I love hedgerows! As you walk alongside one you see different leaf shapes, flowers and fruits constantly changing as the variety of hedgerow shrubs intermingle with each other. Occasionally you encounter other plants using the shrubs for support and one of the most common are the long strands of the white bryony (Bryonia dioica).
The white bryony is a member of the marrow family and climbs in hedgerows by the use of tendrils which wind themselves around the host shrub's branches but, in so doing, they do the host no harm. The stems are very long, thin strands and could certainly not grow upwards without support. Along the strands a series of cream or pale green flowers erupt, interestingly the male flowers are on different plants to the female flowers. The female flowers turn into bright red berries later in the year. The berries are poisonous and they should not be eaten; indeed, if they are squeezed they can cause ulcers or rashes on the skin.
White bryony is quite common in hedgerows on chalk/lime soils. It could possibly be confused with the totally unrelated black bryony but the leaves of each are very different. The white bryony has large, pale, three lobed leaves whilst the black has glossy dark green heart shaped ones. There are other differences too when one looks closely.
Black Nightshade: the wonder berry
Black nightshade (Solanum nigrum) is one of those plants that were once very comon in our fields but now less so as modern agricultural methods reduce the 'weeds' that grow amongst crops. If the flower appears familiar it is because it is closely related to the potato and tomato. Black nightshade produces black berries and that is, presumable, where it gets its name as not other part of the plant is black although the stems can turn dark when the plant is fully grown.
Like other members of the nightshade family the berry is not good for you so leave them alone! They are poisonous although you have to eat a lot of them for it to be fatal. The whole plant can be toxic to livestock so this is not a popular plant with farmers.
That said, in some places in the world the leaves and shoots are boiled as a vegetable and it is used for all sorts of medicinal purposes around the world. It is even grown as a crop in parts of India. Like many 'weeds' it has a number of different local names and these include garden nightshade, hound's berry, petty morel and even wonder berry; I wonder why? Perhaps it is because you look at the berry and wonder whether you should eat it or leave it alone ...
Field Bindweed: our ladys wine glass
Field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) can be a little deceiving in that the flowers can be pure white, pure pink or a combination of the two! It can be told from the hedge bindweed and large bindweed primarily because it has a smaller flower and tends to be prostrate on the ground rather than entwined in hedges. Sea bindweed has flowers of similar size and colour but sea bindweed grows on dunes and shingle by the sea; field bindweed can occur near the sea too!
All the bindweeds are pretty vigorous weeds and they are somewhat despised which is a shame as they have lovely flowers but they really can be a problem and virtually impossible to eradicate if they get in to the wrong place. Field bindweed is fast growing and can choke most other vegetation growing near it. It also forms quite large mats which prevent even grass from growing beneath it! Add to its list of faults that it is mildly toxic to grazing animals and it easy to see why it is unwelcome on farms and in gardens.
This plant is sometimes known as "Our Lady's Wine Glass" because of its delicate funnel shaped flower and the tinge of wine colouring in the petals.
Honeysuckle: where the bee sucks
The lovely honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum) is a feature of our hedgerows in mid-summer. This complex flower head, with its strong perfume, is quite common across Dorset. Honeysuckle flowers from June through to September but it is July when it is really at its best. You can find it almost anywhere where the soil is acid and it occurs in woods, scrubby areas, hedgerows and even amongst rocks. It is a climbing plant and needs support so favours woodland edges and hedges but is happy to use just about anything it can find to lean on. It actually is a twining plant rather than a climbing plant if you see what I mean!
In September these flowers will produce red globular berries which are poisonous so best not used for home made wine perhaps?
Ivy: the autumn feast
Now ivy (Hedera helix) is not a plant I have ever had much time for; it's common, it's green, it's boring. Well that is maybe what I have thought all these years but, whilst looking for the Ivy bee, I started looking at Ivy itself. Agreed it is common, you can find it just about anywhere, in woods climbing trees or carpeting the ground, in hedgerows, on walls and buildings, just about anywhere it has something to climb on. And, yes,it is also green! Not only the leaves but also the complex flower heads with their yellowish green colouring.
But boring? Hardly! The flowers come out in September and last through until November, a time when there are few other flowers around, and at this time it becomes a vital nectar source for late summer and autumn insects. These flowers will soon produce black berries which will feed birds and small mammals through the winter. Find a mass of ivy in September or October and just watch the bees, wasps, havoerflies, butterflies and all sorts of insects tucking in.
Ivy is not a parasitic plant but does thrive by climbing on other larger plants, trees and shrubs. The question is, does ivy kill its host by doing this? There seems to be differing popular views on this. Many people belive that it does and call for it to be cut down whilst others say it only thrives on trees that are already dying and, because the host is producing less leaves there is more light to encourage the Ivy growth. Ivy certainly grows best on dead trees where it has both support and light which gives the impression it kills trees but the second view point is the one accepted as being the true case.
Ivy is a very important plant in our natural system and we should destroy it at our peril!