Wednesday 9 June 2010
A wildflower interlude
A thunderstorm chucks its load on the Severn Valley (and shortly afterwards, on me) during my walk on Sunday. Normally you get a spectacular view of the Malvern hills from here, but they are swamped!
I rarely blog about anything that isn't in my own garden, but it's worth making an exception sometimes. Not least because I ought to mention occasionally that I have an interest in native British wildflowers (and have a Flickr set of my best photos). And that I'm also lucky enough to live in the Cotswolds, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, so I have no excuse not to go out and gawp at them.
I don't have to go very far to find them. Cheltenham sits within a cosy semicircle of hills which form a continuous ridge around it. The ridge gives the town a beautifully sheltered climate and keeps frosts in my garden to a minimum. And the ridge itself is mostly grassland overlaying beautiful honey-coloured limestone which makes a wondrous habitat for wild flowers and butterflies. All of the Cotswold hills have their own unique character and variations in plant life, and when I feel the need for a botanical frenzy I tend to go to the quieter ones which the tourists (and even most locals) don't know about. My favourite is Nottingham Hill, which is a spur at the northern end of the ridge.
Nottingham Hill is a very special place to me. The whole of the top is an iron age hillfort, but you can't see it from the ground because it's too big to view in its entirety. The earth is full of natural holes, dips and openings. The lower slopes (particularly on the N and E sides) are liberally dotted with springs, some of which are the sources of local brooks and streams. Most of the trees around the fort are magical trees, elder, hazel or thorn. There's also a very strange grove on the southern edge just below the fort where almost all the trees are hollow or have holes in them, growing in the dips and hummocks left by ancient quarrying. Some are small finger-sized holes, some cup-shaped holes with grass and violets growing in them, some large oval holes right through the tree. With gorgeous views over the Severn Valley to go with it, it's an incredibly evocative place.
It's also lush with wild flowers.
Rock rose (Helianthemum nummularium) growing next to a common spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) on Nottingham Hill.
These pictures were all taken on Sunday, when I went out for a walk up there on what seemed like a charmingly pleasant early summer day. I was having a great time grovelling about in the undergrowth with my camera when it became apparent that the distant booming I could hear was not some bizarre rural motorsport as I'd assumed but a rather formidable thunderstorm approaching very stealthily. I can't resist rainstorms ... they are an exhilarating manifestation of nature's power and they make me feel wonderful. So once I'd got my camera to a place of safety (just as the rain was starting) I went off up another footpath and climbed up onto a mini-hillock on the hillside and embraced the storm while it pelted down and soaked me. It was bliss!
I had to drive home with a wet arse, but it was worth it.
None of these are particularly rare plants, but I don't care, it's always a joy to see them.
Wild thyme, which is a species called Thymus polytrichus. It looks like a miniature version of garden thyme and you certainly can take it home and sprinkle it on your pizza, but I've found Cotswold wild thyme to be decidedly lacking in the aromatic department, so I generally just admire it and use home-grown stuff for eating.
Yes I know this stuff is common as dirt. But it doesn't half look beautiful once you get down on your hands and knees for a proper look. Bird's foot trefoil, also known as Eggs and Bacon, and Lotus corniculatus.
The decidedly blue flower known as green alkanet, and also by the glorious botanical name of Pentaglossis sempervirens.
Although it looks a bit like lady's bedstraw, this is the slightly more subtle crosswort (Cruciata laevipes). Most things with 'wort' in their name have a history of medicinal use.
Another old healing herb, common milkwort (Polygala vulgaris) which I found in two shades of blue and a pink variant, all growing together in the same clump.
A particularly elegant blossom of creeping cinquefoil (Potentilla reptans).
One of the highlights of my walk was not a flower but a particularly beautiful moth. I don't know much about moths at all but these days all you need is a quick trawl of the interwebs to identify things.
This gorgeous chap (two views of the same moth) is a five-spot burnet, or Zygaena trifolii if you prefer.
Finally, here's something that is in my garden.
I have a few wild plants naturalised in my garden, either because they've always been there or because I've introduced them through locally collected seeds. My house was built in the 1930s on land that was formerly a damson orchard, and I still have some damson trees in what was originally a field boundary at the back of my garden, and it's quite possible that some of the native wild flowers have stuck around here too.
At any rate, when I moved here in 2004 and started weeding the garden, which had been fallow for a year, I found a scarlet pimpernel with purply-mauve flowers instead of the usual pale red. I carefully weeded round it to give it a chance to mature and set seed. I wasn't sure whether the flower colour would come true from seed, but sure enough the following year there were more.
It's not particularly unusual to get colour variants in scarlet pimpernels. But blue is a more common one to find, or white. I'm not sure how widespread the mauvey purple ones are. But it certainly is a heritable trait because there's no variation from year to year. I try to help them colonise by carefully preserving all the pimpernels when I'm weeding and then removing a lot of the scarlet ones once they show their colour. Sometimes if I'm out there with my tweezers I grab an anther off one of the purples and dab it on the stigma of another purple on a different plant, just to make sure. But in all honesty it doesn't need my help, it's surviving fine by itself.
Violet-purple petals on a scarlet pimpernel, Anagallis arvensis. Native to my garden!