The verges around Grantham in 2018 are markedly different to previous years – this is a result of the council’s decision to reduce amenity cutting to twice a year, down from the previous seven cuts per year. The result of this cost-saving exercise is that the verges throughout the town are more alive with flowers and insects than they have been in years and I for one am delighted with the effect!
At a time when the many scientists, ecologists and wildlife experts are sounding alarm bells over the catastrophic declines in many of our native species, and the dire threat of our falling pollinator numbers, the unintended consequence of cutting the cutting is the creation of wildflower corridors and habitat which lace their way through the town.
Whilst I am wholeheartedly in favour of the new regime, I’ve seen comments from a people complaining about the effect – these comments generally fall into three categories:
The first is safety – and I agree that where the height of the vegetation represents an issue for visibility, especially around schools, then there is no question that this needs to be addressed. But these spots are the exceptions, not the rules, and many areas of town can happily support longer verges with no risk to passers by or vehicle users.
The second is the tidiness and neatness – there is an aesthetic which says that an unmowed verge is a sign that the town isn’t being looked after. This too is understandable, but it is also very cultural and very changeable – the concept of Obsessive Tidiness Disorder is very well addressed in this blog post. We have become so accustomed to nature being managed and manicured on a wholesale basis that this is the normal, and deviation from it is considered a drop in standards. But we have come a long way in the last century to a place where a council is expected to expend vast amounts of money to maintain an aesthetic which is so entirely detrimental to the huge host of species which would otherwise call it home. I would challenge anybody to read this piece about the death of a Cornish hedgerow in an age of mass mechanised maintenance and not feel horrified at what we have lost.
The aesthetic which likes a well-managed verge is now the norm, but councils around the country are adopting more wildlife-friendly cutting regimes and if these become more widespread, then expectations will shift and this perception will soon die away. Flowers provide food for insects which in turn provides food for swifts and swallows which are continuing to decline in numbers and will soon be an absent sound from our summer if steps are not taken to address this. It would be great to see the council really embrace the positives of the change to grass cutting regimes rather than simply defending it as an unfortunate necessity – be bold and be ahead of the curve! We would have support and help from the likes of Plantlife and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust – both of whom understand the importance of verges as habitat and have designed campaigns to change perceptions and behaviours.
The third reason people object seems to be the species which appear – people have commented that it would be OK ‘if they were nice wildflowers’. The plethora of garden flowers which we’re used to, and to some extent the highly vibrant but unnatural annual mixes which some councils sow, are affecting expectations of what our native flora look like. As well as the showy orchids and exuberant vetches are smaller, more subtle species but they are equally beautiful if you take the time to look. The verges are also full of surprises – Ancaster has a population of one of the rarest orchids in the country on its road verges and who knows what might pop up when given a chance. Even the most seemingly mundane flowers can surprise you – some of the yellow dandelion-like flower heads around town are indeed the familiar dandelions, but there are also closely related hawkbits, hawkweeds and nipplewort which you may never even have noticed.
On a lunchtime walk today I counted eighteen species of wildflower in just a short stretch and I am sure there are many more besides. Many of these are not rarities, but they are bright and colourful and provide life for so many bees, butterflies and hoverflies. A few are pictured in this post – see which ones you can spot on your next walk around town!
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!
This blog post steps outside of my usual UK sphere and across to Europe to share some photographs from our holiday in the Dolomites. We spent 6 fantastic days in the Val Gardena and mid-June was the perfect time for exploring the mountains and valleys at the beginning of the real flush of summer flowers.
We stayed in Ortesei – a popular skiing resort in the winter which lent its infrastructure to summer explorers such as us. Two cablecars and a funicular railway would take you up to 2,500m to alpine meadows to the south of the town, pine forests to the north and the scree-slopes below ancient elevated reefs to the west. With the help of these we walked over 100km of trails during out time there and passed through a wide range of habitat with the variety of flora to match.
This was a fascinating experience for me as an ecologist. Firstly, it was an opportunity to see a number of species which I would dearly love to see in the UK, from the much-celebrated lady’s slipper orchid to the delicate lesser butterfly orchid. I also saw a wide range of species I would recognise in the UK only as a garden ornamentals, such as the daphne and orange lilies. Then there were a whole host of species which could be identified to genus through their correspondence with familiar UK species, but which I had never encountered before such as the alpine colt’s foot and the alpine pasque flower. From these examples a naming system occured to me, similar to the way this landlocked ecologist deals with new coastal species. Whereas the prefix ‘sea…’ works with familiar-but-different‘s beside the coast (think sea mayweed, sea holly, sea campion), so the prefix ‘alpine’ often seems to work in the Dolomites! Finally there were utter unknowns which were quite unlike anything I had seen before – spotted gentian and box-leaved milkwort to name but two!
