Grantham Verges in Bloom

The verges around Grantham in 2018 are markedly different to previous years – this is a result of the council’s decision to reduce amenity cutting to twice a year, down from the previous seven cuts per year. The result of this cost-saving exercise is that the verges throughout the town are more alive with flowers and insects than they have been in years and I for one am delighted with the effect!

Purple toadflax flowering beside the zebra crossing in Grantham

 

At a time when the many scientists, ecologists and wildlife experts are sounding alarm bells over the catastrophic declines in many of our native species, and the dire threat of our falling pollinator numbers, the unintended consequence of cutting the cutting is the creation of wildflower corridors and habitat which lace their way through the town.

One of the hawkweed species flowering in the road verge in Grantham

Whilst I am wholeheartedly in favour of the new regime, I’ve seen comments from a people complaining about the effect – these comments generally fall into three categories:

The first is safety – and I agree that where the height of the vegetation represents an issue for visibility, especially around schools, then there is no question that this needs to be addressed. But these spots are the exceptions, not the rules, and many areas of town can happily support longer verges with no risk to passers by or vehicle users.

The second is the tidiness and neatness – there is an aesthetic which says that an unmowed verge is a sign that the town isn’t being looked after. This too is understandable, but it is also very cultural and very changeable – the concept of Obsessive Tidiness Disorder is very well addressed in this blog post. We have become so accustomed to nature being managed and manicured on a wholesale basis that this is the normal, and deviation from it is considered a drop in standards. But we have come a long way in the last century to a place where a council is expected to expend vast amounts of money to maintain an aesthetic which is so entirely detrimental to the huge host of species which would otherwise call it home. I would challenge anybody to read this piece about the death of a Cornish hedgerow in an age of mass mechanised maintenance and not feel horrified at what we have lost.

The aesthetic which likes a well-managed verge is now the norm, but councils around the country are adopting more wildlife-friendly cutting regimes and if these become more widespread, then expectations will shift and this perception will soon die away. Flowers provide food for insects which in turn provides food for swifts and swallows which are continuing to decline in numbers and will soon be an absent sound from our summer if steps are not taken to address this. It would be great to see the council really embrace the positives of the change to grass cutting regimes rather than simply defending it as an unfortunate necessity – be bold and be ahead of the curve! We would have support and help from the likes of Plantlife and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust – both of whom understand the importance of verges as habitat and have designed campaigns to change perceptions and behaviours.

Three species flourishing thanks to the reduced cutting of the verges – purple toadflax, creeping cinquefoil and yarrow

The third reason people object seems to be the species which appear – people have commented that it would be OK ‘if they were nice wildflowers’. The plethora of garden flowers which we’re used to, and to some extent the highly vibrant but unnatural annual mixes which some councils sow, are affecting expectations of what our native flora look like. As well as the showy orchids and exuberant vetches are smaller, more subtle species but they are equally beautiful if you take the time to look. The verges are also full of surprises – Ancaster has a population of one of the rarest orchids in the country on its road verges and who knows what might pop up when given a chance. Even the most seemingly mundane flowers can surprise you – some of the yellow dandelion-like flower heads around town are indeed the familiar dandelions, but there are also closely related hawkbits, hawkweeds and nipplewort which you may never even have noticed.

Ribwort plantain, cow parsley and common mallow flowering beside the roads in Grantham

On a lunchtime walk today I counted eighteen species of wildflower in just a short stretch and I am sure there are many more besides. Many of these are not rarities, but they are bright and colourful and provide life for so many bees, butterflies and hoverflies. A few are pictured in this post – see which ones you can spot on your next walk around town!

Nipplewort, white clover and dove’s foot cranesbill – a tiny member of the geranium family, flowering on the uncut verges of Grantham

New Year Plant Hunt 2018

BSBI‘s annual New Year Plant Hunt is a great way to experience this, as well as contribute your data to a national recording scheme. Everybody is welcome to get involved – even if this is just spotting a daisy on the lawn or gorse flowering by the roadside on your way to work!

I’ve walked the same New Year Plant Hunt route at the beginning of each month since January 2017 and thought it would be interesting to view the results of the January 2018 hunt in the context of the year passed.

I would caveat this by saying it is very sketchy data to base any assumptions on so this should be considered ‘observations and possible trends’ rather than anything more robust. It is a single transect, over a single year in a single geographic location. It is  also along a route which is incidentally prone to the machinations of land owners and council contractors being focused on streets, parks and carparks. This means that species which I know to have been in flower can disappear from the record because somebody has tidied up the only place in my transect where they grow. This could account for gaps in particular species which does not actually have any reflection on their ecology! Furthermore, these records may relate to a single individual with a single flower being found on the transect – it has nothing to do with abundance or dominance. I found one tatty cow parsley in flower in January 2018 but there were swathes of them flowering in  April 2017 – presence may relate to exceptions and outliers rather than reflecting standard flowering ecology.

