The increased variety of flowers and grasses in our gardens and green spaces creates a beautiful rich tapestry of colours, as well as a valuable source of food for insects and butterflies. Often overlooked in favour of the bigger view, this year they are an ideal way to connect with nature’s pollinators.
Grassland feeding stations
In damp meadows and hedgerows, wild grasses are coming into flower. Often grown as early grazing and hay, they provide shelter and food for a wide range of butterflies, honeybees, amphibians, and reptiles. Among the grasses monitored by Nature’s Calendar* are meadow foxtail, timothy, yorkshire fog and cocksfoot.
Tall, tufted, meadow foxtail gets its name from the way is long flowers look like a fox’s tail. Surrounded by silky hairs, called antlers the flowers can grow up to 10cm long and one cm wide. Robust timothy also grows up to one meter tall and has a swollen root base that looks like an onion. It is a popular food source for white marbled butterflies but take care if you get hayfever. Its pollen rich flowers could be the cause, and their irritating allergens are being used to create a hayfever cure. Yorkshire fog looks soft and hairy with woolly purple to red flowers and is popular with rabbits as well as butterflies.
A grass that prefers a drier soil is the tenacious cocksfoot; whose name comes from the shape of its seed heads. Bumblebees build nests in its dense stems, honeybees feed on its triangular flowerheads, and both the gatekeeper and meadow brown caterpillars chomp their way though them.
Jostling in among the grasses and punctuating them with colour are a wide range of wildflowers. With tasty buds that can be pickled, and flowers that can be eaten in salads; the oxeye, or dog daisy is a familiar sight jostling among the grasses and is monitored by Nature’s Calendar volunteers. Opening with the sun, the name daisy, comes from ‘daeges eage’ the Old English for day’s eye, and water infused with daisy petals was used as a traditional cure for sore eyes.
Butterflies, bees, and hoverflies prefer different flower shapes that enable them to land and feed. Their hedgerow larder is well stocked with cow parsley which is a form of mosquito repellent; red campion where the fairies hide their honey, and buttercups whose vivid colourful shine is a clever advertisement that pollinators can see from far away.
If you’re on the lookout for wildlife though, don’t forget to check the nettle patch (making sure you don’t get stung)! They’re a favourite with hedgehogs, shrews, and frogs, as well as a food source for aphids and the ladybirds who eat them. They’re also popular with chaffinches, bullfinches, and sparrows; and if that wasn’t enough to look out for, they’ll be home and food to peacock, red admiral, comma, and small tortoiseshell caterpillars. Worth keeping a messy patch in the garden for?
Steeped in symbolism, the dog-rose represented love and beauty to the Egyptians and Romans, while the medieval church saw its five petal flowers as a symbol of the Virgin Mary’s five joys. It became the heraldic emblem of powerful families (York and Lancaster), the iconic Tudor Rose, and portraits of Elizabeth 1 sometimes include an eglantine (the queen’s rose) reinforcing her status as the Virgin Queen.
Like many wildflowers it has a range of names including briar-rose and dog-briar. But why should such a symbolic rose be linked to a dog? There are a couple of possibilities. In folklore it was believed you could use the roots as a cure if you were bitten by a rabid dog and an alternative is that the name comes from ‘dag’-rose after the plant’s dagger shaped thorns.
Archaeological sites show we’ve been using rose hips since 2,000 BC and with twenty times the vitamin C than orange juice, rose hip syrup was used to cure flue, colds, and scurvy. During WW2, the Ministry of Health and the County Herb Committees organised rose hip harvesting to make a vitamin C rich syrup. High in vitamin A, D and E, rose hips have been made into jams, syrups, and wines, used to cure urinary and kidney problems, and as an anti-inflammatory to treat joint pain.
It wouldn’t be May without hawthorn.
Even though it started flowering in April this year, it is still an enduring symbol of May Day. Like other trees with white spring flowers and red berries, hawthorn was believed to be protected by the fairies, and its white flowers symbolise hope.
You can find out more about what’s been seen this year on the Nature’s Calendar website.
By Jane Halliday
Feature Photo Yorkshire Fog John Bridges / WTML
*Nature’s Calendar is a citizen science project run by the Woodland Trust and the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology to study phenology (the impact of seasonal changes in plants and animals).
Whilst we encourage people to notice these seasonal changes, please do so safely Remember to follow government guidelines on social distancing.