Here’s a link to the house website:
seductive sky above the Dodman
Coming home from just about anywhere in Europe it’s easy to feel disappointed with our native flora. Orchids which are common in parts of France are here confined to one or two well guarded nature reserves. I went for a walk in Kent and saw endless banks of nettles, docks and brambles beside the lanes and paths. Here in Cornwall the flora is quite rich, but the sea and the skies and the rocks are huge and seductive, and many of the wild flowers tiny. And then when people go for walks they talk to each other. To a few of us that seems odd. They notice the big picture but not the detail. I wonder if Wordsworth would have noticed the daffodils if there hadn’t been a host of them? He strode out in search of the sublime, but John Clare saw what was under his nose:
I stoop again for violets in the hedge / Among the ivy and old withered leaves….
To see wild flowers you often need to stoop. When I walked from Cornwall to Scotland I was for many miles bent over, carrying my rucksack, eyes down on the side of the road or path, walking the long green ribbon. Sometimes I stopped and got Keble Martin out, that’s when I learnt some of the names.
In spring some flowers match the scale of the landscape: steep cliff banks are sheeted in white when the blackthorn blossom opens in March, and thrift (or sea pink) and kidney vetch make big bright patches of pink and yellow on rocks and cliff tops in April. Gorse is in flower all winter and spring. Greeted on a ship approaching the coast of England by the sight and scent of gorse, Linnaeus is said to have wept joyfully.
blackthorn in flower near Gorran Haven
you can’t ignore gorse
By July all that is long over. But beside the coast path, in various different habitats, tall and tangly bracken and bramble scrub; short, nibbled turf; neglected pasture; rocky outcrops; unstable cliffs; damp, shady, sheltered corners; windy headlands…. a surprising variety of plants is in flower, many of them inconspicuous. Here’s a list. All these plants grow between Vault beach and the Dodman beside or very near the coast path, some only in one or two places:
Agrimony, yellow vetchling, heath bedstraw, vetch, clovers red and white, scabious, egg and bacon, restharrow, a tiny chickweed, eyebright, flax, centaury, betony, spear thistle, creeping thistle, yarrow, fleabane, mullein, speedwell, tormentil, milkwort, self heal, herb robert, red campion, sheeps’ bit, thyme, burdock, bryony, foxglove, wild carrot, a tiny St John’s wort, plantain, wood sage, cat’s ear, smooth hawk’s beard, bindweed, lesser bindweed, knapweed, woody nightshade, hedge parsley.
st john’s wort
hedge parsley struggling with bracken
(How relaxing to use English names for a change. You can just say ‘mullein’ or ‘knapweed’ without acknowledging that you don’t know which one. There are several similar species within each genus. Abroad, unless you plan to learn Slovenian or Chinese, you have to attempt the rigour of Latin. There is a trick though: you sometimes see written ‘gentiana sp,’ meaning some kind of gentian, a species of gentian, the technical abbreviation giving a kind of respectability to your ignorance.)
Although some, like the foxglove, campion and herb robert, are long past their main flowering season and have just a few blooms, many of them are at their best in July and early August. They grow in poor soil, and in difficult conditions, some of them thriving only in the short turf of the narrow margins between the path and the wilderness of bracken and brambles or rough grass. It maybe just a few feet wide, but for many species this narrow flower bed is all they have left. They are the victims of both agricultural improvements and agricultural neglect, threatened by fertiliser and the plough, or gradually suffocated by bracken. Look away from the sea as you walk down to the Vault and you can see centaury, for example, on the high bank which usefully makes stooping unnecessary.
Bracken used to be contained because it was useful, for fuel, composting, thatching and bedding for animals. In some places, by laws forbade the cutting of bracken before late summer, to avoid weakening the plant. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was burnt for potash; the ashes were also used in the manufacture of glass and soap. And on heathland intensive grazing and the trampling that goes with it – by horses and ponies as well as sheep and cattle – would have limited its spread. Sheep also nibble at brambles and heather. Near the coast of Cornwall the short turf we see beside the path would have extended much further.
Poor, neglected margins, beside motorways and railway lines, on the edges of woods, in walls and waste ground, provide asylum for many plants. The poverty of the soil is important: many wild flowers cannot compete in richer soil with the vigour of nettles and docks and grasses.
I was thinking about a tiny scrap of history which appears in E.P Thompson’s book, The Making of the English Working Class. When enclosures were made it was usually the practice to exclude animals from roads or tracks beside the new hedges. Not only had the poor lost their rights on the commons, which were also being enclosed, but they couldn’t let a cow wander along the road grazing on the verges, and on the grass that grew in the roadway itself. Thompson quotes an anonymous letter from a Norfolk labourer to the ‘Gentlemen’ of his parish in 1816.