The Constants

There are a number of species I picked up on the 2018 New Year Plant Hunt which I had found in flower every month of previous year along the same transect route. In all, 50% of the flowers I found in January 2018 had been recorded flowering along the transect in 9 or more months during the previous year.

The species recorded in every single month were daisy, ivy-leaved toadflax, white deadnettle and shepherd’s purse. Alongside these were a number of species where I had only missed them in either one or two months in the previous year – these included annual meadowgrass, sun spurge, oxford ragwort, common chickweed, snapdragon (naturalised), yarrow, Guernsey fleabane and petty spurge.

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The ‘Constants’ – these were from photographs taken throughout the year and not taken on the day – the dark start and lunchtime rain made photography difficult!

Interestingly, the missing months when I hadn’t found these individual species in flower were clustered around March/April time but in all cases, they had been consistently in flower since September. This could indicate a flowering season which is all year round, or could represent a long flowering season which begins in the late spring and continues to early spring depending on the winter weather for duration. It could also represent an anthropogenic phenomena I noticed which was that winter ‘weeds’ were often ignored in January to March but a colony was often wiped out when the weather warmed up and people turned their attention to de-greening the edges of pavements!

Long-season species

Those species found flowering in only nine months in 2017 continue the distribution trend noticed in the near-constants – feverfew and hedge mustard were found in January 2017 and 2018 but disappeared between February and April 2017 to then reappear and remain for the rest of the year. Hedgerow cranesbill and wall barley similarly disappeared between February and May and have been constant since.

Species with a lower number of records, perhaps considered more late-season than long-season, appeared in later-summer/autumn 2017 and persisted through the winter to January including bramble, blue fleabane and Canadian fleabane.

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The long- or late-season specialists – these were from photographs taken throughout the year and not taken on the day – the dark start and lunchtime rain made photography difficult!

These would accord with previous interpretations by BSBI scientists who concluded that most of the New Year Plant Hunt finds in 2017 were hangers-on from the last season rather than early arrivals from the new season. Late flowering and long flowering species might be expected to be particularly prone to this.

Winter/Spring Specialists

Several species recorded showed a markedly winter flowering period – winter heliotrope being the key example but alder and oragan grape also according with this pattern. Naturalised wood spurge and greater periwinkle also fit into this category, though their season seemed longer.

Cow parsley and  bittercress both showed a predominantly spring flowering pattern, but with sporadic flowering during the winter months as well.

Red dead nettle showed an interesting distribution – it went missing in the middle of the year between June and September but remained fairly constant otherwise. This almost indicates a winter-flowering strategy but with a much longer timeframe than things like alder which appear in flower only for a month or two. It could however be due to management removing the regular plants on my transect, resulting in an apparent gap in what is actually a constant species. Repeating the transects in 2018 would help clarify this!

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The winter or spring flowering specialists – these were from photographs taken throughout the year and not taken on the day – the dark start and lunchtime rain made photography difficult!

 

Conclusion

Accounting for the various caveats in the data, there do appear to be three key categories to which the species flowering on my 2018 New Year Plant Hunt accord. Those which flower almost year-round; those which have a late flowering distribution which hangs on into winter; and those which are winter or early-spring flowering specialists.

I totted up 31 species on the regular transect of the New Year Plant Hunt, which is just under 20% of the total number of species I recorded across the year. What is missing from the transect in January is a host of spring flowers which will not appear for another month or two (such as violets, naturalised spring bulbs and woodland species such as ramsons); the vast majority of the trees and grasses; and the dominant summer species which flowered between May and July (such as hedge parsley, meadowsweet and black knapweed). Also missing are some of the autumn specialists with shorter flowering seasons (including ivy, Russian vine and Michaelmas daisy).

I do however hope to continue the transects through 2018 and build a more robust dataset over time as I think the context it adds to the new year plant hunt is quite an interesting one!

Find out more about the BSBI’s 2018 New Year Plant Hunt results on their website here!

2017 in Wildflowers

Common Whitlow Grass – Erophila verna

This little wildflower is everywhere in the springtime – at only a few centimetres high it is easily overlooked but it is forever offering up tiny bunches of flowers to those who would take note. I especially liked the setting of this photograph – on a grubby pavement in Grantham next to cigarette butts and other litter you find this little thing of beauty just waiting to be noticed.

