Finding the time and inspiration to write a regular column can be tough when there are so many other distractions – work, sports, kids – all eating into the schedule.
But with an article to pen each month, I must make time to put myself among nature and just observe. It’s sad that it should come to this – that a pending deadline be the main driver for me to lose myself in the countryside, but at least it guarantees I get out.
This month, my wanderings have taken me up and down the Valley Trail, the site of the old railway line to Long Melford and beyond, and now a wonderful tree-lined track, free of motor vehicles and full of wild flora. The Sudbury Common Lands Charity volunteers manage this rural byway – keeping it accessible for people and creating gaps in the canopy for light to get through and encourage wildflowers to flourish.
In one woodside verge, I spy the spiky seed heads of greater burdock – those thistle-like balls that attach themselves to your clothing when you are out for a walk. As kids we loved to throw them at each other or furtively attach a few to the jumper of an unsuspecting passerby. It is a pastime that children down the ages have enjoyed and has led to nicknames for the burdock seed head, such as ‘Sticky Jack’ or ‘Sticky Bobs’.
Some communities take the adhesion of burdock burrs to people to extremes. In Edinburgh, for example, the summer ritual of the Burry Man has been running for centuries. It involves someone being covered head-to-foot in the seed heads with only eyeholes and a mouth hole exposed. One account I read said it took two hours to cover a man in the burrs. Once suitably smothered, they are taken house to house – presumably in search of a sympathetic neighbour who might help them take a drink through a straw.
However, these hooked seed heads have evolved for other reasons than to enhance children’s games and maintain ancient costumes. The clever design enables the plant to disperse its seeds by attaching themselves to the fur of passing animals who will carry them to a new location.
It’s all clever stuff, and an evolutionary adaption that, as the story goes, piqued the interest of Swiss engineer, Georges de Mestral – the inventor of the zip-free fastener Velcro.
Apparently, after a hunting trip in the Swiss Alps in the 1940s, de Mestral spent a long time removing the burdock burrs from his dog’s coat. Engineering curiosity got the better of him and before long he was examining the burrs under a microscope, discovering they had tiny hooks which allowed the seeds to catch on to things.
It’s a great example of biomimicry – nature inspiring industrial design – and De Mestral named his invention Velcro – a combination of the French words velours (velvet) and crochet (hook).
On a nearby exposed, sunny mound I see a gathering of harebells, beautiful lilac summer blooms and one of UK’s most charming and delicate wildflowers.
One tale I’ve heard is that the name harebell comes from their tendency to grow where hares are seen – and it’s true in this instance for these are near my favourite hare-watching spot. I’ve also heard them called ‘witches’ thimbles’ because in olden times it was believed that witches were able to turn themselves into hares.
In the same spot stands a cluster of common toadflax, a widespread wildflower, also known as ‘butter and eggs’ due to their yellowy colouring.
I’ve read the name Toadflax originates from the resemblance of the mouth of the flower to the wide mouth of a toad. These flowers resemble snapdragons and for some smaller insect pollinators this mouth can be difficult to penetrate, but the larger bumblebees are strong enough to get their tongues deep inside the throats of flowers and get to the nectar.
Moths are also attracted to the flower including the aptly named toadflax pug moth – a beautiful black and brown moth who’s caterpillars feed on the flowers and seed pods.
So much beauty and folklore in three plants – I must get out more.
For more articles about wildlife in and around Sudbury visit sudburycommonlandscharity.org/
Ross Bentley, Trustee of the Sudbury Common Lands Charity