Flowers which are wonders of our woodlands

Robin Hood, legend of Sherwood Forest, at a time when the British countryside was defined by vast tracts of trees which have since been ruthlessly cleared by centuries of intense human activity.

No wonder Prince Charles is encouraging a "plant a tree for the jubilee" campaign to mark the Queen's forthcoming 70 years on the throne and reverse some of the ravages of the landscape.

Or not, as the case may be.

Because according to author Alan Waterman, today's rural English landscape isn't that much different to that which was surveyed by the Ancient Britons.

"By the time of the Roman invasion, the English countryside had lost 50 per cent of its woodland and would have looked quite similar to how it looks today in terms of fields, woods, and little villages," he says.

"On the uplands were moors and heaths and where it was chalky, there was downland.

"Woodland probably covered only about 10 to 20 per cent of the land, which is much less than most people would think.

"It is a common view that there were vast amounts of woodland in the country until quite recently. Legends such as those of Robin Hood have fostered the false notion that swathes of England were made up of deep, dark forests, but in fact the proportion of woodland in England 2,000 years ago was about the same as is presently found in France.

"Most, if not all, of that ancient woodland was either being managed or had been managed at some point, so even then the possibility of 'wild wood' existing is quite remote, 'wild wood' being a woodland that has developed after the last Ice Age, self-perpetuated with natural regeneration and complete unaffected by man."

And after the Romans had got their hands on the woodland, there was even less.

"By the time the Romans left, the amount of woodland remaining was probably below 10 per cent."

With the Romans gone, woodland recovered somewhat, and by the late 11th century, according to the Domesday Book, about 15 per cent of the land was wooded, followed by a steady decline over the next 900 years.

But the 20th century brought a resurgence with the creation of the Forestry Commission and its mass planting, so that now woodland as a percentage of land area is back to levels last seen around the 14th century.

Alan, who is the retired director of a field study centre, has now teamed up with Ludlow publishing outfit Merlin Unwin Books for a book which shows how woodlands have been shaped by human history and to showcase their great glories, their wild flowers, for which many folk have "country names."

"It is especially relevant for Shropshire, with some wonderful woodlands throughout the county," said Lydia Unwin of the publishers.

Alan says his mother's name for Greater Stitchwort was "Shirt Buttons."

"It has some other common names, such as Wedding Cake and, confusingly, Star of Bethlehem as there are several other plants also referred to by that name.

"My mother did not have a huge knowledge of wild flowers, but she could put names to quite a few and often these were old-fashioned names, such as Peggles for Cowslips."

Alan shines the spotlight on over 170 woodland flowers through the seasons, quite a few of which have been used medicinally for folk remedies, or have edible parts, although there is the rather important disadvantage that if you misidentify a poisonous plant and eat it you may die.

He spends his time studying wild plants, taking photographs of them, and travelling throughout Britain and Europe in search of specimens.

"An interest in woodland wild flowers is an absorbing hobby which can lead from simple identification to travelling to find elusive ones, to photography, to historic research, to etymology and onwards, and it can last an absorbing lifetime," he said.

Woodland Wild Flowers Through The Seasons is published by Merlin Unwin Books and is hardback, priced £20.

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