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Oxlip – Primula elatior

I made a pilgrimage to Hayley Wood in Cambridgeshire this year to see these wildflowers. A relative of the more abundant cowslip, these are an ancient woodland species with a curiously restricted distribution, now found growing wild only in that part of the country where Essex, Cambridge and Suffolk meet.

Oxlip (Primula elatior) in Hayley Wood, Cambridgeshire

Green-winged Orchid – Anacamptis morio

I am lucky now to live just a few miles from Muston Meadows meaning there are ample opportunities to visit this ancient haymeadow – designated a National Nature Reserve. This is one of the green-winged orchids for which the meadow is so famous, set against the grassland in the sunset light in early summer.

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Greater Stitchwort – Stellaria graminea

Treswell Wood in Nottinghamshire is a beautiful place to spend some time exploring, especially when the sun is setting. Amongst the spring flowers, these greater stitchworts are one of my favourite woodland species with their bold white petals and delicate green framework.

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Bee orchid – Ophrys apifera

The return of these flowers each year seems like the return of a smile – their colourful, beaming faces always mean summer is here. This photo was taken among the dunes in Anglesey at the end of May, where these orchids arose from the sands along with the round-leaved wintergreens and dune pansies.

Man Orchid (Orchis anthropophora) and Pasque Flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris)

Barnack Hills and Holes is situated just a mile or two off the A1 – it was formed by quarrying limestone in medieval times and now it is home to a stunning array of flora. At the right time of year, can reward you with two national rarities in a single shot!

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Fly Orchid (Ophrys insectifera)

A visit to Bedford Purleius to see these delicate little fly orchids has become something of an annual tradition for me now. They are so hard to spot at first, but once you get your eye in on the first flower, more and more appear amongst the grasses of the meadow.

Lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium calceolus)

This photograph was taken overseas – in the Dolomites – but this is the one flower I was hoping to see most and the one which was most elusive. We spotted a single one, just as my dad was asking ‘what do they look like?’, I said ‘like… that!’ and there it was, nestled amongst the greenery beside us on the path.

Lady's slipper orchid (Cypripedium calceolus) in the Dolomites

Broad-leaved helleborine (Epipactis helleborine)

I watched the plants of the broad-leaved helleborine grow beneath the beeches at Bedford Purleius for several months before arriving one day to find them finally in flower. A new species for me, these orchids are subtle but beautiful, blending with the greenery of the canopy leaves above them.

Great Willowherb (Epilobium hirsutum)

This is a late-summer wildflower blooms in the meadows above Grantham and adds a beautiful swath of colour to the browning grasses around it.

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Black knapweed (Centaurea nigra)

A late-summer return to Muston Meadows saw the black knapweed in full flower amongst the late-summer grasses. The orchids of springtime are almost alone in the meadow, along with cowslips and cuckoo flower, but summer sees a riot of colour and contrast as different species vie for space and light.

Knapweed at sunset at Muston Meadows

Heather

An August walk along Cheddar Gorge as the mist was lifting, leaving droplets on the grasses and flowers. The colours behind the flower are provided by the bracken beginning to brown with the grass still fresh and green.

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Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia)

The soft sky-blue of the harebell set with the thin wiry framework of the stems is one of my favourite flowers to photograph – since finding a colony in the meadow above Grantham, I have watched the flowers persist through the summer and into autumn whilst the colours of the vegetation change behind them.

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Heather

The heather which covers much of the Peak district in late-summer is a spectacular sight – especially at sunset when the light softens and glows golden. Along with the bluebells of spring, I think heather would be a worthy focus for the Japanese concept of hanami – flower viewing – as a national pastime here in the UK!

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Dove’s foot cranesbill – Geranium molle

I was out surveying on the day Storm Ophelia passed over the country and cast the countryside in that strange apocolyptic light. This was one of a number of flower portraits I took that day – I especially liked the contrast of the fresh pink  with the fallen poplar leaves.

The Wildflower Year around Grantham

At the beginning of 2017, I took part in the annual New Year Plant Hunt – organised by the BSBI, this is an annual event inviting everybody from beginners through to pro’s to walk a route and see how many species they can find in flower. You can read about the results of my Grantham survey from 2017 in this blog post.

I was curious to see how the number of species, as well as the composition, changed through the year. Rather than having a snapshot of what was flowering on the 1st January alone, I’d like to know how long it had been flowering, and how long it would go on. The route I chose to explore further is a portion of the full route I took for the New Year, and is entirely within Grantham town, taking in a walk along the river, through the town centre, out around the train station and across parks and carparks.

I completed the last monthly survey on the 4th December, totalling 12 months of records, and here are the initial results!

