Tales from the hedgerows

Discover the hidden secrets of our hedgerows with expert guidance from naturalist Wendy Carter of Worcestershire Wildlife Trust.

Hedgerows have been part of our local landscape for hundreds of years. Whether we’re driving to work, doing the school run or taking a leisurely wander through the countryside, most of us will pass miles of them on a daily basis.

 

These natural barriers are wonderful for wildlife; they act as mini nature reserves that provide food, shelter and nesting sites for mammals, birds and insects. Hedgerows share a long history with humans too. Steeped in folklore, they are crammed with plants that have been used through the centuries for cooking and healing.

 

Hedgerows are made up of a tree, shrub and plant layer. You may already be familiar with species such as hawthorn and blackthorn that often form their basic structure but what about the scramblers, sprawlers and climbers that weave their way through the branches. This autumn, why not take the time to stop and have a closer look at them?

 

Old man’s beard

Devil’s guts, traveller’s joy, hedge feathers, love vine, virgin’s bower, skipping ropes, shepherd’s delight, smokewood, woodbine - … the vast number of names given to wild clematis hints at the prominence of this native plant locally, as well as its many uses.

 

It might look messy to those who like things orderly, and frustrate gardeners with its tendency to blanket trees and shrubs, but this climbing plant provides a long lasting banquet for birds such as goldfinches during the harsh winter months.

 

At this time of year, the vanillascented flowers are just turning into seedheads, perhaps its most familiar form. Their translucent silvery whorls adorn hedgerows everywhere, giving the plant its most common name, old man’s beard. The flowers grow in clusters so look out for bunches of feathery white coils hanging amongst berries and leaves.

 

This native clematis, despite being a voracious climber, is actually a member of the buttercup family. It’s the only one to have hollow woody stems and in the past, these were used for weaving baskets. This feature of the plant endeared it to country folk of old and helps explain its many colloquial names related to tobacco. When ignited, the large vessels within its stems allow air to be drawn through easily, and they don’t burst into flame, so lengths of it were often broken off and smoked like cigars! The seedheads, which dry quickly and spark readily, were also used as tinder.

 

Wild clematis was once thought to provide a cure for leprosy because of it anti-inflammatory properties and use in treating skin irritations. It contains the toxin protoanemonin (found in all members of the buttercup family) and can lead to severe abdominal pain if ingested.

 

The pale green-creamy flowers of this plant have no proper petals, just four sepals (usually the outer green shield for the petals) that open to reveal the inner workings of stamens and styles. As the seeds ripen, turning from green to brown, the long feathery tails emerge, which will eventually help them to disperse on the wind.

 

During late summer months clematis flowers provide an important source of nectar for bees, hoverflies and other insects. The caterpillars of butterflies and moths can be fussy eaters and wild clematis is the only foodplant of several moth species that can be found locally – small emerald, small waved umber and Haworth’s pug.

 

In Pershore and the Vale of Evesham, old man’s beard that grows over or near to hawthorn hedges can also harbour a rare earwig. Lesne’s earwig is smaller and more ginger in colour than its common cousin and unlike it, does not have wings protruding along its abdomen. We suspect this species may be more prolific than our records suggest but we can’t be sure because, let’s face it, it’s hard to find a volunteer willing to check the hedgerows for a tiny insect!

 

English mandrake

As if wild clematis being a member of the buttercup family isn’t odd enough, white bryony, also known as English mandrake, is the UK’s only native member of the cucumber (or gourd) family. Every July, this climber produces delicate greenish-white flowers, which together with its winding tendrils and large, five-lobed leaves, make the family resemblance obvious.

 

All is not as it seems, however, because all parts of the white bryony plant, including its tantalising red and orange berries, are not only inedible but highly poisonous; the plant contains compounds that produce an incredibly strong laxative effect.

 

As fans of Shakespeare and Harry Potter will know, mandrake is a plant that grows in the Mediterranean and Middle East and is the stuff of legend. Hard to grow in our cool climate, the root of this herbaceous perennial allegedly has powerful magical and hallucinogenic properties. It was used as an early anaesthetic and by herbalists as a painkiller.

 

White bryony acquired its alternative name because in years gone by, unscrupulous charlatans would dig up its similar-looking root, fashion it to look like mandrake, and pedal it illicitly as a cure for all kinds of ills including impotence and infertility. Like many poisonous plants, the smell and taste of it is deeply unpleasant – nature’s inbuilt warning system - so we can only hope that this caused any unwitting victims to stop and think twice before ingesting it.

 

Despite this, there are stories from East Anglia of horses being fed tiny amounts of dried white bryony root each day to put a shine on their coats. In her 1857 book “Wild Flowers”, botanical illustrator Anne Pratt refers to the root of white bryony being applied to areas of the body affected with rheumatism, even though contact with its sap could cause inflammation and blisters. Even today white bryony contributes to medical treatments.

 

In France, other names for white bryony include the Devil’s turnip and snake root, a reference to its tuberous roots. These labels, however, belie the beauty of its leaves, the elegance of its flowers and the colour that the berries bring to our hedgerows. The berries form underneath the flowers - only on the female plants - and as the flowers die off, the bulbous ovaries beneath them turn from orange to red.

