I mentioned in Part 1 of these High Spring blog posts that we had planted trees between our house and garden and the open Fen country that lies between us and the Wash. North-easterly gales from the North Sea can be bitterly cold, but the proximity of the sea also has an ameliorating effect: frosts, for example, are many times worse around Peterborough, just twenty miles inland. Although the wood was originally planted as a wide screen against the weather, we were also keen to see it develop into something of a nature reserve, which is what has happened – even if some of the nature, such as Muntjac deer, is not altogether welcome. We brought a number of bluebell bulbs from our old garden and we know that these derived from local woods, so there is none of the Spanish DNA which taints most bluebells bought in garden centres. This year the half-acre, or so, of bluebells out in the main ash wood has been concealed by a thick growth of grass, largely, I suspect, because the overhead leaf canopy had been so slow to develop – another result of the cold, dry early spring. This year it has been a case of ‘Oak before Ash’ and so, as the old saying has it: ‘We’re in for a splash.’ But the bluebells beneath the cultivated hazelnut trees have never looked better. In fact it still mystifies me why growers prefer to offer the public the larger, but slightly paler Spanish Bluebell. Nothing, but nothing can beat the deep, rich Royal Blue of the British flower.
The 400 trees of the ash wood are under dire threat of Ash Dieback disease, so I am making no efforts to cut out or remove the many alder, hawthorn, oak and field maple seedlings that now litter the woodland floor. Incidentally, I still can’t think of that terrible introduced disease, especially just before a General Election, without cursing the spinelessness of our chair-bound Westminster ‘elite’ (ha-ha). The ash wood merges into the oak wood. Here the main trees are oak and alder, with one or two ash and the occasional small-leaved lime and hornbeam. As the oaks have grown I’ve used the more numerous alders to draw them up, before I fell them, to give the oaks’ crowns room to expand. Just over twenty years since we planted them, I would reckon that the ratio of oaks to alders has shifted from 1:20 to 1.3. This was the woodland where I was planting those hundreds of snowdrops and aconites in the late winter. At long last, this part of the wood is starting to look much more like mature woodland. I love its simple grace and dignity.
Beyond the oak wood, oaks continue to dominate as so-called ‘standards’, but in the long, narrower, plantation parallel with the dyke the under-storey is made-up of some 450 hazel bushes, which are regularly coppiced, to provide pea sticks and long, thin wattles which are used to make hurdles and other structures in a large neighbouring garden. This is very much a working part of the wood, but even so, there is room for flowers, including some fabulous primroses and a few examples of the non-native dog’s tooth violet (Erythronium dens-canis, Var. ‘Pagoda’) and the bleeding heart (formerly Dicentra spectabilis, now classed as Lamprocapnos spectabilis). I know these two species aren’t native plants, but too bad. They’re gorgeous.
Finally, to a plant which is a native to most of Europe. I honestly don’t know if it made it to Britain before the Channel formed – many plants just missed the boat, as it were. The grey alder, Alnus incana is a case in point. It was spreading across Europe as the climate grew warmer after the last Ice Age, but just failed to make it over before Britain became an island (around 6000 BC). You can see vast numbers of them in Holland, France and Germany. Anyhow, I don’t think that particular accident of geological history really matters – although of course pedants would disagree – because the plant I’m referring-to feels like it ought to be a native. It’s the summer snowflake (Leucojum aestivum) and readers of this blog will know I love it. It grows vast in our garden because it’s completely at home in our damp, heavy soil. The variety we favour is Gravetye Giant, named after the former home of the important late Victorian and Edwardian landscape gardener William Robinson (and now a superb hotel), in West Sussex. I discussed its much smaller cousin the spring snowflake (Leucojum vernum) in an earlier post. Anyhow, here’s a picture of its slightly mis-named summer version in flower, set in a rose bed beneath the pleached limes, which are just coming into life – almost a month late. Maybe after next winter I’ll risk removing the poles and wires, as the trees are now quite big. But on the other hand the winds around here can be ferocious. Hm…, can’t decide. Roll on summer!