Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘Bluebells’

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Horsham District, West Sussex, April 2020

The sun glows in the slowed Arun, the alders casting long shadows broken by the entry of a dog fetching a stick. It’s evening and this once quiet track has more walkers, runners and cyclists than I can remember. We all try to stay two-metres apart. Even here on this April evening far from a city, the fear of the virus can be seen.

It’s disarming to see a dog eating horse poo.

‘Disgusting dog,’ its owner scolds.

Quieter again but for a white globe of a cyclist, we inspect the first hazel leaves where they glow in the setting sun. We consider the age of this old pathway cutting along the edge of a field, the birch and bracken-choked slopes on the other side. In the shade bluebells flood, the first I’ve seen this year. The birdsong is such a mesh, a spring frenzy, that in my mind I can’t recall its parts. But blackbirds, cheerleaders of this unimaginable time. Of spring, that is.

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A few years ago I experienced a Sussex evening just like this in April, waiting for badgers to leave their sett. It helped me to fall for Sussex – its woodland bluebells like purple gases aglow in the low-slung sun. The inability to travel beyond my new home has brought me back to that moment.

Further ahead the canopy has closed for the first time this year. Hornbeam appears, an indicator of ancient woodland in the Sussex Weald, key charcoal fuel of the lost iron industries that roared across this landscape centuries ago. Their leaves shade little suns of goldilocks buttercups. Here with bluebells, wood anemones and ramsons they are in their element. They are home.

The Sussex Weald

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The Sussex Weald, West Sussex, April 2019

I visited a small woodland in the Sussex Weald after work to make the most of a break in the showers. My aim was to catch the bluebells in the early evening light when I think they look best. The forecast was for cloud but it was windy enough for some sunlight to break through. This woodland is coppiced and was where I photographed the wood anemones last month. It is the bluest bluebell woodland I’ve ever seen. My friend always tells me, ‘no, it’s purple!’. He’s right.

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Bluebells are a huge draw for anyone who has a camera (so that’s everyone). It’s part of the traditional spring experience to go to a bluebell wood, in most places that still have them. That’s something that shouldn’t be taken for granted, ancient woodlands like those in the Sussex Weald are being lost, despite the fact that they are irreplaceable habitats. Their species diversity has evolved over thousands of years. At a coppiced wood like this, their ecosystems have coalesced with our management of them for wood products. The oak above might be a coppice, but it could also be three oak saplings fused together.

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Something felt quite gentle and warming about this oak plugged in amongst bluebells. Perhaps it’s the slight lean, it’s almost an invitation to pass by. The mental and physical benefits of spending time in woodland are great.

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I’ve noticed the flush of new green oak leaves and how quickly that freshness is lost to the stiff darker shade.

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Take these two oaks in the High Weald from a week earlier. Their new green is incredibly fresh but will now have darkened. You have to enjoy every moment of spring before it goes.

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Back to the wildflowers. Before visiting the wood I spoke to a colleague whose job it is to survey woods. He said he’d seen very few early purple orchids this year, possibly due to the colder than average January and then sudden heatwave in February. I said I would report back on my findings. I discovered a patch of about 10 flowering on the wood’s edge with plenty of other spotted leaves yet to produce flowers. I had seen them in the same patch a couple of years ago so knew where to go.

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I find orchids that grow in woods to be twice as exciting as those out in the open landscape. It’s a personal thing, because the diversity is far greater out there. There’s something about woodland versions of other species, birds or butterflies for example. There is something so interesting about the fact some species have made a niche for themselves in certain types of woodland only. Don’t get me started on firecrests. It’s even more interesting when these species, especially the wildflowers, escape out into the surrounding landscape.

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It’s not possible for the flowers to do much of that in this slither of the Sussex Weald because it’s surrounded by a monoculture of oilseed rape. On the contrary the farm is making its way into the woodland through the run off of fertiliser and water being piped in. You can see where the wildflowers are being pushed further into the woodland, away from the polluted areas. It’s something happening to almost every small woodland in England in one way or another.

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Photographing the orchids was tricky because it was windy, dull and the plants were small. I used a telephoto lens and tried to maximise the bokeh around the flower. These flowers are beautiful even when out of focus.

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The woodland flowers felt as if they were at their peak. Elsewhere yellow archangel spread amongst bluebells.

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The details of a wood at this time of year are incredible. If you look closely it’s not just the bluebells that will attract you, the fronds of bracken unfurling are worth investigating. These primitive plants reproduce through spores and pre-date flowering plants like bluebells by millions of years. It’s a tough plant and can be a bit invasive. Oliver Rackham reckoned it was the most common plant across the whole of the UK.

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People often say they spend a lot of time trying to remove pendulous sedge from their gardens. It gets around. It’s actually a resident of ancient woodland and can be found in the wood. I passed this community of sedges on my way out as a few bands of sunlight broke through the clouds and lit their drooping seedheads.

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That light broke free as I made my way out again, illuminating bluebells either side of tree trunks. It was a reward for gambling on a grey sky.

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Holly blue

This was the first workday for the Friends of One Tree Hill (FrOTH). We coppiced 10 sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) trees and cut back the bramble (Rubus frusticosus) which is so dominant on the site. In the case of sycamore we were felling trees of some thirty-feet or more in height that were competing with the sessile oak trees (Quercus patrea). These oaks are regenerating on the slope of the south-facing hill and are slow growers compared to the highly successful sycamore. We felled the trees also to allow light in and let the herb layer regenerate. This is a technique which helps insects and butterflies in particular. PlantLife reports that by 2002 97% of British broadleaf woodland had become high forest. In 1951 that figure was at 51%. This means that most of our woodland is dark and overgrown generally because humans have stopped relying on woodland as a resource for firewood, furniture, grazing of livestock and so on. One of the great misconceptions about woodland is that felling a tree is somehow a bad thing when, on the contrary, wildlife flourishes when trees are cut down in moderation and sunlight can get in to bring life to the woodland floor.

One ancient tradition which has gone out of fashion is the art of coppicing. This is a process of cutting a tree down to its base, generally of hazel (Corylus avellana) or ash (Fraxinus excelsior), which means that the tree shoots new, straight growths. These poles were used for a variety of things, often as fencing. Sycamore is not a typical coppice tree, but the stumps we cut down to in One Tree Hill will shoot similar growths in the spring and summer. In the meantime the wood we have cut will be used either to make log piles for beetles and other bugs to inhabit, otherwise the material will be used to make handrails or deadhedges in the wood. The point of managing a wood in this way is to show that using the material, i.e. trees, is not a negative thing and can boost wildlife in the short term. The Pearl-bordered fritillary (Boloria euphrosyne) is one butterfly which saw a decline in numbers after the tradition of coppicing declined in the 20th century after we began to rely on gas to heat our homes and use wood imported from overseas. You can see that a tree has been coppiced if you spot thin shoots and the hairy green leaves of a hazel. This technique is renowned for its benefits for wildflowers such as wild primrose (Primula vulgaris) and bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) which can burst into life when the coppice is cut. These are plants indicative of ancient woodland and seeing as One Tree Hill is located in the area which was once part of London’s Great North Wood, we are hoping that some plants, in certain areas, could reappear one day, not to mention the wildlife which feeds from them. Sydenham Hill & Dulwich Woods and Dulwich Upper Wood are two fragments of the Great North Wood which have ancient woodland flora growing there, and have done for thousands of years. Perhaps one day One Tree Hill can be in a similar vein of health.

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