“The world’s adrowse in twilight hushfulness,
There’s purple lilac in your little room,
There’s purple lilac in your little room,
And somewhere out beyond the evening gloom
Small boys are culling summer watercress...”
by Anna Gordon Keown, from “Reported Missing” (1916)
(Copyright: Ladybird Books)
Summer Picture 2
This is likely to be a bit of a shorter post this time as I have already covered several of the elements in earlier posts. This picture shows a shallow water scene – it could be a pond, or a slow-flowing lowland river; the text doesn’t make it clear (and it doesn’t really matter!). A female mallard and her half-fledged brood are foraging in the water below a willow tree. In the tree, a sedge warbler is hunting for insects. Yellow flag-iris is in flower, emerging from the water, alongside some water-cress, also in flower. We looked previously at the flag-iris briefly here, the mallard and the pussy-willow or sallow in the first Spring post here and, latterly, the sedge-warbler here. The yellow flag-iris in my garden pond is at this stage exactly at the moment, so I'm not very far off the mark in my self-imposed timetable for this series of posts.
I didn’t say much about the willow at the time. The two commonest willow species in Britain are probably goat willow (Salix caprea) and grey willow (Salix cinerea), also both known colloquially as pussy willow or sallow). The willow in the picture is described in the accompanying text as sallow-willow, so could be either. The “pussy-willow” fur-like male-catkin buds shown in the Spring picture are long gone by this time of year. Goat willow tolerates drier conditions that grey willow and so may also grow away from water, e.g. along hedgerows, on waste ground, etc, so I am going to assume that the picture shows grey willow.
The New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora (which has been so useful for this series of posts so far) shows that grey willow has a near-ubiquitous distribution when recorded at the 10-kilometre square scale. It is generally a lowland species but is recorded across most of the Highlands too. The New Atlas suggests that the range of this species may be increasing, especially in England and the south of Ireland, although it is difficult to distinguish this as it is so frequent already!
So, the only feature of the painting that I haven’t discussed already is the watercress emerging from the water at the bottom of the picture. Richard Mabey, in Flora Britannica, points out that watercress (Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum) “is the only British native plant which has passed into large-scale commercial cultivation scarcely altered from its wild state”, although for “state”, he clarifies that this should be “states” as there are ten other related species and hybrids, of which three are the main commercial varieties.
I hadn’t appreciated the cultural mark made by watercress down south until I read about it in Flora Britannica – lots of place names in England with “Kers” or “Kes” as a prefix relate to cress-growing. It was so important in Victorian times that special railway lines, the “Watercress lines” were established to take the crop to London (the name has stuck until today for some lines in Hampshire and Lincolnshire).
The aggregate of related species is very widespread in the wild, all across England, Wales and Ireland, and in southern and western Scotland and up the east coast to the Moray Firth and Inverness. The New Atlas reports that the relatively recent untangling of the different species and hybrids (in the 1950s) means that it is difficult to be definitive about any trends in water-cress in Britain. Although there have been some losses since the original Atlas in 1962, it is also clearly still under-recorded in many areas (i.e. no one has been to look for it properly!).
Regular readers will know that I am not averse to a free meal from the wild [Spring posts, passim], but water-cress is an edible wild plant that I avoid, as it comes with the risk of picking up and becoming infected by larvae of the liver fluke Fasciola hepatica, which has a complicated life-cycle including a stage as a parasite in a pond snail, then emerging to live on waterside vegetation (like water-cress). From there, grazing animals (or wild food eaters) can ingest them, and the life cycle is completed in the gut of the host (sheep, cow, foodie, etc) where the larvae damage the liver before emerging in “droppings”. No thanks... there’s lots of other stuff out there to eat! But thanks anyway to the water-cress and its liver flukes for giving me another opportunity to talk about parasites (remember the cuckoo bees from earlier posts? And the cuckoo?).