“You do as you like, you rob the poor of their Commons right, plough up the grass that God sends to grow, that a poor man may feed a Cow, Pig, Horse, or Ass; lay muck and stones on the road to prevent the grass growing”.
These scraps of land were crucial for the poor and dispossessed: margins for the marginals. And in the 70’s we made hay for the commune’s goats by the roadside near Laurieston in Galloway, from the grass which the council cut at just the right time, a free harvest. We turned it and raked it and brought it in, though the diesel for the old land rover pulling the trailer ruined our aspirations towards self sufficiency.
There are places on the coast path where the path and the people that walk on it threaten to destroy what they have created. Generous margins to the path are regularly cut by the National Trust and tiny flowers like eyebright, centaury and flax appear, but when the path is very muddy or crowded or people want to walk two abreast to converse more easily, a second, parallel path begins to appear, and the margin for plants is sub-divided and becomes narrower.
The gradual development of a second path near the Dodman. And bracken
So human activity, human feet primarily, are both an opportunity and a threat. They both create and destroy the habitat of certain increasingly rare plants. The balance between creation and destruction is very delicate.
In ‘The History of the Countryside’ Oliver Rackham describes a tiny, precarious, marginal habitat at the Lizard: ‘the tiny rush Juncus mutabilis grows in cart tracks…. this very special habitat depends on a vehicle using a centuries old track just once or twice a year..’
Similar very special places for unusually particular plants are described in ‘A Colour Guide to Rare Wild Flowers’ by John Fisher:
”Golf courses, where there is a dry climate, good drainage, short grass and sand with some calcium content, seem to be the favoured habitat (of the sand catchfly). Plants can often be viewed from outside Littlehampton golf course through the barbed wire perimeter fencing.”
”Like the least lettuce, the mouse tail prefers bare waste ground, especially those areas that have been well trodden by cattle and which, in consequence, have held water during the winter.”
There’s another margin, the narrow world at the edge of the sea, too low for plants, too high for seaweed or shellfish, where clean, raw rocks are beautifully exposed. A little lower you sometimes find another narrow strip of rocks where only barnacles live; they evidently tolerate just the occasional wetting. Lower still is the margin of wet blankets of weed, laid bare and slippery at low tide. And higher, another strip, the irregular ribbon of lichen splattered rocks, often a bright orangey-yellow lichen, making a lurid association with pink thrift. Then a little way up from the high tide mark are the salt tolerant, wind tolerant, rock loving seaside plants, thrift, samphire, kidney vetch and bladder campion: both the vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria) and the thrift (Armeria maritima) have very close relatives in the mountains, where life is also hard, but well adapted plants thrive on the absence of competition. The narrow sea’s edge has its counterpart on exposed mountain ridges where certain plants may grow only in a strip a few metres wide.
My bracken tour continued. It began in North Wales, where I beat it with my stick; then at Lamledra I uprooted it as best I could from the edges of the path; I moved on to Gower – (it’s not the Gower, apparently, I know you will want to get these things right, just as it’s not the Ukraine) – where it spreads royally across the commons and in the wooded valleys; and ended up in north west Scotland, where it shelters midges and swallows up abandoned summer grazings.
In between I pulled up the odd piece which comes up in my garden; it comes from next door, where it’s got established among the brambles, the half baked concrete, the bags and ashes.
I still hold it against Lawrence Hills that in his highly popular and influential book ‘Organic Gardening’ he claimed that if you cut bracken down a few times it gives up and dies. He said the same thing about nettles. It’s just not true. Like so many, Lawrence was overcome by the outstanding purity of his utopian dream. And it was bitter to realise that you’d been had. Lawrence Hills was a Father Christmas figure, I suppose. He was certainly an icon. He was even a treasure. So I was upset.
But then I found this on an enthusiast’s website (the Beechgrove Garden):
When the Rowes arrived at the garden some of it was completely covered with bracken, Carol had read in a book by Lawrence Hills that if you cut back bracken three times a year for three years that will get rid of it completely; it worked like a dream.
That word dream again. Maybe I just didn’t try hard enough. Again. Or it’s the magic of three times three.
