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 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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!
Bees and butterflies have had a blog post to themselves, but here are a few other invertebrate encounters from 2017 I thought I’d share on the penultimate day of the year!
These were taken in Great Wood in the Quantock Hills. We spent a while being amazed at the ability of these tiny creatures to pull twigs and other materials into position around their nests, joining others to give assistance where required or simply tugging with amazing tenacity until they got where they were going. Soon we also noticed the guard ants, who were trying their hardest to intimidate us into backing away and leaving the nest in peace!
Great Diving Beetle – Dytiscus marginalis
We came across this beast when doing great crested newt surveys in the springtime – the bottle traps used to catch and count the courting newts also work for other species such as this, one of our largest beetles. They can have quite a nip, so I’m told, so this one was handled with care before being returned to its pond in a pasture field.
Sawfly in a buttercup
I came across this little sawfly – its head dusted with pollen – settled in a buttercup flower in Muston Meadows in early summer. It didn’t move as I got into position to take a photo, and I could only assume it had settled there for the night.
Wasp – Gasteruption jaculator
This amazing looking creature was feeding on the fool’s water cress flowering at the edge of our garden pond. The amazing ovipositor is so much larger than the wasp itself which made it look for all the world like a radio-controlled insect as it flew between flowers!
Wasp – Ectemnius sp.
I came across this little wasp feeding on the hogweed flowers on a walk through Cheddar Gorge and thought it deserved a portrait – the rounded head with the eyes wrapped around looks as though it could have been the inspiration for a number of sci-fi aliens!
Ornate-tailed digger wasp – Cerceris rybyensis
I was walking through the Hills and Hollows above Grantham one afternoon and came across a series of holes in the bare earth – I watched a while and saw several heads peeking out before one of the insects arrived from outside and I could get a proper view. This is a species of digger wasp whose prey is bees such as this solitary bee held beneath its body. The wasps bring the bees back and pull them underground to provide food for their larvae.
Darter dragonfly – Sympetrum sp.
This dew-bejewelled dragonfly was resting on a flower stem in Muston Meadows in August. Taken just after sunrise, this shows the roosting behaviour where the dragonflies will find a safe place to spend the night, waiting for the sun to warm them in the morning and get them up to temperature so that they can take to the wing once more.
This little snail was crawling across the roof of my car when I got back from a dawn bat survey in late summer. I’m not sure how it made its way all the way there, but I liked the reflection in the early morning sunshine. I popped it back into the vegetation in the verge before heading home!
Wolf spider (Lycosidae)
This photograph was taken in the Grantham Hills and Hollows in late summer as the grasses were beginning to turn from greens to browns. I had bent down low to get a photograph of one of the wildflowers, and then my eye was caught by how many invertebrates were active just in the grasses beside it.
This grasshopper was taken on the same afternoon as the wolf spider above – I’m afraid I haven’t attempted an ID on this little character but would welcome any suggestions! The camouflage of this grasshopper amongst the greens and browns of the aging summer grassland meant I only spotted it when it hopped to another location.
Minotaur beetle – Typhaeus typhoeus
This amazing beetle was trundling across a forest path in the Quantocks in autumn. Despite the fearsome looking horns, they are not predatory but are in fact a species of dung beetle which feeds on rabbit droppings amongst others. They nest in deep tunnels and will pull the dung back down with their powerful legs in order to provision the larvae.
Like the bees in my last post – butterflies are summer’s companions. Whilst the bees add movement and sound, their gentle buzz providing the background to many a summer’s day, the butterflies are all about the flair and colour.
Below are a few of my favourite encounters as we moved through 2017.
Green hairstreak – Callophrys rubi
This is a species I have only ever seen briefly before, flitting in the low grasses as we walked The Ridgeway through Oxfordshire a few years ago. A hunt around Barnack Hills and Holes in May soon turned up a hawthorn shrub with several males standing guard over their patches of territory. This one was settled on an unopened flower bud, poised and ready to spring into the air as soon as another flew past and questioned his ownership of this space. You can read more about this encounter in this blog post!
Green-veined white – Pieris napi
With the exception of a couple of rarer species, it is easy to overlook our white butterflies as most people view them as pests in the garden. But like almost anything – they’re beautiful when viewed in their own right and on their own merits. My favourite part of this photograph is those chequered blue eyes as this butterfly feeds on forget-me-not flowers at Treswell Wood.
