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BEE BREAD, TEETH OF LION & EYE OF DAY

   photo: Phil Stellen, Wikicommons

The gardens and parks of London are for the most part swathes of grass, acres of green, sown, kept, controlled, rolled, cut to a verdant carpet-like perfection. Yet the green of even the most attended to of lawns is sprinkled and patterned with incomers, and the most familiar, most cherished and most recognisable are the clovers, the dandelions and the daisies. As gardening styles have developed and as grass seed mixes have changed, so these native species have evolved to cope. There is nothing of use or interest for the city’s pollinators in the endless green of the capital’s lawns, but there is plenty for them in the ground level pollen and nectar of these three flowers, and many insects make their homes and forage amongst them. A pattern of white or and pinkly-red clover, of detergent-clean daisies and thickly yellow dandelions will sprinkle the grass of any London lawn if given half a chance.

There was once a governor of the Bank of England who was so keen on honeybees and he kept hives on the roof of the Bank itself. Whenever Robin Leigh-Pemberton, governor between 1983 and 1993, needed a break from running the nation’s finances, he would disappear onto the roof, don his beekeeping suit, and tend to his hives. It is difficult to believe, as one approaches the sheer fortress walls of the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street, that at the heart of this building, (a building so vast and secret that it is deeper underground than it is above), is the most pristine of gardens with an immaculately manicured lawn at its centre. Only the Governor himself is allowed to step on the grass of The Governor’s Garden, I was told, though clearly a gardener makes regular visits to keep it crew-cut short and trim the box hedges that surround it. The gardener also has a subversive eye towards wildness, for a bird box is attached high on one of the garden’s trees and feeders are placed for any birds that might find their way into this bucolic courtyard.

I visited the garden with the Bank’s Environmental Manager, to discuss ways in which it could be made wilder, the sterile annuals replaced with pollinator friendly perennials that would support the honeybees in the city’s many hives, and the bumble bees, butterflies, solitary bees, moths and other insects that are to be found wild and plentiful even this deeply in the heart of London. We also talked of how, if insects could be encouraged they would support, in turn, the birds that came to feed on them, the raptors coming to feed on the smaller birds, and so enrich the whole of the City of London’s urban ecology.

It needs very little to transform a lawn into something vibrantly full of wildlife, just a little benign neglect. Marks and Spencer have a building in the very west of London, at Stockley Park. The park is now a high-tech estate with the likes of Apple and Sony housing their UK headquarters there. It is hard by Heathrow Airport and planes loom large as they come in to land. Yet the lakes and lawns and ancient trees of the original park created by Sir John Bennet in the 17th century are still there and make for a surprising flora and fauna rich landscape in which the humming tech giants site their steel and glass buildings. There is a golf course, where the lawns are for the most part rigorously controlled, and there are 140,000 trees including an avenue of age-old limes running right through the estate. There are colonies of feral bees high up in some of the trees, and some keen beekeepers at Marks and Spencer look after three hives in the garden area around their building, a pleasant space where staff go to eat their lunches and a gardening club tends to the pollinator rich planting.

Garden contractors come in to cut the grass across the lawns. When I helped put in the bees hives I had but one request. Please could the gardeners, when they came around on their regular visits to trim the lawns, leave a metre of uncut grass at the edges and let the lawn there become a strip of meadow? It took a while to persuade the gardeners of the value of changing their mowing habits, but now the strips of meadow by the lawns of Stockley Park provide not just forage for the honeybees and other pollinating insects, but also aesthetic, sensual pleasures for staff eating their lunch, taking a breath of fresh air, or just waiting for a bus as they look at the multitudinous flora that now flourishes in the metres of meadow around the perimeters of the well-kept lawns. The scents from the flowers that have taken root, their visual diversity beyond the varied greens of the lawns, and the habitat that has opened up for seeds to be blown in from the plants of the gardening club, or from the beaks or droppings of over-flying birds, have made for a wonderful habitat benefiting plant and insect, bird and human. No doubt seeds occasionally land as they drop from passing airplanes and so add a serendipitous exoticism to the bio-diversity. The rest of the lawn is now not mown as severely as once it was, and the ground covering plants that are too often exterminated by suburban and corporate gardeners in their chimerical search for the perfect lawn, bloom throughout the year and sprinkle the grass with constellations of whites and yellows and pinks. Clovers, dandelions and daisies abound.

Clover

The Royal Horticultural Society says of clovers, and ‘clover-like species’, that they ‘can be a persistent nuisance in lawns, showing an ability to survive close mowing and, in some cases, having a strong resistance to weed killers. They are easily recognised by their trifoliate (3-leafed) leaves.’ Must the clover really be thought of as a nuisance? Can we not change our paradigm and see lawnmowers and weed killers as the true nuisances?

