Thursday, 16 February 2017

Harbinger of spring

Rather a long time ago - actually it was on 9 January, 2014 - I composed a blog in which I addressed the subject of Keck, as a Northamptonshire dialect word for Cow Parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris. It engendered quite a lot of correspondence: Celia Hart wrote that as a child in the Cambridgeshire Fens the word used was 'kecksies', whilst Mike Agg informed me that in the Cotswolds old men would refer to a reckless young driver as 'going round the bends with his yud [head] in the keck'. At the time I had mentioned that John Clare referred to the plant as 'kicksies'. I now find that a rhyme in the Cornish dialect (not the extinct Cornish language) speaks of 'the keggas in blowth' (Cow Parsleys in bloom).* Does the word have its origins in a Brythonic language, of which Cornish is an example?  These are dark waters, Watson. Anyway, the point is that fresh new foliage of the plant is now showing - and has been for some weeks - even though the winter is far from over.
Keck beside the car park. Byfield Village Hall. 28 January, 2017
In my childhood it was always exceedingly common but I feel that over the years it has become even more exuberant. It seems that my suspicions have a basis in fact, with surveys suggesting that Cow Parsley is indeed much more widespread beside roadsides than a few decades ago. One possible explanation concerns verge management: the mowing of grass verges leaves a mulch, encouraging the growth of robust species - hogweed, cow parsley, stinging nettle, etc. - which enjoy a nitrogen-rich soil. Unfortunately this means that smaller, more light-demanding species miss out and gradually disappear.
In his book , 'A Natural History of the Hedgerow' (Profile Books, 2016) the author, John Wright states: '...cow parsley is alive with spring insects and it is a favourite with bees, which are the main pollinators'. I must say that in over half a century I cannot recall ever seeing a bee on cow parsley although it does attract quite an array of  'small fry'; I suspect that bees do visit the flowers but only in small numbers - unless I have been very unlucky - but the amount of nectar available must be extremely limited.. However, the later-flowering and structurally similar Hogweed, Heracleum sphondylium, attracts bees in abundance and John Wright may have confused the two species.
It is related also to Hemlock, Conium maculatum. As children we would frequently use the hollow stems of Cow Parsley as peashooters; thank goodness we didn't confuse the two species!
* Quoted in Richard Dawkins' biography', 'An Appetite for Wonder'.


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