Kate Chisholm

Where have all the flowers gone?

My favourite fact of the week is to have discovered that in the UK there are 2,500 species of eyebright, 2,500 different varieties of that dainty, slender-stemmed flower, with its bright white trumpet.

My favourite fact of the week is to have discovered that in the UK there are 2,500 species of eyebright, 2,500 different varieties of that dainty, slender-stemmed flower, with its bright white trumpet. It’s so small and yet always stands out, demanding to be noticed. You can tell it’s a plant that’s determined to survive no matter how much we might try to stamp it out.

At this time of year you can see them, tiny but dazzling dots of white, on grassy roundabouts and roadside verges and in your own lawn, if you’re lucky. Open Country this week (Radio 4, Saturdays and Thursdays, beautifully produced by Helen Chetwynd) took us up to the North Pennines, to the few remaining hay meadows where eyebrights flourish, those fields of green dotted with ‘shards of tiny-coloured pigments’, like a medieval manuscript, white eyebrights competing with daisies and deep purple clover, brilliant yellow buttercups and lilac selfheal. There’s only four square miles of them left on our islands, the seedbed destroyed by intensive farming and artificial fertilisers.

The presenter Helen Mark talked to Neville Turner, a local vet who is passionate about the eyebright, and the stuff ‘waiting in the wings’ to come later into bloom, such as the creamy-white meadowsweet and melancholy thistle. He spent a year photographing a single spot in Teesdale, what he calls his former ‘office’ as he went from farm to farm looking after sick and injured livestock. He’s part of the nationwide initiative to preserve and extend these meadows for their beauty, but also because they are part of our island history, our landscape, painted by Constable, Cotman, Stubbs and Nash, as well as an integral part of the national health. Ninety-eight per cent of them have disappeared in the past 100 years.

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