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.

2017 in Bees

If trees are the elders of the countryside, then the bees are part of the summer pageantry of a fairground, here in numbers for just six months of the year they work hard and play hard, getting drunk on nectar whilst setting themselves up for the long winter ahead.

I love to look back on photos from the year and see the changes in light and colour as well as species – hopefully this will come across in the retrospective below:

Honey bee – Apies mellifera

The first bees of the year for me, appeared on valentines day a whole month before I saw the next. These were the honey bees on the gorse flowers, just a stones throw from the edge of the residential in Grantham. I would expect these were from a hive somewhere in a garden nearby. The footpath here winds through the gorse shrubs, creating a sheltered microclimate filled with the coconut-scent of the flowers making an ideal first-forage of the season!

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Early Mining Bee – Andrena haemmorhora (male)

This beautiful little bee is the first mining bee I saw in 2017. This was taken at Farndon Willow Holt – a Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust reserve which is best known for its collection of willows but with many other habitats besides. This little male mining bee was on a blackthorn flower against the blue spring sky in March.

Early bumblebee – Bombus pratorum

This is the aptly named ‘early’ bumblebee – visiting winter-flowering honeysuckle in my parents’ garden back in March. Ornamental and garden plants such as this can really extend the range of nectar sources available for early-flying bumbleebee queens in the springtime.

Ashy mining bee – Andrena cineraria

This little bee appeared on the inside of our new greenhouse as we were assembling it over easter. The structure was only half-glazed at this point and upon flying in, it must have flown upwards and become trapped in the glass roof. After a few photos, I sent it on its way! These grey and black mining bees are very striking, and often the first ‘unusual’ bees which people notice in their gardens before discovering the world of different bees which their flowers support.

Early Mining Bee – Andrena haemmorhoa (female)

This was one of the first mining bees I ever took real notice of – it was searching for its hole next to me in the garden and I was struck my the beautiful patterning of the fur. This shot was taken in a spot I came to think of as ‘bee alley’ – just around the corner from work it has a good patch of green alkanet – an early flowering member of the forget-me-not family – and the aspect catches the sun at lunchtime resulting in a new species pretty much every day I visited! Read more about the bees I saw there on this page.

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Bumblebees along The Drift

The Drift is an ancient track which runs along the Lincolnshire/Leicestershire county boundary near us. The limestone grassland is filled with wildflowers but the key species for bumblebees is always the viper’s bugloss – it produces nectar-rich flowers which are accessible to a range of the ‘generalist’ bumblebees and will keep on producing more week after week. If you want to boost the bee-value of your garden – this would be my top tip!

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Tree Bumblebees (Bombus hypnorum) Mating

The house next door to us had a tree bumblebee nest this year and one day, the garden was filled with the tandem flights of newly emerged queens and sharp-eyed males who had latched on to mate with them. It was amazing to watch the queens successfully take off with such an extra weight on their backs! You can see in this photograph how much smaller the male bumblebees are compared with the queens.

Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) Nest

This was a photo of a tree bumblebee arriving into its nest in a fallen willow. The nest was in a failed hazard beam meaning the cavity opened on both sides with the nest situated in the cavity above. By positioning myself on the opposite side, I managed to get this shot of a worker approaching and about to enter the nest.

Tree bumblebee entering its willow-cavity nest

Black Ruderal Bumblebee – Bombus ruderatus

This was another photograph taken along The Drift – this time of a bumblebee which had spent the night on a knapweed flower and had not yet warmed and woken up. This was one of several individuals which were all black – a melanic version of the ruderal bumblebee which is typically banded. This species of bumblebee is thought to be on the increase – possible reasons could include climate change or the increased planting of red clover.

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Leafcutter Bee (Megachile versicolor)

I had made a bee hotel way back in April and this was my favourite resident – a leafcutter bee (probably brown-footed leafcutter) which would spend its days bringing sections of leaf back to seal up egg cells within its nest tubes.

Orange-vented leafcutter bee building its nest with rose leaf segments in our home-made Bee Hotel

Male Bumblebee (species… forgotten!)