The National Trust advertised rubbish clearing at Hemmick Bay, but they must have done a good job on earlier days because I couldn’t see any rubbish at Hemmick. They should have bracken pulling days. I pull up the bracken that’s sprung up since the last cut, (if you pull rather than cut you get a bit of the root, especially if it’s been raining,) and I drop it on the path, not on the banks, because there they can sit like a brown shroud on top of the living vegetation, and I trample on it. After a couple of days it’s withered and disintegrating, with all the people that walk along the coast, and I’ve noticed in previous years that when it’s wet, the bracken stems actually help to make the path less slippery. But between the Vault and the village, where I was pulling some long old ones out of the steep banks where it grew among brambles and wood sage and often leaned out across the path, I looked back and saw that a bloke who’d passed me was kicking it off the path, as if he thought I was some eccentric new form of minor hooligan. I should probably have had a bright pink vest- what do you call those things? some weird name from – heraldry, medieval warfare?? Oh yes, tabard. And if he didn’t know that bracken was a menace – why do so many people know about japanese knotweed and so few about bracken? – then he’d be all the more likely to see my behaviour in a bad light. And the white hair works both ways. People are less likely to be rude to you, but more likely to think that you’re bonkers.
I think of Clare again: Where last year’s weeds and leaves decay / March violets are in blow. / I’d rake the rubbish all away / And give them room to grow. The gardener’s instinct. We can’t leave things alone. And we can never sit still in our own gardens because something that needs to be done always catches the eye.
I like to get out early to attack the bracken, before too may people are about. Then you can also see small flowers wake up. Cat’s ear, flax, centaury, they all close up at night and open in the morning.
and cat’s ear
Veterans of Lamledra know that there used to be a fisherman’s path down to the sea on the Dodman. But all those slopes have long been impenetrable. However, the National Trust has recently begun cutting the undergrowth in places. There are two big patches which you can see from the house, most clearly in the late afternoon when the shadows highlight them. They seem to have some machine which flails and crushes; the bracken is damaged but not mown; in places you can see its tracks, like a single groove the thickness of a bicycle tyre. You can now make your way down to the sea. An old apple tree and a holly are revealed. Though there is still a thick tangle of crushed undergrowth I found one centaury. Where the slope gets rocky and steeper near the sea someone has secured a rope with which you can scramble down.
Scraps of marginal territory at the boundaries between sea and land are short lived and shifting. The storms of the winter of 2013 to 14, the ones which famously broke the railway line at Dawlish, brought about landslips on the unstable cliffs above Vault Beach, where loose rock and clay are only held together by the tangled roots of the undergrowth. A strange, temporary phenomenon results, normally seen only on high mountains and in deserts: raw, naked earth without plants. Mullein must have been growing close to one patch, because in 2014 many seedlings sprang up. Mullein is a biennial. In their first season they germinate and typically develop a strong root system with a rosette of leaves close to the ground, and then use that foundation to push up a tall inflorescence, or spike of flowers, with many, many seeds, the following year. Then they die. Some of the most striking and in gardens most neglected plants behave like this: foxgloves, honesty, evening primroses. They are great opportunists .Foxglove seeds in shady woods can wait in the soil for years until falling trees create patches of light and space and then appear as if by magic, as after the great storm of 1987. In another year the mullein seeds would have fallen into thickets of bramble and woodsage and bracken, fallen upon stony ground, (or really, not stony enough). But suddenly they had bare earth, a new territory to conquer, and they germinated thickly, probably scarcely noticed in their first year, but sending their flowers up six feet high this year. I think they’ve been lucky. A repeat of the storms which created their new habitat would have destroyed the seedlings before they could develop and flower.
By the beginning of August they had almost finished flowering, and soon all that’s left will be their brittle skeletons, gradually beaten down by wind and rain and salt spray and maybe further landslips. They will of course produce more seedlings, but gradually the more enduring, long lived plants will take over. This boundary between sea and land is marginal in time as well as space.
Close by, at the foot of another landslip is a beautiful clump of golden grass, flowering in August. I don’t know what its name is, it doesn’t look like a common grass . How long will it survive there? I looked it up but was defeated by Keble-Martin. One grass has ‘ligules short, lemmas as broad as long’; another has ‘finely pointed glumes’;
The Grudda – is that how you spell it? – it’s strange to use a word which I’ve never seen written. Year ago I found the little orchid Spiranthes spiralis in flower there, in August. Ladies’ tresses in English. I look for it each year but I’ve never seen it again. The individual flowers are arranged in a spiral around the stem. Common on the continent. Was the Grudda mown for hay? It’s still beautifully unimproved meadow ; it hasn’t been ploughed and resewn, it doesn’t get fertilised, except by the dung of a few sheep, it’s full of yarrow and cat’s ear etc. Sorry about etc., I need to pay the Grudda more attention, and get over the absence of Spiranthes spiralis.