Small pearl-bordered fritillary – Boloria selene
We were walking through the dunes and forest at Newborough in Anglesey in May and spotted this static shape at the side of a path – a small pearl-bordered fritillary resting on the seedhead of a plantain. It’s rough brown textures gave it excellent camouflage. This species is widespread across the UK but only occurs in discreet colonies, commonly in the clearings in deciduous woodland but also marshland and moorland further north.
Ringlet – Aphantopus hyperantus
This is a common species of grassland and woodland habitats, but one which always delights me. The veins in the soft-brown wings are such good parodies of those found on the leaves it settles amongst, and the five eye spots are striking. This photo was taken at the Hills and Hollows behind Grantham, the butterfly sheltering amongst the grass on a windy afternoon.
Marbled white – Melanargia galathea
This white is actually more closely related to the browns than the other whites, despite name and appearance. It is a species I usually associate with the counties of Warwickshire and Oxfordshire as these are where I have encountered them most often on walks and surveys, so it was lovely to find a healthy population down the road in Bedford Purleius. This was taken in the meadow close to the carpark, along with the silver-washed fritillary pictured below.
Burnet moth – Zygaena sp.
Technically not a butterfly but a dayflying moth, I felt I had to include this photograph. This was taken at Lolly Moor – a Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve – when I called by this year. The marsh helleborines were my main aim but there were many other orchids and these burnet moths were bouncing between them. This is one of the five-spot burnet moths, but I am unsure whether the ‘regular’ or the narrow-bordered. Any tips welcomed!
Small copper – Lycaena phlaeas
Some years I see this delicate little butterfly everywhere but others it is a real treat to encounter. Sadly 2017 was the latter – the only time I came across this species was whilst walking on a path above the Thames in Oxfordshire. The set-aside margins in the fields were particularly species-rich, drawn from the local wildflower meadows, and this was one of several species of butterfly enjoying the flowers on the day we were there.
Silver-washed fritillary – Argynnis paphia
This was a rather ragged specimen but its grace and presence was un-diminished – they stood out a mile flying alongside the marbled whites in the meadow at Bedford Purleius. This is our largest fritillary species in the UK and gets its name from the streaks of silver on the underside of the wings.
Wall brown – Lasiommata megera
A walk from Cheddar up the gorge to the quarry at the top rewarded me with this butterfly. The wall used to be much more common across the UK but suffered severe declines and now has a much smaller distribution. This is certainly the first time in a number of years I have come across this butterfly.
Common blue – Polyommatus icarus
Taken at sunrise in Muston Meadows, this common blue had spent the night roosting on the seedhead of a black knapweed and was waiting for the morning rays to warm it before taking to the wing. These little blue butterflies are abundant within the grasses, feeding particularly on the bird’s foot trefoils and other meadow wildflowers.
Red admiral – Vanessa atalanta
The last butterflies I saw in 2017 were those set to see out the winter in their adult form – the red admirals, small tortoiseshells and peacocks. Ivy flowers provide an abundant source of nectar for these late-flying species and they joined the bees and hoverflies on the flowers beside Grantham Cemetery.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 darkness of the winter is always a good time to reflect on a year passed, not only to appreciate what you’ve seen and experienced but to look forward to the treasures which await the eager explorer in the year ahead.
As always, I find trees feature strongly when I look back at the photos I’ve taken. There is much to appreciate in the natural world and each element has its own pleasure and essence. Trees feel like communing with the elders (no pun intended!) – even a stand of spindly silver birch will have been alive almost as long as I have and some of the trees you meet allow you to reach back through the generations, to the limits of living memory and far beyond. Here are a just a few such encounters from this year.
Clumber has much to offer at any time of year – the double lime avenue on the entrance just keeps rolling the trees before you like an unfurling scroll as you drive in, and the old parkland has many veterans to tell you their tales. This photo was taken across the lake, as the sun sunk low on a Sunday afternoon in January, lighting the trunks and stretching the reflections out across the water.
This tree sits proudly on top of the hillside overlooking Grantham and I pass it most days on my lunchtime walk. It is a sycamore and sits at the end of an incongruous line of old oaks, beeches and other sycamores which speak of an older time. A friend refereed to it as ‘that amazing oak’, assuming the species from its stature and prowess. I wonder if she’ll read this… Stretching out below is the course grassland and gorse of Harrowby Hill and above it lies the Hills and Hollows where barn owls and short-eared owls hunt through the winter months and marsh orchids nestle in the summertime.