This photo was taken after a summer rain shower – this male bumblebee had been caught out on the verbena in the garden and was waiting to dry out. You can see the characteristic ‘yellow moustache’ which typically is found on the males of the commoner species including Bombus lucorum, B. lapidarius, B. pascuorum, B. jonellus and B. praetorum

Carder Bumblebee (Bombus pascuorum) on Carline Thistle

I liked the colour scheme of this shot – the carline thistle (in full flower despite the appearances!) and the carder bumblebee share the same straw-coloured brown which seemed characteristic of the countryside in late summer. This photograph was taken at Harbury Spoil Banks – a Warwickshire Wildlife Trust reserve.

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Solitary Bee on creeping thistle

I’m afraid my ID skills aren’t up to this one, but this is one of the small solitary species resting in August. I like the way the thistle flower looks similar to an anemone, reminding me of the clown fish and sea anemone relationship. This little bee was actually blowing bubbles into the wind when I found it – a behaviour thought to be useful in reducing the water content of the nectar and increasing its concentration.

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Heath bumblebee – Bombus jonellus

This was a male heath bumblebee on the heather at Curbar Edge taken just before sunset. This was one of the last bees I saw in 2017, and the first time I have seen this species which is common in heathland areas but can also be found in parks and gardens near to the habitats. I liked the way this one posed at the top of the strand – actually he was trying to be lazy and reach the next flower without taking to the wing!

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!

On the orchid trail…

I’ll be straight up front: this blog post is really just an excuse to post some pretty photographs of orchids! But also to encourage others to get out and explore these places on our doorstep – there are many excellent National Nature Reserves (NNR)’s and Wildlife Trust Sites within 30 minutes or so of Grantham, many of which are meadows which are designated for their botanical interest. I took the opportunity today, on a sunny Friday in June, to tour a few and see what I could find. The star attractions at many of the sites were the orchids – I found a total of seven species across five different sites – but many other interesting flowers were beginning to appear. Links below will take you to the webpages for each of the sites if you are planning a visit of your own!

Barnack Hills and Holes

This site is a series of mounds, hollows and trails which are rather labyrinthine after a while – easy to get lost! They are situated around 20 minutes down the A1 from Grantham, just beyond Stamford. The site was formed by quarrying limestone in medieval times, it was first exploited over 1,500 years ago. Now it is home to a stunning array of flora, including some flagship species such as the pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris) and the man orchid (Orchis anthropophora) – both of which could still be found in early June.

This shows one very late pasque flower, along with the many seed heads from earlier blooms.
One very late pasque flower, along with the many seed heads from earlier blooms.

This was my first stop today and the location of the first two orchid species – man orchid and fragrant orchid (Gymnadenia conopsea).

Fragrant orchid - the first orchid find of the day at Barnack Hills and Holes.
Fragrant orchid – the first orchid find of the day at Barnack Hills and Holes.

Man orchids are one of the most threatened species of orchid in the UK and this site is one of the more northerly of its distribution. These are rather unassuming orchids at a glance, but quite intricate when you get down close to them. You can see the derivation of the name in the shape of the individual flowers.

This is a close-up of the man orchid’s flower – they are have tall, narrow flower spikes.
This is a close-up of the man orchid’s flower – they are have tall, narrow flower spikes.

I found so many species in the limestone hummocks which I have never come across before but I will restrict myself to sharing just one other – this exotic flower is dark mullein (Verbascum nigrum).

Close-up of the dark mullein flower spike - the incredible purple anthers set within the yellow flowers make this quite an exotic looking flower.
Close-up of the dark mullein flower spike – the incredible purple anthers set within the yellow flowers make this quite an exotic looking flower.

Other species included milk vetch, kidney vetch, dropwort, common valarian, salad burnet, deadly nightshade, knapweed broomrape, rockrose, field mouse-ear and many more besides.

