Monday, 27 March 2017

On the verge...

Primroses and violets David North
Spring is good time to brush up on your plant identification skills as the hedge banks, lanes and roadside verges begin to blossom.  Here Norfolk Widlife Trust's Head of People and Wildlife, David North encounters some of our spring species as they emerge from winter.

Early April and nature seems pregnant with possibilities. Along the lanes close to where I live trees – oak, ash, beech and sycamore – are still winter bare, branches stark and darkly silhouetted against spring bright skies.  Birdsong and wildflowers - spring would not be spring without them, and both are in evidence as I walk my dog along familiar verges now brightened with the golds of  primrose and celandine, sky-blue speedwells and the unassuming greenish-yellow flowers of dog’s mercury. 
White dead nettle David North
This is the time of year I make my annual resolution to learn my wildflowers. Of course now it’s easy, the list of what’s in flower is comparatively small.  Red dead nettle is in profusion on road verges, forming magenta patches along the lanes.  Everyone knows dandelions and daisies and although both can be spotted in flower throughout the winter, their flowers are now abundant.  They do say spring hasn’t properly arrived until you can cover seven daisy flowers with a single footprint: well by my count spring is clearly here.   

More hidden are the flowers of other arable weeds, escaped from the fields onto my local road verges.  The diminutive white flowers of hairy bittercress, dull yellows of groundsel, the white stars of common chickweed and mauve-blues of ground ivy are easy enough to spot if you stop, bend and look a bit more closely among the grass.  I have some wonderful, shady sunken lanes to walk along. The banks here are festooned with literally hundreds of primroses and looking more closely amongst them I can find the black spotted leaves of early purple orchid and, already in flower, delicate white petals of barren strawberry. Woodland escapees on these shady roadside banks include the first red campion in flower, dog’s mercury, dog violet and ‘lords and ladies’ (wild arum).

'Lords and ladies' David North
The next few weeks in April will bring many more species into flower along our verges.  Look out for greater stitchwort, lacy-white cow parsley, and one of my favourites, growing on just a few local verges, the meadow saxifrage. I must dig out my wild flower guide and remind myself of how to distinguish creeping buttercup from bulbous and meadow buttercups and take on the annual challenge of speedwells: now is that one germander, field, slender, wall or ivy-leaved?

Few wildflower meadows remain in Norfolk but we probably all have a roadside verge close to where we live and these can be a haven for wildflowers.  And where there are flowers there will be butterflies and bees to spot. In the longer grass small mammals such as shrews and voles can thrive and their predators, barn owls, kestrels, foxes, weasels and stoats all hunt along grassy verges. So our roadside verges are like long, thin nature reserves and help wildlife move across the landscape

Red campion David North
Our roadside verges, if managed sensitively, can be hugely important for nature and our living landscapes. There are 238,000 hectares of road verge grassland in Britain with Norfolk alone having around 20,000 kms of road verges.  Across Britain verges support over 1,000 species of flowering plants including some species only found here.  With the loss of so many natural meadows in Norfolk today you are more likely to see a cowslip growing on a road verge than in a wild meadow. Even many orchid species, from common spotted to the early-purple and bee orchid, may be found thriving on road-sides. So why not take a walk on the verge and see what’s in flower in your local patch.  If you find something unusual don’t forget to let us know or send a photo to our gallery.    

If you, like me, would like to get to know your local wild flowers better then here are some to look out for along Norfolk’s roadside verges in April.  

  • Common daisy
  • Dandelion
    Violet David North
  • Celandine
  • Common vetch 
  • Cow Parsley

  • Garlic Mustard

  • Greater Stitchwort

  • Lords and Ladies (Cuckoo Pint)

  • Red campion

  • Red dead nettle

  • Self heal

  • Dog and Sweet Violet

  • White dead nettle