Country diary: the orange tip’s wings are the very map of spring


Out of the shadow comes a white folded note. It flicks open and closed, like the paper fortune-teller device revealing charcoal glyphs. This is an orange tip butterfly, except it isn’t – the females don’t have orange tips to their wings.

She is one of spring’s emblematic sprites, earlier because of climate change, and she may, by posting anti-aphrodisiac pheromone messages, reject male attention so that she can lay eggs on the hedge mustard or cuckoo flower in peace. Also known as Lady of the Woods, she was scientifically defined by Linnaeus in 1758 as Anthocharis cardamines, and then by Verity in 1908 as belonging to the subspecies britannia – something to do with the “extension of the black apical markings to the anal angle”.

However she may be defined by scientific patriarchy, or by folklore for her significance in the interpretation of dreams, she can also describe the world for herself. Here, she stops flickering through the syrupy light of May at the wood’s edge to settle on bramble. Her body white with ermine, her occult eyes and antennae aware of a world beyond human perception, her wings close above her and she shows their undersides.

Here is the map of spring. The wing’s moony lustre is mottled with green woods and meadows, a green of apical buds climbing skyward, cotyledons flattening against the wind, moss electrifying on stone.

Stitched with golden veins, there, during the brightening, are the days of brilliant sunshine when the cuckoo is heard from the woods below the scarp and the trees ring with woodpecker drumming, raven-speak and chiffchaffing. There are the bunches of elm seeds, pistachio-coloured samaras that have no time for dormancy, the first burst of vivid oak leaves and the flowers of paigle, cowslip or keys of heaven.

These wings map the unplaceable orgasm of spring. In their shifting alignments of light and space, shot through with skylark song, they become more than descriptions but a knowing, how each spring is different, how this year’s is soon past and how every instance of it is too precious to be missed.


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