The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Flowers of the South Downs.

by Miss Maude Robinson.
Volume 13, 1902, pg. 712-717

["Maude Robinson (1859-1950) was a Quaker writer of short stories and a memoir about growing up on a South Downs farm at Saddlescombe in the 1860s. She was the younger sister of the pediatrician Louis Robinson." (Wikipedia)]

Lecture given to the Brighton Branch of the P.N.E.U.

My qualification for speaking on this subject is not that of a scientific botanist, but having lived all my life in one little combe of the Downs, with but few human neighbours, the birds, the creeping things, and the wild flowers have become as familiar friends to me, and I am glad to share the pleasure that I have found in them with others.

Dr. Samuel Johnson declared that were a man condemned to pass his life on the hills behind Brighton he would assuredly wish to hang himself, but would find no tree large enough to carry out his rash purpose! Dr. Johnson was a great lexographer, but he was no naturalist, and probably had no conception of the keen pleasure to be found in such pursuits.

[South Downs images on Wikipedia.]

Perhaps he saw the Downs in winter when their greatest admirer must confess they look somewhat bare and barren, but what a wealth of seed and root must be lying latent beneath that apparent barrenness to produce the gorgeous array of varied blossoms that our banks display in July and August.

The first flower to show itself in early spring is the Common Drama (Draba verna), its wee white flowers showing like a sprinkling of hoar frost on the ant hills. A few weeks later the frost-like appearance is still there, but is now composed of minute "silver pennies," like the Honesty, which we have in winter nosegays. Even in winter some golden blossoms may be found on the gorse bushes, and by April their prickly branches are almost dazzling, and so strongly scented that labourers object to cutting it at this season, saying that the scent gives them headaches. In the shelter of the gorse grow lavender dog violets, but the sweet violets, purple, white and dull pink are to be found under hedges in the more sheltered valleys. Primroses, alas, are no more, on banks which used to be yellow with them in our childhood. Together with our few ferns they have been ruthlessly dug up and taken into the towns for sale. The demand for them has been greater than ever since they became the symbol of a political party. It is a curious fact that the flower selected should be in stem and lead--Radical!

As the summer advances flowers in great variety appear on the Downs, especially on the edges of the cornfields where the large flocks of those close-nibbling South Down sheep do not come. Among the wheat may be found many interesting weeds, but let nothing tempt you to take one step into the crop to secure the most coveted specimen. By such thoughtlessness the public have secured their exclusion from many pleasant places. I once saw a party of six trippers rush into a field of wheat, standing ripe and golden, ready for the reapers' sickle, chase each other through it, and even lie down and roll down the sloping field, all unregarding of the real mischief they were doing.

Most conspicuous of weeds is the brilliant scarlet poppy. [Image] In these days when corn is not worth the expensive process of weeding, a field of poppies may sometimes be seen a mile or more away. In a patch of ground no larger than an ordinary hearth rug I have seen four kinds of poppy growing side by side. These were the flaunting field poppy (Papaver rhoeas); the long-headed poppy (Papaver dubium), distinguished by its long and slightly-ribbed seed vessel; the pale poppy (Papaver argemone) with its four narrow petals, almost suggesting the sails of a windmill; and the rough poppy (Papaver hybridum) whose petals are crimson, not scarlet, and which fall at a touch, so that it is very difficult to obtain a perfect specimen. The seed vessel of this species is covered with rough hairs, bristling like a hedgehog, but this is not the cornfield weed which goes by the name of "Hedgehog" among the country folk--that is the corn ranunculus (R. arvensis), like a small pale yellow buttercup. The little linarias, like a tiny buff and lavender snap-dragon, are common weeds on the chalky cornfield. There are three kinds which I have found close together, the lesser linaria (L. minor), the round leaved (L. spuria), and the halbert leaved (L. elatine). Near them, if the sun is shining, we shall almost certainly find the scarlet pimpernel, and once, on the slope of Chanctonbury, that most conspicuous of Sussex landmarks, I found the blue variety, the colour nearly as deep and vivid as that of the gentian. The pretty pink convolvulus is in every cornfield, and the bladder campion (Silene inflata), most troublesome of weeds, because its long tap root sends up a new and more vigorous plant, like the fabled Hydra's heads, whenever it is cut off.

["The Anxious Gardener" has a blog post with pictures of wildflowers on the South Downs.]

In the spring several kinds of little blue veronicas are to be found in every weedy place, and one of them, the Buxbaum's speedwell (V. Buxbaumi), the lovely little blue and white striped flower, which even in winter spreads its blossom in every gleam of sunshine, is a flower with a history. Within living memories it was unknown in England, but when farmers began to cultivate Italian rye grass, the seeds of this speedwell came with it. Soil and climate suited it, and now it is one of our commonest weeds. Its introduction has led to the increase of turtle doves (our only migratory wild pigeon), for their favourite article of diet seems to be the seeds of the Veronica Buxbaumi. Before we leave the weeds of cultivation we must notice two more little plants, the field madder (Sherardia arvensis), with clusters of minute star-shaped flowers of purplish pink, and the corn campanula (Campanula hybrida) with a small violet flower, flat and open. I believe it is the wild form of the "Venus's looking-glass" of our gardens, but the flower is of a very different shape to that of its near relations, the Canterbury bell (Campanula Trachelium) of the hedgerow, and the dainty Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) which is sprinkled over the turf of the wilder parts of the Downs.

It is this primeval turf that produces the best of our floral riches. Botanists from the lowlands are always enchanted to find growing abundantly, as plentifully as dandelions in spring, the beautiful dark-blue globes of the round-headed rampion (Phyteuma obiculare). This plant is, I believe, only found in Britain, on the chalk hills of southern England.

