The title is a line from one of my favourite novels, Possession by AS Byatt. It is taken from a description of a wildflower meadow in full bloom at the height of summer, filled with ‘scabious, yellow snapdragons, bacon and egg plant, pale milkmaids, purple hearts-ease, scarlet pimpernel and white shepherd’s purse…’ and more.
The scene is set in Victorian England, but seems to hark back to a prelapsarian state, some perfect ideal England that only exists in the imagination…none of those flowers can ever really have bloomed all together in the same field, not even in pre-herbicide times, surely over-zealous farmers would have slashed them back and weeded them out?
They certainly didn’t always bloom like that in childhood memory – hedgerows in the 80’s were brutally slashed back, leaving bare jagged edges where they should have been properly laid (yes, I know that sounds like a double entendre) in the traditional fashion, and verges were overgrown with fertilizer-loving grasses and nettles, swamping the wildflowers, which prefer poor soil.
Sometimes, a wildflower did creep back in…and sometimes nature had a helping hand. My mother was so fed up with the lack of flowers in our local verges that one day she scattered chicory seeds on the edge of a field, and to our amusement, they flowered for years afterwards. It’s not recommended to introduce cultivated seeds of native plants into the wild, but in this case my mum couldn’t resist doing it – and the thought of those pastel-blue flowers continuing to bloom in a bare windy corner of an Essex field makes me smile even now.
This summer I was lucky enough to find a country lane with hedges and verges that AS Byatt would delight in. It was in the village where my parents-in-law live, where I had a rare chance to take a baby-free walk by myself and document what I saw.
A handful of photos are included here, but the list identified includes white dead-nettle, red dead-nettle, knapweed, poppy, ragwort, eggs-and-bacon (or birds-foot trefoil, to give it its proper name), red campion, white campion, scabious, yarrow, convolvulus, scarlet pimpernel, mallow, lords-and-ladies, and finally, dear old chicory.
I was thrilled to see so many native plants flourishing in 21st century fields and hedges. It shows you don’t need to sacrifice much space from agriculture to make room for wild flowers, the insects that they depend on for pollination and other wildlife – you just need a sympathetic farmer and a bit of carefully managed neglect, rather than willful ignorance and destruction of the beauty right under our noses.