3 JUNE 1972, Page 33

Country life

Hedgerow lace

Peter Quince

Cow-parsley is not, if one comes to look at it dispassionately, a particularly romantic word. It has a mildly melodious sound, admittedly, but its components are homely and not normally associated with lyrical moments or scenes of splendour. One part of it belongs to a bovine creature of great utility but no outstanding charm, the other to a culinary herb with which the least adventurous of cooks is familiar. It has occurred to me lately, nevertheless, that if I were in exile, there could be no word more likely to fill me with nostalgia by summoning up the characteristic scenes of the English countryside in spring. My part of England, at any rate, is at present half-submerged in great drifts of this white, lace-like blossom. Cow-parsley flows on either side of every lane, it sprouts from the base of every hedge, it forms airy cushions at the edge of every wood. It is also mostly taken for granted, because, I suppose, it is free and requires no gardener's labour to bring it to perfection. If it were to disappear, the month of May would have lost a part of its magical character. Cow-parsley can even have an improving effect upon so humdrum an undertaking as a journey by motor-car. It can be very pleasant to drive slowly along our local lanes just now; the banks of flowers sway past at eye-level and make a soft swishing sound by way of accompaniment to one's progress. There is a line in a poem by Louis MacNeice which recalls this small pleasure, in a nineteen-thirtyish way; he speaks of 'driving through tiny roads, the mudguards brushing the cow-parsley'; and although mudguards have long since vanished from the motorist's vocabulary, the agreeable experience he described is still freely available. It is more available to me than to most people, since I happen to live in a quiet lane which at the moment is flanked by prodigious crops of this delightful weed. There was an unfortunate moment a few years ago when, just as it was all coming into flower, some Prussian-minded zealot in the county council office sent us, all uninvited, a tank-like vehicle which reduced. the whole lot to a green mush inside half an hour. Presumably we were supposed to be grateful for this egregious piece of official, tidy-minded vandalism. Fortunately, as so often happens, the council's urge to improve us flagged thereafter, and we have been mercifully left in peace ever since.

The strips of land at the edges of our lanes are, in fact, providing a very varied and colourful flower show for us this spring. Beneath the umbelliferous froth of the cow-parsley (or Anthriscus sylvestris, if you prefer, or Queen Anne's Lace — but why should, it belong to that particular queen?) I have spotted a couple of dozen other species, all in flower, within the space of a few yards. They range from the tiny, delicate blue Germander Speedwell to the bright splashes of Red Campion. There also appears to be an unusually large number of the rather sinister, not to say downright indelicate, spikes of Arum maculatwn, which may well be (this is only a guess) those long purples' to which, we are informed in Hamlet, "liberal shepherds give a grosser name."

I confess there have been moments when, surveying all this profusion from my own garden, I have wondered why we go to such labour to grow flowers when they seem to do so extraordinarily well without our intervention. Serious botanists, members of a category I do not claim to belong to, tell me that these roadside verges, when they are not poisoned or otherwise messed about by the county council, are of great value in providing a comfortable habitat for an enormous number of wild plants, many of which would otherwise be extremely rare. Even if one takes the view, as I incline to do, that their greater value rests simply in their looking the way they do at this time, it is pleasant to know that for once science and pleasure are in full alliance.