June Column 2017: Nature Watch

May 30 2017

Writing this on a sodden May morning with no sign of the weather clearing up I am longing for June!

Writing this on a sodden May morning with no sign of the weather clearing up I am longing for June! The month when the leaves reach their most wholesome green, the flowers are at their fullest. It is the month of Wimbledon and weddings, strawberries and roses. These two June favourites are the inspiration for poets, lovers, cooks and kings. And William Morris designed his famous wall-paper pattern Strawberry Thief when he spotted a thrush in his garden swooping down to steal a wild strawberry. 

Strawberries and roses are both in the rose family along with many other British fruits including those summery essentials cherries and raspberries. A close look at their flowers reveals their kinship: they all have five white or pink petals and, in the centre, a shaggy yellow mound of stamens and styles. All those species can be found growing wild in our area and a few years ago we introduced wild strawberries to our garden bank (they do like a shady bank). Every year we look forward to seeking out their fairy fruit, variously rounded or pointed but always with an intense strawberry flavour. They have enthusiastically colonised the slope: at last, something that can outwit the ivy! 

Wild roses are also vigorous, arching over the other more delicate rose blossoms and even wickedly growing up from their rootstock. Last year a pink dog rose appeared above our kitchen roof, suddenly visible from our bedroom window. It had been sneaking up through the hedge, arising from the rootstock of a golden rose which modestly peeps in at the kitchen window. The dog rose is the most common wild rose in our area, so called because it has no smell, or sometimes a mild, sweet scent. The name indicates that it is of no use to man, fit only for the dogs. The dog violets share the suffix for the same reason; it is the sweet violet that has the distinctive perfume.

The field rose is less common than the dog rose, both in city and countryside. It has smaller blooms of pure white with a large golden crown nestling within. The thorns are less intimidating and the scent has been described as musky and honey-like; an attractive and complex perfume. Field roses have been used in the breeding of garden roses and, like dog roses, their hips are an excellent source of vitamin C. This led to their extensive collection by volunteers, especially school children and women’s institutes, during the Second World War when other sources of fruit became less secure. This was no joke – they are 20 times richer in vitamin C than oranges and the harvest peaked at 500 tons in 1943. School children of the day tended to know rose hips very well, calling them itchy-coos and using the irritant hairs around the seeds as itching powder. From the sublime and symbolic rose with its romantic perfume to the ridiculous itchy-coo; what a versatile plant!