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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

The beauty of Barnt Green

Posted on May 30 2016 at 11:03:51 0 comments

Old Orchard

Mary Green explores two special wildlife places at the village edge.

The switchback weather this year has continued to make predicting the habits of plants and animals difficult.

Peck Wood opened very early for the bluebells this year: they were a beautiful blue carpet in mid-April, though it snowed on their first day of opening! On the last day, sunshine followed rain and the scent was gorgeous.

Oak leaves were in their lovely golden-green stage well before St George’s Day, but the beech came out quite late. I saw one hawthorn tree out in bloom earlier than ever before round here, in April, but none of the other hawthorns came out until much later – there were very few out for May Day.

This was true of a lot of plants – some caught the bounce of a warm early spring and others didn’t, then had to wait while a cold spell held them back. Consequently we had a fabulous daffodil year – they lasted from January through to the end of April.

But I don’t know yet what the effect of frost and snow on the plum and damson blossom will be. Some birds nested very early, others quite late, and the swallows came back in April as usual.

Ducklings came sporadically, with a lovely brood of nine appearing in mid-April. I have been watching a Canada goose nesting in exactly the same place as last year.

My neighbour found a robin’s nest under the eaves of her porch: the early egg didn’t survive but they have tried again and now there are little robins! And one pair of the wife-swapping swans has nested nearby, at the right time and looking hopeful.

This month in my “special wildlife places” I am looking at a couple of places on the edge of Barnt Green. Firstly, I walk often along Sandhills Green, the way into Barnt Green from Cooper’s Hill. This is where the very early flowering hawthorn I mentioned above is.

There is at first glance nothing special about this road, but it has a great range of plants. This is probably because it has quite high banks, so doesn’t suffer too much from cutting. The flatter verges at the motorway bridge end are more variable depending on the mowing regimen of the County Council.

In early spring, the banks have snowdrops as you would expect, but then later have a less common flower called snowflake. This is like a bigger snowdrop with long bright green leaves.

It is usually in flower in April, though this year it came much earlier. It is accompanied later in April (or early this year!) by bluebells. These are proper English bluebells, growing under trees and showing it has been undisturbed for many years.

Also in spring, it has leaves of bistort, and later flowers. Bistort is a relative of the dock, and was used in the north of England in earlier times to make the famous “dock pudding.” This was a Lenten dish made of suet pastry and edible leaves, especially bistort, and probably very welcome after the limited winter diet.

The trees along the road are always interesting. There is blossom from February through to June. Cherry plum starts it off, then blackthorn, wild cherry, hawthorn and elder.

Because they grow above a substantial bank they don’t get cut back too much, and are free to flower and fruit. This means they are full of insects and birds. I often hear the first spring calls of great-tit and chaffinch here, and the first visits of the chiff-chaff.

Near the motorway end are some lovely guelder rose trees. These have a pretty head of cream flowers like a lace doily, followed by red berries and red leaves in autumn. Even the motorway-side is beautiful, with gorse blooming nearly all year round and some impressive birch trees.

In June, the open verges are more interesting than the tree-covered section. This is where I have found common spotted orchids growing, so I hope they reappear for you this year. If you do see them, leave them alone.

Years ago orchids must have been very common round here but they aren’t now. However, they are reappearing in some places where land is being looked after well.

I’m hoping to see some more round here this year, including the bee-orchids at Bittell. Orchids are native to this part of the country and shouldn’t be rare, but they are because their habitat has mostly disappeared.

Even if the orchids don’t come, there are lovely moon daisies, clover, campion, fox-and-cubs and other flowers on the verges of Sandhills Green, if they haven’t been mowed to nothing.

And there is something else quite rare here in July (again, mowers permitting). This is the little pink centaury, usually a seaside plant. I’ve seen it in a few places round here and it seems to be where the ground is sandier than our usual clay. It makes me wonder if that’s where the name of Sandhills comes from.

