All along our chalk downs, as autumn draws on, the fluffy seed heads of Old Man’s Beard (Clematis vitalba) cover the hedges, with the sun behind giving them a glistening halo. Its liana-like stems sometimes overwhelm even small trees.
This is our native clematis, common where the soil is chalky. The stems were used, from as recently as Victorian times, as a tobacco substitute by the rural poor.
In scrub and woodland beneath this bright canopy the striking fruits of a native iris Gladdon or Roast Beef Plant (Iris foetidissima) shine out of the gloom. The rich deep red of the leaves and stems of Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea) has begun to develop…
…and, as ever, the Gorse (Ulex europaeus) is in bloom on the acid ground of the downs tops.
It used to be that both types of Gorse were equally common, in 1850, but Dwarf Gorse (Ulex minor) is now quite rare and found only on a few fragments of surviving heathland, like parts of St George’s Down and Parkhurst Forest.
It is a low growing, softer, more flexible plant with flowers of lemon rather than egg-yolk yellow.
Both species spread their seed by explosive release and, on a good day, it can sound like a distant fusillade of gunfire.
There are Rose hips in the hedges and the crimson fruit of Wild Arum (Arum maculosum) at their feet.
The rose hip was collected for its valuable vitamin C content during the war, being used in rose hip syrup. There are many species of wild rose and they can only be identified with any confidence when they are in fruit. Further difficulty is caused by the frequent hybrids and their unequal inheritance of characters from the parent species.
Arum fruit are poisonous but from the root a substitute for arrowroot used to be made in Dorset called ‘Portland Sago’. This was considered a delicacy and was even sent up to London from the Isle of Portland.
On the sides of the downs, on clay heaths and lawns the inconspicuous flowers of the Autumn Ladies-tresses Orchid (Spiranthes spiralis) can be found. Usually only about six inches high (15 cm) and in a very narrow spike.
Many of the houses and bungalows around Lake, near Sandown, have this orchid. Their lawns are thought to have been taken from nearby Brading Down and still contain several of the species which grow there. Most of the properties were built during the middle years of last century.
Pink and orange together are often considered to clash horribly, the Spindle tree (Euonymus europaeus) , however, pulls it off beautifully and is a welcome sight at this time of year in scrub, hedges and woodland on the chalk.
The wood is hard and durable and, when the making of yarn was a familiar necessity, provided the best spindles for spinners.
Another startling contrast is to be seen in both the flowers (purple and yellow) and the fruit (green, yellow and red as they mature) of Woody Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara). The shape of the flower resembles an Arabian Nights turban, like those of other members of the Solanaceae, the Potato family.
The common Bryony of our hedgerows is Black Bryony (Tamus communis) which has a twining stem, large glossy heart-shaped leaves which overlap each other down the vine and bright red berries.
Unrelated and much less common here is the White Bryony (Bryonia dioica) with soft green palmate leaves with five lobes and tendrils like upholstery springs with which it scrambles over other plants. This also has bright red berries but is usually found only near the centre of the Island. It is a member of the Cucumber family.
You may be familiar with the Viburnums grown in gardens but do you know our two native species? They are Wayfaring tree (Viburnum lantana) and Guelder Rose (Viburnum opulus) both with heads of cream coloured flowers and, in autumn, clusters of red berries.
Guelder Rose can be told from the entire-leaved Wayfaring tree by its deeply divided softly hairy leaves. The smell of the bark, when damaged, earned it the country name of ‘Stinktree’ on the Isle of Wight.
Probably this pong is a defence developed by the plant to deter herbivores like squirrels and deer from bark-stripping, which can kill a tree by cutting off the flow of sap up the stem.
Talking of which…, if you happen to find Hazel (Corylus avellana) nuts looking like this it might be worth looking up!
They are characteristic of Red Squirrel…