I don’t want to romanticize the British countryside—enough people will do that without my help—but British wildflowers are enough to tempt me. They grow along the roads, in the hedges, in the stone walls, in the fields if they can, in the garden if you’ll let them, anyplace a teaspoonful of soil gives them a place to sink their roots. When I first moved here from Minnesota, never mind their beauty, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of them.
Trying to keep track of things you have no name for, it turns out, is next to impossible, and I’ve gradually learned to name the most common ones. I’ve written about that elsewhere, so I won’t repeat the tale here except to say that I settle for the broadest categories. I can’t tell the one speedwell from the next and forget about all those yellow things that look like dandelions but aren’t (hawkweed, hawkbit, cat’s-ear…).
In late June, the “Plantwatch” column in the Guardian wrote about the roadside verges— if you’re not British, those are the stretches of land that run beside the roads—as wildflower refuges. It was one of those things I’d known but hadn’t known, since the thought didn’t come in any form I could use. I hadn’t put words to it. I’d seen the flowers growing there, I’d been struck by their richness, but thinking of the verges as refuges changed the way I see them.
So every day I walk the dog past wildflower refuges.
It turns out that almost half the native plants in Britain—700 species—grow on the verges. It’s perfect habitat: unplowed, unfertilized, unweed-killered, and for long stretches of time, unmowed. Basically, the plants are left along to do what they know how to do.
Before modern medicine, the verges and hedges, as well as being beautiful, were as drugstores. Hedge woundwort is a mild antiseptic. St. John’s wort—now sold as an herbal antidepressant—was used for treating wounds, and modern research shows that it is, in fact, an antibacterial. Valerian was used as a mild sedative, and you can still buy it in health food stores. Scurvywort is full of vitamin C and was used to treat (predictably) scurvy. It’s become more widespread since they started salting roads after a snow, which creates perfect conditions for it. Dyer’s greenweed was used to treat gout. I don’t know how well it worked. Some of the herbal medicines worked reasonably well. Others—let’s just say they gave patients something to think about while they were sick. Maybe it took their minds off their problems for a while.
I have no idea who measures these things, but if you put the verges all together they’d cover the Isle of Wight. How big is the Isle of Wight? Interesting you should ask, since I just happened to google it: 380 square kilometers. What’s that in miles? You don’t want someone like me pretending to answer a question like that.
But forget the numbers. The roadside verges are a treasure chest—one that’s easy to overlook because they’re just, you know, sitting there beside the roads, with no signs, no warnings, and no admission fees.