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Flowers of the open rides

Betony in a ride in Fineshade Wood

 More flowers of Rockingham Forest 

by Jeremy Purseglove

Here we describe some of the most striking and obvious species of flowers that can be found in the open rides, clearings, and woodland edge. There are three other flower pages, one with the rarest and most unusual flowers, and others with the most obvious species that occur on the forest floor and in grassland habitats.  

 

More happy flower hunting in the spaces between the trees!

 Flower etchings are by the artist, Robin Tanner (1904-1988) and are taken from ‘Woodland Plants’ by Heather and Robin Tanner, Impact Books, 1981.

 

Coloured botanical plates are taken from ‘Medical Botany’ by Stephenson and Churchill, 1834.

Unless otherwise indicated, photos are by Barrie Galpin.

Classic flowers of the open rides, clearings, and woodland edges

If you stroll down the open rides in Bedford Purlieus or Fineshade in high summer, you can hardly fail to miss the tall stately stands of Hemp Agrimony with their glorious rose-pink flowers, which have given them the local name of ‘Raspberries and Cream’. Above all they are a magnet for bees and butterflies. If you wish to see plenty of butterflies including the fritillaries in July and August, just look for the Hemp Agrimony and there they will be.

 

The plant was named for Eupator, King of Pontus, who used it as an antidote against poisoning while the specific name derives from the perceived resemblance of the leaves to cannabis or hemp. That is where the resemblance ends: you will never get high on it! It has, however, been used in traditional medicine as an anti-inflammatory agent and a laxative. 

Hemp Agrimony, Eupatorium cannabinum

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Its similar American cousin, Eupatorium maculatum was used against typhoid fever by Jo Pye, a Mohican wiseman (1740-1785). Under the name Jo Pye Weed, this is a late summer standby for English gardeners.

The sweet smell of midsummer. Bury your nose in its creamy flowers and what can you detect? Certainly, honey and possibly marzipan. Meadowsweet is abundant along the rides in Bedford Purlieus and throughout the damper places in our woods. Chaucer described its use to flavour mead, and it was strewn on the floors in the court of Elizabeth I, for as Gerard writes, ‘the smell thereof makes the heart merrie and joyful and delighteth the senses.’

 

In 1899 salicylic acid was obtained from Meadowsweet, whose old Latin name was Spiraea ulmaria. This was compounded with other ingredients including willow to make aspirin - hence its name: ‘a spiraea’

Meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria

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Gerard also called it ‘Queene of the Meadows’. It is the epitome of a perfect summer day. In his poem ‘Adlestrop’ (1915) Edward Thomas stops at a little Cotswold railway station and looks out of the window:

                   

….. What I saw

Was Adlestrop – only the name

And willows, willowherb and grass

And meadowsweet and haycocks dry,

No whit less still and lonely fair

Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

As you step into the forest, wherever the mud in the dimpled tracks is cool and soft, you will soon smell the toothpaste sweetness of the Water Mint, growing beneath your feet. For this reason, it is often the first plant I notice when I enter the Bedford Purlieus.

 

It can be used to make a herbal tea. The cultivated variety of Mentha aquatica, known as Eau de Cologne mint is used to make an oil known as bergamot, which is used in perfumery.  Water Mint is a member of a huge tribe of mints including Spear Mint, Pepper Mint and Apple Mint.

Water Mint, Mentha aquatica

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Another aromatic culinary herb found genuinely native and wild in the forest, especially along the sunnier open tracks is Marjoram. Pinch a leaf and you will recognize that familiar ‘oregano’ fragrance, though it is slightly milder than the strong pungency of its relative, Origanum majorana, the culinary marjoram, which is more often used in cooking.

 

However wild marjoram is excellent in a tomato salad and very easy to grow in a garden. In the forest tracks and glades, you will find it highly attractive to bees and butterflies.

Marjoram, Origanum vulgare

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Nature is always opportunistic and often seizes a foothold out of the wreckage we wreak on the landscape. An arcane but fascinating study is the ecology of vehicle tracks. On a large scale, scientists have studied the impact of army tank tracks on the flora and insect fauna of Salisbury Plain, finding that they can be surprisingly beneficial for local biodiversity.