Another biennial, at its best during the school holidays, is wild carrot. It’s a member of one of the most confusing families, the umbellifers, which include many herbs and foods as well as that notorious poison, hemlock. (carrot, coriander, parsley, celery, parsnip, fennel, lovage, angelica …) Some people think it’s cow parsley, but that flowers early, in many places it’s all over by the end of May. And wild carrot smells of carrot, unsurprisingly. And the flower heads are concave in bud, gradually flattening as they open and then turning convex.
Take a trip to the Lizard and the flora is very different. There the famous serpentine rock contributes to an unusual flora. Most striking this August, and completely absent from the area around Lamledra, were Geranium sanguineum, bloody cranesbill, so called not because of the colour of its flowers, which are purple-pink, but because of its autumn leaf colour; Scilla autumnalis, or autumn squill, a close relative of the bluebell; and Cytisus scoparius subsp. maritimus, a broom almost identical to the common broom in flower, but completely different in habit: it is prostrate. And there were harebells, heathers, and on the cliffs there sea aster.
People and plants both get driven to the edges. There was a period in the torment of the Jews when some were confined to no man’s land between the borders of Germany and Poland, driven out of one country and not allowed into the other. During the Highland clearances people were forced onto narrow strips of land by the sea. Gaza is actually called a strip. In North America the native people had to exchange the open spaces of the plains for small reservations.
I’m thinking again about a few lines in Virgil’s Georgics, in which he regrets that he doesn’t have the time or space to write more about gardens, but remembers:
how below the fortifications of Oebalia
where the dark river Galaesus waters yellow fields
I saw an old Corycian who had a few acres
of derelict land, too awkward for the plough,
the grazing too poor for sheep, no good for vines,
but he planted herbs in pockets among the thorns,
white lilies and verbenas and fragile poppies
and in his little kingdom he had the riches of the world.
These lines are themselves marginal. They’re like a footnote. Just as the old Corycian’s garden was
made in a neglected space between the city walls and the yellow fields, (and you can still see such gardens on the rocky slopes outside the old walls of hilltop towns like Orvieto,) so Virgil’s description of them is in parenthesis between his treatise on agriculture and beekeeping, the Georgics themselves, and his next, great project, the Aeneid, an account of the founding myths of the city of Rome and a tribute to the all conquering emperor Augustus.
The rest of the passage is this:
coming home late at night he laid out on the table the feast he'd grown himself.
He was the first to pick roses in spring and apples in autumn,
and when desolate winter still split freezing rocks
and stopped the flow of streams with ice
he was already picking soft hyacinth flowers
and grumbling about the weather: spring breezes late, would summer never come?
His hives were the first to fill with healthy swarms of bees,
he squeezed the comb and gathered foaming honey,
his lime trees and viburnums were luxuriant
and the fruitful promise of spring blossom
was always kept in autumn’s fruit.
And he planted out rows of well grown elms,
pear trees hardened off, plum trees already fruiting
and plane trees offering the drinkers shade.
(iamque ministrantem platanum potantibus ombras.)
So the first poet of gardens says nothing about the grounds of the emperor’s palatial villa, or the formal, watered court yards of the wealthy in Rome, but is arrested by his memory of a grumpy, competitive old man with a patch of wasteland he’s taken over, a loner and a magician, emphatically not a designer, who is happy to provide shade for the drinkers but won’t – I assume – actually sit down himself.
I was attracted to these lines when I came across them while working with homeless people in a gardening project at St John’s churchyard in Waterloo, another place on the margins. There drinkers sat in the shade of a big London plane, though there was nothing of Virgil’s music about that scene. But we planted verbenas, and poppies, and lilies. Though the bees really struggled.
And the tops of mountains, ridges and summits, not so much margins as knife edges. The flora on the very tops, a band that might be only a few metres wide, is very different from that below, even a few feet below.
Just remembered another feeling of Clare’s – his surprise that a plant familiar to him at home, should also be growing in a garden in another village nearby and be quite at home there. As if he expected shepherd’s purse, which is in fact found nearly everywhere, to struggle like an exile in an alien environment. So at home when at home, it has no right to be wandering. This is a very acute sense of place. And I’m reminded too of the definition in the Oxford dictionary of ‘garden-gate’: “also used dial. As a name for Herb Robert, the Pansy, and London Pride.” A name given to more than one species; the name synonymous with the place it occupies.
A bit like my surprise at seeing saxifrage and lavender growing together at 1450 metres on the Sommet de la Platte, in the south of France, making it a strange new kind of place to me. Actually, that was another margin, a border land where the Alps meet the Mediterranean, separate worlds mingling.