The end of May and beginning of June sees the butterfly world start to really take off. There’ve been a few lovely butterflies pottering around during early spring (orange tip, brimstone and peacock mainly) but now the most showy members of the insects rock up to Nature’s party.
Adonis was the God in the Greek myths that we associate with exceptional handsomenss and beauty, and the butterfly named after him is a stunningly eye-catching one. During the last week of May and into early June, this electric-blue butterfly (few photos really do justice to its colour) shines brightly on sunny days as it flies around looking either for a female to mate with or one of its favourite flowers to feed on. The female isn’t blue but mainly dark brown – a common story as the female of many species is a brown colour to keep her hidden from predators – though there can be a blue sheen on where the wings are close to its body.
Just a short way from the busy A46, this ancient woodland feels as if it’s in its own world, miles away from anywhere. Its hidden valley, gently babbling stream, moss covered oak trees, bird song and tranquility make it an ideal place to forget about the cares of the world. It feels ancient as if it’s been here since time began.
The valley is old – and I mean mindblowingly old. It was carved out during the Ice Age by a stream flowing beneath the ice sheets which covered all of this region. Once the Ice Age had finished and all of the ice had melted, trees and plants moved in and covered the area, creating woodlands like Midger Wood.
Stroud is blessed by being ringed by three very special commons and we’re so fortunate that we can enjoy each one of them. No unfriendly ‘keep out’ signs here even though each common is a nature reserve, a site of special scientific interest and one is internationally important for its wildife.
Minchinhampton Common is one of these special places and abuts onto the village of Minchinhampton (funnily enough). The whole area has a story stretching back to prehistoric times and the ridges of land running along parts of the common are the remains of Iron Age defenses (called The Bulwarks by locals). Nearby is a neolithic long barrow which was a communal tomb for local people thousands of years ago. The common is now owned and managed by The National Trust so it’s protected for future generations.
May is bursting out all over – literally. You’re probably puzzled, thinking the old adage surely refered to June but, believe you me, May is the month when nature explodes onto the scene. After months of grey lifelessness when winter seems set to never end, nature accelerates from full stop to warp factor 10.
Nature’s activities in May remind me of the Rupert Bear story (which I loved reading to my daughter) about the ‘imps of spring’ – tiny, elf-like people who slept underground during winter and then, woken by their alarm clock, come above ground with their bottles of magic potion. They spray everything in sight and suddenly trees come into leaf, flowers bloom, grass grows and the animal and bird life appears from nowhere. There’s such a sudden profusion of life this month that part of me suspects the imps and their potion really do exist.
One and a half million of them and not a forked tongue in sight, thankfully. The snake’s head fritillary flower is nationally rare but 80% of what’s left in the UK grows in North Meadow, a national nature reserve at Cricklade near Cirencester. OK, I have to admit that this is nowhere near Stroud. Yes, yes, OK, I admit it’s not even in Gloucestershire but just over the border in Wiltshire. However, this spring spectacle is worth the 45 minute drive from Stroud – there really are hardly any other places in the country to see this and at least one and a half million of them really do flower every year in the meadow. Plus, the best bit is that you’re literally inches away from the flowers as the footpath takes you through the middle of this floral exuberance.
I guess you’ll have recognised this flower straight away – and maybe you call it by its other common name, cow parsley. I prefer the lace one as I feel it fits the beautifully delicate and intricate flowers so well.
What is surprising is the large number of other common names it’s had over the centuries: fairy lace and spanish lace are understandable, kecksie and Grandpa’s pepper seem somewhat odd, but rabbit meat and step-mother are just plain weird! It was also referred to as ‘mother die’ and it’s thought this was to frighten children away from picking it so they didn’t pick the poisonous hemlock by mistake. Hemlock has purple-coloured spots on its stem (which is also solid not hollow unlike Queen Anne’s Lace), otherwise it looks very similar to the non-expert eye.
Yes, I know what you’re thinking – it’s blue. So why is it called green alkanet? The second part of its scientific, latin, name (Pentaglottis sempervirens) means ‘always alive’ or evergreen, possibly because the leaves start to appear in late winter or early spring, adding a splash of green to the last grey tendrils of winter. Plus the plant hangs around until well into the summer, so quite a while even though it’s not technically evergreen. Another common name for this flower is ‘evergreen alkanet’.
It’s a cousin of the forget-me-not, borage and comfrey and is a very good food plant for bumblebees, some solitary bees, hoverflies, orange tip butterflies, and the caterpillars of the scarlet tiger moth. It likes growing along walls and buildings so it’s quite common to find it in urban areas where it escaped from gardens hundreds of years ago. It’s hardy, easy to grow and is hardly touched by pests or diseases so it’s great addition to your wildlife patch in the garden – just don’t let it take over as it spreads by runners as well as seeds. Its tap root is long so it’s best to dig up any excess plants to keep it under control.
Cockchafer, May bug, spang beetle and Billy witch are all names for what used to be a common sight at this time of year. pening the curtains and switching on the living room lights after dusk to attract the cockchafers was wildlife watching made easy. But sadly, they haven’t appeared for many years now.
Spanish v English: the native, English bluebell is on the right, and the Spanish one on the left
The bluebell wood is a phenomenon particular to Britain – believe it or not, 80% of all the world’s bluebell woods are found in the UK! The sight of the glorious violet-bluey haze which carpets many woodlands (especially beech woods) begins in late April and lasts until late-May depending upon where you live. The flowering season starts earlier in Cornwall and gradually spreads up the country with Scotland’s flowers being last to the floral party.
Another bluebell came onto the scene when the Victorians introduced the Spanish bluebell, a close relative of our British one, into their gardens. However, at the beginning of the 20th century, it made the great escape over the garden wall and since then has been popping up in woods, hedgerows, and in roadside verges.
Small yet perfectly formed is a good way of describing the lily of the valley flower. Its string of tiny, white coloured bells hang down from the flower stalk, hiding shyly amongst the leaves which are ridiculoulsy large compared to the size of the flower. I have to confess to being a big and blousy type, prefering large, colourful flowers which stand loud and proud. However, I know that lily of the valley is a popular garden flower with lots of people and so there’ll be many who’d like to see it in the wild. Siccaridge wood near Frampton Mansell boasts a large carpet of it right now, and you can create a circular walk incorporating the canal where there’s a riot of flowers and colour.