 

The Yellow Pimpernel gives us an interesting window on the way the ruts left by the vehicles of the Forestry Commission in the rides in Bedford Purlieus can benefit certain species. The tiny creeping pimpernel likes it wet and likes it sunny, and being low- growing it cannot tolerate being shaded out by taller plants. At the bottom of a deep rut, they achieve both conditions at least for a short time and that is where you will find them.

Yellow Pimpernel, Lysimachia nemorum

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The Yellow Pimpernel is easily confused with its close cousin Creeping Jenny, Lysimachia nummularia. The two are often found together in the same damp places in our woods.

Bugle belongs to the same family as Sage and Marjoram, but it is very different from those sun loving aromatic herbs. It is a glossy creeping plant, which in the words of the Tudor botanist William Turner, ‘groweth in shadowy places and moyst groundes.’ The name Bugle may come from the dark lustrous glass beads often sown into Elizabethan costume, which echo the glistering dark blue of the leaves. The local Somerset name ‘Thunder and Lightning’ may relate to the mingling of colour and shine in the dark leaves and vivid blue flowers.

 

The blue Bugle flowers in May, the height of the nesting season, a perfect moment of spring captured by the Victorian poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Bugle, Ajuga reptans

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Question: What is Spring?

Growth in everything.

Flesh and, fleece, fur and feather,

Grass and green world all together.

Star-eyed strawberry-breasted

Throstle above her nested

Cluster of bugle blue eggs thin

Forms and warms the life within.

The shell pink vanilla scented flowers of Valerian arise on tall stems along the track sides in Bedford Purlieus and other woodlands in the forest.

 

The roots have strong sedative properties, and an extract from them is found in many proprietary herbal tranquillizers. Since it has been used since classical times to treat insomnia, tincture of valerian is often referred to as ‘nature’s valium’. However, they are chemically quite different, valium being a benzodiazepine.

Valerian, Valeriana dioica

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If you are flower hunting in midsummer down the sunnier rides of the forest or in the open grasslands, you can hardly miss the bright candy pink flowers of the Centaury, which is, in fact a rose-colored gentian. ‘Centaury’ and ‘Centaurium’ is from the fabulous centaur, half man half horse, of Greek mythology, and later familiar to children in the Chronicles of Narnia. This is because early Greek writers believed that the Centaur Chiron, skilled in medical herbs, cured himself of an arrow wound with this plant.

 

The French theologian, Albertus Magnus (1193-1280) was credited with the fantastic belief that ‘this herbe hath a marvelous virtue, for if it be joined with the blood of a female lapwing and put with oil in a lamp, all that compass it about shall believe themselves to be witches’! (‘Le Petit Albert’, 1619)

Centaury, Centaurium erythraea

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As our photographs show, Betony must be one of the most beautiful of all the forest flowers. In his poem ‘The sun used to shine’ (1916), Edward Thomas pinned down the essence of the plant’s character:

 

‘..a sentry of dark betonies

The stateliest of small flowers on earth,

At the forest verge’

 

The specific Latin name ‘officinalis’ is a sure indication that betony was a standard ingredient in the early doctors’ lists of remedies. Indeed, it was a classic heal-all from the time of the Emperor Augustus’ physician who wrote a treatise on it. However, Betony is a fraud, with no particular virtues for modern medicine at all. But it is always, a joy to find it in flower. 

Betony, Betonica officinalis

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The elegant spires of Common Spotted Orchid bloom in many of our woodland rides and clearings in June and July and they are also happy in open grassland and quarries. Like the Bee Orchid, common spotted orchids have the surprising habit of suddenly appearing as if out of nowhere in places where they have not been seen before.

 

This is because they are among the most successful of our orchids at reproduction and dispersal. The orchids are pollinated by many species of bee, which seek out the sugary liquid within the flower’s spur. As the fruits ripen, the capsules absorb moisture in damp weather and so remain firmly shut. Once the weather is hot and dry, the capsules split apart, releasing the seeds a few at a time.

Common Spotted Orchid, Dactylorhiza fuchsia

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The little yellow suns of St John’s Wort flowers brighten the open rides and clearings of the forest in late June at the time of the summer solstice. This was indeed the pre-eminent solstice flower and St John’s Day – the feast of St John the Baptist coincides conveniently with Midsummer’s Day, 24th June.

