June is a wonderful month for wild flowers; we see them in fields and meadows, along roadsides, railway embankments and any piece of uncultivated land. Of course, when they grow on cultivated land, in our gardens or in any place where we don’t want them, we lump them together under the name of ‘weeds’. But weeds are also flowers that do all the things our garden plants do and provide food and habitats for wildlife. Many people now leave a corner of the garden for wild plants to grow, which encourages all sorts of animals. Nettles, for instance, provide food for Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell caterpillars and Shepherds Purse, the small low-growing plant, that forms heart-shaped seed pods, is liked by aphids. These attract ladybirds, which will also eat the ones on our garden plants, so are good to have around, and small birds gather the aphids to feed their young. Dandelions and Red Dead Nettle provide early nectar for bees, hoverflies and many other insects, and the umbels, such as Alexander, Cow Parsley and Hogweed, are very attractive to Ichneumon wasps which also predate on aphids.
One of the most beautiful wild flowers that we will see this month is the Dog Rose; the rose is your birth flower if you were born in June. This scrambling shrub has long arching stems, with curved thorns, that help it cling to other hedgerow plants. The delicate pink flowers, which often fade to white in the summer sun, will produce bright red fruit, called hips, in the autumn. They are relished by many birds in the winter, when there is a shortage of other natural food, and voles and wood mice also eat them. These hips are very high in vitamin ‘C’ and were traditionally used to make syrup, especially when there were food scarcities during wartime. Children used to find an irritating use for them; they extracted the hairs from inside the fruit to make itching powder. (Don’t tell yours about that!)
Theories about the name of this rose include one that ‘dog’ means worthless, presumably in comparison to the cultivated plants, and the fact that the ancient Greeks used it to treat bites from rabid dogs but, of course, it could be that the name came first and they made the association. Roses are ancient plants and fossil remains have been found that date back as far as 35 million years. There are many myths attached to them, both romantic and not so romantic. Roses on St. Valentine’s Day, of course, are traditional and Cleopatra is said to have strewn her palace floors with the petals. A cross made from rose thorns will keep vampires away (well, it does at our house, anyway) and Napoleon supplied his soldiers with rose petals, which they boiled in wine, to cure the lead poisoning they acquired from bullet wounds. It probably didn’t work but I bet they had a few jolly evenings before succumbing!
Ash trees are suffering from a fungal disease known as ‘Ash dieback’, which is usually fatal. It was identified in Norfolk in 2012 and has killed thousands of trees across the county, also in Suffolk, Essex and Kent, and is spreading across the country. It has caused widespread damage to forests in Europe and is thought to have arrived in Britain on trees imported from the continent by nurseries. It could also have been carried by birds, on the wind or on clothing and vehicles belonging to people who had visited infected places. However, it seems that there may be hope for these beautiful trees. The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, a world expert in plant science, is running trials with a fungicide developed at Sussex University and early results suggest that it may be a possible cure for this devastating disease.
A chalk reef, discovered by divers off the Norfolk coast in 2010, is thought to be the longest of its kind in the world. Just 25 feet (less than 8 metres) below the surface, it stretches for 20 miles, from Cley to Trimmingham, and is home to many marine species, three of which have not been recorded on the East Anglian coast before. It is now being considered by the Marine Conservation Zone Project to declare it a protected reserve.
We are lucky in Norfolk to have a good population of Barn Owls but, like other parts of the country, they suffered badly last year because of the very cold spring. Monitoring schemes found that nesting was significantly less than in previous years. Let’s hope that they are doing better this year.
Britain’s rarest and largest butterfly, the beautiful Swallowtail, is flying this month after emerging from its pupa in late May. The Norfolk Broads is the only place in Britain where it occurs and this is because the larval food plant is Milk Parsley, which likes to grow in our damp, marshy fens. The Swallowtail seems to prefer to feed on the nectar of mauve or pink flowers and if you have a buddleia in your garden, often called the ‘butterfly bush’ because of the many species that feed on the blooms, you may be visited by this stunning insect. They generally mate on the day they emerge, then the female will fly over the vegetation searching for Milk Parsley; she prefers to lay her eggs on one of the taller plants. There is usually only one brood but occasionally there is a second in August when some adults emerge from pupae instead of over-wintering.
When the caterpillars hatch, after about ten days, they will eat the egg shell before feeding on the Milk Parsley leaves. At this stage they look very like bird droppings but after moulting their skins, which they do three or four times, they become bright green with black and orange spots; this type of colouration acts as a warning to predators. Its other means of defence, which is unique to the Swallowtail, is a strange little orange, forked organ situated behind the head, which it protrudes when threatened; this emits a distasteful smell which deters predators and parasites. After a few weeks the caterpillar will pupate, attaching its chrysalis to the food plant, where it will over-winter to emerge the following summer as a wonderful butterfly. I hope you will be lucky enough to see one.
Moles are playing a helpful part in archaeological studies at St. Benet’s Abbey, near Horning and Ludham. The soil that they bring to the surface is being searched by volunteers for shards of pottery and they are finding medieval relics. Who’d have thought that we would find a use for ‘the little gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat’ since we stopped making trousers out of him!
Things to do this month include:-
• The wild flowers of Bure Valley – Upton Broad.
• Broadland butterflies – How Hill, Ludham.
• Evening stroll and barbeque at Cley.
• Guided walk at Thorpe Marshes.
• Details at www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk or 01603 625540.
• Deer discovery at Holkam – firstname.lastname@example.org