting growth habits. When a wood is cleared – especially an old conifer wood where not much has grown beneath the trees – foxgloves appear and cover the ground in the first year, until other plants take over and drive them out.

The family they come from is interesting too. It includes the speedwells, those beautiful bright blue creeping plants; mullein, big bold and pale yellow; figwort, a strange-looking plant common by the canal; toadflax, commonly like a little pale yellow snapdragon, but also in a purple form spreading along our railways; eyebright, a tiny white flower which was used to treat eye problems; and yellow rattle, well known as a marker of ancient undisturbed meadows.

Lastly I come to the neglected, or even disliked, ones. Stinging nettles are destroyed whenever possible, yet they are a fascinating plant. They are highly edible, and were often people’s main source of vitamins and minerals during the spring. They are the host plant for many butterflies, especially those like red admirals and tortoiseshells which we particularly love.

The nettle was used as a medicine because of its astringent and antiseptic properties. It is very fibrous, so was used to make thread, and can become cloth or twine. Many people still use it as a green fertiliser in the garden.

Dandelions are similarly useful. They flower most of the year, but especially round St George’s Day. The flowers and leaves are edible raw, and the leaves can be cooked. In Victorian times the leaves were grown in glasshouses to provide winter salads, and a famous old French recipe, pissenlit au lard, mixes it with bacon.

It, too, was used medicinally. It has diuretic properties, as you can see from its French name and the common old English name pissabed. The stems provide a brown dye. The roots can be dried and roasted, and were used during the war for ersatz coffee. They are of course from the daisy family, bringing us back to where we started, along with lots of other yellow-rayed flowers that most people think are dandelions!

This has been a thank-you for common-as-muck flowers. My poem is also a thanksgiving, written a couple of years ago on Thanksgiving Day.

Thanksgiving

For the beech at the end of Withybed Lane and the birches on George Road
Still smouldering with the light through them
The sun shining straight in to the prison shop
And enormous chickens waddling free into my oven
Among the bounty of onions and parsnips
Which will have to do, in the absence
Of turkey and pumpkin pie.

The jay lighting my way down the lane
And the goose standing up as if she had a poke-bonnet on
Dark cool places where the kingfisher flashes
And the screaming tussle of seagulls
Failing to eat because of the necessity of fighting.
For everything common, blackbirds, rooks, robins
Blue tits at my window and magpies, even,
Gobbling the unpicked plums on David’s tree.

For big ugly men with light in their eyes
Gold in their ears
And a little bit of darkness in the soul.
For the women who laugh and grow flowers
In unpromising earth, and love ever-promising men.
For the next generation, marrying and moving house
Struggling and flying and shaping the world.

Red brick and roses and rock and roll
And all the other ways of dancing
Under the cold full moon.


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