The Sudbury Common Lands are now well and truly grazed off; the cattle having carried out their task to maintain these famous pastures as open grasslands. Steeped in fascinating history, the grazing records for these lands stretch back into the medieval period. With each passing year the weather patterns become more irregular and uncertain and summer temperatures continue to creep ever upwards and periods of drought are followed by storms.
From spring to autumn, the riverside displays a pageant of floral colour, but as late summer arrives many flowers have faded, and plants have completed their growth cycles to produce seeds to ensure that their kind will continue next year. However, all is not lost. Keats famously penned ‘and still more, later flowers for the bees until they think warm days will never cease’ in his beautiful Ode to Autumn. While common fleabane and perennial sow thistle provide wonderfully bright splashes of colour later in the year as well as the nectar and pollen eagerly sought after by bees, there are other shyer flowers such as skullcap still blooming. However, Keats’ lines could aptly apply to the late dazzle of colour associated with the gorgeous purple loosestrife. This is what gardeners would call a statement plant, big, bold, and brassy, and utterly stunning. It a long-lived perennial that begins to flower in July but continues to send up long wands of rich mauve spires of blossoms well into September. The spires consist of densely packed whorls of six flowers from top to bottom of the stem and when this perennial plant has grown to a good size it can put out dozens of spires to create a truly wonderful and vigorous canvas of colour.
Although the plant can be very common along the damp margins of ditches, streams, and rivers, it ensures its survival through specialised evolutionary development whereby it has three distinct arrangements of stamens and stigmas on separate plants. When a bee or moth with a suitably long proboscis visits the flowers of a particular loosestrife to collect the nectar, the pollen is dusted onto the tongue in the right position for the stigmas on the two other kinds of loosestrife flowers to receive them. In this way the vigour of the species is ensured, and future plants will continue to grace the margins of our watercourses.
In the past, many plants had specific uses and although oak bark was usually used in the leather tanning process, the juice of purple loosestrife was also favoured because of its high tannin content.
Although a native plant to much of England, apart from the north it is not so welcome in other parts of the world to which it has been introduced. This is the case with so many plants and animals which evolved over millions of years to exploit a particular ecological niche. Then we came along and upset the balance of nature – big time!
Adrian Walters, Clerk to the Trustees of the Sudbury Common Lands Charity and Honorary Freeman of Sudbury