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Terry Underhill                 ©

PAGE 1 - Colour

 PAGE 2 - What is British?

PAGE 3 -  Waterwise trends

NB - An example of my writings

What is British?

1988-zz.JPG (50933 bytes)

Mimulus guttatus from N.America

My wife and I made a special effort to watch every episode of ‘River Cottage’ and ‘Return to River Cottage’ on Channel 4. It was a very refreshing series of programmes, full of hints, advice and information on self-sufficiency, without any silly sentimentality about animals. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall regularly visited a farmers’ market, so I thought that I would at least go along to one in my locality. If I had a Union Jack tee-shirt, I might have worn it as I made my way to the market, almost chanting "Buy British, support the British farmer."

Having heard and read so much about farmers getting very little for their produce, and that supermarkets were putting extortionate mark ups on their produce, I was expecting to find a bustling large market with prices the same as or below supermarket prices. Everything was more expensive, so, except for a couple of pounds, sorry a kilo, of different sausages, we came home almost empty handed. Perhaps it was a bad day.

On the way home, I began to think about ‘What is British?’ A very difficult question when it comes to firms involved with multi-nationals and take-overs. It is nearly as difficult as trying to decide what is a British plant?

100 million years ago, in the Cretaceous period, Oaks, Planes, Poplars and Willows grew across Britain, but the dominant plants were ferns and mosses. It took a further 40 million years before flowering plants gained the ascendancy. The sticky London clay of the Pleiocene period of the Tertiary age (54 - 38 million years ago) contains fossils mostly of tropical genera and about 10% of temperate Ginkgo and Sequoia relatives. The next period, Oligocene (38-26 million years ago) saw the development of sedges, poppies, and buttercups, and, as the climate began to go colder, oaks, beeches, hornbeams and pines. By the time the Ice age began to bite, (2 million years ago) deposits show alder, birch, maple, hornbeam, yew, oak, pine, spruce, elm and beech in abundance. Deposits from one million years ago show that the ‘nuisance’ weeds of bindweed, chickweed, dock and couch grass were about, but not gardeners!

Not all of Britain was covered by glaciers, although the Southern districts were still bitterly cold. Generally speaking only the toughest of grasses, sub-shrubs and lichens survived, although there were enough sheltered spots to keep alive the majority of plants once covering all of Britain. Scots pines moved South, and as the glaciers began to recede sixteen thousands years ago so the Pines, disliking warmth, began to spread North. Wild horses, reindeer, bison, mammoth, and sabre-tooth tiger roamed our Pine, Birch and Willow forests. Plants were also creeping into Britain from Europe until about 1000BC when the North sea made Britain an Island.

Our flora then of some 270 species was something similar to that of present-day Scandinavia.

Very soon after the Ice Age ended came Erica ciliaris, Erica tetralix, Autumn Crocus, Bluebells, Welsh Poppies and Gorse. Since then the British Flora has increased slowly to about 2000 species, of which nearly 500 are classified as non-natives - introduced. 130 species from Central Europe to N. Africa include Daphne laureola, Snowdrops, many orchids, Woad, Honeysuckle, Mint, Viburnum and Lesser Periwinkle. Plants from Central and E Europe, which tend to be concentrated in S.E and W. England include Pulsatilla, Hornbeam, Snake’s head Fritillary, Box, Maidenhair Fern and Osmunda Fern.

Britain being and Island to the far West of Europe restricted the spread of species leaving France with four times more species, and Greece over seven times more.

The Ice Age pushed the Mediterranean Strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo, Mediterranean Heath, Erica erigena, and St Dabeoc’s Heath, Daboecia cantabrica, off mainland Britain, leaving some in Southern Ireland, from where they have never spread back to Britain. However Mediterranean Pimpernels, Spurges, St John’s Wort, Scilla autumnalis and Helianthemums did.

Man has introduced a surprising number of species which most people think are British natives. The Romans brought the Stone Pine, Pinus Pinea, its seeds, mixed with dried grapes, being highly nutritious for marching centurion soldiers. They also introduced Sweet Chestnuts and Figs. Walnuts, along with grape vines, came around 300AD, and someone introduced Sycamores in the 14th century. Clusius helped the spread of Horse Chestnuts from Constantinople in the early 1600's. Cherry Laurel was introduced in 1629, Larch, from the Alps, was planted at Dunkeld in 1738, and Rhododendron ponticum came from Eastern Europe in 1763

Until the 17th century, only a few tall Scots Pines and Spruce trees punctuated the skyline of the British landscape, when Redwoods, Arbor Vitae and Swamp Cypresses were introduced from America, soon to be followed by Hemlocks from Canada. Buddleia was only discovered by Augustine Henry in 1887.

Valeriana of the hedgerows was introduced by Roman Physicians, and Saffron Crocus by the Moors from S.Spain in the 15th century. Since then we have from N.America Pink Purslane, yellow Mimulus Monkey Flower, Evening Primrose, Michaelmas Daisies, and the yellow Tree Lupin from California.

Mediterranean introductions include Sweet Alison, Love in a Mist, the purple Gladiolus italicus, Balm, Fennel, the pure-white Greater Bindweed, Soapwort and Corncockle. The Bermuda Buttercup comes from S.Africa as does the trailing succulent Hottentot Fig. The white and pink daisy-flowered Mexican Fleabane is well established in the South and West counties. The red-spotted Monkey Flower, Mimulus luteus, comes from Chile , and we now have a nationwide problem with the very pernicious Knotweeds from Japan and Eastern Asia.

Introduced plants rarely support native wild life, and can get out of control. Their introduction into the wild should therefore be avoided.

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