Hedgerow Update 1

When I wrote my initial post on the ancient hedgerow that leads uphill out of the secret valley I intended to update it on a monthly basis (click here).  What a failed idea that has proved to be!  For March 10th  was as hot a day as any summer’s and that, coupled with a very dry winter, created the worst drought for many years.  The day that I had intended to walk the hedge (and also the day that a hose pipe ban was announced) the heavens opened and we have had torrential rain ever since.  I have been soaked to the skin most days because of work – I had no intention of a second soaking whilst carrying out hedge surveying upon my return home.

A break in the clouds, however, allowed me to sprint up the lane snapping away with the camera moments before the next deluge. No time to marvel at the way nature responds to climate or to look carefully to see what species of plants might be new to my eyes.  The only wildlife I saw was a solitary snail, pale lemon in colour and rather pretty – if you can describe a snail as such – which dropped off it’s grass blade perch the moment I got the camera in focus.  I’m sure I heard it giggling in the undergrowth.
Here is what I did see.

Cowslips
Cowslips (Primula veris) are a great favourite of mine bringing back memories of early school for ours had a play area that was carpeted with them.  Years ago no-one worried about picking great bunches of them or digging some up for the garden which we all did yet the numbers there didn’t seem to diminish.  However, overpicking (or perhaps spraying roadside verges) meant that the cowslip became a scarce plant.  Happily, they are now seen sporadically along the Cotswold lanes although not on my old school playground which became a high density housing estate in the ’80’s. Along our hedge, cowslips appear in small numbers which, hopefully, will increase over the years.  Further up the valley a field grazed only by sheep and never sprayed is a yellow carpet at this time of year and on warm, still days, the faint smell of honey wafts around transporting me back more years than I care to admit to.

    Cowslip meadow in the secret valley

Primroses

The last few primroses are still in bloom, quite late for this time of year and no doubt, like some of the daffodils, lasting longer because of the cool, damp weather.  Primula vulgaris, their botanical name, sounds like a misnomer for their is nothing vulgar about them, for every part of a primrose is pretty, whether it is the palest lemon of their petals, the deeper yellow throat or the fresh green of their leaves.  Even the ribbing and lines of their veins create attractive patternss and textures.  Vulgaris does, of course, mean common – there is nothing common about them in appearance either!

The hot March had an odd effect on plants. Some revelled in it, throwing caution to the wind and paraded their summer finery early, whereas others seemed to remember the old saying about not casting a clout ’til May is out. Proven right, when cold returned in April, they now seem reluctant to even expose a leaf and, as a result, the hedgerow is bright green  in places, yet bare and wintry looking in others.

 Field Maple

Field Maple is a classic old hedgerow plant.  Left to grow untouched it makes a medium sized tree of, to my mind, simple but great beauty.  However, it is usually trimmed to make a reasonably dense, twiggy barrier.  Like all maples the flowers and leaves emerge together but I had never noticed before the rich mahogany colour of the leaf buds. Acer campestre.

Ground Ivy

 A plant so common and so small as to be overlooked, Ground Ivy (not related to ivy but to mint)has to be viewed on hands and knees to see its quiet beauty: tiny, mauve, hooded trumpets darkening at the throat.  According to my old herbals it was used for all sorts of ailments from the uterus to inflamed eyes and everything in between.  Glechoma hederacea, in a greyish variegated form is often used in hanging baskets where it is seen trailing in ugly, thick ribbons.  Leave it where it belongs – trailing over the ground at the foot of a hedgerow.  Perhaps it should be used in the garden in this way? 

 Jack-by-the-Hedge

Jack-by-the-Hedge or Garlic Mustard is a common plant and quite a useful addition to early spring salads for its shredded leaves have a mild garlic taste.  In the photo above it grows along with stinging nettles and the fine leaves of Cleavers or Goose-grass.  It is the food plant of the Orange Tip Butterfly which is quite regularly seen throughout the secret valley, although scarce so far this spring due to weather conditions.  Occasionally they fly into the house and require rescuing – not always as easy as in this photo!

