Wild Flowers

The most important flower

A Common Ivy flower cluster growing at The Butts, Bridge. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

If we were to try to consider which one of our native flowers was the most important, which would it be? It’s an impossible question to answer, because we would have to ask: most important for what, and for whom? The rose, with so much history attached to its symbolism, might be considered our most important flower culturally; yet the daisy family Asteraceae is by far the most significant numerically, with over 22,000 species in the clan; and what of the flowering trees, where would we be without them? But ask an apiologist which is our most important flower, and the answer may surprise you; for this ‘one who studies bees’ might say with some certainty that it is the flower of the Common Ivy.

Bees thrive in summer, gathering nectar from flowers of all kinds and incidentally taking with them pollen from the male anther of one flower to the female stigma of another in the process of pollination which, in turn, allows fertilisation for the reproduction of our plants. In this respect, bumblebees, honey bees, butterflies, hover flies and many other insects do an immensely important job in our countryside: every year, simply by going from flower to flower in search of nectar (their primary food) they cause nearly all of our plants, most of our trees and most of our crops to produce seeds for next year. But what happens in mid-September and October when all the pretty summer flowers have died?

A wild bee on a Common Ivy flower cluster, Mill Lane, Bridge. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Common Ivy blooms later in the year than most other plants, so it is virtually the only source of autumn nectar for bees and other insects. And what a good source of nourishment it is: Ivy grows everywhere and its flowers, which are tiny, yellow-green, and grow in spherical clusters, are laden with a rich nectar with a very high sugar content: the main ingredient these insects need. Some scientists have suggested that, without a final feed up on Ivy, most of our bees and many of our insects simply could not survive from late summer through to the next spring; and with no bees to pollinate the plants in spring, our environment would face devastation.

Common Ivy is often regarded as a garden nuisance: no one buys it for its blooms; few people even realise that it bears flowers, and certainly no one puts them on show in a vase. But this unassuming little bloom, which forms the flower-balls of the Common Ivy, just might be our countryside’s most important flower of all.

On Lady’s Bedstraw

Lady’s Bedstraw, The Butts, Bridge. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

In the last few weeks, that bright and breezy stretch of the Kent Downs up beside the old railway known locally as ‘The Butts’ has been a colourful place, as yellow Lady’s Bedstraw lies across the hillside under a perfect blue of English summer sky.

The plant is so named because it retains a soft springiness after drying, which made it an ideal filling for mattresses, and it was used traditionally for that purpose before modern manufacturing. One might even argue that it was better suited than some of the materials that replaced it, because the pleasant honeyed scent of the flowers aids sleep and eradicates fleas.

Lady’s Bedstraw is a common plant of heathland and meadow across Europe, and it is perfect for the chalk grasslands of the Kent Downs. A wonderful plant for pollinators, it attracts bees, butterflies, caterpillars and all those who have an appreciation for the downs in their finest summer glory.

The lure of the Bee Orchid

Humble Bee Orchid, secret location, Bridge. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Currently flowering in a secret location up on the downs are a few specimens of the astonishingly exotic and oddly named Humble Bee Orchid: ‘Humble’ being an alternative for ‘Bumble’, although this has now generally been dropped in favour of the more simple name Bee Orchid. Humble Bee Orchid is a more apt name though, because it gives us a clue about what this flower is, and isn’t, for all is not quite what it seems.

This is a flower which pretends to be a bee visiting another far less showy bloom. From the perspective of certain male bees, it looks like a female bee, it smells like a female bee and, if they snuggle up close, it even feels furry like a female bee; but of course it isn’t, it’s just a clever imposter flower tricking male bees into close contact so that its pollen will get attached to the visitor and passed on to other orchids of the same variety.

This is Nature and evolutionary adaptation being very clever, in fact so ingenious that it’s immensely disappointing to learn that the great deception is totally wasted in Britain because we don’t have the right kind of bees living here to make the pollination work, so British Bee Orchids have further adapted to be self-pollinating.

Nevertheless, the little wild Humble Bee Orchid is an intriguing and beautiful sight to see up on the downs, but, just like a bee, you need to get up close and personal in order to appreciate its finer details.

