The townie’s godsend

Foxgloves, buttercups and orchid, Wales
Foxgloves, buttercups and orchid, Wales

Wolfgang Lippert, Dieter Podlech
Wild Flowers of Britain & Europe
Translated and adapted by Martin Walters
Collins Nature Guide, HarperCollins Publishers 1994

High summer, Britain. Hardly tautological as juxtapositions go, but with temperatures hovering near 30 Celsius (the mid-80s Fahrenheit, in old money) this may well be as good as it gets this year. As usual, the varying combinations in spring of cold or mild and dry or wet weather produce a profusion or dearth of native flowers and their early or late blooming. This year’s mix has been distinctive, and with the help of pocket guides like this we’ve been able to do a casual audit of what we can see in our excuse for an orchard and lonesome hay meadow.

Wild Flowers of Britain and Europe colour-codes its selection, which is helpful when trying to identify species which have slipped our collective experience. Particularly plentiful this year have been a range of yellow blooms: tall buttercups swaying in the lightest breath of wind, and the bright sunshine of Yellow-rattle, Kidney Vetch and Colt’s-Foot, the latter easily mistaken at a distance for dandelions though those are now mostly gone over, with the occasional ‘clock’ of seeds still hanging on. No doubt the dandelions will make a second appearance later this year. Self-seeded Californian poppies, garden escapees of old, do the same universal trick as fellow escapee Crocosmia and cluster round garden gates at the road’s edge. It’s too early for the rich butter colour of ragwort, good for insects but bad for livestock if the field is to provide hay; they’ll be pulled up just as soon the flowers appear.

The other colour group very much in evidence is purple. Foremost amongst these are the now ubiquitous foxgloves, often growing in groups as if in deliberate plantations; these spectacular high-rise flowers are supposed to be biennials but around here they seem to think it’s now or never. At the margins of the field and drive are Rose-bay Willowherbs, apparently called fireweed during the Second World War because they sprang up like wildfire on bomb sites; they’re beautiful until they seed and then become eyesores. These, like the thistles, have yet to flower but I’m sure they will any day now. Missing this year are the slender spires of Tufted Vetch, yet at the other extreme are purple patches of Selfheal which, like daisies, seem to cope with frequent cropping or mowing, springing back with equal vigour.

This winter the badgers did their damnedest to dig up orchid bulbs in the field, but two common species have survived in the orchard, Early-purple and Heath-spotted, one dark and one light. A stretch of road near us has scatterings of Heath-spotted orchids which so far have escaped the council’s annual grass-verge onslaught.

The bluebells that lined the stream in the dappled shade of May are long gone, but pale-blue Germander Speedwell keeps this colour’s standard flying. White is represented by daisies and white clover, while Eyebright hogs the ground in the field between the stalks of grass. The giant Hogweeds have yet to flower, but Ribwort Plantain shows its subtle display of small white rags if you know where to look. This Collins Guide prefers to include the latter in its greenish/brownish category, along with everyone’s favourite, the Stinging Nettle.

This just leaves the pinks and reds, such as Red Clover, which is actually mostly pink. Some brambles are already in flower with their promise of blackberries late August to September. The cheerful Red Campion is everywhere, with Herb Robert peeping out wherever it can.

For a born-and-bred townie like me such pocket guides are a godsend because they are not only portable but also have full-colour photos on opposite pages to the text. Sadly, the photos don’t give any idea of scale, nor do they show all the plant (leaves are often hidden in undergrowth) so positive identification has to be supplemented with a close reading of the plant’s entry and a consultation of bulkier volumes such as Roger Phillips’ aged Wild Flowers of Britain. Our copy has post-its in several pages noting when we first saw what species, and I see that quite a few of these have not put in an appearance this year. But their time will come, I’m sure.

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10 thoughts on “The townie’s godsend

    1. In an age when we’re told we’re all living in a global village it’s good to know that each part of the planet is unique in its way, and that extends to wildflowers as much as the rest of the physical geography. I’m sure that Europe and North America share many species, or near species, of flora and fauna even if terms may differ (though I do know that American robins are unrelated to European robins).

      By the way, I keep misreading your blogging name as ‘nuthatch’, which over here is a busy little bird that typically creeps up and down trees. I’m sure you’re busy though I doubt that you creep in such a fashion!

    1. To call me a lukewarm gardener would be an overstatement, but even I know that South Africa is the origin of many ‘exotic’ plants in gardens the world over, from the gladiolus to the arum lily, and Red Hot Pokers (which my mother grew in profusion) to Crocosmia, mentioned above. It seems strangely poetic then that British wildflowers are equally ‘exotics’ in the southern hemisphere.

      Anyway, hope that a guide like this will prove helpful when you next visit the UK!

      1. There is some irony in the fact that with the richness of indigenous plant life here, for very many years the aim was to produce a typical English country garden. Now, the scale has swung to where numerous fanatics are trying to make gardens completely indigenous, which is as silly the other way. There are simply no real local substitutes for roses, for example. As with almost everything, the middle course is best and a good mix of local and exotic makes the most impressive gardens.

        1. I do agree with you. Just so long as those introduced species don’t go rogue, as has happened here with rhododendron and, particularly, Japanese knotweed (a exceptionally thuggish growth, with no predators).

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