Jenny Dixon

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

MY garden is looking particularly colourful at present with many different colours of geraniums along a dry border and two splendid rambling roses just coming into flower. I’m not an expert but I do know the three principles for making planting decisions:- sun/shade, damp/dry and acid/alkaline (or, you might say, geology)? The same is true of wild plants looking for a niche.

The glorious bluebell display in Middleton Woods is over now, but, come late summer, our moors will be fragrant and purple with heather. These are plants that relish our acidic, gritstone-based soil. We are so lucky to live in Wharfedale with its dual geology: here in Ilkley the millstone grit but, in Upper Wharfedale, the limestone. And now it’s the turn of the limestone flowers!

A child growing up in Burley-in-Wharfedale during the 1940s, I knew my local flora well. I knew where to find early violets, where the only clump of primroses in the neighbourhood was hiding, even where, on the railway embankment, a stand of purple columbines flourished – their seed presumably arriving by courtesy of the draught from an LNER train. I never went far from home – the regular two-pence ha’penny bus-ride to school in Ilkley and the occasional visit to dentist or pantomime in Bradford was the extent of my wartime travel. So, gritstone flowers were all I knew. Suddenly all that changed.

My best friend’s Dad, on demob leave from the army in June 1945, somehow got hold of a car and some petrol and took us for a picnic up Wharfedale. It was a glorious day and the drystone walIs glimmered white in the sunshine – the first surprise! I think the picnic-site was the verge of the unwalled track up Littondale. Then came the second surprise! The close-cropped turf was starred with flowers – many of which I’d never seen before. There were, of course, clovers – white and red – no doubt buzzing with insects. But there were also tiny heartsease pansies – both the yellow and the purple marked flowers – and, most charming of all, clusters of brilliant pink flowers rising on short, sturdy stems from tight rosettes of leaves. Much later I learned these were Primula farinosa, specialists of our Dales limestone. I’d never seen Alpine pastures then – but this Dales scene roused the same astonishment and delight.

Such displays of flowers are rarer now. Overgrazing, “improving” and, alas, some plant-theft have taken their toll. But you can still find survivors, and now is the time to look!

Photo of a birdseye primrose by Ian Brand.