Humble Bee Orchid, secret location, Bridge. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

In the meadow of the Moon Daisy

Oxeye Daisies, Bridge area, June 2017. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Walkers who venture along the farm track extending from Mill Terrace in Bridge will, once again, see a swathe of flowers growing in a field near the old Elham Valley Railway. Currently in bloom are thousands of Oxeye Daisies (alternative spelling Ox-eye) planted by our local farmer a couple of years ago. We believe more have flowered this month than this time last summer. Sometimes these are called Moon Daisies, either because of the bright yellow disc of florets at their centre, or perhaps because the flowers seem to glow in the moonlight.

While, in the past, some formal gardeners and indeed farmers too, may have considered the Oxeye Daisy to be a weed, in these more enlightened times it is recognised as a true grassland flower to be valued for the biodiversity it brings to the Kentish chalk downlands. The yellow florets at the centre of the flower will provide nectar for a whole range of pollinating insects, particularly bees, butterflies and hoverflies. Farms need to be growing food, but it is now well understood that biodiversity assists in that cause and one of the ‘beauties’ of our Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is that it can, and should, be retained and enhanced as a preserve of biodiversity for the benefit of our entire countryside.

Also growing in the same area, though blooming at different times are chicory, cornflower, yarrow, wild carrot, buttercup, common mallow, herb robert, black horehound, herb bennet, knapweed, ragwort, selfheal, birdsfoot trefoil, field marigold, dandelion and scarlet pimpernel.

 

Summer and the Salsify

Salsify growing wild along Western Avenue. Summer 2017. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

As the summer of 2017 arrives, residents of Western Avenue and the closes leading off may have noticed a number of tall purple flowers blooming in the communal gardens and verges right along the road. These are Purple Salsify. The flowers themselves closely resemble Goatsbeard, but its flowers are yellow: hence Salsify is sometimes referred to as Purple Goatsbeard. Here on BridgeNature.org, we prefer to use these common English or colloquial names rather than formal scientific classifications, but we can’t resist mentioning Salisfy’s distinctive Latin name, Tragopogon porrifolius, which means ‘Goat’s beard with the leaves of a leek’.

The plants along Western Avenue appear to be growing wild and may be naturalised, but Salsify is of European mainland origin and was brought here, probably in the 16th century, for its blooms, which make an attractive garden feature en masse. After flowering, the heads transform into rough fluff balls of seeds which are something like the familiar seed head of the dandelion, but less spherical and somewhat larger.

Salsify seed head, Western Avenue, June. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Historically Salsify has also been cultivated across Europe as a root vegetable. It is in the same family as the parsnip, but the Salsify root is much thinner and apparently tastes a little of oysters. Although this may sound tempting, we urge those who fancy trying to cook some not to attempt to pull them up: the roots are extremely difficult to retrieve from the ground and you will simply end up snapping the stem and spoiling the display for the rest of us. Let us all just enjoy this attractive and intriguing new feature of our avenue.

 

In homage to a Dandy Lion

Dandelions, Bridge area. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

Take a little stroll into the countryside or past any stretch of roadside verge this month and the chances are you will see at least one Dandelion, perhaps many, glowing like little fiery suns amongst the grass stems and the decaying detritus of winter. The social conditioning of a muddled western world tells us to dismiss these blooms as common weeds, but cast away that prejudice, take another look and the brilliant yellow Dandelion is surely as delightful as any native flower this country has to offer.

However, the name Dandelion, comes, not as our title might suggest, from the splendid appearance of the flower, but from the leaf, the serrated edge of which was thought to resemble the teeth of a lion: hence the French ‘Dente-de-Lion’. We prefer our English corruption of the name.

Although Dandelions can be seen in flower during many months of the year, the most prolific blooms occur between March and May, just when many bees and pollinating insects are emerging from hibernation and looking for a good spring feed. How fortunate then that this ubiquitous little flower is laden with pollen and nectar just at the right time.

For humans too the plant is entirely edible and offers copious quantities of vitamins and minerals and it has been used to make wine, salads and medicines. The stem contains a milky latex fluid which has very similar properties to natural rubber, offering great potential for farming and industrial processing.