 

All over Europe, well into the nineteenth century, fires were lit on St John’s Eve to purify communities and crops. Like many Christian festivals this practice probably went back to far more distant pagan times. There were torchlight processions through the streets and bonfires on village greens, onto which were thrown magical ‘sun-herbs’ such as corn marigold and St John’s Wort. Gathered in the pre-dawn dews, these had extra power over elves, devils and all evils. The French phrase ‘avoir toutes les herbes de la St-Jean’ meant to be ready for anything.

St John’s Wort, Hypericum perforatum

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The large quantities of tiny seeds are like fine dust though each seed, looked at with a microscope, has a flattened wing shape, which helps it to stay airborne. On warm summer days the seeds are carried upwards by ascending columns of hot air, to very considerable heights, and then transported long distances in the upper atmosphere, before sinking slowly to earth again.

 

At Rawhaw Wood near Pipewell, Hugh Ross and Carolyn Church protect their Common Spotted Orchids with small cages, so the deer cannot eat them. As a result, they are building up sizeable self-sown colonies in their woodland rides.

There are fourteen rose species native to Britain of which a number occur in the Rockingham Forest. They are a complex group, sometimes inter-breeding and hard to differentiate from one another. The commonest is the Dog Rose, Rosa canina with pink flowers and no scent. Rosa arvensis, the Field Rose also known as Shepherds’ Roses, has white fragrant flowers often scrambling low into the thicket. Rosa rubiginosa, the Sweet Briar, which is Shakespeare’s Eglantine, is less abundant and prefers lime-rich soil. Its sticky leaves smell deliciously of chopped apples especially after rain.

 

Wild roses, Rosa canina, Rosa arvensis,
Rosa rubiginosa

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Scientists have known since the 1930s that rose hips contain a higher proportion of Vitamin C than any other common fruit or vegetable. A cup of the pulp contains more vitamin C than 40 fresh oranges. During World War II, when citrus was unavailable, the Ministry of Health initiated a scheme for voluntary collection, and rose hip syrup was routinely distributed to small children. I can remember being dosed with it at school in the early 1960s.

 

In earlier times doctors made regular use of Robin’s Pincushions, (pictured right) named for the woodland sprite Robin Goodfellow, to treat toothache and colic. This is a pink fuzz of plant tissue that often appears on the rose shoots when the gall wasp Diplolepis rosae lays its eggs on the leaf buds.

All the poets, including Shakespeare and John Clare have plenty to say about roses although they are often vague about the particular species and the interchangeable common names. In ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ John Keats can speak for our own Nightingale haunted forest:

‘White hawthorn and the pastoral eglantine,

Fast fading violets covered up in leaves

And mid-May’s eldest child,

The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,

The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.’

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Robin’s Pincushion  (caused by wasp Dipoloepis rosae).jpg

Photo: Amanda Vesty

This shrub is a glorious sight in Maytime when its fresh white flowers gleam along the woodland edges of Bedford Purlieus and then again in autumn when it is hung with glossy scarlet fruit. The flowers are said to smell of freshly cooked trout, but I’m not so sure. See what you think when you go for a springtime amble in the woods.  The berries look tempting but are said to be mildly toxic if eaten fresh.  Apparently some people use them like cranberries to make jams and syrups.

 

It is not a rose at all but called ‘Guelder Rose’ because the double- flowered form, also known in gardens as the snowball tree, was first cultivated by the Guelders on the frontier between Germany and Holland.

Guelder Rose, Viburnum opulus 

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There is nothing among the array of autumn fruits to beat the brilliance of the Spindle berries – a combination of positively vulgar orange and shocking pink. This is then followed by vivid autumn colour.

 

A common sight in Rockingham Forest in June is to see the spindle bushes festooned with the dense webs of the Spindle Ermine moth. These conceal many hundreds of tiny caterpillars, which may strip the plants bare. However later in the summer the spindle often recovers and bears small green flowers, which develop into brilliant autumn fruit. It is a rule of nature that if a predator exterminates its prey, it will in turn die of hunger, so the Spindle generally survives its early summer onslaught.

Spindle, Euonymus europaeus

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William Turner, ‘the Father of English Botany’ (1510-1568) stated that the Dutch used the hard straight young growth to make spindles, the weighted sticks used for hand spinning raw wool before the invention of the spinning wheel. Spindle wood  was also used for knitting needles, pegs and toothpicks although the latter use may have been risky since the plant is poisonous in all its parts, However, Spindle does still supply high-quality charcoal used by artists.

