Friday, October 28, 2005

remember june

When spring turns into summer at the beginning of June there is a change in the landscape that is a kind of silveriness. The main constituent of this is the grasses which all at once, as it seems to us, grow tall and throw up glistening grassheads; above all, the ubiquitous false oat-grass (Arrhenatherum elatius) with its pearly strings of spikelets.

Spring is the time of year when even people who have no special interest in wild flowers are compelled to notice them; snowdrops, crocusses, daffodils, primroses, cow parsley, bluebells, buttercups. Now the variety of flowers is greater, but as individuals they are not so starkly apparent. The silveriness of the lowlands creates a shimmer, a hazy, greyish mirror that denies the human eye the directness of its delight in the flowers and shoots of spring. Its real function is to cool the ground and protect the plants from hot sunshine by reflecting it back into the atmosphere.

Hairy tare (Vicia hirsuta) is a plant that no-one but an enthusiast notices, though it’s common as a mass of filigree on hedges and roadsides. It’s a small annual vetch; small in the sense that the leaflets and whitish flowers are small, but it can easily scramble to a meter or more through a hedge. The plan is to rise above the fast-growing summer growth and to flourish in full sun; no energy needs to be wasted on structural strength, since it merely floats on the massed herbage. Compound tendrils cling around other plants and, in particular, around themselves, so the plant pulls together and develops a kind of sprawling latticework, the natural equivalent of knitting.

I have no idea what kind of insects, if any, are enticed into visiting the small flowers – I have never seen any insects showing an interest, and I suspect all the flowers self-pollenate. Under a good lens the flowers are seen to be perfectly formed small pea-flowers, white finely streaked with violet. Their larger relatives are perfectly designed for bees, but what kind of bee would be small enough to manage these flowers I can’t imagine. The plant goes to seed quickly and bakes brown; every pod has two fruits, and all the nutrients for these pods can be produced from the shrivelling up of the rest of the plant.

Scramblers and climbers have highly evolved mobility. This is obvious in the tendrils and no less so in the leaflets, which open or close along a central axis and will bend in different directions to provide a precise control of light, wind-resistance and moisture-loss.

The plant’s common name presumably indicates that it was once a nuisance to farmers, though the biblical tare must have been something different (possibly darnel, Lolium temulentum).

The elderflowers appear in creamy saucers; they are harvested up in Gloucestershire. The harvest begins in the farm’s own orchards, but is permitted to spread out to the lanes nearby.

The common grasses of lanesides are false oat-grass (Arrhenatherum elatius), Yorkshire fog (Holcus lanatus) rough meadow-grass (Poa trivialis), perennial rye-grass (Lolium perenne), barren brome (Bromus sterilis). On chalk these are replaced by upright brome (Bromus erectus) with its first buttercup-yellow anthers showing, quaking-grass (Briza media) and crested hair-grass (Koeleria macrantha).

I went up to Cley Hill, a detached chalk capstone perched on the greensand ridge separating the young limestone of Wiltshire from the old limestone of Somerset. Elsewhere the greensand produces a forester’s soil, attracting the builders of large stately homes such as Longleat and Stourhead. But Cley Hill is pure chalk. I looked around for the bee orchids and found eight flower-stems, some with their first flower. At this time of year the hill also has numerous common spotted orchids, fragrant orchids, and twayblades; along with other chalkland flowers such as horseshoe vetch, milkwort, rockroses, wild thyme, sainfoin etc. All these flowers are currently rather small, and the overall effect remains a grey-green sward with brilliantly-coloured flecks.

Elsewhere the most noticeable drifts of colour come from the eerily tilted masses of moon daisies (aka ox-eye daisies), the horse-fields full of meadow buttercup and on waste ground the dazzling dandelion-like flowers of beaked hawksbeard.

When it rains in June the days are particularly grey, and all the abundant growth of flowers and grasses is knocked flat and looks as if it is seriously damaged. But new growth is so fast that it recovers in two days. When the sky clears it is suddenly really hot – sunburn, damp clothes, open windows, ice-cream.

(written June 2005)

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