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In total I recorded 164 species in flower with a peak of 78 different species in June. So far, my first survey (on the relevant portion of the wider transect) in January was the lowest count, with just 24 species. My final walk in December was still turning up 40 different species – some of which were looking much worse for wear after the first frosts.

Coupled with the species accumulation curve – shown in green in the graph above – this pattern supports the idea that most of the flowers you find in the New Year Plant Hunt are likely to be hangers-on from the previous season, or species which flower happily in all seasons such as daisies and dandelions. In January, there are a few new appearances such as winter heliotrope and early snowdrops, but the vast majority have been persisting into the winter rather than appearing during it. There are marked increases in the records of new species, which reach a peak in May/June but this tails to nothing by November and December.

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It’s also interesting to see how many species I only picked up in just one or two months. The graph above shows how many species were recorded in 1, 2, 3… up to 12 months. A small handful were recorded throughout, but nearly a third of species were recorded in only a single month.

Below is a quick run through some of the groups of species and trends I recorded throughout the year:

The Constants

These are the species which were recorded every month, give or take the odd one which was usually due to somebody ‘tidying away’ a patch rather than reflecting a lack of flowering! One quite noticable trait from walking the same patch over and over was the reduction in management through the coldest months – I assume that people don’t think of weeds as a problem in the winter, and so I was happily watching opportunists thrive beside pavements and at carpark edges through January to March, until the weather warmed up and they were suddenly noticed and obliterated! Species pictured below are red deadnettle, annual meadowgrass, daisy, petty spurge and yarrow.

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The Early Birds

A number of species appeared first in the early spring and quickly disappeared again. Winter heliotrope was the earliest ‘new’ flowerer, followed by the spring bulbs such as snowdrop, crocus and hybrid bluebell (all naturalised) along with primroses, violets and lesser celandine. Pictured below are lesser celandine, lords and ladies, and common whitlow grass.

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The Trees

Alongside the Early Birds, or close behind them, were the trees and shrubs scattered through the town. These included some of the earliest new arrivals of the year, such as hazel which appeared in February, through to the later flowering species such as lime which put in its first appearance in June. In between came willows, silver birch, whitebeam, poplar, beech, oak, ash, blackthorn, hawthorn, rowan and alder. Pictured below are hazel, elm and hawthorn.

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The Carpark Attendants

A few species were to be found only in carparks in the centre of town, and here they were fairly constant throughout the year. Interestingly, the species composition of some of these was predominantly non-native: gallant soldier, Guernsey fleabane, Canadian fleabane, snapdragon, red valarian and buddleia to name a few. These sprung up often in the tiniest scraps of soil and were rarely subdued by the occasional cleanup for long, rejuvinating within a month or so. Native species joining the mix here included ivy-leaved toadflax, ragwort, feverfew and hedgerow cranesbill. The latter is pictured below, along with gallant soldier and ragwort.

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The Summer Heralds

Species which appeared first in May or June, heralding the summer when the highest numbers of species were recorded. These included a range of the more common meadow species which had found a foothold somewhere within the bounds of the town – speedwells, creeping cinquefoil, black medic, goat’s beard and sorrel to name a few. In this list also should be included the grasses – meadow foxtail, cock’s foot, false oat grass and Yorkshire fog for example. Fern grass too was a surprise, flowering within the brickwork just outside the door of our office! Pictured below are a selection of the pinks – herb Robert, red campion and honesty. And poppy, for luck!

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The Late Arrivals

Later summer saw the appearance of some of the most exciting species, to me anyhow! Yellow toadflax and blue fleabane are common in the pavement edges near the train station; elsewhere ivy comes into flower amidst a hum of happy pollinators and naturalised species such as Russian vine – a relative of Japanese knotweed – brightened up the fences the colonise. Other examples include rosebay willowherb and autumn hawkbit. Pictured below are yellow toadflax, blue fleabane and rosebay willowherb.

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Get involved

If you’d like to get involved in the New Year Plant Hunt this year, check out the BSBI website for more info! It’s great fun to see what you can find, even in the dead of winter, and even more satisfying to watch the shift as the season progresses.

2016 in Wildflowers

Every week this year, with just one or two exceptions, I’ve taken part in the excellent #wildflowerhour on twitter where people across the UK share their sightings for the week between 8-9pm each Sunday – an excellent way to draw a weekend to a close.

Many of these photos made an appearance at some point but this is a run-through a few of my favourite wildflower finds or photos from 2016. The absence of orchids can be explained by a whole post all of their own from earlier this week – take a look here!

