Pat Richards, my mother-in-law, told me her grandfather, who lived in Abertillery, South Wales, loved dandelions and used to say that if people didnt think of them as weeds they would be cultivated. By showing you their beauty, and understanding how they feed other wildlife, this is just the change in thinking that I hope to achieve.
Yesterday I found a gem of an area for wild flowers. I was walking (I should have been jogging!) round the trim track at the Recreation Ground. Along the north-east edge – the long side that runs on from the skate park – is a bareish length of chalky ground. At first glance this area looks a bit of a mess and lacking in growth – especially compared to the lush green of the Rec’s grass. But this is just the sort of area where wild flowers have a chance to grow.
As I looked closer I spotted big clumps of Field Madder. I use ‘big’ advisedly, for this is a low-growing, creeping plant with tiny leaves and even tinier flowers. But once you have spotted the flowers, you see more and more.
Field madder used to be common in arable fields, but is now much less frequent because of arable intensification. This patch of what looks like wasteland, gives gems such as this beautiful small plant a place to thrive.
What has happened here is that seeds of wild flowers which have sat in the soil for years – in the ‘seed bank’ – have suddenly been given the right conditions to grow – a bit of disturbance, and space – they are not competing with the vigorous grass, or nettles or thistles. The plant species growing here are ones that love chalk, and so are similar to the special flora of the chalky Devil’s Dyke. We need to keep watching this area, as who knows what special species will appear.
I counted the number of different species in a small patch of this area and compared this with the number of species in the same size patch of lush green grass. The bareish patch won hands down. Soon it will be dazzling with all sorts of wild flowers in bloom, which in turn will provide a feast for butterflies, bees, hoverflies.. and our eyes.
To really appreciate how special this area, have a go yourself at counting the number of species in a small area of this edge, and contrast the total with the number in the same sized area of the adjacent grassland. If you have children, take huulahoops or a skipping rope, to mark out an area to count. You don’t need to be able to identify the species. The difference in leaf shapes will enable you to tell and so count different species.
Look out for similar bareish patches as you walk round the village. These are where wild plants get a chance to grow. In particular, I’d love to know if you see field madder elsewhere.
I wonder if you blew dandelion clocks as a child to tell the time? I remember loving the idea that by blowing I had the power to tell the time. Dandelions are in flower now all round Burwell. While I hear gardeners (my husband!) and people at the allotment (my husband again!) bemoaning their spread, I’ve been taking a closer look.
I’ve been discovering the wonder of dandelions’ structure; the joy of a watching a bee revel in their pollen, buzzing as if with the pleasure of a purring cat; while my neighbour has been picking their leaves for salad and to stir fry. Like small suns fallen to earth, these plants are made to make us smile.
‘Dandelion’ comes from the French ‘dent-de-lion’, a translation from mediaeval latin ‘dens leonis’ meaning ‘lion’s teeth. Some think this name comes from the jagged edges of the leaves. I think the name is more likely to come from the sharp tooth-like shape of the leaves (the bracts) that surround the flower, that point outwards as if daring anyone to come close.
Last year I went on a workshop to learn to identify dandelions. How many species of dandelion would you guess are in the UK? I was astonished to learn there are 235. One to remember for a pub quiz – virtual or once we get out of Lockdown! Encouraged to look closer, I discovered different shapes and colours to their leaves, that their bracts have many different shapes, lengths, and colours, and that their seeds are again different colours and shapes. ‘Dandelions’ are much more complicated than they appear! I also learned April is the main month they are in flower – so now is the time to enjoy them.
I love dandelion clocks – and not just to blow. They are superlatively formed structures, designed to maximise the spread of their seeds by the wind – or a child’s puff.
If you have a magnifying glass (one with a light is even better, my Mum uses one to help with reading) use it to have a close up look at a dandelion clock yourself. If you have a smart phone, you may be able to take a magnified photo of part of a dandelion clock. Or take close ups of several different plants for a ‘guess which plant this comes from’ section of your next virtual quiz.
Or just pick a clock, puff and let the seeds fly…
A different way of thinking
After reading this post, Pat Richards, my mother-in-law, told me her grandfather, who lived in Abertillery, South Wales, loved dandelions and used to say that if people didnt think of them as weeds they would be cultivated. By showing you their beauty, and understanding how they feed other wildlife, this is just the change in thinking that I hope to achieve. How about we allow a few to grow, where we can?