Country diary: this spring belongs to the red dead-nettle

Claxton, Norfolk: The unexpected super-abundance of one particular plant at this time of year is always a welcome surprise

I’m often struck by the extreme seasonality of many parts of nature. A classic recent example here was a colony of Clark’s mining bees that occupies a wood bank by the path to the marsh. On 20 March it had an almost metropolitan sense of busyness. Hundreds, if not thousands, of insects were everywhere – flying, mating, burrowing, pollen-gathering and burying.

The whole stretch was pitted with holes and 5mm-high mounds of “mine tailings” composed of the crumbly soil where the bees had dug out egg chambers, to which they trafficked leg-loads of sallow pollen as food for young. Yet I went to check on 5 April and it was not only deserted but the vegetation had so smothered the earthworks that within days you wouldn’t know they had ever been there.

Another example of this seasonal brevity is the recent blooming of common whitlow grass. Everyone has seen it, if only in their dreams, since it best registers at a subliminal level. It is the ground-hugging crucifer that loves curbs, curtilage, concrete, cracks and construction sites. The 2mm flowers create that white pointillist flush in early April, which brings unaccustomed delicacy to the crash barrier on a motorway’s central reservation. The flowers come and go over a two-week period, adding a ha’p’orth of reassurance that the world is turning truly.

Then there is another kind of seasonality that is less regular but more dramatic. It’s the unexpected super-abundance of one particular plant. Sometimes it’s buttercups, and 2010 was one of their last big years. Spring 2019, however, belongs to the red dead-nettle. I’ve never noticed such a flowering, but would love to understand what causes this change of behaviour in a plant that’s already widespread and highly adaptable.

Red dead-nettle is a total misnomer. The flowers are magenta and in Claxton nothing could be more vibrant and quick-growing. To fulfil someone’s obsessive notions of tidiness, our village green suffers an all-too-frequent mow that wastes both carbon and money. Mercifully, within days, red dead-nettle, daisies and dandelions have practised the forgiveness of nature and restored colour and the sound of bees and sight of butterflies to a shorn, lifeless space.


Mark Cocker

The GuardianTramp

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