 Orange Tip Butterfly – only the male is coloured orange

Bluebells with White Dead-Nettle

Bluebells, Hyacinthoides non-scriptus, are another of the ancient woodland indicators (click here for more details of this term) and they flower the whole length of the hedgerow.  In the Chiltern Hills, the area where I spent most of my life, the beechwoods are renowned for their Bluebell carpets (photo below).  Here, they grow more sparsely, with the occasional white flowered sport growing amongst them. In the photo above, it is the white flowered dead-nettle they mingle with.  The dead-nettle, Lamium album, is not related to the true nettle and has no sting, just an unpleasant smell when the leaves are crushed.  In the garden it is a nuisance with a white, running root, quite thick and brittle unlike the stinging nettle’s yellow, fibrous root system – a useful way to tell them apart if uncertain, apart from the sting, of course.

A bluebell wood in the Chiltern Hills in Spring

 Burdock leaves
The large leaves of Burdock, Arctium minus, are already forming rosettes.  It will be a while before they send up their spikes of lilac flowers, reminiscent of those of the thistle and even longer before the troublesome round seedheads, the burs, stick to clothing and She-dog.

The secret valley in flood
It was at this point that the heavens opened once again giving me just time to take a snap of the little winding river.  It’s clear, sparkling waters have been transformed by rain to a swirling, brown muddy spate that has now burst its banks spreading out across the valley.

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First Build Your Bank ….

Some time ago I was asked if I could plant a hedge.  Straightforward enough, I thought and as it was to be a native hedge, I was especially keen to do it.  Using only native species is always a pleasure for not only are you maintaining a tradition that is centuries old, it is also excellent cover for twentyfirst century birds and animals.

It was only when I went to visit the site that it was mentioned that it would be rather nice if the hedge could be planted on top of a bank, reminiscent of those that are found in the West Country counties of Devon and Cornwall.

West Country banks use large amounts of stone in their construction and were built to protect livestock from the gales and snowstorms that sweep in from the Atlantic.  Over time they become encrusted in lichens and mosses with ferns, primroses and other wild flowers sprouting from every crevice.  They are usually topped with a beech hedge or, sometimes, gorse (or furze, as they call it on Exmoor).

The bank that I had to build was to be similar but faced with turf which would not be as strong. As it was to divide two halves of a garden and (hopefully) not have to keep out determined sheep or cattle, this didn’t matter.  The thing that did matter was that I had to build it in a way that would prevent it from falling down …..

I’ve always found that if you want to create an impression bring in a digger.  There is a morbid fascination in watching a digger at work for the destruction can be immediate and swift.  It certainly would have been if I had been in charge of the controls but, as is so often the case, when you need an expert it is better to bring one in.  I know where I am when it comes to shovels and forks and trowels but it is best not to let me loose with all those knobs and levers.

The ground cleared we were then able to lay out and start building the bank.  We imported the rubble and clod for the base which after being well rammed and compacted could then have a top layer of better quality topsoil spread over the surface.  All was held in place by large mesh chicken wire netting.

Next came the turf and this was laid direct onto the netting and held in place with hazel twig ‘pegs’.  These would gradually rot but not before the turf had grown its roots through the wire.   The netting, too would quite quickly rot (we didn’t use galvanised for we didn’t want it to last for years) and, by then and fingers crossed, the bank would be quite stable and self supporting.

It was with some trepidation when, a few weeks later we cut the top of the turf and the wire out so that we were able to prepare the bank for planting the hedgerow; especially so as we had had some torrential downpours giving me anxious moments about landslips and mudslides.  All, fortunately was well.

Having plants delivered, I find, is always an exciting moment.  It reminds me of when, as a child, I waited for Christmas morning and couldn’t wait any longer to open my presents.  Despite knowing what is coming out of the van, each plant or variety is met with little gasps of delight.   The thrill of knowing that, with luck, they will thrive and continue to grow for many years and may even be there long after I’ve been buried and forgotten is great.

