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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Midsummer fires

Posted on May 20 2008 at 12:38:26 0 comments


Mary Green discovers a riot of colour as spring becomes summer.

April ranged from snow and hard frost to hot sunshine. Many plants were held back, then rushed forwards, and their accompanying insects and animals followed suit. Nothing is as early as last year.

The media has been full of stories about flowers and young birds coming extra early this year, but that is only in the far south and London area, where it has clearly been milder than here.

However, I saw swallows and ducklings in mid-April, as usual, and the dandelions were there for St George. Even a few oaks managed to be in leaf for his day on April 23, and many more came out in the next few warm days, just before the first ash leaves.

The bluebell woods were gorgeous, and I saw the first may blossom in late April, though you wouldn’t have found enough out on May Day to decorate much. It was, for some reason, a very good year for wood anemones and cowslips.

For the Alvechurch Beating of the Bounds walk, there was a little may blossom, some lovely oaks and apple blossom, and a lot of mud! At least it was warm by then.

The group saw the little moschatel flower near Bittel reservoir, which – because it has flowers looking in all directions – is a symbol of Christian watchfulness.

But no cuckoo. I did hear him two days later – up on Caer Caradoc in Shropshire, not round here, in the lovely warm sunshine of early May.

Because of the storms and floods of late June and July last year, we tend to forget that the first couple of weeks of June 2007 were beautifully warm and sunny. I walked along the canal one such June day.

The fields were bright with buttercups, and the canal fringed with yellow iris and sculptural dropwort. The cow parsley was mostly over, but the frothy white of elderflower had taken over with a new, heady scent. I picked some blossoms to put with the first gooseberries and make a beautiful pink jelly.

The canal banks and field hedges were full of roses. These weren’t just the dog rose, but the darker downy rose and the scented sweet briar as well. Later in the month the white field rose joins them.

There were also patches of other flowers, moon daisies and marsh woundwort catching my eye in particular places.

However, I found something on a grassy bank alongside the towpath that stopped me in my tracks. I went closer to make sure, and yes, they were orchids.

Even people who didn’t know them would recognise a bee orchid. It looks as if a bumble bee is head down in the flower, brown against the candy-pink top petals.

Apparently it doesn’t rely on real bees for propagation, but spreads its roots underground, and appears out of the blue like this. There were several plants, growing in a patch of grass that had been mown fairly recently.

I felt really lucky to have found them, and set about contacting the canal people to make sure no one cut the patch of grass until they had finished flowering. It’s a good job I did, because they cut the vegetation a few days later (not a good time for wildlife) but left this bit alone.

I am not publicising exactly where my bee orchids were, but am happy to share them with anyone interested via The Village – if they come up this year.

Orchids are not very common around here, reliant as many are on undisturbed meadowland and other open spaces. Last month I mentioned the wonderful Eades meadow, only a few miles from here, which had green-winged orchids, common spotted orchids and twayblades.

There is also a great patch on the village green at Romsley, with common spotted orchids and bee orchids among moon daisies. In April, this patch was full of the beautiful snake’s head fritillaries. All these meadow flowers rely on ground not being dug or chemically fertilised.

Among the local flowers I haven’t managed to find many poppies. What local cornfields we have are all intensively cultivated and there are few patches of arable weeds, though there are some with the beautiful small pansy called heartsease.

So last year I took myself off to a patch near Bewdley, alongside the by-pass, which had been left to grow a whole field-full of poppies. They were dramatic, blood-red among the white chamomile, and remind me of the things we can easily lose in the modern countryside. I hope they are there again this year.

The other flower that typifies June for me is the foxglove. It’s so big and bold and pink that many people think it’s a garden flower, but it is a real wild flower, and the source of the heart drug digitalis.

It grows in hedges and wild places, and during the Second World War was gathered for processing to extract digitalis, which more usually comes from imported sources.

June is a good time for insects. There are bees of course, and most of our butterflies are about by now. By canals and ponds, you will see light blue damselflies darting above the water, and joining them the first of the larger, darker, lustrous blue demoiselles.

It is also the time for first fruits. Wild strawberries can be found round here and have an intense flavour. In some years wild cherries are ripe and edible – I picked and ate some in 2006, but not last year!

The last week in June is midsummer, traditionally celebrated both on 21 June, the solstice and pagan midsummer, and 24 June, St John’s day and Christian midsummer – and anywhere in between.

The ceremonies always involved fires, representing the heat of the sun. The profuse flowers of the month were used to decorate churches, shrines, wells and general festivities.

There are some plants especially associated with this. One is St John’s wort, of course, of which there are several kinds, all yellow, with a long medicinal history.

Another is orpine, a succulent also called “midsummer men” and used in divination to find out if your sweetheart would marry you.

Midsummer festivals always had an air of misrule and passion, this being a good time for love among the buttercups!

Bee Orchid

They just stood there
Sugar pink wings wide open
And that furry little bee bum
Perpetually burrowing in.

Summer loving amid the waving grass.

I photographed them, wrote about them
Called the conservation man, called the wildlife trust
Met the man who mows and made him promise not to.

We buzzed around them
They stood there, smiling
Through the long days.

Apparently they pollinate themselves
(No need for real bees)
But even more they grow from the root
And they spread, underground, bulbously.

I will pass them in the winter
In the short days
Smiling as they burrow through the earth.

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