 

In flower from late spring to late summer, the nectar and pollen rich flowers of this climber are invaluable to pollinating insects; further south there is one bee, the bryony mining bee, which relies solely on it. It’s also home to a rare ladybird that we naturalists in Worcestershire are on the lookout for. The bryony ladybird is a small, rust-orange, eleven-spotted beetle that arrived in southern Britain in 1997 from the continent, probably as a result of our changing climate. This attractive ladybird eats the leaves of white bryony and has been slowly spreading north. Intriguingly, there is a big gap in sightings between Oxford and just north of Stratford upon Avon; will you be the first to spot it in Worcestershire?

 

Bindwood

A hedgerow clamberer familiar to us all, ivy is one of the few evergreen plants native to the UK. Whether you love it or hate it, we share a long history with it.

 

Since Roman times ivy has been associated with wine; not only did it grow well over Bacchus’ homeland but its ability to smother grapevines led people to believe that it could also help them overcome the effects of drinking too much. The plant inspired folk to get creative in many ways - making drinking vessels from ivy wood, creating crowns of ivy to wear and drinking wine infused with bruised ivy leaves - all in the hope of subduing the effects of a hangover.

 

It has long been believed that ivy symbolises fidelity and offers protection. Perhaps its evergreen nature - the ability to retain its leaves when all others have lost theirs - does indicate a certain power. Whilst some of us may not like to see it growing up walls, research undertaken by English Heritage suggests that this plant can help to protect masonry from the extremes of the weather as well as from pollution. In the past it was deliberately encouraged to scramble up houses to protect those within, whilst plaits and wreaths that included ivy were hung in cattle byres to protect the livestock; perhaps farmers around Bredon Hill will remember this happening?

 

Many people worry about ivy strangling trees. It isn’t parasitic, it just needs a framework for its grippers to hang onto and its stems to wind around. A problem only arises if the ivy becomes heavier than the tree, putting it at risk of blowing over. Ivy has two different types of leaf – the lobed, triangular ones are the juveniles, which seek to climb. The leaves on the flowering stems are unlobed and it’s these, in their masses, growing in a tree’s canopy which can potentially cause a problem.

 

It's not just humans that have a long-standing relationship with ivy; with more than 100 species of invertebrate alone relying on it for food, it’s incredibly important for wildlife. Its long-lasting flowers bloom from June to December, making it a vital source of nectar for many of our pollinating insects. The flowers are barely noticeable unless you look closely – tight, green/yellow bracts clustering together. As winter draws in they mature into bundles of shiny black berries that will help keep our birds alive through the harsher months. Not only that, the thick blanket of leaves provides important sheltering opportunities for moths and butterflies throughout the winter as well as nesting sites for birds come spring time.

 

Locally, ivy has taken on a new significance with the arrival of ivy bees to Worcestershire. They appeared in the county during 2013 and have since spread throughout it. The bee larvae only eat pollen gathered from ivy. We’ve had sightings recorded from across the Vale and I’ve spotted them on walks in Pershore and Birlingham; with their gingery thorax and creamyorange striped abdomens, they’re something to keep a look out for as you explore at this time of year.

 

If you have ivy growing in your garden that you’re itching to prune, perhaps think about how you can manage it. It’s entering its peak phase for wildlife at the moment so if you can bear to leave it for a little longer, please do. I cut mine back in the early spring once the berries have been eaten. It’s a tough plant that’s not usually damaged by frost, heat or even pollution; one plant that you never need to fret about.

 

Hedgerows are an essential feature of our landscape and play a vital role in connecting the countryside for wildlife; the more species contained within them, the more wildlife there is. Our gardens play a crucial part in this connectivity so if you’re thinking of planting any kind of green border, please consider introducing a length of native hedgerow. If you don’t have space for that, maybe think about whether you can make room for one or two of these typical climbers? And if you’re already doing great stuff for wildlife, please Pledge a Patch for wildlife and help us to turn Worcestershire green.

 

 

What’s On

 

Wed 18th Sept – Sticks, Trees, Mud & Leaves - family fun at Lower Smite Farm, 6pm, £2 per child

 

Thur 3rd Oct – An Orchid Odyssey - illustrated talk, Malvern, 7.30pm, £2.50

 

Sat 5th Oct – Fungus Foray - Monkwood nature reserve, 10.30am, booking advised

 

Wed 16th Oct – Treasured Isles in the Hebrides - illustrated talk, Worcester, 7.30pm, £2.50

 

Thur 17th Oct – Limestone & grassland butterflies - illustrated talk, Pershore. 7.30, £2.50

 

Mon 28th Oct – Spooky Spells Welly Walk - family fun at Lower Smite Farm, 11am - 3pm, £2 per child

 

Sat 16th Nov – Christmas Craft Fair - Lower Smite Farm. 10am - 4pm, free entry.

 

More info www.worcswildlifetrust.co.uk/whats-on

 

 

Get involved

 

The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Help us to secure a Wlider Future for us all.

www.worcswildlifetrust.co.uk/a-wilder-future

 

 

For daily updates about wildlife around the county please follow us on twitter @WorcsWT

 

 

www.worcswildlifetrust.co.uk

Tel: 01905 754919

 

 

 

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