Friday, 26 October 2012

Ash to ashes...

Posted by Dr Trevor Dines, botanist and Plantlife Cymru Conservation Manager.

With the confirmation of ash dieback disease (Chalara fraxinea) in Scotland and Wales as well as England, what will the future hold, not just for this familiar native tree, but also for the other plants and wildlife it supports?

The humble ash tree (our fourth most common tree in Britain) turns out to be a rather important part of the landscape.  A handsome species, it flourishes on base rich soils where its open canopy encourages a diverse flora on the woodland floor. It supports a vast array of native wildlife from the animal, plant and fungi kingdoms, is an excellent coppice tree with fast growth rates, and is great for woodfuel, making it an important tree in terms of managing woodland for the benefit of our woodland flora.

Lady orchid. © Andrew Gagg/Plantlife 
Whilst the floor beech woodlands can be bare, ash woods abound with primroses, ferns, anemones and early purple orchids. In some areas, ash woodlands are home to some very special plants indeed. Native wild daffodils and fragrant lily-of-the-valley prefer to grow in ash woodlands, as do the arching stems of Solomon's-seal and rarities such as lady orchid, Suffolk lungwort and the exotic lady’s-slipper orchid. Spiked Star-of-Bethlehem, a bulb that produces a flower spike once harvested as a substitute for asparagus, has already declined following the loss of elm woods and is now largely confined to the shade of ash trees. Similarly, toothwort, a remarkable plant that lives entirely underground on the roots of trees, its presence only belied when the fat pink flower spikes emerge in spring as if by magic, prefers to grow on the roots of elm, hazel and ash and is already declining across Britain.

Not only important for the plants that grow around it, ash is vital to those plants that grow on it.  As well as a wide range of fungi, mosses and liverworts, 255 species of lichen are recorded as finding a home on the trunks, branches and twigs of ash, a figure second only to oak. Of particular importance are the highly threatened group of lichens known as lungworts, which thrive on the base-rich bark of ash trees in western parts of Britain. Groups of these large, leafy lichens often grow closely together on the same tree, forming a spectacular tapestry of colour and texture.

Lobaria pulmonaria, a lungwort lichen.  © Ray Woods
In addition, ash is renowned for the insects that it supports – over 120 species including gall midges, bark beetles, leaf miners and sawflies - and its fruit are a valuable source of food for many birds and mammals, such as bullfinches and wood mice.

Ash dieback was first recorded in Britain in February 2012, when the fungus was found on trees at a nursery in Buckinghamshire. These had come from a nursery in the Netherlands and since then five other outbreaks in England and Scotland have all been found on nursery stock planted within the last five years.

Plantlife welcomes the ban on imported ash but, with the disease now present in the wild, this measure may be too late. The impact of large stands of ash dying will be considerable. In their place, we’ll probably see a sprouting of other trees - sycamore most likely - to replace the ash, with a completely different bark and leaf shading pattern. This in turn will alter the woodland floor flowers as well as the lichens, mosses and liverworts living on the trees.

Plantlife is keen to ensure the continuity of our woodland – both trees and flora - by encouraging a greater emphasis on woodland management and the natural regeneration of native stock rather than being reliant on planting non-native imports.  As part of Plant Link UK, we have submitted a response to the Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) consultation on how to tackle the problem. But you can play your part too: if you know of any ash trees planted over the last 5-7 years, do keep a close eye on them and please report any dying ash to FERA or the Forestry Commission.

For more on Plantlife’s call for more sustainable woodland management to revitalise our dark and overgrown woodlands, click here (here for Scotland and here for Wales).

Friday, 28 September 2012

Juniper success

Posted by Nicola Hutchinson, our Head of Conservation Programmes, England and Wales.

Yesterday I attended the Biffa Awards ceremony with our botanist Tim Wilkins as Plantlife’s Lowland Juniper Project had been selected as a finalist in the Rebuilding Biodiversity category.  Whilst we weren't the overall winner (congratulations to Flitton Moor Local Nature Reserve project in Bedfordshire who had that honour) it still felt a great achievement for our juniper project to have been shortlisted from a list of several hundred.

The project has exceeded our expectations in terms of the number of sites and partners engaged – part of the reason it was selected. And actual biodiversity results were also demonstrated, with many baby junipers now giving it a go in the wilds of lowland England.

So many congratulations to Tim for managing a super project for one of our most threatened plants, and for receiving such high level recognition as a result.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Victoria's Star Bakes!

Any fans of the Great British Bake Off will have seen our Chief Executive, Victoria Chester in action  - being chosen as the a 'star baker' no less, in week one, for her Four and Twenty Blackbirds sponge cake.

Here Victoria shares three more of her favourite recipes. Give them a go and let us know what you think!

"I try to use Fair trade + local + free range + sustainably sourced ingredients when possible - so eg if using wild flowers to frost for decorations or foraged mushrooms/wild garlic for bakes try to ensure enough are left for others to enjoy + next season's baking.

I have wondered what would be the bake that uses the most plant ingredients - perhaps some kind of fruit cake?? Suggestions please!

Note: I have always worked in imperial measurements so am very sorry but don't always  to convert recipes properly to metric - have tried to convert from American to British though! 