We went with some friends to listen to Sam Lee’s ‘Singing with Nightingales‘ at Fingringhoe Wick in spring, and took the opportunity for a walk around Hatfield Forest. Hornbeam was growing in the woodlands with a frequency and regularity I never see here in the Midlands, but this particular specimen was exceptional. This is an old hornbeam pollard where the heartwood had rotted away and the tree split into two live, healthy halves which were easily large enough to walk through.
Treswell Wood is a very special place – Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust’s first reserve, it is an ash dominated ancient woodland in the north of the county which now plays host to the successfully reintroduced dormouse populations as well as supporting a whole range of other species. Springtime sees the trees burst into an abundance of fresh green leaves and creamy white blossom and this photograph of the mixed canopy captures this exuberance for me.
Muston Meadows is an ancient haymeadow in Leicestershire – it’s deep ridge and furrow grassland supports an exceptional population of green-winged orchid as well as a burnet, pignut, cowslip, quaking oat grass and meadowsweet. This photograph of the oak and ash within the boundary hedgerow was taken as a starlapse at midnight under moonlight in the springtime. I love to be somewhere that allows you to feel such a strong connection to the past, I imagine scenes from D. H. Lawrence’s works where the haymaking in these meadows was a time of great importance for sustenance and survival, as well as opportunities for intrigue and romance.
The light filtered through a thousand leaves has subtleties of which vary from species to species, from place to place and from month to month. There can be few however to match the soft light of sunshine through newly unfurled beech leaves, as this stand in Bedford Purleius. Later in the season, the ground beneath these trunks will support helleborines which flower in mid-summer.
Millstone Edge, Derbyshire
Leaving the twisted, gnarled oak woodland of the valley beside the Burbage Brook, you turn onto an entirely different scene – one of light and green and air. This edge is populated almost entirely by silver birch with sketch a monchrome array between the greens of foliage above and grassland below.
Robin Hood’s Bay
This was an opportunistic photograph of the sunlight playing through woodsmoke from a bonfire in the clearing below. It’s not often that mist and fog will persist long enough through the day to allow such vertical shafts of light in a woodland scene, so I took advantage of serendipity to catch a shot which reminds me more of rainforest than an English woodland.
The Quantocks has become one of my favourite places to visit – the different characters of the trees and woodland set within an ancient landscape are irresistible. You can read more in this blog post from the autumn, but below are a couple of my favourites.
First is the gnarled oak woodland crowding the road which ventures up over the wooded hillside from Nether Stowey towards Crowcombe.
Next is the massed boughs of the coppiced beeches which line the Drove Road – a prehistoric track which runs across the ridge of the hillside above Crowcombe.
This photograph is perhaps my favourite of this year – it shows the woodland closing over the road with Tolkinesque grandeaur. If these were ents which came to life, I wouldn’t be so very surprised…
Cambridge Botanic Garden
This shows the beautiful soft browns of the autumn needles of swamp cypress – an evergreen conifer – against the backdrop of yellow maple leaves. I was in Cambridge for a meeting and had an hour before catching my train which gave a perfect opportunity to explore the botanic gardens which were conveniently close to the station. As well as the stunning floral displays and specimens, they have some beautiful trees and it’s a great spot for autumn colour!
Small-leaved lime used to be the key component of the woodlands around the midlands, before the clearance of the wildwood and the generation of the stands we see today. They still occur if you know where to look – Steve Falk‘s guides can help if you’re lucky enough to be in Warwickshire – and these old coppice stools within Wappenbury Wood are a fine example of a tree with which we should all be more familiar. Coppicing was the ancient practice of cutting the tree down to a bole, from which new growth would appear and could be substantially harvested without ever killing the tree. On the contrary, some of the oldest trees you can find are coppices and pollards, including small-leaved lime coppices in Westonbirt Arboretum thought to be over 2000 years old. This photo shows the tall, straight trunks of the regrowth many years after their last cut.
This photograph was taken at a local churchyard one frosty morning on Novembe. The night had turned the grass and gravestones to white whilst the sunrise caught the embers of autumn leaves on this beech and ignited them into a celebration of orange, umber and yellow. It was only a few more days before the leaves fell, but this was a moment when autumn had not yet given way to winter and the right morning can provide you with the best of both.
I was very pleased to find myself within a few miles of this woodland in November, and took the opportunity to explore one of the most impressive assemblages of ancient trees in the country. You can read more in my blog post, but here area couple of my favourites.
The path through The Thicks wound its way between trees and shrubs, but split around this majestic old oak which stood in the centre of the path and demanded all that pass must pass around it.
