Lady's bedstraw lingers through time

Communications Officer, Rachel Shaw, on a favourite meadow flower spotted near to her home in the centre of Lincoln and the loss of meadows from our everyday landscape

Cars have returned to the city streets where I live but there’s still nature to be seen. Walking down the hill from my house, my eyes drift away from the cars, across the pavement and beyond the fence with its peeling green paint. Amongst the tall grasses there are self-sown sycamores, not yet big enough to be called trees, and a haze of yellow.

It’s a patch of lady’s bedstraw; a beautifully evocative name for a plant with the scent of new-mown hay. In days gone by it was dried and used to stuff mattresses. It wasn’t added to the mattresses just to provide a nice smell. The aromatic chemical, that is so pleasant to us, is also a deterrent to fleas and moths.

Which made me wonder, how much was needed to stuff a mattress? Lady’s bedstraw must have been a very common and abundant plant. Perhaps it’s another sign of how much our landscape has changed. The yellow haze of lady’s bedstraw, white and yellow discs of ox-eye daisies, the purple pincushions of scabious; where we see these colours, instead of a monochrome of green, we are glimpsing the past. These are the colours of meadows. Even the grass in a meadow isn’t just “grass” but quaking-grass, sweet vernal-grass and crested dog's-tail. 

These meadows were once part of the everyday landscape.

Before the advent of the car, it was hay not petrol that helped fuel the nation’s transport. Hay meadows provided winter feed for horses and livestock. A meadow that produced a crop of hay was a vital part of the landscape and economy. They were cut for hay in July. Then for a few weeks in autumn, the re-growth or ‘eddish’ as it was known in Lincolnshire, was grazed by cattle or sheep.

Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust founder, Ted Smith, wrote in his memoir: “meadows had been such an abundant feature in areas of mixed husbandry that the need to preserve them had scarcely occurred to us until the 1960s”. The Trust did then embark on a rescue mission to save meadows and secure their future as nature reserves. Many were saved but they represent tiny fragments of the former abundance. Estimates suggest that since 1938 as much as 99 percent of Lincolnshire's hay meadows have been ploughed for arable or converted to improved grassland.

Perhaps this little patch lady’s bedstraw near my home is a remnant of a meadow that used to provide hay. I can’t help but imagine the other flowers that would have been growing here. And now if it’s not cared for with the young sycamores removed and the grass cut once a year, the lady’s bedstraw could also be lost.

Image gallery - Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust meadow nature reserves

Visit our Wildflower Meadow Hub to find out about the meadow creation at Red Hill nature reserve and how to create your own meadow