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Tree flowers are some of the first to make their appearance each year and this set shows a few of these in silhouette against a white February sky. The photo on the left is the male catkins of alder whilst the right two images are the female flowers of two different willow species. Many of these early tree species have both male and female flowers. Some, such as the hazel and alder, have both male and female flowers on the same tree. Others, such as these willows, have male trees or female trees which produce just one type of flower.
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An early-morning walk in May treated me to these frosted flowers in Muston Meadows NNR. The sward was still low, with many of the larger, later meadow species such as salad burnet and meadowsweet still to appear, and these smaller early-summer flowering species were the stars of the show. Clockwise from top left are bulbous buttercup,  cuckooflower, green-winged orchid and cowslip.
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Spring sandwort is a member of the campion family and I came across these cushions of flowers at a disused leadworking site in Derbyshire. It is quite a scarce plant across the UK but frequents these old spoil heaps – such is its connection that  leadwort is another name for this flower. I like that this species has specific habitat preferences which are far from the pristine grasslands and woodlands which are associated with the conservation of many species.
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This is another example of where a closer look rewards the curious – this is a view down the spadix of an arum lily – also known as Lords and Ladies. This reminds me of one of the plasma balls I used to see in Science Museums when I was younger!
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It would be difficult to exclude bluebells from this selection as the sight of a good bluebell wood, with wood anemone, primrose, violets and yellow archangel mixed in, is one of those sights which is profoundly uplifting after a long winter. Many species begin to flower before these, but the bluebell season marks a threshold between the sparsity of spring and the abundance of summer which is just on the horizon. I like the lightness and delicacy of this shot – taken at the Notts Wildlife Trust site – Treswell Wood.
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Another photograph from Treswell Wood. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such an abundance of greater stitchwort than at this site this year – glades were filled with the snow-white flowers of this native woodland specialist.
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This is another photograph from Muston Meadows NNR – this time at sunset. I liked the moody, hazy feel of this photograph with buttercups and grass flowers against a darkening sky.
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This set was taken on my birthday this year – we were camping just below Old Sarum outside Salisbury and woke up early to climb the old hillside and watch the sun rise. The fields and landscape below were misty and I liked the contrast of these wildflowers against the sunrise haze.Clockwise from top left is dock, cow parsley, nettle and bulbous buttercup.
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Smooth tare is a member of the pea family with these tiny white flowers with delicate purple veining. Easily overlooked in a grassland sward, I like the way that they stand out against the soft greens of the surrounding vegetation when you get low enough to appreciate them!
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I took a treacherous walk up to the Hills and Hollows on the outskirts of Grantham one very stormy lunchtime in June – somehow these ominous heavens never opened but gave a nice opportunity to capture some common wildflowers against a dark sky. Clockwise from top left is white campion, poppy, white clover and hogweed.
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I have a real soft spot for arable weeds – modern farming works hard to eradicate competition from arable fields but many species still find a way to brighten a dull monoculture. This flax field was quite an amazing sight in itself with its array of ripe seeds, but flecked throughout where the glaucous green and delicate mauve of fumitory which scrambled up and through the crop.
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Harebells are common in more acidic conditions but can pop up in a variety of habitats. I found them for the first time in the grasslands above Grantham this year, nestled in amongst the Hills and Hollows, but this photo was taken on the Laurie Lee Wildlife Walk in Slad this autumn. You have to get down low to see inside these little flowers, and when i did, I was surprised to find two invertebrate residents settled in for the day. I guess a downwards-facing bell makes perfect cover for a snail to wait until nightfall!
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The Longshaw Estate in Derbyshire comes brightly to life with the purple wash of heather in August and this photograph was taken on one of my favourite walks which cuts across this land. The bell heather was frequented by the beautiful heather colletes bees which emerge to coincide with this floral abundance each year, feeding on the flowers and making their nest holes in the sandy soils beneath the roots.
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Another from the Peak District – this time the coconut-scented flowers of gorse against a backdrop of heather. The old saying goes, ‘when gorse is out of flower, kissing is out of fashion’ because you can find this species flowering pretty much anytime throughout the year. There are many fewer pollinators at work during the winter, but when a warm day awakens a hibernating bumblebee, it can be fairly sure of a nectar source amongst a stand of gorse.

 

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Whilst I doubt this will be my last wildflower photo of 2016, it seems a nice place to end – a common mallow flower with ice crystals taken on my walk to work in December. A bitterly cold morning, the white edging brought a nice contrast to the deep purple of this flower. Many wildflowers of late-summer will continue flowering until the first hard frosts of winter finish them off so this might perhaps signal the end for this individual!

If you are interested in commissioning botanical surveys in the midlands, you can check out Landscape Science Consultancy’s website here!