2018 in Wildflowers

As anybody who follows my twitter feed will know, wildflowers are a constant source of inspiration and fascination for me. Here are a few of my favourite finds from 2018

This tiny forget-me-not is called changing forget-me-not because of the way the petal colour changes as the flowers mature – they start off yellow/cream and brighten to blue in time
Red campion is a common wildflower in the midlands, especially in shady habitats like hedgerows and woodland edges. It can be a beautifully architectural plant
Wood sorrel is a woodland wildflower of early spring – this was taken in the Quantock Hills in a pine plantation.
Wood anemone are a characteristic indicator of ancient woodland – spreading at a rate of only a few metres per year, they are testement to the continuity of the habitat
Green winged orchids are one of the first to flower in the spring – I am lucky enough to live very close to Muston Meadows which has a stunning display each year
An ancient woodland in South Wales rewarded me with herb paris this year – the first time I’ve seen this species in perfect flower in the UK
Pasque flowers are a real rarity these days, but are emblamatic enough to be the designated County Flower of two different counties in England. This one taken at Barnack Hills and Holes NNR
A sea of English Bluebells with a mighty fallen oak branch to lend character to the sunlit scene
Oxlip is one of our rarest wildflowers – the ancient woodland of Hayley Wood near Cambridge is one of the best places to enjoy them amongst the bluebells
There can be few sights more synonymous with springtime that the white of greater stitchwort and the bright blue of the bluebell amongst the fresh green leaves
The limestone grasslands which punctuated the Peddar’s Way in May rewarded us with these salad burnet – tiny red stars set within a globular flower head
A trip to see the fly orchids in Bedford Purleius NNR has become something of an annual tradition now – they never fail to delight!
A new species for me this year and a wonderful treasure hunt to find it – violet helleborine in Bedford Purleuis NNR
Small but stunning – the arable flora on St Mary’s, Scilly away from the industrial scale agriculture of the mainland meant a host of scarce arable wildflowers persist, such as this small-flowered catchfly
Yellow bartsia – a relative of yellow rattle and eyebright – was another first for me on the Isles of Scilly
Pale toadflax established on a railway arch near the Thames
Black nightshade is a member of the same family as potato and tomato and could be found flowering right up until Christmas!
Wild snake’s head fritillaries flowering in Portholme Meadow, Huntingdon
Cowslips flowering along the cycle path which passes along the Grantham Canal in early springtime
Harebell flowering in the dry grasslands in the meadows above Grantham
Early purple orchid amongst the bluebells and greater stitchwort flowers in a woodland edge in Lincolnshire

Arable flora

The few weeks before the harvest are the best time to go out in search of a declining subset of our native flora – the arable ‘weeds’ for want of a better term. I find this term fascinating as it reflects their current status but ignores their origins – the majority of arable plants in the UK have been found by archaeologists to pre-date the commencement of agriculture in this country. The current catch-all term refers however to their ubiquity in our arable environment and many of the rarer species are now exclusively found on cultivated land.

The incredible midnight-blue cornflower against a backdrop of wheat
The incredible midnight-blue cornflower against a backdrop of wheat

Arable plants are a mixed bunch, but a number of characteristics tend to link them. The majority are annuals meaning that they can complete their life-cycle in a year. A small number are perennials, meaning the same plant survives from one year to the next. The annual life-cycle predisposes species towards success in an environment which, by the nature of modern agriculture, involves the wholesale destruction of the habitat on an annual or even bi-annual basis. The plants grow in spring, flower and rapidly set seed, often allowing a surprisingly stable annual population to persist in a particular location even though an individual plant will never survive from one year to the next. Taking these photographs, it was noticeable that particular species were prevalent within certain fields but absent from the majority of sites.

The yellow and white daisy-like flowers of mayweed in a parched, arable field
The yellow and white daisy-like flowers of mayweed in a parched, arable field

Another common characteristic of arable plants is that their seeds have a long dormancy period – this means that they can persist in the soil for long periods of time until conditions become suitable again. This is an obvious benefit for species which rely upon an outside influence to create the bare, open conditions they thrive in, or where frequent predictable disturbances make for a cyclical habitat suitability.

Corn marigold growing amongst the ears of wheat
Corn marigold growing amongst the ears of wheat

The original habitats of some of these species are probably lost from our current ecosystem dynamics, as many of our rarer species are now almost completely restricted to arable land where they find the conditions they require to persist. Many however can still be found in other modern habitats which receive frequent disturbance, such as coastal shingle or waste ground.

The small, subtle cream flowers of field pansy growing at the base of a wheat field
The small, subtle cream flowers of field pansy growing at the base of a wheat field

The eradication of competition on arable land is one of the stated objectives of modern agriculture and arable plants have decreased rapidly in the last century in response to the increased intensification of agriculture. Whilst their biology enabled them to deal well and indeed flourish in the conditions of annual disturbance, they are increasingly unable to deal with modern herbicides; with changes in the timing of cropping which prevents them from setting seed; with the superior ability of modern crops to respond to fertiliser enrichment and out-compete them; and with changes in drainage.

Field speedwell flowering in August, shortly before the harvest and the plough
Field speedwell flowering in August, shortly before the harvest

The common label of ‘arable weeds’ reflects not only their habitat, but their relationship to a particular group of people – the farmers who exploit the land. These widely-accepted terms always require consideration – one person’s weed is another person’s wildflower. These are ‘weeds’ in a similar way to the blase acceptance that foxes are ‘vermin’ – to label a fox as such is an understandable view if you keep poultry, raise pheasants or, at a stretch, farm sheep, but indefensible across arable swathes of the countryside or in semi-natural habitats. These arable plants are often beautiful examples of our native flora and many of the rarer species have little or no negative impact on the crops they share the fields with. So don’t be put off by the derogatory epithet – go out, seek and enjoy them! They are often the only flashes of wild nature left in an otherwise ecologically-inert arable landscape.

Poppy flowers which escaped the harvest in the arable margin and continued flowering into September
Poppy flowers which escaped the harvest and the plough in the arable margin and continued flowering into September