I worked through my charity-shop copy of ‘Mountain Flowers of Europe’, googled latin names of the right genus from the Plant Life of the Dolomites and refered to this excellent blog post. For the last few, I appealed to twitter and as usual for the botanical community there, some incredibly generous and helpful people offered identifications. However this slightly scattershot approach to ID has led to a number of ‘possibly’ and ‘probably’ ID’s whilst others might quite simply be wrong. If you spot anything in the following collection of photographs which looks awry, I would welcome any corrections or confirmations!
I would highly recommend this region, and Ortesei in particular, as an excellent spot for the extensive trails, the beautiful wildflowers and the predictably enjoyable food and drink. And that’s to say nothing of the marmots!
Alternatively, for an armchair whirl through some of the flora which these mountains have to offer, scroll on!
We had a wonderful hard frost just after Christmas so I took the opportunity to get out in the morning sunshine to take a few photos!
The frost serves to outline these seed heads, making them stand out against the background but also helping to highlight the structure which is best appreciated at this time of year when the leaves and flowers have fallen.
Cider with Rosie has to be one of my favourite books, with its evocation of life in a wooded Gloucestershire valley at a crucial time when the world around the village was changing but where a more ‘traditional’ country life still persisted. I have wanted to visit the landscape ever since reading it, but it is always that little bit too far or not quite convenient – however a recent site visit took me back past Stroud and so opportunity knocked to call in at Slad – the village where the book is set.
I parked up at Swift’s Hill – a SSSI which overlooks the valley and took a look around the grassland before setting off on a walk. The sward is clearly past its summer finery but many flowers still studded the hillside – small scabious, devil’s bit scabious, knapweeds ad eyebrights – frequented by these beautiful little Lasioglossum solitary bees with endearingly long antennae.
Lassioglossum solitary bee feeding on small scabious
Lassioglossum solitary bee feeding on small scabious
I then picked up the Laurie Lee Wildlife Way which takes you down the steep hillside and across open pasture field to an apple orchard where the mustard-green mistletoe nests amongst the branches.
Next, the path takes you down across the river and into the village itself, before heading up the other side of the valley and into the darker woodlands of Frith Wood where the trees crowd over the pathway to form a shady passageway between the trunks. After crossing the road, and walking beneath some truly majestic beeches, the track winds up a steep wooded hillside and releases you into the meadow of Snows Farm – managed for wildlife and thronged with flowers such as yellow agrimony, blue harebell and scented wild basil and marjoram.
The way continues then through woodland and wildflower grassland, ending in Laurie Lee wood – a recent Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust aquisition – before ending back at the high open hillside of Swift Hill.
One of my favourite aspects of the walk was the totems displaying Lee’s poem’s written black on perspex so that the view was visible behind the words. This means of display was an excellent way of placing the poems within the landscape which was so important in inspiring his work.
After reading Cider with Rosie, I read ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning’ where Laurie Lee talks about leaving this very village on foot and working in London before making his way to the continent and walking down to the south coast of Spain. The steep valleys and hillsides would be fine training for a long distance walk and I could certainly feel my flatland legs when I got to the end, but this was a magnificent way to spend an afternoon through some of the most quintissential Cotswolds scenery you could hope for. Woodruff and wood sorrel leaves covered the woodland floors, whilst the dead flowering stems promise bluebells in the springtime so I will certainly be back to explore this beautiful place again.
You can read more about the Laurie Lee WIldlife Way here. I didn’t have a copy of the route guide but found the walk quite straightforward to follow for the most part – however there are places where crossroads are not signed so it’s a good idea to pick up the leaflet or to take a map with you as backup!
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.
Chalk grasslands on downland are often case of bonsai botany – the low nutrient status due to the chalky substrate, combined with grazing by sheep or cows favours low creeping species, or those willing to operate in miniature.
Squinancywort is a small, mauve-lilac flowered member of the bedstraw family, of which the strong, scrambling sticky-weed or cleavers is perhaps the most commonly known example.
