I am trying an experiment this year – to cut our mixed hawthorn hedge twice, instead of once. This weekend we have managed to complete the first cut, having started it two weeks ago. I’m glad to say that this year the birds finished nesting by then; some years we would not have been able to start in June! (Garden warblers usually seem to be the latest here, but I haven’t been hearing them this year.)

It has been interesting to see the different behaviours of the plants by changing the timing. While starting only about six weeks earlier than normal (yes it often takes us two weekends to do the whole thing, since we have to cut both our side and the ‘track’ side where the footpath runs) it was noticeable how much softer the hawthorn was and therefore how much easier it was to shred. However, the holly was so soft though that it kept clogging up, and the hazel, separated out to be composted, was definitely easier when woodier. But the first cut with most of the hazel has virtually made compost already, in just two weeks.

There is another aspect however which makes me glad to change our practice. I have been gradually trying to grow the hedge out wider on the track side, in order to protect the bank against inappropriate use of strimmers and weedkillers applied by other track user(s). By keeping the edge neat and cutting a little off more frequently, the hedge is starting to thicken up on that side. It was really encouraging to see the return of cow parsley this year for the first time in about a decade. There are also a few other wildflowers, besides the predictable nettles, brambles and stickyweed trying to keep humans at bay, and a large quantity of ivy helping to stabilise the soil. I am hoping these will all flourish in a more protected space.



Roadside Wildflowers, South Devon

Roadside Wildflowers, South Devon

One of the great joys to me is seeing a wildflower in its natural habitat for the first time, especially if I have become familiar with it through such means as in books or seeing it in a garden – mine or anyone else’s. In recent years, however, this is something I am most likely to experience when traveling abroad; having surveyed wildflowers locally to me for over a decade it is rare to see something unfamiliar.

Alexanders (and nettles) by roadside, South Devon

Alexanders (and nettles) by roadside, South Devon. (Click to expand.)

Last week I was in South Devon, in an area I hadn’t visited before, and driving down the narrow country lanes lined with flowers was a really joyful experience. Many of my favourites abounded – Red Campion, Cow Parsley, Foxgloves, Herb Robert, Shining Cranesbill, Buttercups, Ferns, and even late bluebells. But every so often there was a plant or patch of plants that were different. Umbellifers, but more yellow than anything that grows near me. I started to get interested – what was it? Traveling at car speed gave little chance for detailed looking, but the leaves and general colour did not appear to resemble any plant I knew.

Suddenly I realised: Alexanders, otherwise known as Parsley of Alexandria. One of the first mentioned in any book on foraging thanks to alphabetical listings, too far gone to try it on this occasion, but no less exciting to see. England has once again proved to me that treasures and rarities are there to be found.

Bank of Red Campion, South Devon

Bank of Red Campion, South Devon. (Click to expand.)

The photos shown here were taken on a cloudy afternoon, mostly along a road that is rarely driven on near Malborough. However more frequented roads were equally well lined with flowers – and often had fewer nettles or brambles. I was reminded of comments I have read about leaving areas for nature to do its own thing, particularly at Findhorn or Perelandra; this was a perfect demonstration of how glorious the natural world can be if man doesn’t interfere. Moreover, footpaths or this ‘unmetalled road’ had fewer flowers, as did others I walked, and I was shocked to discover some field edges had virtually nothing except nettles, thistles and brambles growing amongst the hedgerows. On a personal level, it reminds me not to interfere more than necessary with my own wild edges!
Wildflowers along an 'Unmetalled Road', South Devon

Wildflowers along an ‘Unmetalled Road’, South Devon

Surveying Wildflowers

View of linear plot

View of linear plot

For eleven summers now, I have surveyed a tiny area of Derbyshire for Plantlife‘s Common Plants Survey. My randomly allocated square is not somewhere I would normally choose to walk, being the wrong side of a dual carriageway from here, but it has proved very interesting to return to the same small area over such a period of time, and chart the changes. I now think of it as ‘my’ square, so while I could swap to somewhere closer, as this year the survey undergoes massive changes, I decided to stay put. In its favour are well-kept footpaths which go through the exact centre of the square, and a small patch of woodland filled with bluebells in late spring.

The survey has changed twice since I started: originally there was a list of 65 plants, and I would check for their abundance within three specific areas – a square plot in the exact centre of the square, a linear plot nearby, and I chose to survey an additional linear plot that was along a particularly interesting bit of hedgerow. The list was then extended to 99 plants, and instead of the ‘habitat plot’, a footpath was followed North-South through the whole square to simply see what was present. I had the option of being a ‘super surveyor’ and listing all the plants, but 99 seemed to be a good number to get to know. Given that for several of these years I had health issues, or was pregnant, or had a baby in a sling, simple was good!

This year the survey is changing again, as a transition to relaunching next year to create something far more in depth, giving hopefully robust data that can be used to monitor how our wildflowers are changing over time. The list has been expanded to 400 plants, and includes common native species, those that are specific or indicative to particular types of habitat, and some invasive species. Habitats plots are back, centre plots are out (I suspect many were difficult to access), and the path idea remains.

One plot I am surveying this year remains in almost exactly the same location as the previous ten years – my original centre linear plot, which runs between the footpath and a stone wall. It is now 25m long not 20m which makes sense, and I have moved it up 2m to avoid a patch by the gate that has been mown since the nearby derelict farm buildings were converted into houses, but these seem like minor tweaks. The field the other side of the footpath was originally surveyed (or rather, a 5x5m patch in the corner was) and I have seen it change from clover in the first few years to arable crops, this year barley. However apart from occasional pruning of the overhanging oak trees, the linear plot gets very little attention and as a result it has become a riot of colour in early summer. Besides grasses, the main plants are stickyweed, cow parley and hogweed with occasional nettles and brambles, but to fill in the gaps there are poppies, chamomiles, speedwell, plantains, vetches, and this year for the first time I spotted Geranium dissectum.

Moving onto the path, this being a transition year there is an increased list of plants to spot but no booklet yet to confirm the identities, nor a simple list to tick off what I could see. So I took a different approach and wrote down every plant I could identify. Given that M’s concentration span wouldn’t allow me to look up plants in situ, I then took photographs of anything I wasn’t sure about and spent the next few days going through them and identifying as many of the remainder as I could. Some of course are not on the list for monitoring, and some will need the second visit for additional identification information, (either because there are similar plants that I didn’t get enough details to distinguish between them, or because they weren’t in flower yet) but how much more I learned by doing it this way! I have added at least half a dozen plants to my knowledge which I now feel I could recognise again, plus I am just starting to explore a whole new world of grasses – quite important on my path since around half of it is through fields that are only occasionally grazed by cows.

The middle section of my path runs through the woodland – which has just been taken over by a new owner who has removed alien invaders like Himalayan Balsam and planted many new trees. However, not all of them have plant labels, and from those that do there are some very interesting and unexpected additions, including 37 different native species according to the notice on the entry style so my identification skills here will be developing as well! Unfortunately the intensive management renders the woodland fairly useless for monitoring purposes, but how fascinating to watch!

And the remaining path? This runs along the side of an access track and has fairly different plants to the other sections, although by no means everything that I know is to be found within my square. However one new exciting find for this year was an pyramid orchid, just a solitary flower seen along this section and not yet open. I hope for some more by next year. So my list for the path is up to 63 flowering species, plus grasses, plus probably some sub-species of yellow flowers that I have lumped together (various sow thistles or hieraciums for example, not in the official list) giving me a starting point for future comparisons.