Wednesday, 19 January 2022

Returning to an old haunt in search of botanical rarities

Returning to an old haunt in search of botanical rarities

HAVING not been there for some years, my friend Dave Kenny and I decide to visit Warburg nature reserve at Bix Bottom. We are not disappointed.

The deep and attractive lane that winds towards the neat little car park beyond Pages Farm eventually skirts some enticing woodland to the east.

The moss-ankled oak trees on the steep hillside that I recall are still there together with the odd whitebeam but then I remember they look best in winter as snow falls. Today it is early June and much warmer.

Recalling that I first set foot here 39 years ago, having been introduced by some friends who are no longer with us, Dave and I go in search of some botanical rarities.

I love this place. After only a few steps from the car park we are presented with a great view along an old flower-strewn rifle range.

I would love to spend a good few hours here but time is of the essence and we press on up a gentle incline to turn westwards into another sun-drenched glade.

We are on the lookout for the bee, greater and lesser butterfly orchids. The butterfly orchid’s candle-wax white flowers should make them stand out but trying to spot them is made harder by the huge display of chalkland flowers.

As we make our way along this fragrant ride full of yellow rattle, bugle, self-heal, rock rose, marjoram, silverweed, bird’s-foot-trefoil and thyme, we stop to watch a rare male adonis blue butterfly (Polyommatus bellargus) as it flits between the flowers.

The males are a show-stopping vibrant blue with an exquisite white fringe on their wings.

As the ride narrows towards a patch of woodland, we are arrested by the presence of some native lime (or linden) trees.

They could be broad-leaved (Tilia platyphyllos), the rarer of our two natives as they are devoid of the hairy red leaf axils that define the small-leaved (Tilia cordata).

Until they flower I won’t know for sure — the small leaved tree’s flowers stand upright, the broad leaved tree’s hang.

Whatever they are, they are handsome and I love the way the sunlight shines through their leaves.

As the path enters the shade of hazel and whitebeam, we encounter a sessile oak, its big leaves dwarfing those of its cousin the English oak. In autumn the leaves are redolent of tannin.

Just below I spot a sturdy pair of fly orchids (Ophrys insectifera). They are both about 1ft tall with plenty of their mysterious wasp-like flowers.

We cross rugged Hatch Lane that leads up to our right and on to Maidensgrove Common and enter a wide clearing. The classic meadow scene is repeated. Big Ashes Plantation looms to the right, silver birch and dogwood occupy the voids left by an old conifer plantation to our left. We turn south and once again enter the cover of trees.

In late July I expect to find broad-leaved helleborines, another stately orchid. Today, this woodland is resplendent with shade-tolerant grasses and a mass of male ferns.

We drop down into another very old lane. Normally boggy. it is now dry and dusty. In this dark recess yellow archangel is still in flower, bluebells over. A turn to the left along a badger track that I remember leads to a narrow permissive path that goes up and over substantial tree roots amid swathes of dog’s mercury.

Apart from the sound of willow warblers and chiffchaffs, there is nothing to hear, no murmur of traffic, no hum of aeroplanes and, sadly, no cuckoo call either.

A white helleborine is fruiting among the green carpet. Alas, we’re too late to find it in full bloom.

There is a splendid view to the north from here, the valley deep, the hill rising into the distance.

All of a sudden we find ourselves in another open area and Dave calls me. He has found a greater butterfly orchid (Platanthera chlorantha). We look around and spot many more of them. Wonderful.

We leave open skies once more and enter a really old patch of woodland. Ancient beech, sessile oak, hornbeam, cherry and yew stand on guard above the chicken-wire protecting helleborines from deer.

We slip down a public footpath on our way back to the car park. Along the track below we pass a solid colony of green hellebore (Helleborus viridis), another scarce plant.

We head home but not before stopping for a restorative drink at the Rainbow pub in Middle Assendon. The landlord is welcoming and so is his dog Brian.

A great day with only two brief showers and plenty seen. We’ll be back at Warburg in a few weeks — and doubtless the pub too.

Vincent Ruane

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