Summer trailsWritten on 10th August, 2022
We’re making up for lost time over the last 2 years with not one, but two summer holidays, to very different parts of Europe. Naturally this presents an excellent opportunity to scour the local countryside and look for interesting plants.
First to Tarifa, Southern Spain, to escape the 40 degree heat – in London! It’s a relatively chilly 28 degrees here and, truth be told, at this time of year there’s not much botanising to be had in the southern Mediterranean. I‘ve made a mental note to return in springtime when so much more will be in flower. I do this every time I come to the Mediterranean, but with a young family in tow, somehow never manage.
However one plant that always delights in these parts is pancratium maritimum, also known as the sea lily or sea daffodil. It looks extremely out of place in the sand dunes just by the beaches; everything else is burnt to a crisp or just small leaved, stunted and tough looking, riding out the fierce summer heat and drying winds but p.maritimum stands proud, an evergreen bulb which is gloriously floriferous and fleshy, somehow thriving in these conditions.
The following week we find ourselves a long way further north, in Estonia. It’s obviously much cooler and wetter than Tarifa here, cooler even than London, which has finally returned to more normal temperatures.
For me, Estonia is all about the wildflowers. The country is absolutely awash with them at this time of year, and it makes me wonder what on earth we have done with ours, back in England, where we are reduced to poring excitedly over the occasional unmown verge, deep in the countryside, with two or three flowering species.
Why, then, is England such a biodiversity desert? I love the UK countryside, but most walks barely yield more than a handful of interesting finds, even at peak flowering season. Could it be that there are fewer people here in Estonia and therefore there is less demand on the land, for construction, and farming? That they use fewer pesticides and weed killers? Presumably so, but I think religion, and culture, play a big part too. Estonians love nature and this love isn’t just a casual emotion. It’s a deeply rooted feeling. Estonia is one of the most secular countries in the world. Conventional religion is followed by only a very small minority, as opposed to paganism, which, although itself is not overtly practiced, is at the core of Estonian culture and is closely associated with a deep connection to, and reverence for, nature. Every pass of the municipal gardener’s mower, or decision by landowners or councils to leave great tracts of forest alone is seemingly considered in with this in mind. Combine that culture with a low density population, less reliant on industrial scales of farming, and you have the perfect conditions to bring out the best that nature has to offer.
Staying just outside the capital city Tallinn, I go for a morning run along the beach. There’s a narrow strip of predominantly scots pine woodland, barely 200m wide, squeezed in between the sea and a main road, and the place is alive with wildflowers.
In England, such a place would be declared a nature reserve straight away. Without even trying, I spot rosa rugosa, viper’s bugloss, bloody cranesbill, yarrow, lady’s bedstraw, knapweeds, speedwell, harebell, toadflax, verbascum, tansies, cow parsley and fireweed, all thriving in the dappled shade and sandy, acidic soil. There are swathes of lily of the valley, albeit now finished flowering. Also present in abundance, and carpeting this particular woodland, is the glorious bi (or even tri)-coloured melampyrum nemorosum, or cow wheat. It’s an annual, with blue leaves maturing to green, and yellow flowers with an orange tube, that has all but disappeared from our shores but which looks very happy here at woodland edges, and flowers from May until August, and sometimes longer. It’s very much the plant of the moment, for the week we are here, and I see it nearly everywhere.
There’s another contender however, that flashes past me as we drive past, on trips to the beach for a morning swim or to a nearby wood, to collect blueberries at sunset. Great clumps of plants, waist high with abundant white flowers, that just can’t be wild, can they? They can! It’s Saponaria officinalis, the common soapwort. It prefers moist soil and some sun but is otherwise unfussy, and is noted for attracting moths and butterflies. My favourite clump is by the side of the road, with the oh-so former Eastern bloc looking Tallinn TV tower in the background. Barely 5 miles from the city centre. A very Estonian setting.
Every time I come here, I remark on this biodiversity and my excitement is met with a polite smile and a slight inclination of the head. Even my wife, who doesn’t have a single green finger, knows these plants, even if she can’t name them, as she has grown up with them. It’s a slightly sad reflection on how disconnected from nature most first world societies have become, such that only the likes of gardeners or garden designers can recognise plants like these. I’ve barely scratched the surface after a week here, and pack my bags, vowing to come back and really get to know more of this wonderful countryside, preferably without a 5 year old in tow.