Dandelion seeds, Bridge area. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017.

After the Dandelion has bloomed, the petals dry and fall from the flower head and the bracts beneath pull backwards miraculously revealing a perfect fluffy sphere of seeds, which are a favourite food of goldfinches. If not eaten first, these seeds detach and sail in the slightest breeze, dispersing across the countryside to propagate the plants elsewhere, so that a next generation of bees will have food to feast on in spring.

Once we know all this, calling a Dandelion a weed is something of an insult to one of our most beautiful and ecologically valuable wild flowers.

The early purple of an Orchid

Early Purple Orchids in Whitehill Wood. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017

This week in one small area of Whitehill Wood, Early Purple Orchids can be seen in bloom. The Early Purple is the earliest of our Orchids to flower, beginning in April (often alongside the spring bluebells) and continuing until the end of June. Inhabiting non-acidic grassland and ancient woodland in many parts of Britain, it is the most common of our native Orchids, though not the ubiquitous sight it once was.

The plant stands as a single, flower-bearing stem, perhaps a foot high, rising above the anemones and bluebells on the woodland floor. This Orchid can be difficult to distinguish by flower colour alone, because it varies considerably in hue from purple through to pink and can even appear white. Identification is made easier by some particular features of its growth: the arrival of its flowers much earlier than any other Orchid; a rosette of dark spotted glossy leaves around its base; and sometimes a faint, somewhat unpleasant odour.

Early Purple Orchids in Whitehill Wood. Image © Copyright BridgeNature.org 2017

From time immemorial the tuberous root of the Early Purple Orchid (and related species) has been processed into ‘Salep’, a starchy flour used in preparations or medicinal drinks for soothing ailments and irritations of the intestines, particularly in children. Before the widespread use of coffee, Orchid root, often imported from the Middle East, was sold on the streets of London for preparing a very popular nutritious beverage called ‘Saloop’ made from this same Salep starch. ‘Salhab’ is a version of this drink which is still popular in Turkey and the Levant today.

We remind readers that today Orchids and other wild flowers are protected and it is an offence to pick them or dig up their roots.

 

The White Bryony and the Black

A typical view of White Bryony in Autumn as the leaves shrivel and the berries hang in strings. Whitehill Wood, Bridge. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

A typical view of White Bryony in Autumn as the leaves shrivel and the berries hang in strings. Whitehill Wood, Bridge. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

At this time of year there are various kinds of berries to be found in woodland and hedgerow. Some are harmless and were traditionally used for making wine or conserves, others are toxic and must be avoided. Two lesser known berries in the latter category are that of the English White Bryony (Bryony Dioica) and Black Bryony (Tamus Communis), both of which can be seen in various locations around Bridge.

White Bryony
English White Bryony is a perennial hedgerow vine of the cucumber family which displays small white-tinged green flowers in the summer.

Male flower of White Bryony, Mill Lane, Bridge. July. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Male flower of White Bryony, Mill Lane, Bridge. July. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

It grows vigourously, supporting itself as a climber with thin winding tendrils which cling to other plants, walls, fences and just about anything else. It is sometimes called the False Mandrake or English Mandrake because, like the true Mandrake plant of the Mediterranean, it has a huge root tuber, over half a metre long, which can grow to resemble the shape of the human body. In olden days bawdy examples of such were sometimes displayed suspended in the windows of herb shops.

White Bryony berries in August. Near Mill Terrace, Bridge. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

White Bryony berries in August. Near Mill Terrace, Bridge. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

The berries, formed in late summer, begin green before turning yellow then finally bright scarlet: they may still be seen on the plant in winter frosts even after the leaves have withered. They are, like the large tuber, extremely poisonous. Deaths of people and livestock caused by eating the plant are historically recorded but extremely rare.

Black Bryony
Black Bryony shares the same climbing habits as the white, and may also be found in the hedgerow and amongst woodland undergrowth, as was the example pictured. Resembling the ‘Ace of Spades’, the leaf of Black Bryony is rather different from that of White Bryony, but the berries are very similar. All parts of the plant are extremely poisonous when raw. Nevertheless the young shoots of Black Bryony are commonly cooked and eaten in France, Spain and Portugal. Salves made from the plant have also been used historically to ease bruising.

