December 1, 2020

Country diary: the ravishing dishevelment of tall herbs

Rowberrow Warren, Somerset: Hemp-agrimony, the Miss Havisham of this vegetation type, is my favourite – and Flo the horse loves it too

The flowering plants lining the track through the forest are now up to my elbows, and I’m riding a horse. This is the tall herb community – the most voluptuous and ravishing of our vegetation types, recalling an unruly Gertrude Jekyll border. Plants of edges, fringes and clearings, they flourish where they find damp soil and sunlight, growing vigorously in spring, flowering wildly through summer and dying back in winter.

At the front, reaching no farther than Flo the horse’s belly, are the bold golden daisies of common fleabane (Pulicaria dysenterica). The disc of this flowerhead is proportionately large compared with the rays, giving the impression of a cheerful clown-like smile. Great willowherb (Epilobium hirsutum) flowers have four crumpled hot-raspberry petals with a pure white cross (the stigma) in the centre. The clean lines and sharp colours are paired with a fruitily tempting perfume – another name for it is codlins and cream (codlins being cooking apples).

The wild valerian (Valeriana officinalis) has an air of mystery – its loose heads of tiny flowers are so white that they appear to be glowing in the dark in broad daylight. This may be due to the faintest shade of violet that they have, suggesting an ultraviolet fluorescence. The marsh thistle (Cirsium palustre) has the royal purple heads of its kind and standoffish prickles running in spiky ruffles around every leaf and stem. Each intricate pleat and point is delicately edged with purple in a startling close-up detail.

But my favourite is the lofty hemp-agrimony, Eupatorium cannabinum, the Miss Havisham of herbs. Its airy stems are clothed in ragged leaves of faded sage green and its flowerheads look like an elegant hairdo ravaged by time and neglect. The shaggy flowers are usually a faded rose but in the huge colonies here there are also bolder ones of blush pink with purple stems.

Hemp-agrimony is also Flo’s favourite, and when she thinks I’m not looking she nips off their tops, attracted, I assume, by the nectar that also draws in the insects. Soon this vegetation will fade into seed, like the summer, but while it lasts the tall herbs are the glory of the season.