Tuesday, 15 December 2020

Summer's lease hath all too short a date.


Summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

Lockdown has been a time for slowing down and taking note, so I have watched the passing of spring into summer of various plants, especially members of the carrot family, but with diversions.

First, the flowering of the pignut (Conopodium majus) from late April here to May: a modest plant that owes its name to the nut-like tubers in its root system. It seems that these make tasty morsels, though you would have to be determined to dig up enough to make a worthwhile meal: better leave them for the badgers.

As the flowers of the pignut fade away, its seeds set, clumps of aniseed scented sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata) amass along the roadsides and rivers. Originally this plant was native to the mountains of the Pyrenees and Central Europe. It is used to flavour akvavit.

In the meantime banks of ground elder, or gout weed (whichever name you prefer, but Aegopodium podagraria to science) come into flower. If you listened to gardeners you would think only ill of this plant and be surprised that it had not attracted a name such as Gardeners’ Bane (such is the tenacity and pervasiveness of its roots), but I am pleased to see it flowering and hosting its insect visitors. Ground elder was brought to this country by the Romans and can be eaten like spinach when it is young and before the plant has become too stringy.

Next to emerge in my list is cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvatica), over by the end of June, intruding itself modestly into the mix of wayside flowers. Then, just as you are getting used to their presence, a newcomer appears: the basal rosettes of hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) start to unfurl their great acanthus like leaves. Almost overnight the splendid inflorescences telescope out and make landing strips for insects. By now we are into July: the weather is warmer and on sunny days their buzz lulls one into the fantasy that summer will never end. 

Myriads of flies, hover flies, bees and wasps, not to speak of sinister ichneumon wasps gather to feed on the pollen and nectar. One of my favourites is the soldier beetle (Cantharis livida). These mini-beasts sit around on the hogweed in pairs, motionless, mating. They are orangey red - hence their name which must date back to the days when the British Army wore red coats. They are a valuable food for trout when they fall into the water, no doubt exhausted by their love making.

Below the tall hogweeds by the paths there are yellow flowered common bedstraw, yarrow, lady’s mantle, stitchworts and chickweeds - not to mention grasses, nettles, thistles and other vulgar ruderals. Elsewhere, draped over the wild raspberries are cleavers (Galium aparine), a member of the same family as the bedstraws (the Rubiaceae). Walking in an old wood not far from here earlier in the summer I saw an elegant plant with simple white flowers and delicate whorls of leaves. I didn’t recognise it at the time, but identified it later as sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum). A few days ago, walking next to the Burnieshead Burn, my eye lit on a bed of frothy vegetation with little white flowers and slender stems with whorls of leaves: another bedstraw, I thought. And so it was. This time it was marsh bedstraw (Galium palustre). Common enough in boggy places, except that there are fewer of these nowadays.
Then, as the hogweed achieves its full height, angelica (Angelica sylvestris) rises through the surrounding vegetation, another member of the carrot family that used to be eaten by people and which had diverse medicinal uses.

Now for August with its purple blooming heather on the moors, flaming willow herb, and wild raspberries in woods and clearings: is August to be a wicked month?


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