The hedgerow was not the easiest thing to plant but the end result was pleasing.  The final combination was Hawthorn, Field Maple, Wayfaring Tree, Hazel, Dog Rose, Spindle and Hornbeam  with an occasional Honeysuckle to fill the evening air with perfume.  The birds took to it straight away and, in my imagination at least, mice and voles shelter amongst the trunks hiding from mirauding stoats and weasels.  Best of all is the knowledge that, a few years on, the bank is still standing!

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The Large Skipper and a Comma

As far as butterflies go, the Large Skipper is not particularly uncommon but I don’t recall seeing them in quite the numbers that I have this summer. They are active butterflies, frequently on the move and fast flying but eventually come to rest to feed or bask in the warmth of the sun.
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The Large Skipper lays its eggs on a variety of grasses and so can be found in many habitats, particularly the edge of woodlands and along woodland rides. The photo below, taken in the deeply wooded Chiltern Hills, may look like a woodland ride but it is an ancient Saxon field or ‘assart’. Assarting – the destruction of forest for agriculture – was considered to be one of the gravest crimes of all when carried out in any of the Royal Forests. This field still has remains of old coppiced or possibly of layed hedge – there is one Field Maple, Acer campestre that probably dates back a 1000 years to Saxon days. It now consists of a series of smallish trees around the space where the original trunk would have been.
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Despite its name, the Large Skipper is quite a small butterfly. The females, which are slightly larger than the males, have a wingspread of less than one and a half inches. Their diminutive size has not prevented them from spreading far and wide globally: they can be found from England in the west of Europe, right across the continents, to Japan in the Far East. For some reason they are not found in Ireland or most of the Mediterranean islands. However, their range is still spreading so perhaps they will colonise these places too one day.
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The golden glow of these butterflies gives them a certain charm but they can not be described as pretty, especially with their huge, bulbous eyes. This glow is also present in the underside of the wing which shows up faint spots and helps to distinguish them from the Small Skipper and the Silver Spotted Skipper, both of which are to be found in Britain but far less frequently. The latter, incidentally, is also found in parts of North America.
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Another golden butterfly, but this time a very attractive one, is the Comma. It is everything the Large Skipper isn’t – delicate, attractively marked and large. This butterfly was rare when I was a child but numbers have increased rapidly in recent years and it is now no longer considered endangered.
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A Day’s Plant Hunting

One of the pleasures of living on a small island is that you are never far from anywhere – except another country (apologies to Wales and Scotland, I know that you are proud of your separate identities and rightly so).

So last Friday I spent at home in the Cotswolds – limestone country, wide open views and rolling pastures. Saturday I spent walking across Dartmoor (post to follow) – granite country of bleak, open moorland and few trees. Today I spent walking in the Chiltern Hills, my birthplace, a chalk country, densely wooded and secretive. All are beautiful in their own way.


And today was especially special for I was on a mission: looking for rare plants. And with some success, although just as much delight was found in the more common ones, for seeking pleasure from rarity for rarity’s sake is a poor emotion. What could be more charming a discovery than this group of foxgloves in a woodland glade? A common enough plant: I prefer the wild to the garden varieties, that have been bred to have ever larger ‘cups’. Here, the wild plants have a grace and delicacy that is so unlike their brasher relatives.


The group of thistles didn’t seem to be of special interest other than for the pleasure of watching the bumble bees feed from their flowers. But when seen in close detail the flowers really are quite spectacular. Most of these were purple but some that, from a distance, appeared to have prematurely gone to seed turned out to be a variant – they had white flowers. How glad I was that I had dawdled and not just rushed past without giving them a second glance!



Further into the woodland and growing in dappled shade was the first of the ‘finds’. Our native Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) is not often seen. Many that appear wild are garden escapes and are usually close to roads or houses but these were a long way from either. And, again, the flowers have a delicacy and lightness about them. Ladies Bonnets is another country name for them – it is easy to see why.


The Narrow Leaved Helleborine (Cephalanthera longifolia) is also uncommon and it was only after this one was found that we realised that there were over forty plants scattered over the area. Like the Columbine, where the plants were not sheltered by scrub or ferns, the deer had eaten the tops off. The flowers remain closed, making them unavailable to insects so, I assume, the plants self pollinate – perhaps that is why they are not at all common.


