Friday, 11 April 2014

On the verge: in search of spring treasures

David North, Head of People and Wildlife

Every spring of course is a time of miracles. Leaves appear by some strange alchemy where there were no leaves followed by intricate shapes, textures, patterns and colours of spring wild flowers. Every day brings change. New growth. A new flowering measuring the lengthening days of spring in a calendar of changing colours.

Primroses, photo by David North
This year my local verges seem to have surpassed themselves. Common flowers maybe but in such abundance. The gold of celandines paving my local lanes in gold. I’m very fond of this wildflower. Its horseshoe leaves have a delicate tracery of veins. Its golden flowers open to form yellow suns in the sun but rain cloud or fading light turn them into golden chalices which seem to glow with an inner light. There really do seem to be more this year perhaps they benefited from a wet, mild winter. Primroses too, at least where I live, are thriving. They seem to love steep banks where in golden yellow patches they really are hedgerow gold, their flowers a more subtle lemon-yellow than the brilliance of the celandines which are flowering near-by.

There are rubies to be found along my local lanes. Red dead-nettle this year is also super-abundant. Most a deep ruby red but a few patches painted a light pink.
The hedgerows are still silvered with blackthorn frost. Millions of star-like white flowers shine out of bare dark-barked, thorny branches which give blackthorn its name. Its other name of course is sloe and some of these white spring stars will be transformed into purple-black sour autumn sloes. The catalyst for this alchemy being small flying insects which pollinate the flowers: sex on wings! It’s a plant’s life. If you can’t tell sloe from hawthorn then remember blackthorn flowers on leafless branches and hawthorn’s creamy May blossom appears well after the bushes have greened with young leaves. Some of my local hedges look striped at present – the hawthorns green then sections white flowers on leafless blackthorn branches.
Violets, photo by David North
There are other jewels to find beneath the hedgerows along my local lanes. The amethyst and sapphire blues of delicate violets, still in flower and more brazen patches of ground-ivy, a similar blue but a very different flower shape.

On my walks, usually accompanied by a much-loved border collie (well sheep-dog to you and me!) who goes by the name of Rohan, while he sniffs making the most of a hidden scent-world I take in the new flowers appearing almost by the day. Passing village houses there are escaped cowslips. Garden escapes maybe but pretty though a sad reminder of Norfolk days now gone when wild cowslips were a common meadow flower. There are grape hyacinths too in regal, deep blues, such a strange flower but I’m rather fond of them. The seasons change so fast and the first lacy whites of cow parsley flowers have just begun to appear. Soon they will hide my smaller jewels.

Roadside verges can be a last and rather insecure home for so many of our flowers that have vanished from huge swathes of our countryside. The Wildlife Trusts have just released a new report, ‘Save our Vanishing Grasslands’ highlighting the need for more action to protect the wildlife-rich grasslands that still remain. You can help by simply signing the petition – it only takes moments – as now is a small window of opportunity to persuade our politicians to help ensure that new agri-environment support schemes for farmers, which are currently under review at European level, must reflect the massive loss , more than 95% that has taken place of England’s flower rich grassland. We need to ensure that no more are lost and that more support is given to landowners to help restore our meadowland where possible.
Celandine, photo by David North

These grassland are not just pretty. This declining resource is vital to support insect pollinators. Flower rich grasslands full of life. On warm sunny spring days they hum with bees and flutter with butterflies. They help protect our rivers from pollution, hold together healthy soils, store carbon, soak up water and reduce the likelihood of flooding. They are loved by people and provide so much to our general health and well-being. Every child should have a chance to lie in long grass under a blue sky, make daisy chains and watch a ladybird climb a grass stem. Perhaps even where picking a bunch of wild flowers for Mum is part of childhood and does not have to be frowned upon because they are so rare!

If you want a countryside that still has these precious jewels, where spring gold is easier to find, and the countryside just a bit more colourful, then please do sign. And don’t forget to explore your local Living Landscape and find some treasure on a road-side!

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