The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Hedgerows in April.
by S. Smyth.
April is here at last. The month of months to the botanist—the month we have been looking forward to for weeks past with eagerness and expectation, for is it not the time when all Nature awakes? The birds are full of their own plans and secrets, the butterflies emerge from their winter sleep, the beetles run busily about in the sunshine, and the plants and trees send forth their buds with amazing rapidity, we may almost "see them grow" (as the saying is) at this time of the year.
Let us take a stroll into yonder green lane, which only a month ago we searched so diligently for any visible signs of life. The sun beats down with unwonted strength upon the hedge-bank, making the drops of dew shine like dazzling diamonds.
Vegetation is becoming quite profuse. Bunches of beaked parsley almost hide the more interesting plants for which we are looking. But see there! Where that oil beetle is so busy, the beautiful deep-blue of the ground ivy gladdens our eye; here it blossoms almost unseen to the casual observer, for its flowers are mostly hidden beneath its rough leaves. The hawthorn hedge on our right hand is clothed with tender green, and if we look more closely, we may notice the flower buds which in a few weeks will bring us the "May" we loved so much in our childhood.
Ah! what a storehouse of wealth and beauty can Nature disclose to us at this time! There is a humble plant she reveals to none but the enthusiast, it is so insignificant, yet so wonderfully beautiful that many people are surprised on my showing it to them, that they had never noticed it before; and here it covers the bank with its blue-green foliage and greenish flowers. It is the adoxa (without glory), the name bears witness to its humility; on its slender upright stem are borne five flowers, four facing severally each point of the compass, and the fifth gazing up into space.
Just over the hedgerow there is a glint of water, and on nearer inspection we find some marshy ground covered with the golden saxifrage; there is also a smell of garlic not far away. Yes, here are its smooth shining leaves, looking very like those of the lily of the valley; the flowers, however, are not yet out. Let us penetrate the adjoining copse; brambles abound, and we get unmercifully torn in our eagerness for "finds," but under a particularly dense bramble there is a plant we must reach at all hazards, its flowers have been out since February, but it will still afford us interest. Its blossoms are of a pale greenish hue, tipped with purple, the lower leaves are dark green, and the whole plant reeks with a fetid odour, hence its name of the fetid or stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus).
We make our way among the brambles slowly and painfully, passing by many clumps of primroses and masses of white violets on our way, until the copse ends and we emerge into the lane. There are banks of short dry grass on either hand, and these are good hunting grounds for the flower lover during this month. Let us go down on our hands and knees so as not to allow the minutest specimen to escape us. There is the pretty little wall speedwell (Veronica arvensis), it is growing all over the bank, and close to it, also mixed up with it, is the field lady's mantle (Alchemilla arvensis), a very inconspicuous plant with greenish flowers, most difficult to distinguish from the leaves. The vernal carex also is shewing its little straw-coloured tufts of stamens in patches here and there among the grass. This is the first carex to come out and it will be another month or so before the rest of the sedges begin to blossom.
Masses of primroses make a brave show all along the bank, and now and then we come across and oxlip or a few sweet-scented cowslips. Still looking closely we may notice a very small blue forget-me-not, or scorpion grass as it is called (Myosotis collina), the bank is studded with its minute flowers and there is also the parti-coloured variety with its yellow buds and blue flowers; both of these little plants have short stems, and the leaves are hairy and woolly, quite unlike the large water variety. They both get their name of 'scorpion grass' from the scorpioid manner in which their flowers are tightly coiled up when in bud.
We must linger for a moment more, for just at the top of the bank I see the little bird's foot (Ornithopus perpussillus). On examination, it is found to be one of the pea family having a flower of that type of an exquisite creamy colour with stripes of pink, most beautiful, though exceedingly small; its fruit, which is not yet to be seen, reminds one very much of a bird's foot, hence its name.
There are endless other objects of interest on the bank, and many more to come out later, but we must scramble down again and cross the road to yonder pond by the roadside, it is a mass of the white blossoms of the water ranunculus (Ranunculus aquatilis). This plant has two sorts of leaves, one kind which floats on the surface of the water, and is of a shining green, not very much serrated, the other kind is hair-like and submerged. The ivy-leaved crowfoot (Ranunculus dederaceus) may be looked for in similar situations, but it will be growing more in the mud and not in the deep water; its flowers are much smaller than aqualilis, and the submerged leaves are absent.
The pond does not yield us much plant life as yet, the pond-weeds, forget-me-not, brooklime, irises and other water-loving species are not yet in flower; but behind the pond, close up against the hedge, are quantities of garlic mustard now in full blossom. This strong-smelling plant grows in most lanes, and here it is with many of its plants showing white crucifer flowers. I have often noticed how simultaneously the flowers of this plant come out. I have searched regularly every day to discover one flower open before the rest, but it is never so; when one flower opens, all the others come out with it.
