Tales from the Hedgerow

It’s easy to take for granted the many plants and flowers that grow on the roadside verges and hedges that criss-cross our Island.
Many are very common but, nonetheless, they’re still a welcome sight, marking the advance of summer. Get close enough to the wispy white umbrella-like flowers of cow parsley and you are rewarded with a fragrance something like parsley and aniseed. Often mixed in among the cow parsley is red campion (although it is more pink in colour).

Something definitely red is the vivid scarlet of the poppy. Bright blooms above slender stems, in groups by the roadside, or in huge drifts in fields. The lilac form is also frequently seen. Ox-eye daisy is a common sight on our road verges. Also known as the moon daisy, it can seem to glow on summer evenings. Native to Britain, it is considered a ‘noxious weed’ across the Atlantic. The pink flowers of the valerian can also be seen bursting forth from pavement cracks and gaps in walls.

With plenty of well known wild flowers, the Island is also home to some that are much rarer.

No more than 20 yards from the Military Road, near Freshwater, is what is thought to be the only colony of oxtongue broomrape in southern England. A strange plant, its seeds can remain dormant in the soil for many years, until stimulated to germinate by living plant roots nearby. The seedling broomrape puts out a root-like growth, which attaches to the roots of another plant (in this case, a yellow daisy-like flower, called the hawkweed oxtongue). Broomrape lacks any chlorophyll, so is totally dependent on another plant for water and nutrients.

Even rarer is the wood calamint. I saw it for the first time in late February, in return for a day’s coppicing work in the adjacent woodland with a local conservation group. Unique to the Isle of Wight, it grows in only one small patch of lightly shaded verge at the edge of an Island woodland and nowhere else in Britain.

Discovered 175 years ago, in one of the Island’s dry-chalk valleys, it is fairly unassuming until late summer, when it sends up spikes of rather pretty lilac pink flowers (look out in October’s Beacon).

On the minibeast front, evidence of the brown-tailed moth can be seen on the hedgerows. As they emerge from their patch of cocoons, the voracious appetite of the hairy brown caterpillars is evident in the stripped areas of hawthorn. This is a bug to be avoided; the hairs severely irritate the skin.

Rather more welcome is the Glanville fritillary, a beautiful speckled butterfly found only of the Isle of Wight.
All of this within a few feet of our roads.

By Richard Knowles


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