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|
|Common Dog Violet|
|Ivy Leaved Speedwell|
|Cuckoo Flower or Lady's Smock|
|Goosegrass (south) or Cleavers (north)|
|Hemlock Water Dropwort|
|Jack in the Hedge or Garlic Mustard|
|Jack in the hedge|
|Red dead nettle|
|Water forget me not|
|White dead nettle|
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?