Way more than fifty shades of green

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Posted on June 15, 2015

Our eyes are drawn by the colour: bright gems of pink, purple, blue, yellow. Buttercups, cranesbill, speedwell, campion, clover. It's hard not to focus on them, to marvel at their vibrancy. It's a major delight of this time of year when roadside verges, meadows and woodland floors sing with these flashes of brilliance.


Cranesbill or wild geranium


Red Campion

We become caught up in the excitement of this party of colour. We’re seduced. But it can happen that, without us realising, our eyes don't take in the greens. Through complacency, distraction, or maybe lack of time, we can miss the feast and pleasure that are on offer by the greens.

Just how many are there? It might not be true but we have heard that of all the colours, green has the broadest spectrum, the highest number of different shades.


roadside grasses


If I stop to count the greens I find I don’t get very far - each hue is more soft or sharp than the next, more surprising in its undertones, holds or reflects light differently. Slowing my gaze, I am drawn in, to look closer, and I forget the counting. There's a richness, a fecundity, that's a velveteen backdrop for the flowers.


The greens are not just the leaves and stalks, in their way servants to the flowers. They are also grasses in their hundreds, with smooth stems and dagger leaves and heads as fine as dust, browned veins, purpled seeds, white pollen. Many of them are like mini trees, branches as thin as a hair. And there are the greens of ferns, unfurling fresh as a caterpillars’ underbellies, then stretching out to spread green shadows on all the greens below.



In the knee-high growth of an unfertilised, undisturbed roadside verge, the greens are the true dancers, standing proud, bending and swaying to the wind. The rainbow of flowers are their outlying stars. And above these myriad greens are the trees, which at this time of year give their best show - the ash still so new its green is almost yellow, translucent, like a damsel fly’s wing catching the dawn light, the oaks and sycamores are full and blowsy, the beech trees luminous.

Soldier beetle on Cow Parsley


More people can name flowers than can name grasses. Have you heard of Meadow Foxtail and False Oat-Grass? The flowers have always held more appeal, been lauded in verse, song and folklore, more widely depicted in paintings. But it would be a shame to overlook the greens. Let’s slow our gaze, have another look, fall in love.  Is it a coincidence that the Indian chakra system links the colour green with the heart?


grass heads

We’re lucky to be able to see all these greens just outside our house. Rob and I had marvelled at them last week, and this blog came about from the conversation we had last Friday while we were driving. We were heading to the University of Glasgow’s Solway Centre for Environment and Culture to meet Sir John Lister-Kaye, eminent conservationist and nature writer, and hear him read from his new book, 'Gods of the Morning'. It was an inspiring and absorbing 90 minutes, and I wanted to share something he said that resonated with our thoughts about the colour green. He lamented the severe decline of meadows, invertebrates and song birds in the UK, and cursed what he called the nitrogen-induced single green of rye grass, which is the staple of lowland farmland. Where this grass grows, it spreads out for acres and acres in a monotonous solid green, and there is little dancing, no depths of colour, no richness.


A single green does not appeal. Life is about variety, and in the natural course of things, nothing thrives in isolation. And when it comes to the multi-levelled greens of a wild patch of growth here in Cumbria, I realise I don't want to count them – I’d rather let the shades of green run riot beyond the measurable. While scientific analysis certainly has its uses, it seems reductive and clumsy to expect final answers by applying reason to nature, which, after all, is something that our logical brains can never fathom in its entirety. Better to just enjoy, become immersed, open our eyes and our hearts. We can never count all the greens.

old schoolhouse grass





British grasses identification guide


Gods of the Morning by Sir John Lister Kaye


Solway Centre for Environment and Culture

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