This photograph was taken at sunrise, of one of the idiosyncratic old oaks on the edge of the parkland. The ground layer beneath is dominated by bracken, and I thought the frond and the tree made a nice contrast against the morning sky.
Grantham Road is a bypass to the old road, which was subsequently bypassed again by the new A52 which avoids the village altogether. The road now links the two parts of the village and, though less than 100 years old, is bestowed an authority and antiquity by the double-line of planes which enclose it. The houses at the end are where the Griffin’s Head pub once stood. I liked the way the glow of life and civilisation lay at the end of the imposing avenue against a starry sky, like coming out of the woods into the safety of a home.
Back once more amongst the silver birches of Millstone Edge – their black and white stems through the snow transports you to another country, to Russia or else eastern Europe.
With the seedheads of the helleborines still standing, this was the last view I had of these beech trees in 2017. I love the softness of the light which seems to remain as a memory of those leaves from early springtime.
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!
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
The Oak of Belton Lane – referred to in some places as the Grantham Oak – is perhaps the most surprising and impressive tree in town. The oak stands on the eastern side of Belton Lane, to the north of the town of Grantham, beside a pedestrian crossing and surrounded by a crescent of residential housing. This is not the typical location for a tree which is likely to be over 500 years old!
The Grantham Oak – a pedunculate or English Oak (Quercus robur) – has a girth of 7.02m when measured at 1.5m above the ground. To give a rough visualisation of this – it would take over four adults reaching finger-tip to finger-tip to hug this tree. Using this measurement of girth, we can estimate the age of this tree – although this is not an exact science, and is subject to speculation over the early growing conditions of the tree and the stresses or privileges it might have endured or enjoyed over the years.Using the methodology produced by John White – the tree may be 530 – 560 years old, indicating a possible planting date around the 1450’s. To put this in context – this is around the time of the War of the Roses; the founding on the Inca dynasty; and when Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake.
The tree is a pollard – this means that in the distant past, it was cut above the height at which animals can graze. This was generally done to faciliate sustainable harvest of a tree either to provide fodder for animals or for wood timber. Retaining the base of the tree but continually taking new growth allows it to be harvested regularly without killing the tree. Indeed, one result of pollarding trees is that they often live for much longer than non-pollarded specimens.
A ‘wolf tree‘ is one which is older and larger than those around it – it often has a shape and structure which seems unaffected by external influences such as shading or competition, whilst it’s establishment means the younger trees grow and develop in response to it. I often see this in woodlands – especially where an old oak is situated towards the edge of a more recent forestry plantation – but the Grantham Oak is an example of a ‘wolf tree’ in a residential setting – the houses which line Belton Road were built to arch in a crescent surrounding this magnificent tree at its centre. This tree is still valued by many who live close or drive past it – it was nominated in the hunt for the UK’s 2014 Tree of the Year competition.
The map below illustrates the current location of the tree – set at the edge of residential development, a little way offset from the green corridor along the River Witham which passes through the town to the west.
The housing around this tree was only established in the 20th century and inspection of older maps before this date indicate that in 1905, the land around Belton Lane was agricultural countryside.
The Harrowby Mill, still present but converted to residential use, lies opposite this tree on the west of Belton Lane and this can be seen as the only marked development in close proximity to the tree back in 1835. Although this was almost 200 years ago, even then the Grantham Oak would have been an impressive specimen of some 300 years old and would have stood dominantly across the road as workers left the mill.
This is registered as Tree 2560 on the Woodland Trust Ancient Tree Register – a link to the tree’s individual page can be found here. The tree is included in the ‘40 Special Trees of Lincolnshire40 Special Trees of Lincolnshire‘ book produced by the Lincolnshire Tree Awareness Group (TAG) under the title ‘The Grantham Oak’. The text describing this tree states that it was originally enclosed by Belton Hall Park although a contact at Belton said that the land at Belton Lane was never within parkland indicating it may never have been a ‘parkland’ tree.
I have done my best to piece together a little history and information on this tree, but I would love for this to be just the beginning. If you have any information, photographs or stories relating to this tree, please get in touch with me or leave a comment below and I can update the post to grow the story around this magnificent resident of Grantham.
For a similar post on one of Grantham’s impressive trees, take a look at this post on the copper beech on the high street!
Each winter for the last few years, there have been starling murmurations over Grantham and this year is no exception! I saw them gathering on a pylon in the fields beside Harlaxton as I drove along the A607 in this evening, and as I drove past they all rose en mass and began to flock over the western tip of Grantham. I parked up for a few moments to watch this incredible spectacle of aerial gymnastics.