It was Carl Linnaeus, doyen of nineteenth century classification, the man whose ability to divide the entire natural world into narrow categories, and whose ordering is still used for all scientific Latinate naming of living things, who decided that clovers should be classified according to their three leaves and so be in the genus Trifolium - trefoils in English usage. Linnaeus’s obsession with the naming of plants and animals was in part because, as he wrote, ‘if you don’t know the names of things, the knowledge of them is lost too.’ Yet every living thing had a name long before Linnaeus gave them a Latin one, had a name indeed from the moment Homo sapiens developed a language to describe the world they lived in. If you change the names of things the knowledge of them also becomes lost in another way.

Linnaeus divided the world in the now familiar ‘Kingdoms’ of Animal, Vegetable and Mineral. Then into classes, which in turn were subdivided into orders, and orders into families, and families into genera, and genera into species. Below the species is the vexed question of sub-species which will keep beekeepers and botanists arguing late into the night. There are many clovers classified according to the Linnaean system, all within the Trifolium genus. Clovers though always had names long before Linnaeus got to work, and it is those names which over the years have been lost. If the gardeners mowing the lawns at Stockley Park, or the Governor of the Bank of England, knew that a once common name for the White Clover was Bee Bread, maybe they would not be so eager to have it mown and weed-killer-ed out of their grass.

Nectar rich Bee Bread is a staple for all bees but most especially the bumble bee. While the arboreal honeybee is most at home at height and in trees and will feast on the nectar in Stockley Park’s limes, the bumble bee is often a ground dwelling creature and never happier than foraging on the flowers to be found in our lawns. The Bee Bread, or White Clover, or Dutch Clover (Trifolium repens), is just one of many clovers found in our lawns. There are Bird’s-foot Clover, Western Clover, Alsike Clover, Clustered Clover, Strawberry Clover, Upright Clover, the poor old Suffocated Clover, its sessile flowers tucked away close to the ground and beneath its leaves, and there is Red Clover, subject of long and heated debates amongst England’s beekeepers, many of whom believe its deep florets to be ill-shaped for nectar extraction by the honeybee and so only a source of forage for the longer tongued bumble bees which live close by it.

Clover has uses not just for bees. It is an important silage crop for cattle, harvested while green and the kept succulent by partial fermentation in silos – hence silage. It also helps fix nitrogen in the soil and so is a natural alternative to synthetic fertilisers. It is also of course lucky if you can find one with four leaves.

Dandelions

There is something magical about the dandelion. As very small children my friends and I thought they really were from some enchanted realm, that they were the plant of the fairies that would drink on the liquid that was released when you picked a flower and broke the stem. Why else would this plant have milk running through it? And when the yellow flower had gone to be replaced by the round head of gossamer seed pods, surely that too was magic and a reason the seed head was called a fairy clock. Blow and see how many puffs it took for all the seeds to disappear on your breath. That, or the number of seeds left after one blow, was the time in fairy land. The flower itself has very real connections with time, opening an hour after sunrise and closing with the setting of the sun. It really is a rudimentary clock.

And a barometer. The seeds need dry days to be borne by the wind, and so, when rain is coming, the seed head closes like an umbrella only to open again once the wet weather has passed. Each seed head has come from one of the many florets that make up the flower and each has a single-seeded fruit, an achene, that, attached to a pappus of fine hair, can be blown for miles, on the wind or a lover’s breath.

As a child with just one blow and eyes tightly closed, and if all the seeds flew away leaving none behind, you could make a wish and the wish might come true. Later, moving out of the realms of fairy magic and childhood, and into the realms of loving and doting, blowing the seeds away has other meanings. If the seed heads were blown with a mantra of ‘she loves me’ on one breath alternating with ‘she loves me not’ on the next, the final phrase before the last seeds were blown away could break or elate a heart. Those last breaths could be as gentle or as strong as was needed to make the longed-for phrase be the last.

There is some real magic in the milky white sap of the dandelion. As children we used this sticky latex (similar in its make up to the rubber of rubber trees) for cuts and grazes and so had no need to run home for minor scrapes. It has for long been used as a balm for warts and corns. Perhaps our childhood remedy was from atavistic remembrance of ancient folk remedies, or perhaps we learnt through trial and error, or instinct, that nature had put the plant there for us, marking it out with the brilliant yellow flowers amongst expanses of grass and clover.

The yellow is as vibrant as another truth teller of love, the buttercup. A buttercup under the chin will sometimes reflect its colour up onto the neck and if that yellow reflection is seen then you truly are in love. The dandelion flower works in the same way too but, being more golden, is more often thought of as an indicator of future wealth in a child whose chin reflects back its golden colour.

