I always think English hedgerows are at their absolute best in May, with the colours of campion, bluebells, stitchwort, spurge and buttercups giving a much-needed splash of colour after a long dull winter, but now that first hit of technicolour brilliance is over, it’s time for the tasteful whites of June.
The cow parsley, which seems to have been extra frothy this year, has gone over a bit, to be replaced with the sturdier, less elegant hogweed, and in many of the hedges around us, it’s the turn of the Guelder Rose to shine.
As with so many common names, this one is misleading, as the Guelder Rose is not a rose at all but a Viburnum (Viburnum opulus), a shrub native to Britain and with a popular garden cultivar known as the Snowball Tree for its flashy white snowballs of flowers.
The native version is a bit more subtle, but still has very pretty discs of tiny white flowers surrounded by a ring of brighter, white flowers. These attract all sorts of pollinators, especially hover flies, and turn into very attractive bright red berries in the autumn. It also has fantastic autumn colour, going bright red, so it makes a good choice for a garden (although with a potential height & spread of up to 12ft, you’ll need a big space). It is a common addition to native hedging mixes, both for its flowers & berries and it’s ornamental value. The berries are loved by birds, especially bull finches and thrushes, and it does well in damp soils if necessary.
One of its common names, cramp-bark, hints at a medicinal use to treat cramps, and the ‘Guelder’ part of its title refers to the Dutch region of Guelderland, where the snowball tree variety originates.
In June it’s also worth looking out for all the rest of the cow-parsley-like umbellifers. The flat, white plates of flowers vary in size & height, but all are very attractive to wildlife and will be buzzing on a warm, still day. The dainty little pignut that flowers in meadows is often over by now, but the chunky thug hogweed is everywhere, and in the ditches and wet edges of fords etc you will see hemlock, famous for being the poison which did for Socrates.
These white flowers may not be as jaw-droppingly photogenic as the bluebells or as stately as the towers of fox-gloves, but their white shines out to the insects, many of which in turn support the millions of baby birds being raised in hedgerows at this time of year, and if you just take a minute to look more closely at a subtle-coloured hedge bank, you will find more than at first meets the eye.