On the other side of Barnt Green is the Old Orchard. You can find this off the right-hand side of the Blackwell road, over a bridge after the little wooded ridge alongside the railway.

The ridge is interesting in itself, a little bit of old woodland with bluebells in spring and fungi in autumn. The Old Orchard is accessed via a footpath, and opens out into a lovely open space with trees and flowers.

There are some big old oak trees here, and of course a lot of apple trees. On the left as you come in is a huge pear tree. The orchard is beautiful in April and May when the bluebells and apple blossom are out, but also interesting later in the year.

In autumn there are fruits to see, with the trees still bearing well even though they are not really looked after any more. In the summer it’s the flowers in the open parts that are special. These are flowers of untreated pastureland, something hard to find these days.

The most uncommon is betony, a dark maroon coloured flower in the same family as sage and many other herbs. It only grows in a few places round here and is a good sign of old pastureland. It was one of those herbs believed to cure you of almost everything in medieval times!

All over the tussocky grass you will find tormentil, a delightful little yellow flower. It is in the same family as cinquefoil and silverweed, the rose family. This plant grows on acid moors and heaths, so it’s quite unexpected to find it growing so strongly round here.

You can also see sorrel and pignut, typical of old pasture. Pignut is like a tiny feathery cow-parsley, and has an edible tuber underground. Later in the year you can find knapweed, which is purple and like a thornless thistle. 

By June, you will also see wild roses. We have two main kinds round here: the light pink dog rose and the white field rose. The field rose is the ancestor of the white rose of York, though the red rose of Lancaster (and England, and the Labour Party, and romance) developed from an imported variety.

The rose family is huge. As well as the actual roses it includes the potentillas (tormentil, cinquefoil and silverweed), all the blackthorns, plums and cherries, meadowsweet, lady’s mantle, wild strawberries, brambles, wood avens, rowan, apples and pears, wild service and hawthorn!

One thing most of this family have in common is that they are edible. Most of our native fruits are here – crab apples, blackberries, sloes, cherry-plum, strawberries. Many fruits that we don’t eat now, like rose hips, hawthorn and wild service, are also edible.

Most of the flowers are edible, roses themselves especially so. The leaves of many of them were eaten in the past especially in time of hunger.

Among these are the young leaves of hawthorn (called “bread-and-cheese” at one time) and silverweed, known as the famine plant in Scotland because it was always there by the wayside to eat when you had no other vegetables.

Meadowsweet was eaten as a cure for colds, fevers, aches and pains. You can make a tea from the sweet flowers or just chew the more bitter leaves. They have been found to contain a good dose of aspirin.

The scented flowers were also used as a flavouring for mead and beer, and to sweeten fruit. It was a strewing herb, used to make houses smell nice and stuffed into mattresses.

Apparently, many wild plants contain salicylic acid (aspirin). It is likely that people at one time ate quite a lot of it in their everyday diet, helping to keep them healthy. Because it tastes bitter, it has been bred out of a lot of our modern vegetables and fruit.

We tend to like sweetness, but bitterness in a plant is probably a sign that it includes beneficial chemicals (though this means it could contain poison if eaten in big quantities.)

A typical example is ground-ivy, a pretty blue flower in the dead-nettle family, which grows round here. It was used to make a healing tea, and also as the “bitters” in beer. Perhaps in the past we knew what was good for us!

This is a poem I wrote when I came back from a holiday in April.

Home
Home from Africa. Sweet sleep
In my own bed, and morning sun
Outside the plum blossom breaking
Starting its white arch, and hawthorn
Greening the hedges. I walk out
And the first chiff-chaff calls
Backed by rooks and woodpeckers
Millie next door calls me
To show a nest in the ivy
Above their door, with a small egg
Probably abandoned now, we agree
Over-hopeful early spring bird
Maybe a robin, coming to my table
Avoiding the cats, but too soon
To greet the spring warmly, as I do


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