Wild about flowers
What to see in Suffolk’s fields and hedgerows
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
ABOVE: Mouse ear hawkweed
BELOW: Wild carrot