Black Bryony berries in September. Whitehill Wood, Bridge. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Black Bryony berries in September. Whitehill Wood, Bridge. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

A note on poisonous berries
The berries of both plants are extremely toxic, but there is no great cause for alarm; many of our native wild plants, including buttercups, daises, foxgloves and daffodils are very poisonous if eaten in sufficient quantity. However, it is extremely rare, even for a curious child, to eat enough of a horrible tasting wild plant to make themselves seriously ill. Nevertheless, parents should always advise children not to eat wild plants and berries and should set them a good example by explaining that wild fruits must be left untouched in the hedgerow so that our wildlife can prosper. Some berries are intended to fall to the ground and nurture the seeds within them, others are eaten by wild creatures and the seeds inside are distributed across the countryside.

A flower of evening

Evening Primrose. Bridge Meadows. September 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Evening Primrose. Bridge Meadows. September 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Down in the meadows, in the first field off Brewery Lane, there stands tall, on the raised bank of the Nailbourne, one single specimen of Evening Primrose. Despite the name, it is not really a primrose at all, but its pale yellow petals have a similar allure and the same softness of hue when each new flower opens into bloom in the evenings of late summer.

The Evening Primrose is distinguished by its tall stem with flowers (usually yellow, but not always) growing off it towards the top, and for the cross shaped stigma in the centre of the flower. It is now considered a naturalised British wild flower but actually all the fifteen species to be seen in this country originated in the Americas, from regions as diverse as Chile and Canada, and many arrived here only in the 19th century.

We can be sure this Evening Primrose was not planted there upon the bank: instead it is far more likely that at some point since the flood bund was created a couple of years ago a seed will have dropped from a passing bird and nestled into the mud. The ability to spread and thrive in this way makes the plant a ‘Primary Coloniser’, one of the first plants to settle in newly disturbed or barren ground. Once it has flowered and produced seeds, this plant will die off leaving somewhere between 25,000 to 100,000 seeds to be eaten by birds or dispersed in the wind, but very few of these new seeds will ever get to germinate.

Of course many people will know of the Evening Primrose, and the oil derived from it, for its legendary ability to heal ailments of all kinds: a huge industry has been built upon it. However, some distinguished medical scientists insist there is no proven scientific evidence of the plant’s ability to heal anything at all.

Some of us just enjoy seeing the flowers lighting up the riverbank.

100 years in the history of the Poppy

Poppies outside Lynton House on Bridge Hill. June 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016

Poppies outside Lynton House on Bridge Hill. June 2016. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016

It is late in June, and the young men of our home countries are competing for victory over in France. There is fighting in the streets. In a few days’ time, a momentous event is about to change forever our relationship with Europe…

The year is 1916 and the battle of the Somme is about to begin. More than a million men will fall as casualties.

Is it just a figment of an overheated imagination, or is there something rather moving about the row of red Poppies along the wall of Lynton House opposite the entrance to St Peter’s Church in Bridge? How pretty they are, and yet how poignant. Each evening, in the sunset, they jostle at the pavement, in the breeze of passing traffic, as if waiting to cross the road for Evensong.

The Poppy has acquired a special meaning in the collective consciousness of the British: it symbolises the horror of war, courage in battle, blood, the wasted hopes of fine young men, devastation, and the respectful remorse of those for whom the fallen lost their lives. They didn’t give them, as the eulogies say; those lives were stolen. They rest in peace now, our missing braves, and thus the symbolism of the Poppy, ‘eternal sleep’, a connotation not born of the Flanders fields as some believe, but in the ancient myths of Greece and Rome.

There are many varieties of Poppy, but the one we most associate with remembrance of the dead of war is the scarlet Corn Poppy, which still grows today at this roadside in Bridge, and on farmland across Britain and the wider continent. In commercial fields of wheat, barley and beans the Poppy is a weed, unwanted; but we love it for its colour, its bright brave beauty in our countryside, and for its meaning. Our remembrance burns deep. Who could cut a Poppy down and not feel guilt?