Saturday, 9 September 2017

Wihte ealond (2)

Tuesday, being rather dull weatherwise, was an opportunity for Chris and Ann to get in a spot of retail therapy and we didn't get in a 'proper' walk until the following day. Our target was Brading, with its Roman villa and the nearby chalk downs.
It was Brading Downs first. Being September I wasn't expecting much of a floral display although, as a habitat, chalk downs can be very fine. We approached the downs via a stretch of arable land, currently carrying a crop of oilseed rape - right across the footpath. Around the field margins were patches of flax, suggesting that these lovely blue-flowered plants had formed the previous crop, generally grown nowadays for linseed oil rather than the fibre. However, of more interest to me were other species which may have been present as crop impurities or as spillage from nearby pheasant pens.
As well as alien grasses - I counted at least four - there were many plants of Common Pigweed, Amaranthus retroflexus. Amaranth plants, including this species, are cultivated as a leafy vegetable in some parts of the world, when it is called Callaloo (Ref 1). It is a native of temperate and tropical America but may persist in milder plants of Britain. I could have spent several hours in this field but we needed to move on.
Common Pigweed is related to Amaranthus caudatus, aka
Love-lies-bleeding. Arable field near Brading, Isle of Wight.
13 September, 2017
After passing through a belt of woodland we finally came out into herb-rich grassland, and any thoughts that September would be rather late for flowers were quickly dispelled.
First up was Crosswort, Galium cruciata displaying the whorls of four 'leaves' which give it the common name although only two in each whorl are true leaves, the other two being leaf-like stipules. In truth it is not confined to chalk downs and occurs in Northamptonshire although it is not common and it has been some years since I found it in our county. It is not a spectacular plant but its yellow flowers are honey-scented and I am always pleased to find it.
The honey-fragrant Crosswort. Near Brading, Isle of Wight.
6 September, 2017
Eyebrights, Euphrasia species, are tricky. We have about twenty species native to Britain but hybrids are common and some fifty or sixty are known. It is referred as a 'critical' genus and real expertise is required to sort them out. The Common Eyebright, Euphrasia nemorosa, is among the most widespread species and this may have been the plant present.
Eyebright was abundant on the chalky soils on Brading Down,
Isle of Wight. 6 September, 2017
Eyebrights have tiny flowers but it pays to bend down for a closer look for they are very attractive. In theory they would look rather nice in the garden but they are semi-parasitic and their cultivation would present considerable problems. The variable amounts of yellow and blue in the flowers apparently once put people in mind of a bruised eye, leading to its use as a treatment for that very problem.
A closer view shows how attractive the flowers are.
Also present was Carline Thistle, Carlina vulgaris. Its stiff outer bracts make it a very distinctive plant and selected forms would add interest to a rock garden. It is a limestone specialist and, although we have some suitable sites in the far east of Northants, it does not occur in the county. Its prickles are very stiff and must deter all but the most determined grazers.
Carline Thistle is a well-known plant of chalk soils. Brading Down,
Isle of Wight. 6 September, 2017
I was rather taken aback when I found a number of Harebells, Campanula rotundifolia, since I always associate this species with acid - or at least neutral -  soil. Here it was, growing on chalk! In fact a rather rare situation prevails at this site, for it appears that pockets of acid soil sit on the chalk, giving the opportunity for harebells to flourish. The specific name rotundifolia - 'round-leaved' - may seem rather odd, for they are certainly more heart-shaped; the name actually refers to the round leaves at the stem base and as these have often withered by the time the flowers appear, this perhaps causes puzzlement.
Harebells were a surprise.
In a recent blog I mentioned the Argentinian Verbena, Verbera bonariensis, and I commented that I had not seen our native species, Verbena officinalis, for a long time. Well, here it was, unspectacular but nevertheless pleasing to see. The flowers are usually pale lilac but these were, to my eyes, pure white.
Vervain, Verbena officinalis, with much paler flowers than usual.
Brading Down, Isle of Wight. 6 September, 2017

Although I described it as unspectacular it has a remarkable place in folk lore and Richard Mabey, in his absorbing book Flora Britannica (Ref 2), quotes an incantation, written by John White in 1608 (the spellings are is they appear in the quotation):

                  Hallowed be thou, Vervein, as thou growest in the ground,
                  For in the mount of calvary thou wast first found.
                  Thou healedst our Saviour Jesus Christ, and staunchest his bleeding wound;
                  In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,
                                     I take thee from the ground.

If herbalists are to be believed an extract of vervain is sudorific but it was a warm day and we were walking steadily - we didn't need an artificial aid to sweating! The plant gives its name to the Verbenaceae, a family which also includes the Teak tree, one of the most valuable and hard-timbered trees in the world.

After all the excitement of Brading Down the Roman villa, interesting though it is, was of secondary interest to me - but they served excellent tea and scones.


1. Stace, C and Crawley, M.J. (2015) Alien Plants  William Collins

2. Mabey, Richard (1997) Flora Britannica  Chatto and Windus

Tony White:

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