I am very lucky to live in rural Pembrokeshire and even luckier to have a quiet country lane directly opposite the house. Known locally as Stony Lane it has steep banks on each side, in the Welsh style, stone overtopped by soil, and it meanders gently uphill for a mile or so and is ideal for dog walking!
From the top of the lane there are some lovely views of the Preseli mountains to the south and the rolling countryside of the Teifi valley to the north.
Wales is renowned for its wonderful show of wildflowers on the banks of lanes such as this; so over the last year I set about photographing and recording the appearance of the wildflowers, beginning in mid January with the snowdrops. Galanthus nivalis, to give it the correct Latin name, is abundant in Wales, surprisingly so as it is not a native plant at all, but was introduced by soldiers returning home from the Black Sea area at the end of the Crimean War in 1856! These nodding white flowers come from bulbs and spread easily by seed and bulbils. They enjoy cool temperatures, going dormant during summer, but will flower reliably in late winter even through heavy frost and snow. They are followed by our first true natives, the Primrose and the Cuckoo-Pint (also known as Lords-and-Ladies). Primula vulgaris loves banks, enjoying the free-draining soil and the shelter of the hedge, whilst Arum maculatum is usually found in woodlands or on roadsides with tree cover. The primrose is highly scented and has palest
lemon-yellow flowers and is easily distinguished from the Cowslip, Primula veris, which has nodding butter-yellow flowers on much taller stems and is much less common. Primula vulgaris readily hybridizes and so you can often find plants with pink or reddish-pink flowers, rather than yellow.
From April onwards our verges really begin to flower in profusion. Buttercups (Ranunculus) and Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) give masses of yellow flowers. There are dozens of species of Dandelion – it is one of our most successful weeds, but herbalists consider it a valuable herb that can be used as a food and medicine. Dandelion is a rich source of vitamins A, B complex, C and D, as well as minerals such as iron, potassium and zinc. Dandelion leaves are used to add flavour to salads, sandwiches and teas. The roots are used in some coffee substitutes, and the flowers are used to make wine. Traditionally, dandelion roots and leaves were used to treat liver problems. In traditional Chinese medicine, the dandelion was used to treat stomach problems, appendicitis, and breast problems, such as inflammation or lack of milk flow, whilst in Europe it was used in remedies for fever, boils, eye problems, diabetes and as a diuretic!
Greater and Lesser Stitchwort, with their beautiful white flowers, grow en masse on the banks from April through to June. Stellaria holostea (greater) and Stellaria graminea (lesser) are very easy to distinguish. The Greater Stitchwort has much larger flowers and the petals are only part-divided, whereas the Lesser Stitchwort has narrower petals divided full to the base of the petal. Butterflies, moths and hoverflies are attracted to the flowers, which got their common name by being infused and drunk to relieve a ‘side-stitch’.
Red Campion (Silene dioica) also appears at this time and adds a refreshing pink to the hedgerow. It is a biennial, sometimes perennial, which loves damp non-acid soils and will flower from late April to October, where the banks are not cut back! The leaves and stems are sticky. You may occasionally see a white form, but it doesn’t grow on Stony Lane, as I suspect the soil is not alkaline enough. As May arrives so do the bluebells. Hyacinthoides non-scripta is our native bluebell and is strongly scented. It was originally a woodland plant but has survived the clearance of ancient woodland and can even be seen on treeless islands such as Skomer! With the introduction of the Spanish Bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica) there has been a lot of cross-hybridiszation. The native bluebell is now under threat from the Spanish Bluebell because cross-pollination sees the attributes of the Spanish Bluebell dominate. It is fairly easy to tell the difference and these are the signs to look for.
If you have native bluebells then you should be able to answer yes to these questions:
1. Do the flowers have a strong sweet smell?
2. Are the flowers narrowly tubular with the petals strongly recurved (rolled back)?
3. Is the flower spike nodding at the tip?
4. Is the pollen creamy-white?
For all of these questions it is important to look at plants as they start flowering and at flowers which have just opened. Older flower spikes may droop, the pollen may be lost and the flowers could have lost their scent.
Wild strawberries (Fragaria vesca) and dog violets (Viola riviniana) are two more flowers of the early summer. The name ‘strawberry’ probably comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘streowberie’ and could derive from the runners with which the plant is strewn across the ground. The word ‘straw’ in Old English means ‘chaff’ – and refers to the small ‘achenes’ (the fruit) which cover the surface of the berry (what we think of as the strawberry fruit). The Wild Strawberry not only bears delicious fruit but also has been used medicinally. The fruit is beneficial for the treatment of fever, rheumatism and gout. The fruit can apparently be used cosmetically to lighten freckles, soothe sunburn and whiten teeth. The leaves are used as a tea substitute and are a good source of vitamin C and generally aid the digestive process. The common name ‘Dog’ violet referred to the lack of scent as opposed to the sweet violets!
Foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea) are probably one of the best-known and most easily recognised of our hedgerow plants. They are biennial or short-lived perennials and have been used medicinally for over a thousand years. The leaves, flowers and seeds are all poisonous but the chemical compound digitalis can be extracted from the leaves and is used as a medication for heart failure. Foxgloves will flower from June to September in their second year and many hybrids have been bred for garden use.
Another ‘escapee’ from gardens is seen in July. Orange Hawkweed, known by me as Fox-and-Cubs (Pilosella aurantiaca) was first introduced into English gardens in the 1620s and noted in the wild as an escapee in the 1790s. It has become naturalised in grassland, wasteland and alongside roads and railways and is now common in many counties in Wales.
The lane is normally cut in August, as the growth is whipping passing cars and tractors, but the hedges are now in full flower and the Meadowsweet is quick to recover. By the middle of the month the Dog Rose (Rosa canina), Honeysuckle and Meadowsweet are in full flower and the scent in the lane is gorgeous, as they are all strongly scented. 2012 was a very good year for the Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria), as they enjoy wet conditions and grow happily in boggy ground. It was still in flower in November, as was the Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum), until the farmers set about cutting the hedges!
By November it is a quiet time of year, as the lane settles into winter dormancy, but there are still flowers to be seen on the wild Ivy (Hedera helix), which will often flower right into winter and provide a valuable food source for birds when the flowers become berries.
I shall be on the lookout for the early signs of the New Year’s flowers, but do go out and enjoy your local walk, wherever it is in Wales.
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Words & Photos: Richard Cain, Penlan Perennials