Sunday, 26 April 2015

The Botany Of A Lane

Walking the dogs down our lane a few days back I was struck by the huge number of wild plants now growing on the banks. I decided it would be a good idea to record them and write them up.

Every year, an organisation called Plantlife runs a campaign here in the UK to teach councils, who have the guardianship of these significant and precious resources in their hands, the importance of our roadside verges to biodiversity, and encourage them not to mow all the banks to within an inch of their lives during May. 

Many species rely on this vegetation to complete their life cycles. Skipper butterflies are a good example. They lay their eggs in grasses, so cutting them back before the summer ends and the caterpillars have had a chance to appear, feed and grow sufficiently to survive the winter diapause (hibernation) is a disaster for them.

A great many of these plants are vital for pollinators. They also represent an enormous bank of free seed, have strong aesthetic value and their root structures help prevent erosion and consequently nitrate run off into water courses (a big problem as it leads to eutrophication and algal blooms which disrupt freshwater habitats and the organisms that live in them, not to mention the drinking water that we all rely on).

So, bank-side plants have an intrinsic value that goes way beyond adornment. They also represent a stock of British Wild Flowers that, like everything else in the natural world, currently faces the threat of population decline, and they can also let you in to a secret world of insects, reptiles, birds and molluscs: the wild life that goes on all around us that so many of us miss because we don't stop to look for it.

All these things are of tremendous value and on their own are good enough reasons to celebrate and protect wild verges, but there is one other thing that wild flowers growing in our banks and ditches can do: they can tell us the story of the past.
If you know how to speak the language of plants they can take you back through hundreds of years of history, right up to the last Ice Age, and show you what it was like before there were roads and houses. Through them, the echoes of a dim and distant past reverberate like whispers on the wind. It doesn't take much to adjust your ears to be able to hear it.

Our village dates from Saxon times, so the lane is potentially 1300 years old. There are tales of ghostly goings-on from several centuries ago told about it. I'm sensitive to these things and have to say I've never encountered a runaway carriage drawn by six black horses with a headless coachman steering them screaming along the lane at midnight on the last day of the year, or indeed the restless spirit of one of the men who signed Charles I's death warrant :o) They serve, though, to illustrate the point that the lane has been here in more or less its present condition for several centuries.

But the plants tell a much older story.....

Our lane is about a mile long. I started at the top and got about half way. I took pictures of every plant species I knew, with the exception of tree species established in the hedges (although that too can tell you a great deal about a place). There were several I didn't know and will have to return to ID when they have flowered, or grown up a bit more.

I photographed fifty different species in that half mile stretch. I am astonished!

Here they are....

Arum Maculatum- Lords and Ladies

Barren Strawberry





Butcher's Broom



Common Dog Violet

Ivy Leaved Speedwell

Field Speedwell

Common Mouseear

Common Nettle

Cow Parsley

Creeping Cinquefoil

Cuckoo Flower or Lady's Smock





English Bluebell


Goosegrass (south) or Cleavers (north)

Greater Stitchwort

Ground Elder

Ground Ivy


Harts Tongue

Hemlock Water Dropwort
Herb Robert


Jack in the Hedge or Garlic Mustard

Jack in the hedge

Wavy Bittercress

Lesser Celandine


Oak sapling


Red dead nettle

Rush spp

Sycamore sapling



Thyme-leaved Speedwell

Water forget me not

Large Bittercress

White Clover

White dead nettle

Yellow Archangel
What these plants tell me is that the lane is indeed an ancient place, and that, long before it became a hedge-lined trackway, it was deep inside a wood. 

For the purposes of modern Ecology, ancient woodland is that which is agreed to have been present since 1600. This is not an arbitrary date, it was chosen because that is the date mapping is considered to have become reliable and reasonably accurate.

So, ancient woods in the UK officially date from 1600, but the reality is that in most cases they are much, much older, perhaps even stretching back to the days of the Wildwood which covered much of the UK after the last Ice sheets retreated some10,000 years ago.

As well as looking on maps, ancient woodlands can be identified by the presence of particular flowering (vascular) plants, known as ancient woodland indicators. These vary according to regions.
Hamshire has a strong presence of ancient woodland, and I found enough ancient woodland indicator plants along the verge to tell me that our lane was once one: Yellow Rattle, Butchers Broom, Primroses, Bluebells, Large Bittercress, Hart's Tongue, to name but a few.

If this has whetted your appetite, there is an excellent article on ancient woodland indicators, along with a comprehensive list of the plants, written by the Godfather Of Botany, Francis Rose (whose ID book complete with keys is my wildflower bible). You can find the paper here  

So now you've got no excuse not to go out and study the flora in your local vicinity and work out what the area once was :o)

I'll leave you with some shots of a female Orange Tip who was Very Interested in a patch of Jack in the hedge growing along the lane while I was out noting all the plants. Jack in the hedge is the food plant for Orange Tip caterpillars. Lovely, isn't she?