There are several theories as to why starlings flock together like this and treat us to such a display. They gather just before roosting, which they do communally, and so you see smaller flocks gradually join the largest flock so that the numbers grow and grow before they drop down to the trees and shrubs where they spend the night communally. This grouping together may allow them to exchange information on good feeding spots, or just help them to gather with the rest of the local starlings to maximise the warmth which multiple bodies brings on cold winter nights.
The birds move in unison, twisting and turning in shapes a little like those you’d see in a lava lamp, and this behaviour increases in speed and complexity if there is a predator about. This is believed to be another of the reasons for the murmuration behaviour. Safety in numbers is an instinctive behaviour for many species – including birds, fish and mammals – and it works on the basis that if you are in a large crowd, there are many targets beside yourself which makes it unlikely that a predator will get you individually. The dynamic flight patterns of the murmuration adds a further element of safety by confusing the predator as the flock bends, twists and turns as one.
The flocks will begin to disperse as starlings pair up and establish nests, so take the opportunity to watch this natural phenomena whilst you have the chance! The hour before sunset is the best time to get out and look for them, and they are currently focused on the western tip of Grantham, sometimes moving over the centre earlier in the evening.
If you’re looking to commision ornithological surveys such as wintering bird surveys in the midlands, check out Landscape Science Consultancy’s website here.
Each year, the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI) run a New Year’s Plant Hunt where they invite people to record as many species in flower as they can in the New Year – between 1st and 4th January.
I started in the dark so the first few photographs are interesting examples of headtorch botany, but the sun steadily rose and the images soon lit themselves. I walked from Harlaxton village to the A1 along a stretch of the Grantham Canal, and then into the centre of town. Having stopped the clock for a morning at work, I headed back out at lunchtime to close out the three hours allowed for a search by heading up to the Hills and Hollows at the back of the town. The whole route was around 5.5 miles and took a little under 3 hours to complete.
I counted up a total of 44 species on this hunt – the most of any of the individual five hunts undertaken which perhaps shows the benifit of walking on familiar ground! The full list and a montage of all the species is provided at the end of this post but I’ll focus now on a few examples of the kinds of flowers which I encountered and the trends which seemed to appear across four days of hunting for flowers in different habitats and counties.
One of the most fruitful locations seems to be cracks, crevices, edges and other overlooked places in built-up areas. Think of those splashes of green at the side of pavements, at the bottoms of walls and fences, or the edges of front gardens. Survival in locations such as these often means a quick turnaround from seed germination, to flowering, to setting seed before the opportunity vanishes. In this way, the species is maintained wherever niches arise, and persist with a constantly shifting distribution map. Such species encountered in this hunt include petty spurge, shepherd’s purse and annual meadow grass.
Groundsel – Senecio vulgaris
Shephard’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)
Petty spurge – Euphorbia peplus
Canadian fleabane – Conyza canadensis
Then there are those species which are flowering precisely when they intended to. Gorse typically begins flowering on the Hills and Hollows to the east of Grantham in December and continues through into the summer although flowers can really be found at any time of the year. This gives rise to the saying ‘when gorse is out of flower, kissing is out of fashion’. Winter heliotrope is another species which is often found flowering over Christmas and into the new year – there is a colony of this growing beside the River Witham, right in the centre of town. Naturalised species can also be counted in the New Year Plant Hunt – these are non-native species which are growing wild without intervention Periwinkle is a brightly-coloured example of a winter-flowering naturalised species which was growing towards the Hills and Hollows.
Winter Heliotrope – Petasites fragrans
Gorse – Ulex europaeus
Next are a bunch of slightly early spring species. These are those which are preparing to flower soon but have apparently been tricked into doing so a little earlier than usual by the clement conditions. Examples include shrubs – such as hazel, blackthorn, holly and dogwood – as well as some spring flowers such as primrose and lesser celandine. Another naturalised species on the list was wood spurge, a healthy self-set colony of which was flowering away at the base of a hedge towards the east of the town. These species typically flower between February and May so a January flowering is not excessively early.
Holly – Ilex aquifolium
Lesser celandine – Ranunculus ficaria
Blackthorn – Prunus spinosa
Hazel – Corylus avellana – male catkin
Hazel – Corylus avellana – female flower
Primrose – Primula veris
Another common theme I have spotted is the propensity for species to flower where the vegetation has been cut recently. This can be easily visualised where the daisies and dandelions still brighten up most lawns. Along the Grantham Canal, it was noticable that hogweed and cow parsley both flower just to the sides of the towpath where there was a late-summer/early-autumn cut but are absent further out where the sward escaped the blades. Perhaps this works a little like the Chelsea Chop technique which delays and extends the flowering period, but cutting is also a form of stress to the plants, and this can encourage them to flower and set seed as a survival response.
