FLOWERS OF THE GRASS FIELDS

Just before hay-time, the crowning glory of the Thames-side flats is given by the flowers growing in the grass. Their setting, among the uncounted millions of green grass stems, appeals not only by the contrast of colour, but by the sense of coolness and content which these sheltered and softly bedded blossoms suggest. The meadows which they adorn are best-loved of all the fields of England; but they would never be as dear to Englishmen as they are were it not for the flowers which deck them. The blossoms and plants found in the tall grasses differ from those on lawns and grazing pastures. They are taller, more delicate, and of a more graceful growth. The daisy, so dear to pastoral poets, is not a flower of the hayfield. The myriads of springing stems choke the daisy flowers, which love to lie low, on their flat and shallow-rooted stars of leaves. The daisy is a lawn plant that loves low turf, and only in early spring on the pasture-fields does it whiten the unmown grasses. The turf glades of the New Forest, grazed short by cattle for eight hundred years, are very properly called "lawns"; and on these the daisies grow in thousands, showing that they are true lawns, and not grassfields mown yearly by the scythe. What makes a flower of the grasses it is difficult to say. Bulbs flourish among them, and clovers, trefoils, and vetch. White ox-eye daisies love the grass, and many orchids, and in shady places white cow-parsley, and blue wild geraniums, and all the buttercups. Others, like the yellow snapdragon and the scarlet poppy, will have none of it, but love a dry and dusty fallow or a cornfield that has run to waste, shimmering with heat and drought. Up the valley of the Pang, you may see acres of poppies on a fallow as scarlet as a field-marshal's coat, and not one in the meadows by the stream. Even before the sheltering grass stems shoot upward and around them, drawing all the flower-life skywards as trees draw other trees upright towards the light, there are plants which are found only growing in the meadows, springing from the turf carpet, and happy in no other setting. Chief of these are the wild daffodils or Lent-lilies, the ornaments of old orchards and of the green meadows of Devon and the Isle of Wight. Why they, like the snowdrops, and in other parts of Europe the narcissi, should choose the turf in which to flower, instead of the woods, where grass does not grow, is one of the secrets of the flower-world. So, too, the wild hyacinths grow not in the meadows, though the fritillaries, the chequered red or pale "snake flowers," are grass-lovers, and grow only in the alluvial meadows by the streams and brooks of the valleys. Early though the fritillaries are, they are a real "grass flower," flourishing best where there is some early succulent growth around them, for they like the shelter so given. This they enjoy even early in the year, because their favourite home is in meadows over which flood-waters run in winter, and there the grass grows fast. With the cowslip comes the early common orchis, with its red-purple flower, and later the masses of buttercups, and the ox-eye daisies. Both these flowers are increasing in our meadows, the former to the detriment of the grass itself, and to the loss of the butter-makers, for the cows will not eat the buttercups' bitter stems. Like the ox-eye daisy, the buttercup is a typical meadow flower, tall, so that it tops the grasses and catches the sun in its petals, thin-foliaged, for no real grass-growing flower has broad or remarkable leaves, and with a habit of deep, underground growth far below the upper surface of the matted grass roots. You cannot easily pull up a buttercup root, or that of any flower of the meadows. The stems break first, for they draw their sustenance from a deep stratum of earth. Most of the meadow flowers and blossoms in the mowing grass belong to the beautiful, rather than to the useful, order of plants. They are fitted to weave a garland from rather than to distil into simples and potions. As Gerard says of the butterfly orchis, "there is no great use of these in physicke, but they are chiefly regarded for the pleasant and beautiful flowers wherewith Nature hath seemed to play and disport herselfe." Herein they differ from the roadside plants and the blossoms of waste-lands and woods, for these, especially the former, swell the list of the medicinal plants, the garden not of Flora, but of Aesculapius. It is these which have been gathered for centuries by the wise men and wise women of the villages from the Apennines to Exmoor, while, if we may infer from the story of agriculture, the flowers of the grassfields are in a sense modern and artificial. They owe their numbers to the discovery of the art of haymaking. Before men learnt to cut, dry, and stack hay, which, after fermenting partly in the stacks under pressure, becomes a manufactured food, it may be concluded that there were no such flower-spangled fields, in this country at least, as now form such a striking feature of rural England. Cattle and sheep wandered all over the common pastures, and ate the grass down, or trampled it under foot. Consequently, it never grew long, or formed the protecting bed in which the flowers now lie, and many of the meadow plants could seldom have flowered at all. The hungry cattle would graze down all the soft, juicy young buds and leaves, wandering at will over the valleys, under charge only of the herdsman. When haymaking became general the cattle were confined in spring and early summer, and the fields of "mowing grass" appeared, and nourished year by year the plants peculiar to this form of cultivation. The proof that this is so may be seen in the New Forest. There the private fields, carefully protected during the spring, from the tread or bite of cattle, and mown yearly in the summer, have all the wealth of flowers peculiar to our hay-meadows.