Bedford Purlieus

A new site for me but a recommendation from @mushy1977 on twitter made a visit essential – it is just a few miles further down the A1 from Barnack, accessed off the A47. The site is predominantly woodland and has a range of interesting bird species including nightingale and lesser spotted woodpecker as well as hairstreak and fritillary butterflies. Definitely worth a return visit but today, I went in search of the diminutive brown-flowered fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera) and managed to find a single flower spike nestled within the long grass.

Fly orchid flower amongst the long grasses at Bedford Purlieus National Nature Reserve
Fly orchid flower amongst the long grasses at Bedford Purlieus National Nature Reserve

Wansford Pasture

On the way back to the A1, I stopped off at Wansford Pasture, a small meadow field with a wet flush running through and it is here that southern marsh orchids (Dactylorhiza praetermissa) thrive. There were many plants amongst the reeds, along with common spotted orchids (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) and at least some of the plants seemed to have intermediate characteristics, perhaps indicating hybridisation.

Southern marsh orchids at Wansford Pasture.
Southern marsh orchids at Wansford Pasture.

Cribbs Meadow NNR

Next stop was the third National Nature Reserve of the day – Cribb’s Meadow just outside of Thistleton on the way back towards Grantham. This has a number of important species, principally adder’s tongue fern (Ophioglossum vulgatum) – an species often associated with old grasslands. A fellow orchid hunter kindly showed me my first example of this species – it is easy to overlook amongst the other leaves and flowers of a meadow in June!

Adder's tongue fern at Cribb's Meadow NNR
Adder’s tongue fern at Cribb’s Meadow NNR

Two more orchid species to add to the day’s list here. First is the green-winged orchid (Anacamptis morio) which were largely gone over – they reach their peak in May – but this specimen was still in flower at the far end of the meadow.

Green winged orchid flowering at Cribbs Meadow NNR - you can see the green stripes in the lateral sepals which give the flower it's common name.
Green winged orchid flowering at Cribbs Meadow NNR – you can see the green stripes in the lateral sepals which give the flower its common name.

Walking along the base of a disused railway track which intersects the reserve, I came across a number of common twyblade (Neottia ovata) orchids. These are quite an inconspicuous species which could easily be overlooked unless you keep you eye in for their characteristic almost translucent green flower spikes in amongst the sward.

Common twyblade flowers at Cribb's Meadow NNR.
Common twyblade flowers at Cribb’s Meadow NNR.

South Witham Verges

Finally a stop at the South Witham Verges – a section of road verge designated for its limestone flora and used by a wide range of mammal and bird species.

I had hoped to find bee orchids at this site, but no joy. There were common spotted orchids (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) a-plenty however and it was inspiring to see how so many wildflowers flourish on a busy roadside – it just shows what is possible with the right management regimes!

Common spotted orchids flourishing on the protected South Witham Verges nature reserve, owned by the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust
Common spotted orchids flourishing on the protected South Witham Verges nature reserve, owned by the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust

With so many great meadow nature reserves within 30-40 minutes drive of Grantham, I would suggest you check them out if you have a chance! To find even more wildlife sites, check out the Wildlife Trust’s: Find a Nature Reserve site.

Common blue butterfly resting on a common knapweed seedhead at Cribbs Meadow NNR.
Common blue butterfly resting on a common knapweed seedhead at Cribbs Meadow NNR.

Beautiful meadows at Easton Walled Gardens

Wildlife friendly gardening has been gaining interest for some time now, and this year seems to have attained a status close to dominance if RHS Chelsea was anything to go by. More numerous perhaps even than the stylised show-gardens were those on a natural theme; wildflowers were everywhere, although many were in bloom well before their wild counterparts suggesting that these were some of the most well-tended ‘weeds’ in the country. Meadow planting figured strongly in a number of gardens and retail stands seemed to follow the trend, with pots of ragged robin and buttercup adding colour and context to their products.

Easton Walled Gardens, by all accounts, was developing this theme before it was quite so fashionable and a visit illustrates the ease with which aesthetically pleasing displays can incorporate or even comprise, wild flowers and communities.