Daisy – Bellis perennis
Hogweed – Heracleum sphondylium
Cow parsley – Anthriscus sylvatica
Finally there are the long-season species – these are flowers which naturally flower late into the year. Examples include wood avens, red and white campion, white deadnettle, field speedwell and yarrow all of which were recorded flowering along the Grantham Canal towpath. The ever-delightful ivy-leaved toadflax also falls into this category flowering from May right through into the early winter – this delicate little flower grows in cracks and crevices in many of the walls throughout Grantham. The persistence of these species, especially considering there has been little frost to speak of so far this year, is broadly in-keeping with their general phenology.
Ivy-leaved Toadflax – Cymbalaria muralis
White deadnettle – Lamium album
Red campion – Silene dioica
White campion – Silene latifolia
Yarrow – Achillia millefolium
It’s been a good few days and a great excuse to get out and find some wildlife in the depths (although clearly not the dead) of winter. I found a total of 64 different species across five hunts in four counties! Many thanks to BSBI for organising this – the deadline for the results is the 8th January and I’m looking forward to seeing the results and analysis which will follow their collation of records from around the country. From the conversations on twitter, it appears that many people have got involved this year. If you want to get involved next year, check out the BSBI webpage and get recording when New Year’s Day comes around again!
A montage of the photographs of all the species recorded on the Grantham New Year Plant Hunt is provided below, along with the complete species list.
I stopped off at Harlaxton Wharf on a cycle along the canal and got somewhat waylaid identifying the flowers there – for a very small square of land, you will find many species of wildflower! These include many species planted intentionally, using Naturescape seeds and the assistance of the Princes Trust when the Wharf was restored. Others, including some of the more understated species but also some of the most impressive, are centuries-old inhabitants of the Grantham Canal bankside. I have run through a whirlwind description to help you identify the species which are there – I may have missed some so please let me know if you spot anything else whilst waiting for a Canal Boat ride from the Grantham Canal Society – more info about the trips which leave from the Wharf can be found here and details of the renovation works are here. There is also a gallery of photographs of the wildflowers, arranged by colour, to help you with identification.
If you are visiting before July then the big flashy purple flowers from tall grey/green plumes of vegetation are corncockle (Agrostemma githago). Large herbaceous plants with purple flowers after this stage are the more likely to be the later flowering rosebay willowherb (Epilobium angustifolium), the plants of which can grow to 2m tall with their purple flowered trumpets topping a tower of lanceolate leaves. If the last description sounds right, bar the size, then the more diminutive broad-leaved willowherb (Epilobium montanum) might be your species – this grows no more than 50cm in height and is altogether more delicate than the big bruiser which is rosebay. The fluted flowers often shade from white to pink as they mature.
Greater knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa) is also growing here – the flowers are almost thistle-like but are plumed with tendrils at the petal tips. The colour is blue with a tinge of purple and the leaves are unlike thistles completely – robust fleshy and smooth green leaves with none of the spikes associated with thistles.
The large familiar yellow flowers growing from a rosette of toothed leaves (dandelion coming from the French: Dents de Lion) are your common or garden dandelion (Taraxacum officinale agg.). Watch out too for smaller, finer flowered versions – these are autumn hawkbit (Leontodon autumnalis) and they are not in flower until later in the year, as the name suggests.
Common nettle (Urtica dioica) should be known to most – if it stings you then you have your identification. The flowers on this are non-descript to say the least, fine tassles of tiny flowers in a sting-bead. If your ‘nettle’ has flowers then check the colour. There are a number of non-stinging ‘dead’ nettles and two of these are found at the Wharf. Luckily, their colour gives them away – white dead-nettle (Lamium album) is white whilst red dead nettle (Lamium purpureum) is red. There are other differences to tell the apart – the key characteristic is size and stature – if your deadnettle is approaching the structure of a stinging nettle then it is most probably white. Red is much less sturdy, often lower to the ground with finer leaves. There is a third option for a species with nettle-like leaves but no sting and this is hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica) – this has spikes of purple flowers which look almost orchid like. The best test here is scent- if there is a powerful unpleasant scent from the crushed leaf (certainly not like anything else I have ever smelt) then this is your species!
