Visitors to Sudbury’s common lands are initially struck by the views: the sweeping pastures, the herds of cattle spread across the landscape, the line of coloured cottages along the millstream.
But as with all natural places, much of the true splendour of our water meadows can be found at a micro-level. The closer you look, the more beauty and fascination you can find.
I was thinking this recently as I stood on the iron bridge over a water-filled ditch on North Meadow Common, looking for late summer wildflowers that, despite the intense heat and drought we have experienced, are still showing. So many plants and flowers to see – so much natural and social history attached to each species.
Since the 1980s our rangers have restored numerous ditches and ponds on the riverside pastures. Although these are connected to the main river, their length and distance away from the main river flow means the water quality can be substantially better than in the River Stour.
But the ditches require on-going maintenance in order to retain their wildlife value, so most winters, the Sudbury Common Lands Charity hires an excavator for a couple of days to remove sediments from the channels and build up the banks. This prevents the march of succession which would see the channels filling with surprising rapidity, first to marshy ground and eventually to low areas which will fill only seasonally with water and often be dry for much of the summer.
Codlins and triffids
Probably the most abundant wildflower at this location is great willowherb - sometimes called 'hairy willowherb' because of its downy stem. This is hinted at in its scientific name Epilobium hirsutum - hirsutus being Latin for shaggy or hairy.
The old country name for great willowherb is 'codlins-and-cream'. Codlins is an old word for cooking apples – the name likening the skin of an apple to its rosy pink flowers, which boast creamy centres. The plant was also known as 'Apple-pie' and 'Cherry-pie', for the same reason.
Here, there are also several impressive mounds of greater tussock-sedge - one of the UK's largest species of sedge with tussocks that can reach over one metre high. The grass is not rare, but only grows in suitable habitats with its roots in water or very boggy ground – providing a perfect hiding place for water voles and other aquatic species.
According to the terrific Flora Britannica by Richard Mabey, these tussocks were sometimes cut, trimmed, and used as fireside seats or kneelers in church. I also read somewhere that the odd towers each plant grows into as it gets older are said to have inspired John Wyndham’s terrifying Triffids – marching plants that take over the world.
Jewels and loosestrife
When we talk about plants taking over, today we are usually talking about invasive species – plants that were brought over to our shores by enthusiasts and collectors. We are all aware of Himalayan balsam, arguably one the UK’s most ‘successful’ invasive non-native species but fewer are aware of its lesser-known cousin orange balsam.
But here I found some – a striking flower, apparently known as Touch-Me-Not in the USA because of its exploding seed pods that at the right time can go off at the slightest contact.
Orange balsam was brought over from North America to Europe in the 19th century as an ornamental plant and was also known as orange jewelweed owing to its beautiful orange helmeted flowers. It was first recorded as having become naturalised in Surrey 1822 and has since slowly spread across the UK.
Mabey says that orange balsam has been able to colonise our water system due to its highly efficient seed dispersal system. Its seeds are light enough to float on water and “once launched they float off like tiny coracles” until they lodge in a muddy bank.
Nearby are colourful magenta spikes of purple-loosestrife that at this point in the season have lost some of their flowers but little of their wow factor.
Purple-loosestrife is a widespread plant of marshes and riversides and feature alongside dogrose and willow in Millais’ famous Pre-Raphaelite painting of Ophelia drowning in a river.
As for the name, Mabey tells us that loosestrife is a literal translation from ancients Greeks who believed it could be used to stop stubborn cattle from restraining at yoke.