The lesser periwinkle (Vinca minor) may be found pursuing its trailing growth under the hedge, and its larger cousin (Vinca major) will be in flower towards the end of the month, creeping almost to the top of the hedge and making a beautiful climber with its very large purple flowers and bright green leaves. This plant is not indigenous to Britain, and only occurs in the neighbourhood of houses or amongst ruins; it has, however, become naturalised, and in many places is considered wild. As regards British plants, the periwinkles have an order all to themselves, many tropical shrubs and herbs, however, belong to the same order Apocynaceae; the beautiful oleander of our greenhouses being one.
Up above our heads, a chaffinch is heard singing his short but joyous song. If we take the trouble to search the recesses of the hawthorn hedge by our side, we may be able already to discover a dainty nest belonging to the mate of this little songster. See there, well concealed in the thickest part of the hedge, is a small, very neat little dwelling lined with moss and feathers; the bird is so brave that she takes very little notice of an intruder, but after having almost expelled her forcibly from her nest we see five greenish blue eggs within, mottled with umber brown, more thickly at the blunter and sparingly at the thinner end. These eggs of the chaffinch vary greatly in appearance, some may have the brown spots entirely wanting, and others have been found almost wholly spotted.
Let us pass on, for I see a cherry tree with its snow-white canopy gleaming in the sunshine; the leaves are of a tender greenish brown, and the bees are revelling in the store of honey with which the blossoms are so richly dowered.
A brimstone butterfly sails past with undulating flight; he is a 'this year's insect,' and has not had time to get his wings soiled. We may perchance see another of his kind, the female, which is of a much paler yellow, though alike in other respects.
The hedge banks are white with the greater stitchwort (Stellaria holostea); the white dead nettle (Lamium a?), which has been in leaf ever since Christmas, is also beginning to make a show, and if we are fortunate enough, and the country be at all of a woody nature, we may come across the yellow dead nettle, archangel, or weasel snout (Lamium galeohdolon), closely resembling the commoner flower, except in its colour, which is of a rich, soft, creamy yellow.
Growing by its side are tufts of the hairy wood rush (Luzula pilosa), while quantities of pink campion enrich the whole with colour.
Everything has suddenly sprung into leaf; the hawthorns are a lovely green, the elder is quite leafy. The sycamores afford almost a shelter now from April showers, and the elm and beech trees are budding profusely.
Making our way along the road, still free from dust, we find our bank has been exchanged for a wall, which sounds perhaps uninteresting, but do not hurry by, let us give even the wall a chance. There are some little plants which prefer living here to growing under a luxuriant hedge among the richest of vegetation. On the very top of our wall there is a little thing with a rosette of radical leaves and a stem rising out from the centre bearing several pure white flowers of the crucifer tribe. This is the little vernal whitlow grass (Draba verna), and we shall find it elsewhere in various situations; it loves a spot where the soil is scanty, on the tops of roofs, by the wayside, down the prim gravel paths of many a cottage garden, and also on the hedge banks, leaving most of the goodness of the soil to its more needy neighbours.
There is a taller, rather spindling plant growing side by side with the whitlow grass, and looking very much like shepherd's purse, but let us not mistake it as such, for on examination, we find it has no pouches for its fruit, but long, pod-like seeds, its flowers are white and minute, the leaves are mostly radical, and its stem is tall and rather bare of leaves. This is a crucifer again, and goes by the name of thale cress (Sisymbrium thalianum).
At the foot of the wall, the despised groundsel is growing so luxuriantly that it can hardly be recognised for the same stunted specimen we found early in January; in the hedges it grows still taller, and at this time, about the end of the month, we may discover the first caterpillars of the season, for the larva of the tiger moth makes this plant one of his chief foods. The grubs will only be small as yet, but take them home and provide them with a plentiful supply of groundsel every day, and by June they will have developed into large wooly bears quite two inches long, ready to turn chrysalis.
On our homeward way the sun is behind us and shows us things we have missed in coming. There are beautiful trees of the white willow covered with long male catkins; these are produced at the same time as the leaves and for this reason cannot be confounded with the sallow (Salix caprea), which blossoms a few weeks earlier and whose leaves do not appear until the flowers are faded.
The blackthorn or sloe comes now before our notice in the hedges, while the smell of the black poplar (Populus nigra) is wafted on the breeze, bidding us look upward and admire its beautiful yellowish-red catkins waving gracefully to and fro.
Everything rejoices in its new birth. What time of the year can be more wonderful than this, when all creation laughs and sings and when the whole earth puts on a glorious dress at the bidding of the one great Being Who clothes the humble celadine with beauty and provides a shelter for the meanest worm.
Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, December 2008
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