The story so far.....share your thoughts and photos about shrubs and trees along The Ridgeway to help us create a community Top 50!

With special places like Juniper Valley and Ellesborough Warren box woodland, shrubs could be a surprising source of inspiration for an outing to The Ridgeway. Trees and shrubs also make a good place for a rest stop because they attract wildlife for the quiet visitor to watch! Read on below to find out more…..

Wanderers along The Ridgeway will pass a number of different shrubs and trees growing alongside the track, including a tree associated with routeways – the Wayfaring Tree. Not only is this tree associated with chalk areas, it is said that its name was coined in the 16th century by renowned botanist Gerard who noticed it was often seen along routeways between Wiltshire and London – could Gerard have walked The Ridgeway?

Other chalk-loving plants along The Ridgeway include Dogwood, Buckthorn, Spindle, Privet, Juniper, Yew and Box. The last three are evergreen and so provide greenery to the Trail all year-round, although privet does lose some leaves in the winter.

All three of the UK’s native conifers can be found along the Trail – Juniper, Yew and Scot’s Pine. However, beyond the Caledonian forests of Scotland, Scot’s Pine is a result of planting by people rather than natural distribution and clusters along old droveways are said to have been planted as ‘markers’ to help travellers find their way. The pines at Scutchamer Knob near East Hendred in Oxfordshire may be an example of this along The Ridgeway. Box is also widely planted but it is native around The Ridgeway and the largest Box woodland in the country near Ellesborough in Buckinghamshire lies not far off the Trail along a public footpath.

Box and Juniper were both once more common across the downlands, potentially being present in the Ridgeway area since the last Ice Age. Juniper can live for up to 200 years. Entire colonies of Juniper are dying out because saplings (young trees) are not establishing and it is predicted that the tree will become extinct in the English lowlands within the next 50 years. Box is under threat due to the spread of Box blight and Box Caterpillar. Conservation projects are trying to boost Box and Juniper numbers along the Trail including seeding patches of exposed chalk in Juniper Valley near Aston Tirrold in Oxfordshire.

Juniper is one of several Ridgeway shrubs and climbers producing berries of various colours. Juniper seed cones (berries), used to make gin, develop on the female tree, starting green and ripening to blue-black over two years or so. The clusters of berries on Wayfaring Trees show all colours at once as the berries ripen patchily from green through red to black. Guelder Rose’s clusters of creamy-white flowers develop into bunches of translucent red berries, whilst the climber White Bryony twines around branches to hang red berries in garlands. Hawthorn produces bunches of red berries but they are not translucent. The thorny stems of Dog Rose climb up the hedgeline to seek out the sun where they display their five-petalled pink or white flowers to pollinators in order to produce red rosehips (berries). Spindle boasts the most exotic colours with a flamingo pink outer casing bursting open to show bright orange seed cases inside – mice, birds and even Red Foxes eat them.

Cooking fruit picked from Elder and Blackthorn or Sloe makes them edible to humans but otherwise berries along the Trail are only for birds and small mammals. Interestingly, studies have shown that birds ration their food through the winter by first eating non-toxic berries which deteriorate quickly, such as Blackberry, and leaving mildly toxic and longer lasting berries such as Ivy until last when more palatable options have depleted….and they don’t eat too many in one visit!

As well as berries, flowers and leaves of shrubs and trees bring bright colours to the Trail and sometimes make the hedgelines and wooded slopes appear ablaze with colours of fire. The Chiltern beechwoods are famous for their autumn colours. In the autumn, golden-yellow leaves can be seen on Field Maples, some of which can grow as old as 350 years. Dogwood is a shrub with red twigs and, in the autumn, its leaves are red too. Spindle leaves turn reddish-orange and Guelder Rose crimson or orange-yellow. In only a few places such as Monkton Down in Wiltshire and Bacombe Hill in Buckinghamshire, Gorse bushes display yellow, coconut-smelling flowers. Careful of the spiky leaves when smelling the flowers!

Other thorny plants on the Trail are Dog Rose, Buckthorn, Hawthorn and Blackthorn. The latter two were selected as hedging plants at the time of the Enclosure Acts because they grew quickly and their thorns deterred livestock from escaping the fields! The hedges along the Icknield Way in Oxfordshire are a good example of Enclosure hedges.

Note: Other Top 50 entries will explore the Icknield Way, Hawthorn, Beech and fruit and nut trees in more detail.

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