Country Diary: Nature has cast her wand over the countryside

Butterbur can be seen erupting into flower on river banks and areas of wet earth.
Butterbur can be seen erupting into flower on river banks and areas of wet earth.

A dog is man’s best friend. However, over the past decade many peaceful, country walks have been ruined by unprovoked aggressive attacks by unleashed pets. Farmers have complained of sheep being chased or killed, and dog owners have themselves to blame if their pet is shot.

On a happier note, as roadside embankments became emblazoned with daffodils, the dandelions ‘exploded’ into a riot of colour, adding to the show.

Indoor potted hyacinths, planted outdoors after blooming, are revelling in our sheltered garden.

Blackthorn blossom casts a white veil over hedgerows, and chiff-chaffs can be heard at every turn. John now has four house sparrows nesting in one bird house, and three in the other. Nature has cast her wand over our beautiful countryside.

Almost overnight, wood anemones at the end of March, sprinkled woodland floors with their fragile, star-like flowers. Beside the sunlit river bloomed a mass of golden yellow marsh marigolds, or kingcups. The ‘royal’ name is derived from the old English word ‘cop’ meaning a button or stud resembling those once worn by kings. It’s considered one of our most primitive species, and a relic of the glacier age.

With the closing of March, erupting through areas of wet earth were colonies of butterbur. This perennial follows the similar winter heliotrope. It cheers the cold days of early spring with its blushing pink, or deep reddish flowers. The flowers appear before the leaves, at first reminding one of pinkish, button mushrooms. Later, as they develop, they resemble dwarf pink conifers due to the appearance of their tasselled flowers. They’re an invaluable source of nectar for bees and foraging insects in early spring. Leaves appear from mid-spring.

They’re roughly heart-shaped, and bear a dense covering of down beneath. By summer-time they may be huge, flopping over river banks like umbrellas up to 3ft across. As children, we wore them as hats, to shield us from the sun, or midges, or even rain!

Before days of refrigeration, butter was wrapped in these large leaves to keep it cool, or to wrap up left-overs from picnics.

Anyone visiting Scarborough Castle must sample leaves and flowers of the Alexanders which smother the ground. Be prepared for a bitter, acidic flavour said to be myrrh-like.

On the dry, sandstone walling of Castle Hill, bloomed golden-yellow flowers of wild wallflowers. The long tap-roots penetrate into the mortar and flourish on open sunny sites. Its perfume is outstanding, often used to perfume houses or castle walls near windows.

There was a time when gentlemen wore sprigs of wallflowers in their caps as a sign of constancy to their girlfriends at home. It has always been the symbol of fidelity.

Ye wallflowers, shed your tints of golden dye,

On which the morning sunbeams love to rest.

Bernard Barton