Taller flowers of red or white on long flower stalks with soft ovoid leaves are the red campion (Silene dioica) and the white campion (Silene latifolia). Again, there are other campions to choose from – the bladder campion can be seen out in the limestone swards of The Drift or the Viking Way – but only these two species are on the Wharf. Colour is key to ID!
Rounded, softly serrated leaves and a noticeably squared stem identify common figwort (Scrophularia nodosa). The flowers are deep red but tiny – at first glance you might think them buds waiting to burst into an exciting rich flower but closer inspection reveals them to be at the height of their glory.
Buttercups come in different shapes and sizes and two can be found here beside the canal – creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens) is a very common species which is often found in damper places – a wet flush in a pasture field will often be stained yellow with the flowers. Other species are also common and a second can be found here – bulbous buttercup (Ranunculus bulbosus) differs in the leaf and structure but the key ID is in the flowers – the sepals (these are the green beneath the flower) are reflexed, that is they are peeled back like a banana and pressed against the stem below. Earlier in the year, you will see buttercup-like flowers but these could well be lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria). The flower petals of this species are more pointed than the very rounded petals of the buttercups and the leaves are round and shiny rather than serrated and dissected like those of the buttercups. For similarity of name rather than similarity of plant, I will also mention the greater celandine (Chelidonium majus). This is no relation to the lesser celandine but shares a name nonetheless. Greater celandine is in the cabbage family and is a much larger, more foliose plant. You get a lot of leaf for your flower!
Spiky plants next: there are three purple-flowered thistle species to be seen. The biggest, boldest thistle with spikes which look as though they have the ability to impale are the spear thistle (Cirsium vulgare) – think of the spikes as spears for an easy way to remember. There are too smaller species which look as though they could just give you a nasty prickling – here the key difference to tell them apart is the presence of spiky leaflets on the main stems – welted thistle (Carduus crispus) has them whilst creeping thistle (Cirsium arvensis) does not. To confuse matters ever so slightly further, there is another similar species you will see which is in fact a sowthistle rather than a thistle – the thistles all have purple flowers whereas the sow thistle has yellow flowers. The prickly sow thistle (Sonchus asper) has spikey leaves which wrap around their stem. A smooth version of this called, appropriately enough, a smooth sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus) grows alongside it.
Of very different structure, but on the theme of spikes, are the white-flowered bramble (Rubus fruticosus agg.) which rambles along the ground and up through adjacent shrubs and trees. It should be familiar to anybody who has been blackberry-ing. Also instantly recognisable is the rose which grows wild here – the curved thorns and open white-pink flowers should be immediately recognisable to genus. This species is the dog rose (Rosa canina).
The tall, white-flowered umbellifers are another distinctive group – their flowers are in umbels which can be thought of as umbrellas for an easy visual clue. The leaves vary but are generally divided to a greater or lesser extent – lots of ‘empty space’ within the leaf footprint if you will. If the leaves are big and bold, divided into big lobes then you have hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium). Then there is the notorious ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria) – if you have it in your garden then you can pick it out of a line-up. The leaves appear directly from the ground very much like the leaves of the elder after which it is named. This will also send up dense heads of white flowers in a compact cluster. If it is neither of these, then next check is the stem – if there are purple dots of blotches then you have the highly toxic hemlock (Conium maculatum) – back away slowly and for goodness sake do not touch or eat. This leaves two other umbellifers which flower at the wharf and the simplest way to differentiate is to ask what time of year it is. Cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) is a big, brash species which flowers early in the spring and is generally going over by the end of May. This is superseded by the smaller, finer, more delicate hedge parsley (Torilis japonica) which flowers for the remainder of the summer.
Two primrose species are to be found – a line of wild primrose (Primula vulgaris) grow along the bank with their pale yellow, individual flowers which are open and relatively large with wavy, indefinite edges. By contrast the cowslip (Primula veris) has groups of tighter, more enclosed flowers which hang together – a brighter yellow in colour with flecks of orange.
Ivy (Hedera helix) should need no introduction – a creeping plant with glossy green heart-shaped leaves. The flowers in the autumn are a great nectar source – clusters of small black sphered which look something like a tiny bunch of black grapes.
Some of the largest leaves on the Wharf belong to burdock (Arctium lappa) – these are greyish green above and whitish green below. The burdock flowers are fairly insipid but the seeds are a ball of hooks which fall apart to individual hooked seeds when you try to pick them apart when snagged on hair or clothes.