Hope all are well and enjoying the weekend?
CT :o)





  1. Turns out that I am a better botanist than butterfly and moth identifier - and better than I am a birdwatcher too! I managed to get quite a few of these, although I had no idea about the different sorts of forget me nots!! A fascinating walk along the hedgerow with you. This does also confirm that our garden is trying really hard to revert to woodland!! It must be a really great place for you to live and to be able to identify so many things, glad you are having fun! xx

    1. It's your gardening genes :o) All open space in the UK that isn't built on would eventually turn into woodland. It's what ecologists call natural succession. Lovely to have you back :o) xx

  2. If you saw all these on one short walk of a stretch of lane then it truly gladdens the heart.

    1. It does indeed. Now just got to persuade the local council not to mow it all before summer ends!

  3. An excellent post CT and one that I'll refer to again in my struggle to identify plants. The Yellow Archangel is one that I acquired from my mother's garden, mentioned in my last post, and at the moment it's flowering it's heart out. So there's one you've helped me to identify straight away m'dear.
    It does indeed gladden the heart to see so much diversity in such a short stretch of lane, thank you for sharing your walk.

    1. I'm envious of your Archangel- I would like to get some to grow in the damper more wilder stretches of our garden. Looking forward to an update on your patch in due course :o)

  4. What a fascinating post. The days of the Wildwood sound dark and mysterious, I bet there were all sorts running round in the woods then. It's quite incredible how many different species there are in your ancient lane. We have lots of streams here, with waterside plants and tree cover. I couldn't identify a fraction of the plants, but I'm always happy to see lots of diversity. CJ xx

    1. I love the sound of the Wildwood too- all that mystery and magic. It must have been a very special place. The theory runs that all native UK wildlife has evolved out of it, so everything we have was once a woodland species. I love finding clues in the present that unlock the past, that hint that where we've come from is still very much present within all of us xx

  5. oh, the Wildwood...'tis the old magic, i think. ;)

    this was such a delight to read. i've set myself the task of learning the names of the plants and trees around our little patch and it's a pleasant surprise to myself when i recognize something i've seen in my field guide!

    glorious photos, as always...and such interesting things to learn. xo

    1. Old Magic, yes indeed. So pleased you liked the post, it announced itself as needing to be written Quite Forcefully a day or two ago :o)
      It is a Good Feeling to know what a plant is when you see it, and something you can pick up surprisingly quickly if you put the study time in.

      Hope you are OK xx

  6. Replies
    1. Thanks David. Had a superb butterfly today- pics on most recent post :o)

  7. I love how you love wildlife! From the moths and butterflies to the beautiful wildflowers coming up on their own. Thanks for all the wildflower photos with their names!! The white Bittercress is one the first to bloom in our yard.

    1. Thank you Juliet, very kind. Hope all's well with you :o)

  8. You have managed to find a huge amount of flowers on your walk, and impressed with all the proper names as well, It would have taken me hours to label them all even though I do know them, I store all information in my brain then throw the key away !! it's in there but not for coming out...frustrating...not that you needed to know that !
    Managed to see my first Orange tip of the year at the park to day, and I have the pack from Plant Life to do, which reminds me I must get on with it...
    Amanda xx

    1. Some info gets lost in my brain too (well, quite a lot does actually!). Glad you enjoyed the post and also pleased you've seen an OT. Once the Arctic Blast goes you'll hopefully get a lot more out your way xx

  9. I really enjoyed that post, it is really good to know the names of these fascinating plants, the mostly unsung heroes of our lanes and hedgerows. I must look out my old Observers guide to wild plants for my next walk.

    1. Thanks Shauna :o) Unsung heroes is a very apt description of these plants All all of them have insects relying on them as either nectar sources or food for larvae :o)

  10. A wonderful selection of wildflowers along your lane CT :) Lots of Orange Tips around here at the moment too.

    1. I was amazed at the diversity, and so pleased too. OTs are having a really good spring from what I've seen here x

  11. Hey CT,
    This is a truly fascinating post, my lovely. I am in awe of your plant knowledge too. I may well have a go at this myself. There is a walk I do with Olly and Honey that may be interesting to plot. Honestly you are full of lovely things here.
    Leanne xx

    1. Hey Leanne :o) Thank you. Yes, great idea to do this with Olly- that little sponge person of yours will lap it up. And you'll probably find you learn loads too. Collins do a good British Wild Flowers guide, fairly basic but good to get started with. xx

  12. I'm way behind again in reading posts! This was one post not have missed a wonderful one that I will be back to visit when I am looking for the name of a plant. We saw lots of Lady's smock over the weekend and wondered what it was! We persuaded our neighbour to taste some Jack in the Hedge, we have found a good supply so will take a few leaves to eat as it is so tasty. Sarah x

    1. Thank you Sarah, hopefully it will be useful as a reference as they're all fairly widespread and common plants. I must try some jack in the hedge, if I can find some growing away from a road! x

  13. Golly - I seem to have missed some of your posts so am just catching up. You stack them so full of wonderful knowledge about things I want to know more about - but sometimes I can't keep up. (These days my brain stops taking things in after only a short while!) You're my new reference library! I love the British Wildlife journal,I get it here. I go in the hedgerow and collect goosegrass (the geese love it) I wonder if that is how it got the name?

    1. Bless you for going through and catching up! That's such a good point about goosegrass, I bet it does have a connection, from the time flocks of geese were herded about villages in medieval times by children, perhaps? Plants are such great storers of folk lore :o)


Thank you for leaving a comment. I always enjoy reading them and will try my best to reply to every one. CT x