‘… and even now […] the summer mead shines as bright and fresh as when my foot first touched the grass. It has another meaning now; the sunshine and the flowers speak differently, for a heart that has once known sorrow reads behind the page, and sees sadness in joy. But the freshness is still there, the dew washes the colours before dawn. Unconscious happiness in finding wild flowers – unconscious and unquestioning, and therefore unbounded.’
Richard Jeffries, ‘Wild Flowers’ in The Open Air (1885) p.36
8/7/2017 I have a new-found appreciation for thistles: they flowered just in time to teach me a lesson. The day before Steve was due to arrive with his strimmer, I saw that the thistles, towering above my head and taller than I remember them in previous years, were covered in more bumblebees and butterflies than I have seen gathered together anywhere this year. The thistles were crowding over the path, so I would have to have them cut back a little for the welfare of paying guests, but otherwise, I decided, wherever they were not causing trouble, they were staying.
I found another large patch in the wildflower meadow, which I do not have cut until September. July is a legitimate time to cut it, but I could not bear to miss out on all the summer flowers. Until a few days ago, I thought of my wildflower meadow as a ‘wildflower meadow-in-progress’. On examining it this time, I realised I had been missing what was in front of my eyes. Of course it was a wildflower meadow already. I knew there were buttercups, daisies and cowslips in abundance, pyramidal orchids, ox-eye daisies, and yellow rattle spreading rapidly, to name just a few. This time, however, I saw that only small areas were dominated by grasses – which I love in their own right – and the rest of the meadow was divided into distinct patches of different species, interspersed by others, most of which I didn’t know by name, and several of which I hadn’t seen here before.
I happened upon Richard Jeffries’ essay ‘Wild flowers’ at a timely moment. I have started to notice that my customary heart-sink at the departing of spring is largely unjustified. Yes, some flowers and blossoms are over, and the special, fresh greens of spring have changed into deep summer greens; but so many flowers are just now starting to come out on the road verges and wild patches of ground to be found between fields and hedges, as well as in my garden. Clover has not long been in flower, and it was with reluctance and a heavy conscience that I mowed the front lawn on the last day of June for the sake of tidiness before the arrival of guests: since I had last cut it hardly more than a week earlier, a carpet of little white and purple flowers had sprung up – mostly clover and selfheal – and was being visited by many bumblebees and hoverflies. There is hardly any grass at all in that patch of green in front of my house – perhaps the word ‘lawn’ is a misnomer.
My joy in these flowers is now greater than ever before. I recognised my own reactions in Jeffries’ account of finding wildflowers:
‘The first conscious thought about wild flowers was to find out their names – the first conscious pleasure, – and then I began to see so many that I had not previously noticed. Once you wish to identify them there is nothing escapes, down to the little white chickweed of the path and the moss of the wall’. (p.38)
Since that eye-opening walk through my wildflower meadow, I have been desperate to bury myself amongst the tall plants with an identification guide, out of sight and unreachable, finding the name of every last flower and plant living there, observing close up the lives of minute insects, and forgetting about the rest of the world. I’m sure this is partly an indication of the need to switch off and take a holiday, but it is also rebellion against recent stresses that have taken up too much of my time and emotional energy, not least due to my futile resentment of their forcing my attention away from these more important things.
Having started my flower naming journey, I have managed to identify one arrival last year as agrimony, two new arrivals – perforate St John’s wort and black medick – as well as many familiar plants: herb robert, rosebay willowherb, knapweed, selfheal, field woundwort, hedge woundwort, hogweed and dog’s mercury. There are many more still to identify, and I am waiting very impatiently for one particular plant to flower so that I might have a chance of finding out what it is. Although its leaves and shape are distinctive, I cannot even work out which family it belongs to, and I have not yet noticed the plant elsewhere, which would be my usual solution to impatience: I often find plants in flower earlier in the fields and verges than in my garden.
An additional aspect of my joy in the wildflower meadow is that species commonly regarded as garden or agricultural weeds, and that sometimes have ‘weed’ in their name, can find a home and once again be appreciated as wildflowers. I take pleasure in welcoming them where others may not.
One of my most coveted wildflowers is tufted vetch, which I have seen just across the road from my garden, not five metres away from the wildflower meadow. I hope it will make the jump over the hedge, and perhaps I will try to give it a little help. Another is field scabious, a flower whose name my father always used to test us on during summer bike rides – I assume because it was one of his favourites. It is also mine. If it eventually arrives, I shall take a bottle of sparkling rose wine (our favourite summer holiday drink to share) with two Kersey pottery goblets down to Hitcham churchyard, propose a toast and try not to cry.
14/8/2017 At a friend’s (correct!) request, I have now taken photos of as many of the wildflower species mentioned above as possible (many but not all in my garden). I had to wait several long weeks for the mystery plant to flower, when I was finally able to identify it as hoary ragwort. Although it is poisonous to livestock, they avoid the live plants. The main danger is if it is cut and mixed in with hay. So, as I think it a rather elegant and beautiful plant, unjustly maligned even where it poses no threat, I am keeping them until just before the meadow is cut, when I will pull them out to avoid any risk of the goats consuming them by accident.
By the time the hoary ragwort flower was finally available for photographing, the thistles had already turned to seed. They looked just as wonderful in their fluffy state…
(Click on any photo to begin slideshow).
Header photo: Selfheal