Dandelions are a great source of nectar (though not pollen) for the honeybee, one of the first flowers to bloom in the spring and still in flower as the year comes to an end and everything around it has ceased blooming. When the early settlers brought the honeybee to the Americas, they brought dandelions with them too for their bees to feed on.

It is not just bees that enjoy feeding on the dandelion. Every part of the plant is edible by humans. There is the yellow flower itself, there is the long stem which comes complete with its own milky dressing; and there are the vitamin-rich leaves, the ‘dent-de-lion’ or lions teeth that have become anglicised to give the plant its name. The leaves are more nutritious than spinach and as tasty as their relative chicory.

It was once commonly cultivated in England. In London in the 1890s Richard Jeffries noted that what had once been a country crop had by then become an urban food: ‘In spring the dandelions here [Moseley Lock, Kingston] are pulled in sackfuls to be eaten as salad. It seems now to be an urban food forgotten in the countryside.’ It is one of the simplest and most readily available of forage crops easily found not just in garden lawns but springing up in cracks and concrete throughout the city.

Daisies

‘The daisy, the daisy she sits in the grass

Where little birds nest and the little lambs pass

She grows oh she grows in a fine silver ring

And when there are twelve it is the sweet spring.’

- The Posy Rhyme, Jackie Oates

The daisy is a flower of childhood innocence, of children sitting on summer lawns, picking the flowers and fashioning them into chains, cutting small holes in the stems with a fingernail to thread one onto the other until there are enough for a bracelet or a necklace.  Jackie Oates’ recording is a setting of a song found in Ruth Tongue’s collection ‘The Chime Child’. Tongue who died in 1981 believed herself to be a ‘chime child’, born at the exact ringing of the church bell. This is one of the songs she collected in her native Somerset. ‘We children sang this calendar-dance in Calmington Meadows forming a slow circle with an in-and-out walking step and swinging of arms.’

Daisies are great harbingers of the seasons. If you can put your foot on twelve daisies at once, it is said, then spring has really come, and as Tennyson wrote, ‘In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.’ Lying in the grass, the sun on their back, the lovelorn can pick a daisy and, plucking of the petals one by one, as with the blowing of a dandelion seed head, find out of the object of their affections whether, ‘they love me’, or ‘they love me not.’ The wrong answer may cause the heart to be wounded, but at least the daisy can help to heal physical hurts, having been regarded as a dressing for fresh wounds since time immemorial. It was once called bruisewort or woundwort.

Daisy became a nickname for girls called Margaret, and eventually itself a name for English girls.

‘Daisy, daisy

Give me your answer do.

I’m half crazy,

All for the love of you,’

go the words of Harry Dacre’s music hall song, almost as familiar today as it was when it was written in 1892. There is a bigger daisy, the Ox-Eye Daisy, known by the French, in multi-lingual nominal confusion, as a Marguerite.

Lawns are full of daisies, and they grow so tightly close to the ground that nothing can grow beneath them. Almost impossible to eradicate, even by the most ardent Royal Horticulturalist, it is difficult to imagine an English lawn without them. In Latin it is Bellis perennis meaning ‘everlasting prettiness’ - bella pretty, perennial everlasting. Of the many daisies in the world, this is the common daisy, the English daisy, or the lawn daisy. It was called Mary’s Rose in mediaeval times. The name is a corruption of the ‘day’s eye’ and like the Japanese Tsukususa and the dandelion, they open up their flowers with the coming of the sun and sprinkle the green of the grass lawn with a mirrored heaven of floral stars.  Chaucer said of the flower, ‘Well by reason men it call maie / The Daisie, or else the Eye of the Day’ and you can make out the constellations amongst them if you search amongst their floral stars. Daisies are remarkable in flowering from the first day of spring to the very final day of autumn. On clear summer nights the daisy flowers close up their heads and the constellations come out in the sky above them. They open up again every morning, from the Spring Equinox until the Autumn one, no amount of mowing disturbing them, if anything only helping to spread them across the lawn.

There may be few clovers, dandelions and daisies to be found lurking in the Governors Garden at the Bank of England, but there are plenty to be seen on the eastern edges of London where the Bank has its printing works. Behind razor wire and concrete ramparts of a building where a Bond villain would feel at home, the notes that we use every day, and many of the currencies in use in other countries around the world, roll of the presses. Meanwhile the grassy lawns that surround the high-tech, closely guarded facility have been deliberately allowed to run to meadow. A mower is used just to cut the occasional pathway through the foliage. At the far end of one of these pathways, the workers of the Bank of Englands printing plant keep their bees. The expansive meadow hedged by the railway embankment on one side and the electrified security fences on the others provides a pristine haven for wildlife and more forage than any hive of bees could hope for.