Further still along the path, was this solitary speciman of Daphne laureola, the Spurge Laurel. Although this plant grows quite widely in the Chilterns, this was the only specimen seen today. It flowers in late winter, it’s greenish-yellow flowers lacking the sweet scent of its garden cousins. Already the berry seedheads are forming, these will turn black later in the year. The Mezereon, a popular garden shrub in the past but not grown so widely these days, is also a native but extremely rare. It is known to grow in the Chilterns although I’ve never found one.


Returning once more to open meadows the woodland gave one last surprise: tall Field Maples, Acer campestre, usually grown as a hedging plant. And this is how it would have started out: one trunk, coppiced and layed to create sturdy, stockproof fencing. The original trunk has long disappeared and the ‘new’ stems from around its base have grown to be trees in their own right. For a maple to be of this size – and they rarely are – it would have been planted in Medieval times and it is known that the field that it borders was first created by the Saxons, 1000 years ago.


And as a grand finale, the meadow gave us dozens of Common Spotted Orchids – only common in favoured places, the spots refer to those on their leaves. The Chilterns are a great place for orchids and are home to some of the rarest species – their sites a closely guarded secret.
A most successful and satisying day!

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Old Man’s Beard

The narrow lane that rises up out of the secret valley beyond our little stone cottage is bordered on one side by Cotswold dry stone walls and, on the other, by remnants of an ancient hedgerow. One of the ways of identifying those that date from the original wildwood is by the number of plant species found in them for ‘modern’ hedgerows (those that have been planted after 1600) contain far fewer varieties. One of the plants that dominate the lane is known as Old Man’s Beard. In the photo below, it is difficult to tell what is snow and what is the, somewhat bedraggled, fluffy white seedhead that gives this wild clematis it’s common name.

Now the snow has gone and the seed heads, not quite as pristine as before, have recovered but still live up to their name. They swamp the lower, trimmed parts of the hedge and it is hard to imagine how the field maples, hawthorn, sloes and other woody plants cope and survive.

Three days ago, the birds began singing once more and claiming their territories so Spring can’t be too far off (I’m being optimistic here as the sun has been shining too). The Old Man’s Beard will, like garden clematis, be amongst the first to send out new shoots and leaves, in the process knocking off the old seedheads. For a short while the hedge has the opportunity to flourish before the clematis flowers appear. Although blooming in their thousands, individually they are quite insignificant and it is the scent that is the more noticeable – not the perfumed scents of roses and honeysuckles but honeyish, delicate yet cloying too, somehow. And the bees, especially the bumblebees can’t get enough of their nectar.

As a young child, I once stayed at a schoolfriend’s grandparents and in their garden was an old chalk quarry, long disused. I would love to revisit it now but have no idea where it was – for years I believed that the village was called Loose Chippings. It was only once I grew up that I realised that this was the sign that council workers had put up after repairing the road outside their house! There must, I assume, have been trees in the pit – and it was certainly overgrown – for the Old Man’s Beard had sent up its long vines high into the tree tops. Where this happens the stems become quite thick, strong and woody and we spent many happy hours there swinging through the trees Tarzan-like. They have also done this outside our cottage, where the hedgerow has grown into treelike proportions, although only once, (when I felt confident no-one would see me), have I swung on them. The exhilaration was the same and proves the thought that men never truly grow up but remain little boys that need to shave.

Virgin’s Bower and Traveller’s Joy are two of the other common names given to Clematis virginica. The first, one assumes, because of its tendencies to drape across other plants: how lovely it would be slumber gently beneath its shade on a warm day, breathing its scent and listening to the bees droning. According to my Herbal, in the past, wayfarers would make tea to soothe away headaches, wrap soaked cloths around their weary feet and treat blisters and saddle sores. No wonder it was called Traveller’s Joy. I love to think that along our little lane, the old drover’s would sit on the grassy roadside banks and rest, perhaps stopping for some ale at the old inn next door to us (and our only neighbour), their sheep and cattle drinking from the secret valley’s meandering river. Did they also think, like me, this place to be so special? I doubt it, somehow.

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