Wild about flow­ers

What to see in Suf­folk’s fields and hedgerows

EADT Suffolk - - INSIDE - Stephen Massey is lead­ing a Wet­land In­sects walk at RSPB Minsmere on Au­gust 11 and a Coastal In­sects one on Au­gust 25. For more in­for­ma­tion go to www.rspb.org.uk/re­serves-an­de­vents/re­serves-a-z/minsmere or call 01728 648281. He will also be lead­ing a seri

Think of a ques­tion about wild­flow­ers and Stephen Massey is al­most cer­tain to know the an­swer. Ex­cept one ques­tion in par­tic­u­lar, as I dis­cov­ered when I joined one of his wild­flower walks at RSPB Minsmere.

Stephen’s love of wild­flow­ers be­gan when he was grow­ing up in Southend in the 1970s, play­ing on aban­doned brick­works that were home to grass snakes and lizards. “It was the brick­works that re­ally got me started on wild­flow­ers,” he says. “I can re­mem­ber find­ing a Com­mon Spot­ted Orchid there – most peo­ple start with or­chids be­cause they’re so ex­otic look­ing. Then we had a hol­i­day in north Devon where I saw more or­chids, in­clud­ing Marsh Helle­borine, which got me com­pletely hooked.” More than 40 years later Stephen has built up an en­cy­clopaedic knowl­edge about our na­tive flora. He’s stud­ied con­ser­va­tion at Ot­ley Col­lege, but al­most ev­ery­thing he knows

about plants and flow­ers is self-taught, through long hours spent in the field and por­ing over books. He even ‘dis­cov­ered’ a new plant for Minsmere, iden­ti­fy­ing Sea Storks­bill, more usu­ally as­so­ci­ated with the coasts of south­ern Eng­land, for the first time.

His en­thu­si­asm is in­fec­tious. There are some who think of our del­i­cate wild­flow­ers as noth­ing but weeds that have no place among the blousy blooms of their herba­ceous borders. But five min­utes with Stephen would al­most cer­tainly change that, espe­cially if you hap­pen to catch him gaz­ing in won­der at the be­jew­elled pe­tals of a way­side ‘weed’ through the x10 mag­ni­fi­ca­tion of a hand lens. What makes these plants so end­lessly fas­ci­nat­ing for Stephen is not just their sim­ple, sparse beauty, but the fact they are a vi­tal part of our ecol­ogy, their fate in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked to that of our na­tive in­sects, birds and the en­tire nat­u­ral world. So, I won­der, what’s his favourite wild­flower? And that, it turns out, is the killer ques­tion. “I espe­cially love chalk and lime­stone flow­ers, but I’ll have to think about that one,” he says. “I’m not sure I could nar­row it down to one.”

The de­fin­i­tive an­swer never comes. But, as we meet up with our fel­low walk­ers, I soon un­der­stand why. Al­most ev­ery flower we see as we leave the vis­i­tor cen­tre and head up the path be­side the car park to the mead­ows be­yond is one of Stephen’s ‘favourites’. And who can blame him?

I am also fas­ci­nated by our na­tive flow­ers and while I can iden­tify many of the more com­mon meadow species – Ox­eye Daisy, Red Cam­pion, vetches and clovers among them – I wish I knew more. I’ve lost count of the num­ber of times I’ve been walk­ing in the coun­try­side and no­ticed a swathe of stun­ning wild­flow­ers, yet have no idea what they are. Some­times I take a pic­ture of them, in the hope of iden­ti­fy­ing them at a later date. Other times I just won­der at their un­con­scious beauty.

But after my morn­ing on Stephen’s grass­land flow­ers of Minsmere walk my knowl­edge has, well, blos­somed. I now know the banks of bright vi­o­let-blue flow­ers I ad­mire in spring are Ger­man­der Speed­well and can read­ily iden­tify other grass­land flow­ers, such as Lesser Tre­foil, Ground Ivy and the stately Com­mon Hound­stongue, which along with Bit­ing Stonecrop, should be a wel­come ad­di­tion to any gar­den.

Stephen’s ad­vice to any­one want­ing to learn more about wild­flow­ers is to get a good, ba­sic field guide that lists the more com­mon plants you’re likely to see, and a hand lens with x10 mag­ni­fi­ca­tion that will al­low you study the flow­ers and fo­liage more closely to aid iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. I and my fel­low walk­ers are each loaned a hand lens by Stephen for the morn­ing and we’re all

soon gasp­ing in amaze­ment at the de­tail re­vealed, in­vis­i­ble to the naked eye, on many of the flow­ers.

The pe­tals of Com­mon Storks­bill be­come daz­zling when seen through a lens while mag­ni­fy­ing the tiny flow­ers of Chang­ing For­get-me-not makes clear the rea­son for its name – they start life pale yel­low or cream be­fore be­com­ing pink, vi­o­let or blue. As we study Com­mon Storks­bill we’re treated to a wildlife bonus – a Brown Ar­gus but­ter­fly lands nearby. Both storks­bill and Doves­foot Cranes­bill are food plants of its cater­pil­lar).

Then there’s Sheep’s Sor­rel, a food plant for cater­pil­lars of the Small Cop­per but­ter­fly, and a stun­ning, ten­der-stemmed plant that pro­lif­er­ates on the heaths at Minsmere. A sin­gle flower stem is so del­i­cate it takes on an al­most translu­cent qual­ity when sur­rounded by grass. But where it grows in abun­dance the ef­fect is breath­tak­ing, seem­ingly turn­ing en­tire mead­ows red. Its sharp, lemony leaves are also good to eat. Sheep’s Sor­rel isn’t the only ed­i­ble plant that Stephen en­cour­ages us to nib­ble as we walk. Bit­ing stonecrop has a pep­pery flavour but Sweet Ver­nal Grass is a rev­e­la­tion. Chew­ing on a fleshy stem pro­duces a strong taste of cin­na­mon.

This is one of a se­ries of wild­flower walks Stephen leads at Minsmere each sum­mer. Oth­ers fo­cus on coastal flow­ers and wet­land blooms. But, like his father be­fore him, he’s an all-round am­a­teur nat­u­ral­ist, and also leads walks on Minsmere’s in­sect life, two of which are due to take place in Au­gust.

We get a lit­tle pre­view of those on our grass­land walk, where, as well as the but­ter­flies, Stephen shows us Cinnabar moth, whose cater­pil­lars feed on Com­mon Rag­wort, ruby-tailed wasps, car­di­nal and sol­dier bee­tles. He even man­ages to up the stakes by find­ing a young grass snake. But to­day, wild­flow­ers are the stars and Suf­folk is a good place to find them, says Stephen, though like ev­ery­where else, not as good as it used to be.

“I can no­tice that even in the time I’ve been liv­ing in Suf­folk there are ar­eas that used to have birds, in­sects and plants that are just not there any more, of­ten be­cause of farm­ing prac­tices,” he says. “We all need to cher­ish our wild­flow­ers more.”

ABOVE: Stephen Massey ex­am­ies a field for­get-menot

Ger­man­der speed­well

ABOVE: Mouse ear hawk­weed

BE­LOW: Wild car­rot

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