At this time of year, and quite rightly so, the queen of the countryside is the bluebell. There really is nothing quite like an English bluebell wood in full bloom – a wide carpet of bright, rich purple-blue blooms, especially when seen against fresh new green leaves and blue skies, is a sight to behold.
However, the woods, hedges and fields are absolutely bursting with colour at this time of year, so I’m going to take a look at some of the other flowers which don’t attract the crowds that bluebells do, but are still beautiful, and make up part of the whole kaleidoscope of an English spring.
First, and often reviled as a garden weed, is the humble dandelion. This instantly recognisable golden disc shines brightly in the fields and verges, lighting up whole areas before turning, seemingly overnight, into the puffy globes of dandelion clocks. The name comes from the french ‘dent de lion’, meaning ‘lion’s tooth’ which refers to its jagged edges, but another french name ‘piss-au-lit’ closely matches an English nick-name of ‘Pissy-beds’ – it was commonly believed that picking dandelions made you wet the bed! Whilst picking them is safe enough, the leaves do have a diuretic effect, and in fact were eaten medicinally for cleansing the kidneys for many years. The leaves can be eaten (best when young) in salads or in sandwiches, or the Swiss fry them, often with bacon lardons, and serve hot. (If you find them too bitter, try putting a saucer or something similar over the rosette of leaves for a few days to blanche them before picking.)
Another common wayside flower, also a bright golden yellow, is the shiny and cheerful lesser celandine (Ficaria verna). One of the first flowers of spring, it is so cheerful that although it can be a very annoying weed in the garden, it is easy to forgive as it gives colour when little else is showing. This is NOT a plant for forager, by the way – it is toxic to eat, and even contact with the crushed leaves can cause skin irritation. It is spread by producing little tubers which snap off, making it a difficult plant to weed out of a garden. In fact, where it has been introduced in the US it is considered an invasive species and measures are taken to eradicate it. Historically, these tubers were thought to resemble haemorrhoids, so it earned the name ‘pilewort’ and was used as a compress to eradicate piles, but I’m not sure how successfully!
Finally, a real showman of a wayside plant – honesty (Lunaria annua). This is a tall, bright purple, showy beauty, and where the sun shines on it, it is quite lovely in the hedges and verges. I was describing it to a friend the other day, and it took ages for the penny to drop that it’s actually the same plant that you can see in late summer covered in large white, papery, see-through seed pods. These have earned it the name ‘Moonpennies’, and are prized by dried flower arrangers. It is not strictly a British native, hailing from south-east Europe, but like the Turkish snowdrop, it’s been here long enough to be as-good-as. These last ages as cut flowers, and can be bought in seed packets at the garden centre, and if you find a white version, lucky you!
There are so many wildflowers around now, with the stitchwort, primroses, cuckoo-flowers etc, that each hedgerow is a bit of a work of art, so if you haven’t wandered along a lane recently, do go and see what you can find. There are loads of good guide books, or the Wildlife Trust or Plantlife websites have lots of information sheets, spotters guides and backgound information for free. Lots of organisations run guided walks (see East Devon Council, Dorset Wildlife Trust etc for details)If you get really into it, you can even join their survey teams. Whatever your interest, just get out and get looking – the more slowly you look, the more you find!