• The Colour of Bracken

Bracken seems to have very little to commend itself.  It’s invasive and takes over where there is no animal grazing.  I used to think that it was a useless plant.  It’s certainly dangerous to many animals, as well as potentially harbouring deer and sheep ticks that can cause Lyme disease.  But it’s a food plant for the caterpillars of quite a few species of moth and butterfly, so it’s not all bad.

It appears in May, after the bluebells.  First there’s a little hoop in the grass, then – pwhang – it uncoils, straightens its back, and shoots up faster than you can say ho-ho-hum.  Before you know where you are, its jungles can tower above you.

However, autumn and winter present a different story.  I’ve been surprised how short-lived bracken is.  Here on the moor it starts turning in August and the decay accelerates through October.  Suddenly vistas open up, grassy paths become clearer.  Initially, this decay seems featureless, but I’ve learned to look out for something extraordinary. Between now and next April the bracken will provide the most beautiful array of colours and shapes.

At the moment, the stalks have turned pale lemon-yellow.  Later they’ll become dark, burnt orange to purple-black, often broken over mid-stem by the wind, creating a dramatic canvas of criss-crossing diagonals and verticals.  Some of the fronds have already gone a mid-brown, matt-dull, while others cling on to vestiges of their summer colour, freckled with age spots and yellows as the sap drains out.  But in the sunlight they glow as they die.  Best of all is the effect of a heavy shower of rain, which restores lifeless colours to a point of magnificent saturation.  At such moments one can almost forget, but not forgive, the pest that will spring forth and claim more territory next year.

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