Another species which will stick to you if it has a chance is cleavers (Galium aparine). This has tiny four-petalled white flowers and grows in long strands, often creeping and climbing its way through other vegetation, with little whorls of leaves intermittently up its stem. There are a number of galium species in the UK but this is the most common and the only one which will stick to your jumper with ease!
There are a number of small plants with purple flowers and a more or less creeping characteristic – I will tell you about each in turn. Plants with little deep-purple trumpet-shaped flowers and ivy-shaped leaves – these will be the ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea). If the leaf description sounds right but the flowers do not, then perhaps the delicate trailing ivy-leaved toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis) is your species – these flowers have three lower petals and two upper with a yellow patch in the centre. If the purple flowers are star-shaped with fine green filigree foliage and red-wine stems then it is probably herb Robert (Geranium robertianum). Finally, if the plant has a more upright character with purple pea-like flowers and tendrils on the ends of the pinnate leaf stems, then this will be the common vetch (Vicia sativa).
A species which stands apart from the others is Lords and Ladies or Arum lily (Arum maculatum). The deep-green, often dark-flecked waxy leaves emerge straight from the ground in the early spring with the pale hooded flower rearing up soon afterwards with the long purple flower spike below. The action is all over by mid-May with the green berries appearing on a low spike, turning to red in the autumn.
Small yellow flowers on a substantial plant could be wood avens (Geum urbanum) – these leave a strange seed something like a strawberry after the flower has been fertilised and the flower lost. Nipplewort (Lapsana communis) is a taller species with a number of yellow flowers present in a very diffuse ‘head’. The flowers on the former have five distinct petals whilst the latter is a composite flower – it is a member of the daisy family – and has a larger number of yellow florets which somewhat crowd into one. If your plant is much lower to the ground, with red-flecked yellow pea-like flowers and clover-like leaves, then it will be bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus). A final yellow-flowered possibility is the low, fleshy groundsel (Senecio vulgaris) whose flowers look perpetually as though they are just about to emerge – a bud waiting to burst. It never will – the flower rivals figwort for the disappointment following from bud to flower.
Clover-like flowers and clover-like (three-leafed) leaves growing close to the ground or sometimes bubbling and swelling into a mound is the white clover (Trifolium repens). This is a creeping plant and will rarely be found with individual flowers and leaves. A discreet, compact little plant with a flower spike of tiny white flowers to only 10cm high and leaves like lines of diminishing green coins laid out along the stem will be wavy bitter-cress (Cardamine flexuosa). A creeping, clambering plant with as much green sepal as white petal on the flower will be common chickweed (Stellaria media). A much more upright plant will be garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) – rub the leaves and release the faint smell to confirm the ID but be warned that this does not confer the taste to food it is used in cooking, unlike wild garlic which is found up in Belvoir Woods and out east at Belton House amongst others.
Multiple blue flowers with small, soft, green leaves like the ears of some small creature? Water forget-me-not (Myosotis scorpioides). And no, despite the name, this will be growing on the banks of the Wharf rather than in the canal itself.
Two poppy species are flowering here; the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) has flowers which are an insipid but delicate shade of purple with grey-green foliage. The more familiar common poppy (Papaver rhoeas) can also be seen – these are the archetypal poppy with the deep red leaves and the black centre.
The old childhood adage said that where there are nettles to sting, there is dock to relieve. I never found this to be true but there are two species of dock to be seen. The big, bold, cumbersome species is broadleaf dock (Rumex obtusifolius). A smaller species with long, narrow pointed leaves and red veins is the wood dock (Rumex sanguineus).
Even amongst the gravel beside the water there are species which find a home. The tiny pearlwort (Sagina procumbens) holds tiny (really tiny) green pearl-like flowers aloft from fine-leaved foliage which ambles and spreads from the base. The whole plant is usually only a few centimetres in any direction. A bigger jumble of fennel-leaves with yellow and white flowers is the pineappleweed (Matricaria discoidea) – again a crush of
the leaves and a sniff should reveal the truth of the name.
I have left until last the most effusive and the most unimpressive flowers – I will deal with the latter first. The fat hen (Chenopodium album) flower is a mealy, beady insipid-red affair which you would struggle to even notice. The leaves always remind me a little of dinosaur footprints – this is a plant which will generally pass everybody by although it does make good eating! By contrast, the ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) – like the garden variety but blown up to gigantic proportions with crinkle-cut leaves and a big yellow centre is fairly unmistakable.