Ladies bedstraw is another member of the bedstraw family – the four-petalled flowers are common to all members of the bedstraws although the majority are white – ladies bedstraw is one of two yellow flowered members of the genus.
Beaked hawk’s beard is usually a more robust plant, but here it was growing in a low, creeping habit. The red-flecked undersides to the petals however make it distinctive.
Common restharrow is a low-growing member of the pea family with beautiful, striated foxglove-purple flowers.
Birds-foot trefoil is another member of the pea family with sunshine-yellow flowers. It is quite a common sight, often included in wildflower mixes and a big hit with many of the butteflies such as the skippers and the blues.
Kidney vetch is a third member of the pea family – the flower heads contain clusters of the small pea-flowers – just as the bird’s-foot trefoil but multiple and in miniature.
Small scabious is a a soft lilac coloured flower with open heads which attract a wide range of pollinators including solitary bees, bumblebees and butterflies.
Round-headed rampion is something of a rarity nationally, but was quite common in patches of the grassland on the south downs. It is the County Flower of Sussex and quite a striking blue up close. It seemed to be a particular favourite of the six-spot burnet moths which had just emerged, judging by the empty pupae cases lining the dry grass stems.
The downs have a particular character of their own, but many of the species above (with the exception of the rampion) can be seen much closer to home in the Midlands – there are a number of excellent calcareous grassland sites around Grantham, the finest of which has to be Barnack Hills and Holes NNR just down the A1 near Stamford but a number of other Lincolnshire and Leicestershire Wildlife Trust sites also boast an exciting range of calcareous meadow species – use the Nature Finder app to see what is closest to you.
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.
Re-wilding is an issue which has recieved quite a bit of attention recently; I’m currently waiting for delivery of Feral – the recent Guardian article suggests it should be a fastinating read.
Much closer to home, I seem to be on something of a quest to populate our garden with native species. This is not intentional, ideological or idealistic, I just keep noticing species in the wild which would look beautiful in the garden and the trend continues! Whether these are shop-bought natives or wild-collected seeds, they seem to be steadily rewilding the garden. There are so many beautiful native species which could stand side-by-side with most ornamentals, especially in a ‘cottage garden’ style planting and there is the added benefit that they are evolved to live in the climatic conditions we have to offer.
The benefits of planting natives in your garden will be familiar to anybody who has read the literature produced by almost every conservation body you can mention; from the RSPB who (amongst other things) recommend fruit and seed-bearing species for garden birds; Butterfly Conservation who would advise a mix of native flowers and plants (nettles!) to attract butterflies; Bat Conservation Trust taking you into the twilight with night-scented flowers to attract night-flying insects to fall prey to the bats; and the Wildlife Trusts who offer free meadow-mix seeds to try to make the substantial footprint of our gardens a little more familiar to the vast array of wildlife which have developed in a country devoid of peony, choisia and penstamon.
Our garden is a rented house and I think that the landlord might be rather annoyed if we converted the established garden to scrub and meadow, so here are a few good ways to introduce more natives into your garden:
Plant up that tricky spot
Almost every garden has an awkward area, where nothing will grow because it is too shady, or too dry, or too steep. Your garden, however manicured and maintained, fits into a landscape, be it city, village or town – go out and see what grows wild where these conditions are found in the local environment. A particularly dingy area of our garden is now home to sweet woodruff (Galium orodatum), ferns (Dryopteris sp.) and forget-me-nots (Myosotis arvensis) which colour the ground green, white and blue through the spring. Now, towards midsummer, the yellow greater celandine (Chelidonium majus) is fading and the foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea) are flowering above them with the frilled leaves of monk’s hood (Aconitum napellus) promising deep-blue flowers later in the season. Admittedly not all of these species are common in the immediate surroundings in Lincolnshire but all flourish in the conditions.
We have a dense shrubbery, dominated by a glorious rose which I would never want to see go. But the ground layer below was largely bare. The shrubs are deciduous and it is only spring and early summer where the bare ground is visible and the light reaches through which immediately suggests where to look for inspiration – there are a host of woodland plants which have adapted perfectly to occupy this early flowering season, taking advantage of the period before the canopy leaves shade them out. Here we now have bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), ramsons (Allium ursinum) and winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) flourishing in the spring with yellow archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdolon) towards the edges. I am particuarly looking forward to the point where the ramsons (or wild garlic) is established enough to begin harvesting!
