Having recently moved back to live in my home town full time, I find myself with more time to ramble over the local countryside, exploring and generally nosing around in the field.
I spent many hours combing the fields, woods and verges of the North Downs near home last Summer, discovering the botanical riches on my doorstep. So I wondered what I might find around now in early Spring. I’d not given the area much attention this early in the year, plant-wise.
I drove up onto Epsom Downs, along the road where the bastard toadflax and sainfoin grows. I’ve found all sorts of nice plants up there, but hadn’t initially planned to stop there to have a wander around today. Glimpses of things sprouting from the turf were catching my eye, so I parked up on the golf course to have an amble around.
There were very few golfers around, perhaps on account of the tremendous wind. As soon as I stepped out of my car my hair was billowing in all directions. Goodness knows what I looked like creeping along the verge, crouching to peer at tiny leaves.
The most abundant flowers were red dead nettle, filling the roadsides and roundabouts with splashes of burgundy. By now, white dead nettle was springing up in places too. These plants are key nectar sources for early insects, particularly bumblebees. Less conspicuous were the various little annuals along the verge. Shepherd’s purse, hairy bittercress and common field speedwell dotted the turf. The easily overlooked but underratedly beautiful early scurvy grass formed many little carpets. It’s not an uncommon plant, but I love finding things like this because it’s one of those species that has found a niche away from its traditional haunts due to human activity.
In its original setting, it’s a coastal plant. To be more specific, it’s a salt loving one – a halophyte ie; it grows in salty environments. Over time it has spread further inland, with the advent of winter road gritting, hence its appearance along roadside verges. It’s certain that the roads up to the downs receive a lot of gritting in winter, as they can be icy and receive a fair bit more snow than the lower lying roads in the area. Its profusion and expansion along roadside verges is aided further by the action of passing cars on the seeds. Cars whizzing past at speed disperse the tiny seeds in the wind they create. So it’s not surprising I found so much of the stuff.
It’s a beautiful, delicate little plant, but it’s also been a very useful one in human history. It is high in vitamin C, so was commonly chewed by sailors who harvested it in readiness for long periods at sea. Foodstuffs with any nutritional value were sparse onboard ship, so scurvy was a common malady in seamen. I plucked a small plant from the verge, to sniff it. It has a sharp earthy but peppery scent typical of crucifers like this one. I don’t expect many people pick it for consumption now, since scurvy is so incredibly rare even in people with very poor diets.
After my fill of crouching along the roadside eyeballing tiny flowers, I picked my way back to the car and headed off in an aimless sort of direction, simply enjoying the winding lanes around Kingswood and Walton on the Hill.
I did eventually stop at Shabden Park, wondering if I might find the beginnings of moschatel in a small patch of woodland near the golf course. Following my nose up the hill I found countless roman snail shells, the skull of a badger, and a well worn animal run scraped away under the stock fencing.
Early dog violets were a pleasant sight as I entered the woods, and the ground in some spots was cloaked in swathes of dog’s mercury. That stuff can become quite dominant in some woods.
The leaves of assorted plants were creeping over the ground, ready to paint the ground in spots of colour before the canopy closes over later in the year. This little plant in the photo below is ivy-leaved speedwell (yet to flower), I believe.
The delicate little flower moschatel is at its best around mid April from what I understand, but I was curious to see if I could at least find the rosettes so I would know where to come back to look later on. Alas, I found none. More searching is needed, another day. Apparently the dense carpets of it are quite conspicuous when it’s at its peak, even if the flower itself is very short in stature.
The following day, curiosity was pointing me in the direction of Mickleham Downs. Local botanists had found wild candytuft in flower in the area, so I gleaned instructions on where to look. Apparently it grews at a few locations in the Mickleham area and nowehere else in Surrey, so it was another rare gem I was very keen to see. I was also intrigued by its flowering so very early in the year, since I had only read of it being a Summer flowering plant. What had brought this about? Is this a habitual occurrence when there has been a mild Winter?
I had no idea whether I’d actually find the plants in question, since I didn’t even know if I was in the right place, but the views across the valley below were beautiful, and I didn’t encounter another soul up there, so I enjoyed the walk. There was just myself and the occasional ‘sneezing’ of marsh tits.
When I did spot the wild candytuft, I was pleasantly surprised at how conspicuous it was. It was right along the path edge, the tiny petals glowing crisp white against the muddy chalk. Its location seemed quite true to descriptions I’d read about it favouring disrturbed chalk scree. Numerous other plants of wild candytuft dotted the pathside, so it will be worth going back in Summer to see their progress.
I was also very pleased to find several large specimens of stinking hellebore. This is a late winter flowering plantg which is hard to miss. Tall and bright green, it can certainly stand out amid the grey greens of winter and early Spring. I guess it’s difficult to tell whether these particular plants have a natural origin or that of garden escapees. It’s a native plant but widely cultivated, so who knows?
So, there are lots of plants to check back on and sites to revisit in the coming weeks.