The field senicio (Senicio campestris) is another uncommon plant which grows plentifully in several places on the Downs. It has a bunch of yellow, daisy-like flowers on a single stem rising from a rosette of hoary-grey leaves.

The prickly family of thistles find in the chalk a congenial soil. Most beautiful of all is the tall musk thistle (Carduus nutans) with its slender stems and heavy drooping purple flowers, beloved of humble bees. Close by is the sturdier growth of the spear, or boar thistle (C. lanceolatus), whose handsome star of close growing leaves will kill the more valuable vegetation of a patch of ground two feet in diameter. Then we have the welted thistle (C. acanthodes); the dwarf thistle (C. acaulis), like large purple buttons in the turf; the lavender creeping thistle (C. arvensis) which sends out a profusion of down in the autumn, but happily, the seeds seldom, if ever germinate. The marsh thistle (C. palustris) is not very appropriately named, for it flourishes in the highest and driest situations. The Carline thistle (Carlina vulgaris), almost suggests an everlasting flower, with its shining bracts, but the close observer will detect within these bracts a ring of wee purple florets. The star thistle (Centaurea calcitrapa) is, strictly speaking, not a thistle at all, but a relation of the purple knapweeds. It is fairly common in waste, chalky places, with its star of thorns stiff enough to give as sharp a prick as those of a gooseberry bush!

Among the gorse bushes are masses of wild honey-suckle, almost oppressively odorous on a summer evening, and wild raspberries may be found in many places, as sweet as the garden fruit, but very small.

Here also, on the edge of the gorse patches, will be seen the low prickly bushes of the burnet rose (Rosa pimpinellifolia), its reddish foliage and cream-coloured flowers often only a few inches in height.

The salad burnet (Poterium sanguisorba) is a very common plant on the Downs, and when the thousand hoofs of an average flock of Southdown sheep have passed by, the aromatic scent of the bruised burnet leaves is very noticeable.

One of the loveliest of our flowers is the hill meadowsweet (Spirea filipendula), with its misty, cream-white flowers, drooping, coral-red buds, and prettily-cut leaves. Where the sheep pass often the herbage is, of course, cropped very closely, but even here we find a good variety of tiny flowers. The milk-wort (Polygala vulgaris) enamels the turf with its pink, crimson, blue and white blossoms; the squinancy wort (Asperula cynanchica) is here; the eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis); the white flax (Linum cathaticum); the wild thyme (Thymus Serpyllum); marjoram (Origanum vulgare); and the self-heal (Prunella vulgaris). Two small gentians are frequent (Gentiana amerella and Gentiana campestris), but their blossoms are of a dull purple, and not at all conspicuous. A prettier flower is their relative the yellow-wort (Chlora perfoliata), its bright yellow stars on a stiff stem which rises peculiarly through the centre of the blue-green leaf.

I have left till last the botanical family which, perhaps, is the most interesting of the Down flora, i.e., the British orchids. Twenty kinds have been gathered within a few miles of the home of the writer.

On the open Downs may be found abundantly the tway-blade (Listera ovata); the ladies' tresses (Spiranthes autumnalis); green-winged meadow orchis (orchis morio); early purple (O. mascula), but generally rather stunted specimens of this latter compared with Shakespeare's "Long purples," of the damper woods and meadows.

The spotted orchis (O. maculata); the fragrant orchis (O. conopsea); the pyramidal orchis (O. pyramidalis); the frog orchis (Habenaria viridis) are all abundant; and, in favourable seasons, the bee orchis (Ophrys apifera) is scarcely less so. In the beech woods that clothe some of the northern escarpments of the Downs we find the large heleborine (Cephalanthera grandiflora); the butterfly orchis (Habenaria bifolia); and the fly (Ophrys mucifera); and occasionally the curious bird's nest orchis (Neottia Nidus-avis), more resembling a broom rape than its gayer relatives. Of the rarer kinds I have become chary of mentioning the habitat. In a weak moment we once confided the secret of the rarest of all to a Fellow of the Linnaean Society, whom we thought quite trustworthy, and soon after he was caught red-handed, trowel in one hand, and one of the few plants of the previous vegetable, root and all in the other! This uprooting of a rare plant is greedy and selfish, and unworthy of a true flower lover.

I have but touched on my subject. The familiar aspects of multitudes of other flowers rise before me, but I have said enough to show that the South Downs are full of interest to the botanist. In a single walk of perhaps three miles, with the help of a little boy of nine, I have found 114 different species, and probably a scientific botanist who can fathom the brambles, the willows, and the hawkweeds, would have found more.

My Band of Hope children, when taught to observe, have learned to distinguish one flower from another, while knowing the names of few of them. One child brough me 119 varieties in a single bunch, collected within a few days, some being water plants from the streams in the Weald. It is quite legitimate Band of Hope teaching to show that pleasure can be found in other things besides "beer and skittles!"

[Band of Hope: "a society promoting lifelong abstention from alcohol among young people." (Collins Dictionary)
"Pleasure can be found in other things besides 'beer and skittles'" is a way of saying, "life isn't all fun and games." Skittles is ninepins (bowling).

Children love collecting flowers, and even tiny ones are quick to notice the different kinds. I have seen a three-year-old, with her little bare feet shod with what she called her "scandals," eagerly searching for plants to add to the family collection.

Gilbert White, in the innocence of his untravelled mind, called the South Downs "majestic mountains." We know this is but flattery, but nevertheless they are hills which are very dear to those whose lines have fallen among their pleasant places.

Typed by happi, Nov. 2020; Proofread by LNL, Apr. 2021