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Monday with Mike: Shrubs on the Common

Close up of a broom flower

Monday with Mike: Shrubs on the Common

Shrubs on Barnes Common

Shrubs are the heroes of heathland, vital for biodiversity, and offer fascinating glimpses into our relationship with nature.

Heather is the plant for which heathland is named.  Common heather, or Ling (Calluna vulgaris) is a member of the Ericaceae family.  Its scientific name derives from the Greek verb ‘to brush’ and its use for making brooms. Over time, heather has been used for fodder, fuel, thatch, building materials, packing and ropemaking.

Peat cut from heathland has long been used as fuel.  Barnes Common lost its last indigenous heather to fire and wear and tear within the last decade. Although attempts have been made to re-introduce from locally sourced seed as well as plugs, this has had very limited success.

It is interesting that places like Wimbledon, Stanmore Commons and Hounslow Heath tend to get heather whenever they scrape, but at Barnes we are rewarded with copious sheep sorrel: it is hard to say why this should be, beyond the obvious that seeds build up in soil over long periods and scrapes then reveal these…an interesting research question: Does even a few feet of altitude make a difference or is it centuries of soil preparation by yellow meadow ants? I would love to see more heather on the Common, but maybe we should continue to work with rather than against the natural and be thankful for our abundance of sheep sorrel!

Gorse (Ulex europeaus), known commonly as Furze, is found in many place names (including Furzey Island in Poole harbour – one of the few refuges of red squirrels in southern England).  Gorse is a member of the pea family. Today we have little use for this plant, but just a few hundred years ago it was regarded as essential: many heath fires today are the result of one of its prime properties. A single spark landing in dry gorse is enough to start a fire – let alone a careless cigarette end  or badly disposed barbecue. In the past dry gorse needles would be collected and stored as tinder in tinder boxes when flints were the main source of sparks.  Gorse needles might be a good starting point for anyone looking to start a fire by ‘rubbing sticks’ or using a magnifying glass!  Gorse was also collected and made into small bundles of sticks, or faggots. The intense heat generated was excellent for heating up clay ovens for baking or roasting.

Gorse is the evergreen shrub with yellow flowers (which have a coconut scent), which are edible and can make a pleasant infusion or be added to fruit teas.  It is very prickly – and grows larger than  the more lemon-yellowy Broom, reaching well over 2m height, and lasting 40 years or more.  Across the common you can see gorse struggling in the woodland as it is increasingly shaded out – a sure sign that such woodland is very recent and that the canopy closed less than forty years ago.  Gorse germinates relatively easily from seed.  If burnt off, provided the fire passes swiftly and does not get into the ground, it will re-shoot from the base.  After the extensive fires of 2003 we were able to test recovery.  While the gorse itself seemed to recover well and within five years was back over 1m tall, it was noted that the number of spiders (and species of invertebrates) present was still less than half those in the unburnt stands.  Gorse provides shelter for small birds, including long-tailed tits, and is a provider of  nectar and pollen for bees, butterflies and other insects, so it is a vital feature of the heathland food chain.

For those of a romantic nature, you may like to know the old country saying that  “when gorse is in bloom then kissing’s in season” or the variation that you should only get married when the gorse is in bloom: for although gorse flowers most in Spring, it can be found in flower all year!  A sprig of gorse was traditionally included in a bridal bouquet as a sign of fertility.

Broom (Cytisus scoparius) is another member of the pea family which from a distance is like gorse, but it does not grow so tall or last as long, it only flowers in Spring and its flowers smell of vanilla.   You can guess where the name comes from, and probably people used to use the stems of broom, bound together for sweeping.  This year I was interested at how many people asked me what this plant with the black seed pods was – if we get another hot spell doubtless people will be asking what it is that they can hear snapping and popping – as these seeds burst open their pods to scatter the seeds.  Unfortunately, the easy germination of so many seeds means that we have to intervene to protect the grassland from being overrun by broom – each year we take literally hundreds of plants out of the prime acid grassland areas.

Elder (Sambucus nigra) is a common native shrub across all of the UK.  It can grow reasonably tall and might even qualify as a tree, but the weak core of its twigs, branches and trunk with its pith makes it prone to collapse.  It flowers with a profusion of small creamy white, five petalled flowers borne on large, flat umbels which can be up to 30cm across, with a delightful scent which can be used to make elderflower cordial or dipped in batter and fried for fritters.  The black fruits which follow in the autumn are a rich source of vitamin C, will stain clothes easily, were historically used for blue and purple dyes  for wool (especially for tweeds) and can be made into wine or included with blackberries and apples  in autumn fruit desserts  – all parts of elder are mildly poisonous when raw, so flowers and fruits should be cooked before eating.  Leaves (also poisonous and very bitter) made yellow and green dies while the bark provided grey and black.

Myths about elder are numerous: some say that an elder near the house will guard against the devil and if you burn the wood you will see the devil. In Dorset we would never think of removing an elder without first asking its permission – for they have witches’ souls in them and will surely grow again unless the lady agrees it is time to go.  It is sometimes called the Judas tree – it is alleged he hung himself from one.

Elder is popular with foragers for both flowers and fruits – but they are also vital for biodiversity.  We do not encourage any foraging.  It might be different if we were in the country, but in Barnes there are just too many of us and nature needs all the help it can get – one person makes very little difference but 100? or more?  You can get supplies elsewhere, but the local moths, and even small mammals like voles that depend on these seasonal bounties have no option.

Dog Rose: (Rosa canina) is a wild rose, normally growing in hedgerows supported by other trees and shrubs.  There are many varieties, but the term is commonly, if incorrectly, applied to the large number of roses which have simple five-petalled pink or white flowers, which then have red fruit hips in the autumn. We have a few on the common and I have enjoyed watching the one by the reedbed growing from a self-seeded whip some twenty years ago into a substantial bush, but the very fact it has grown so well when free-standing suggests it is not a true dog rose!!  The flowers are a valuable source of nectar/pollen and the berries are eaten by several birds.  Rose hips are a traditional source of vitamin C for people, made into a syrup or jelly with apples.  Chewing the hips is unpleasant as the seeds inside are hairy and can be an irritant.

Burnett Rose (Rosa spinosissima) is the emblem of FoBC.  With its small white flowers, dark, almost black fruits and extremely prickly stems  it is rare to find this rose growing wild so far east in England – indeed we believe those on the Common may be the most easterly  – although it is not clear if they arrived naturally or were planted for hedging somewhere nearby, as they are quite a common garden plant.  We have two separate patches, which seem to be surviving despite shading, fly-tipping and other hazards thrown at them over the years!

This is my penultimate ‘Monday with Mike’ note.  We end next week with an article on some of our less welcome ‘invasive’ trees.  Please do join us and don’t forget to let us know if you have enjoyed the series.  I certainly have – and as always, continued to learn along the way!

Mike Hildesley 3rd August 2020.

Banner Image: Broom in bloom. Andrew Wilson