Poppies in the meadows at Easton Walled Gardens

I have only visited the gardens once before, in snowdrop week in February, and was determined to pay another visit to what looked to be a fascinating project. Sweet pea week (running now until Sunday 8th July) seemed a good excuse to do this – if anybody has only visited for the spring bulbs, I would strongly recommend you see in the summertime too.

The use of wild meadows within the gardens is varied and original. The swathes of long grass beneath the trees within the woodland area is perhaps unsurprising, but their use on the terraces down to the stream is quite unique. Here, the sloping banks are unmown, allowing a mist of Arrhenatherum to form with wildflowers such as scabious and poppy adding instances of colour beneath. Trefoil creeps from the wild areas into the flat walkways which, alternating in strips, are mown short allowing you to walk between the banks of grassland without so much as brushing your legs upon the soft seed heads, nor interrupting the bumblebees which attend the meadows in their masses. These terraces stretch out on either side of the stone steps which descend between topiary shrubs to the plateau before the stream. It is perhaps this novel interpretation of a traditional formal landscaping design which makes the effect so successful.

Meadow terraces at Easton Walled Gardens

From these steps, you can see the lie of the remainder of the garden. Over the stream is a superb herbaceous border which would take pride of place in any National Trust formal gardens and beyond, behind the border, is the deep, dark archway of an old yew avenue. Upon either side of this, complementing the heavy shade of the evergreens are light ephemeral meadows arrayed with glorious roses which seem to fizz and overflow from somewhere below the gossamer swell of grasses. One of the key concerns when incorporating nature into gardens is to display intent and these ebullient features, coupled with cut-grass paths which allow you to move through the medley, leave you in no doubt that this is design.

Roses within meadows at Easton Walled Gardens
These are not yet species-rich meadows and the range of wildflowers is limited, but perhaps counter to common sense, a wildflower meadow takes time and care, or at least appropriate management, to establish. But it is beginning. The terraces were cleared of trees which had developed for fifty years before they were removed and this long-established habitat would have built up a good organic layer of soil, full of nutrients. Where nutrients are high, grasses will almost always out-compete the smaller, slower wildflowers, towering above and shading them out before they have much of a chance to get started, and those which do are the less aesthetically desirable ‘ruderals’ – species which specialise in quickly springing up and setting seed, moving between transient opportunities. Easton have a programme of removing these ruderals – thistles and ragwort specifically, before they have chance to flower with the eventual aim of reducing their presence within the sward. As for the dominance of grasses; this can be dealt with by reducing the fertility of the soil through cutting and removing the grasses throughout the season (taking the clippings away takes the nutrients with them) or, more drastically, stripping the topsoil to reach the more nutrient poor soil horizons. This occurs naturally when the meadows are grazed by livestock. Another trick is to sow yellow rattle – you can see this flourishing in Easton’s meadows – which actually parasitises the grasses, tapping into their roots and thereby reducing their vigour.

Walking back across the lawn, between swallows which skate across the grass as though on ice, the path takes you to the left into Red-tailed bumblebee on sweetpea at Easton Walled Gardensthe vegetable garden and the delightfully named ‘pickery’ which is designed for just that – cut flowers abound. Right now, the centrepiece of this garden is the sweet pea collection – over sixty varieties on display and the opportunity to pick your own to take away. As well as the taxonomic arrays there are famous sweetpea’s from history, showing the development of this flower which as been so bred and refined. It is amusing to watch the bees visiting the peas indiscriminately and pollinating at will showing a callous carelessness for the years of linear selection which have created the unique lines, I wonder quite what cross-breeds would grow from the subsequent seeds!

Our visit was completed with tea and cake which are a highly recommended finale to any trip. And I should add, this brief description has concentrated on the meadows and wildlife; this is to say nothing of the giraffes grazing beside the cedar, the countless other plants and flowers of interest such as the collection of hostas and ferns in the shaded archway as you enter the garden, the developing orchard, the swing which was rarely un-occupied or the other myriad thoughts and touches which show the time which has gone into this garden. It is only 11 years into its restoration from its abandoned state and I look forward to returning to see how it continues to develop.

For more details on location and opening hours, take a look at their homepage here.

Giraffes beside the cedars