Roadside Meadows

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Roadside Flowers - Hedgerow cranesbill, black medick and speedwell

I've written before (here and here) about my love of the flowers that grow on our roadside verges. It's rare that I get out of the car to examine them more closely though and for the most part I am only aware of them as splashes of colour at the edges of my vision as I drive by. The management of our verges has been in the news recently. These narrow strips of land on the margins of our roads total 600,000 acres (238.000 hectares) and have the potential to be both 'green corridors' for wildlife and, if managed correctly, may be able to replace some of our lost meadows and woodland.

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I live in a rural area of Cambridgeshire and I was curious to find out just how diverse my local verges were. I'd detected some colour here and there on my regular route to a friend's house in the south of the county so I decided to park the car and walk along the edge of the road where I'd glimpsed some flowers and see what I could find.

My first stop was a bridge over the A14 where I'd spotted the first of the daffodils this year. It was clear this verge hadn't been mowed and it struck me that the bridge was edged by what was, in effect, a thin strip of flower-filled meadow. Then I began to see quite how many species were growing there. I quickly spotted hedgerow cranesbill, black medick and speedwell (see image at the top of this post). This tallish plant (40-50 cm), with a delicate yellow strawberry-like flower is wood avens. It looked truly lovely interspersed amongst the ox eye daisies.

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Then some pink caught my eye and I saw clusters of the striking pink blooms pictured below. Using Sarah's wild flower book I realised it was Sainfoin, a plant that used to be an important wild food source and a treatment for (ahem) certain intestinal complaints. I had never seen this wildflower before and was thrilled - its flowers were rather pea-like, striped and utterly beautiful.

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After the excitement of the flowers bordering the bridge I drove to a roundabout near Duxford where I'd seen swathes of tall, vivid blue flowers in the dryish-looking soil. Before reaching the roundabout, though, I spotted several areas of pale flowers - wild mignonette, white campion, hedge bedstraw and hogweed, which up close is utterly exquisite, despite it's less than pretty name.

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Finally I reached the roundabout. It's a very busy thoroughfare and the roar of the lorries was a little alarming at times but as I approached the blue flowers I realised to my delight that they were viper's bugloss. The colour was breathtaking and despite the traffic there was an encouraging number of bees visiting the flowers. Viper's bugloss was traditionally used as an antidote to snake bites (hence its name) as well as being used to treat fevers and coughs. The Bumblebee conservation trustname it as one of the very best native plants for attracting bees. As I edited my photos before writing this post I was thrilled to spot that, quite by accident, I'd captured this image of a bee visiting the bugloss.

Viper's bugloss

In some counties verges are mowed regularly throughout the growing season which removes flowers and prevents the plants that have established there from setting seed and spreading. There are proposals to encourage more councils to cut the verges as traditional meadows used to be cut - early in the year and then again in the autumn, after the seed has set and been allowed to fall to the ground. It is also important to carry away the cuttings rather than leaving them in situ, as they cut out the light and behave in a similar way to a weed-suppressing membrane.

If the meadow-like growth is allowed to grow undisturbed for several months of the year then some signs may be partially obscured, but a compromise to this is the regular mowing of a narrower strip of verge, leaving an area nearer to the hedgerow/fence to develop. My brief vergeside safari showed me that there is a wonderful diversity of wildflowers growing in rather unpromising-seeming locations. I saw for myself that these strips of sward, despite being close to traffic are important food sources for insects and in turn provide food and shelter for small mammals and birds. It is encouraging that they have been the subject of recent news stories - the sensitive management of our verges really could help to preserve these unsung but surprisingly rich meadow-like habitats.

Why not sow your own wildflower meadow? - Sarah Raven has a wildflower seed mix, either for chalky/sandy or clay/rich loam soil, which can be sown April-June or September-October, and which will be in flower from March to October.

Thanks for reading,