Knowing your local area is a great place to start when looking for natives which will take; see something you like, look it up and see if you can source it. Better still, if you can, take seeds from your surroundings as local stock is most likely to flourish. Fields of sandy soils are often lined with viper’s bugloss (Lycopis arvensis) and evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) which are beautiful bold plants producing masses of purple and yellow flowers. They would be less likely to thrive in Grantham but would be ideal for anybody wanting to make a Thetford garden a little wilder.
Leave a patch to see what develops
The ‘weeds’ which trouble you will generally be those which find your conditions ideal. I will not pretend I don’t weed the garden, but I always leave a patch where I allow these species to grow unchecked, admittedly with a few additions of my own choosing. Here there is enchanter’s nightshade (Circaea lutetiana), broadleaf willowherb (Epilobium montanum), hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica), cleavers (Galium aparine), ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), more forget-me-nots, nettle (Urtica dioica), red campion (Silene dioica) and bramble (Rubus fruticosus agg).
This is also the perfect place for rocks and logs to be piled; you need not worry about the appearance as they will soon be subsumed by the vegetation and will provide perfect shelter for a range of invertebrates, amphibians and other species.
This patch is not designed to be beautiful but it achieves it non-the-less, especially when the red campion is flowering against the dark green foliage. This is the corner where comma’s fly, where the frogs stretch and scramble after slugs, where the hedgehog first forages when leaving the compost pile and striking out on an evenings foray, where the blackbirds pluck blackberries in the autumn.
Resist the urge to perfect your lawn
The expanse of pure grass is quite an unnatural phoenomena and the effort to keep it pristine and free of herbaceous elements and bryophytes will exhaust if it does not defeat you. Why not embrace the floral diversity on offer?
Most people are familiar with the standard lawn species such as daisy (Bellis perennis), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale agg.), broad-leaf plantain (Plantago major) and clover (Trifolium sp.). I personally love the scattering of yellow, white and pink throughout the grass! Creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens) is another which is often less than popular but mowing will result in low, yellow flowers which lighten up the damper patches.
Other species which do very well in a lawn, despite mowing, are the beautiful purple self-heal (Prunella vulgaris), the delicate white mouse-ear (Cerastium fontanum), the tiny thyme-leaved speedwell (Veronica serpyllifolia). Other more bold species can easily be incorporated, especially if you plant the towards the edge and hold-off the mowing for a while; the delicate yellow cowslip (Primula veris) and striking purple-chequerboard of snakes-head fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris) would be obvious contenders.
Choose the impressive natives
There are a number of native flowers which really can stand side-by-side with the ornamentals in any bed. There are a wealth of native cultivars which have been bred to be more colourful or impressive such as the yarrows (Achillia millefolium) and geraniums (Geranium sp.) but others are well worth a look.
Native cranesbill species such as the blue-flowered meadow cranesbill (Geranium pratense) and the pink-flowered bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum) can contend with the more familiar garden cultivars; native pink’s and catchfly’s such as the cerise night-flowering catchfly (Silene noctiflora) are a match for the ornamental dianthus; the yellow flowering spikes of great mullein (Verbascum thapsus) resemble hollyhocks and any of the gentian family would grace a rockery beside the imported alpines.
Sourcing your natives
There are so many ways to incorporate natives into your garden, regardless of the size or design, and I have outlined just a few, a flick through a wildflower book is bound to give you more ideas.
One issue can be sourcing these species; collecting a small amount of seed from wild species (where they are clearly prolific and where it is appropriate) can be a good way to begin. Wild-collected herb-Robert (Geranium robertianum) now grows through one of the borders, remaining almost imperceptible apart from the delicate pink geranium flowers which pop up in amongst the leaves of crocosmia and phlox. The Kew Seed Information Database can be a great resource if you want to know the conditions or treatments that a particular species’ seed needs to germinate.
Sometimes collecting seed doesn’t work; despite attempts I have been unable to get greater stitchwort (Stellaria holostea) – a delicate plant with star-white flowers – to grow from seed. Here is where a range of native nurseries come in to play. If you live in Grantham, or anywhere nearby, I can thoroughly recommend Naturescape in Langar. Not only do they have a wide range of natives from all different habitats, they have some beautiful native-only planting displays which show you just how much can be done using the palette of our native flora (they also do mailorder if you live further away). Many other garden centres also stock a limited supply of natives now and I have found National Trust garden shops (such as Belton House just to the east of Grantham) to be a particularly good source.