A member of the rose family and like the roses, a very complex and variable group. There are over 400 microspecies in Britain with flowers ranging from white to deep pink. The briars can vary from palest cream and green to deepest mulberry-purple and from totally thornless to the ferocious. They were sometimes known as ‘lawyers’ because of the trouble you have escaping if you happen to fall into their clutches.

 

In ‘Flora Britannica’ (1996), Richard Mabey quotes blackberry connoisseurs, who have rated different flavours to the different subspecies: R. dasyphyllus ‘pleasantly sweet’ and the large berries of R. gratus good ‘if you are particularly hungry.’  We are not the first people to go blackberrying. Scientists have found blackberry seeds beneath Trafalgar Square among the bones of early hippo and elephant and also in the stomach of a Neolithic human excavated at Walton-on-the-Naze, Essex.

Bramble, Rubus fruticosus

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There is however a negative side to the bramble’s presence in ancient woodlands including Rockingham Forest. Deer avoid nibbling their prickly shoots and, with the excessive numbers of fallow and muntjac in our woods, the bramble thickets are gaining a competitive advantage. This means that they shade out bluebells, primroses, orchids and all the other beautiful ground flora. 

 

But in the right place, the brambles are an asset as well as being the food plant of the Green Hair-streak butterfly. They are a special glory of the magnificent hedges at Ganders Farm near Cottingham and their loss elsewhere has often been a casualty of intensive farming and clearance – something recorded by John Clare (1793-1864) in our own region in his poem, ‘The Flitting’:

 

The stream it is a naked stream,

Where we on Sundays used to ramble.

The sky hangs o’er a broken dream.

The brambles dwindled to a bramble.

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Famous among poets and gardeners for its fragrance, the Honeysuckle can lure night-flying moths from a quarter of a mile away. Favourite pollinators are the hawkmoths and the Silver-Y moth and for them the flowers first open at night with white flowers visible in the dark and a very strong scent. The following day those flowers darken to a golden yellow and attract the bees with a subtly different scent.

 

Honeysuckle honey is very sweet, as you will find if you pick a flower and sip (or honey-suckle!) the nectar from the base. The strong flexible vines of the Honeysuckle were used as rope by Bronze Age people.

 

Honeysuckle, Lonicera periclymenum

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Dormice construct their nests from shredded Honeysuckle bark woven into a ball, and then surround it with layers of leaves. Dormice eat the berries, as do many birds. It is also the only host plant for Rockingham Forest's White Admiral butterflies, who lay their eggs on Honeysuckle leaves in July and August. So, this is a case where too much clearance and coppicing can have an adverse effect.

In Shakespeare’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ Titania, Queen of the Fairies addresses the donkey-eared Bottom the weaver, with whom she is infatuated:

 

‘Sleep thou, and I will wind thee in my arms..

So doth the woodbine, the sweet honeysuckle,

Gently entwist. The female ivy so

Enrings the barky fingers of the elm.’

Right on into the last weeks of the dying year, the glossy scarlet berries of both our Bryonies, Black and White, hang on, festooning the hedges and the woodland edges. Then with the worst weather they suddenly crumble away. The poet Ivor Gurney (1890-1937), exiled from his beloved Cotswold’s, captured that moment:

 

The high hills have a bitterness,

Now they are not known.

Up in the air there, beech tangles widely in the wind-

That I can imagine.

But the speed, the swiftness, walking into clarity,

Like last year’s bryony, are gone.

 

Bryony, Tamus communis and Bryonia dioica

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The poisonous Black Bryony is our only member of the yam family, a group of economically crucial plants that feed whole populations in the Tropics. White Bryony, Bryonia dioica, which is also a climber with poisonous red berries, is a member of the cucumber family and so our only wild gourd.

 

However, White Bryony had a more sinister role as the English Mandrake. The huge tubers were dug up in Elizabethan times, carved into the shape of a man and hung up to be sold in apothecaries’ shops for their magic powers. These were local substitutes for the Mediterranean Mandrake, a member of the nightshade family. This was a thing of nightmares, believed to scream when rooted up , and having a forked tuber suggesting human form.

 

‘Get with child a Mandrake root,’ wrote the Jacobean poet John Donne and Shakespeare’s Juliet proclaims her fear of being encased in the Capulet tomb:

 

‘What with loathsome smells

And shrieks like mandrakes torn from earth

That living mortals, hearing them, run mad.’

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