'Bling' BrowniesThese are yummy but not too sticky and keep a really chocolatey moist 'crumb'
4 oz unsweetened cocoa powder
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsps instant coffee powder made up with 4 fl oz boiling water
8 oz unsalted butter melted
1lb 2oz golden granulated sugar (sorry, this isn't a slimmer's delight)
3 large eggs at room temp.
1 tsp vanilla extract
6 oz plain flour
[4 oz chopped walnuts - optional]
Edible gold glitter or leaf to decorate

1. Preheat oven to 180 (160 fan)/350/Gas 4
2. If you have good bakeware then just lightly butter and flour a 9" x 13" baking tin (or similar proportions) - I go for a 'belt and braces' approach and also line the base of my tin to ease turn out at the end.
3. Sift cocoa, baking powder and salt into a medium bowl.
4. Whisk the coffee liquid and half the melted butter into the cocoa mix until smooth (don't worry if it looks curdled) - I use an electric whisk as it saves a lot of arm ache!
5. Whisk in sugar and remaining butter until smooth
6. Whisk in eggs one at a time then the vanilla
7. Stir in flour using a wooden spoon until just blended - don't beat
8. Add nuts if desired
9. Pour mix into tin and bake for 30 - 35 mins until tester comes out with a moist crumb
10. Cool in tin.
11. When cool cut to desired size in tin and then sprinkle with glitter/leaf - if you have some edible flower heads available (small ones like primroses or violets work best) try dipping these in the glitter instead, or wrap gold leaf very carefully with a brush round individual nut pieces.  Very more'ish for those at the office, tea with 'les gals' or try serving with creme fraiche + fresh raspberries as a dessert.

'Oranges and Lemons' Biscuits
These are the lightest most fragrant biscuits and sooo easy to make:
8 oz [125g] self raising flour
5 oz [120g] golden caster sugar
6 oz [150g] salted butter (not too soft)
Grated rinds of one orange and one lemon - keep separate
2 large egg yolks
1 egg white
Golden caster sugar to finish

1. Preheat oven to 180 (160 fan)/350/Gas 4
2. Lightly grease as many baking sheets as you can fit at one go in your oven
3. Sieve flour and sugar into a medium bowl and rub in the butter - or combine in a food processor - until the mix is like breadcrumbs
4. Divide the mix into two equal halves and add the orange rind + one egg yolk to one half and the lemon rind and other egg yolk to the other half.
5. Knead both mixes separately until they are smooth - then roll each out to about 1/4 (5mm) thickness
6. Cut out using cutter (I like to use different shapes for each flavour) and place on baking sheets
7. Brush cookies quickly with egg white then sprinkle sparsely with caster sugar
8. Bake for 10 - 15 mins until just turning golden - watch them like a hawk because they darken quickly and the best result is when golden not brown.
9. Remove from oven and cool for 5 mins on their trays before removing - they are quite easy to break if moved straight from the oven.  Finish cooling on wire rack.

These are particular delicious when accompanying a fruit fool - lemon biscuits with blackcurrant fool or orange biscuits with strawberry fool for example.

Basic Chocolate Cake that always works
(Note: this uses drinking chocolate powder not cocoa - a really good result I promise!)
8 oz [225g] soft salted butter
4 oz [125g] golden caster sugar
4 oz [125g] dark brown or muscovado sugar
5 large eggs
10 oz [285g] drinking chocolate powder
3 oz self raising flour
1 oz plain flour
Few drops of vanilla essence

1. Preheat oven to 180 (160 fan)/350/Gas 4
2. Grease and flour 2 x 9 ins sandwich tins
3. Cream butter and sugar together well until light and fluffy - I always use an electric hand whisk for this as it gives me good control over the whisking process
4. Add eggs one by one and beat well between each addition - you can add a bit of the plain flour to the last addition if worried the mix might curdle
5. Sieve the flours and drinking chocolate together and stir into the butter/egg mix making sure they are thoroughly incorporated (better not to whisk at this stage as the flour mix tends to blow everywhere - as I found to my cost one day!)
6. Stir in the vanilla essence.
7. Divide the mix between the tins and bake for about 30 - 40 mins (use clean skewer to test).
8. Remove from oven and cool in tins for 5 mins then turn onto racks to cool completely

I haven't included specific fillings or icings because there are so many to choose from and this cake is wonderfully chocolatey and moist already.  However, some combinations I have used include:
Coffee buttercream filling and chocolate fudge icing on top - quite rich so a little goes a long way
Whipped cream and raspberries inside and icing sugar stenciled on top - very pretty for tea!

(Huge apologies but it never occurs to me to take pictures of my bakes so don't have any to show - but it would be lovely to see your results though!)"

Friday, 10 August 2012

A bees eye view of flowers

Posted by Sue Southway, Plantlife's Wildflowers Count Survey Officer

We are at a time of year when wild flowers brighten up our countryside. Predominant colours are white, yellow, shades of pink, blues purples, and all of them are trying to attract insects to pollinate them. However the colours that we see do not look the same to the bees.

Common silverweed as we see it (top) and
under UV light (below).  © Bjørn Rørslett/NN 
Bees and other insects see in the ultraviolet spectrum of light, and this means blues, greens and violet shades, and they cannot see red at all, to them it appears black. A look at a guide to British wildflowers shows that there are very few native red flowers with the poppies being the truest red. In tropical areas many flowers that are red will be pollinated by mammals such as bats that are attracted to the bright colour.

So how do plants attract the bees? The answer is that they produce designs that we cannot see unless we use UV light, and they light up the pollen producing area luring the bees in.

The photo above-right (courtesy of shows two images of Common Silverweed, Potentilla anserina. The first, the one on top, is how we see it - entirely yellow. Under ultraviolet light, however, a dramatic change occurs. A clear target has been provided for the bees to aim at.

Meadow cranesbill as we see it (top) and
under UV light (below).  © Bjørn Rørslett/NN 
The pattern has been highlighted in red in the second image (the bees, of course, will not see it as red, this is only so we can see it ourselves. How exactly they perceive the pattern no-one is entirely sure).

The photo of Meadow Cranesbill, Geranium pratense on the left, shows a similar effect: a pattern is created in the UV spectrum that acts to attract the bees to the pollen at the heart of the flower. There is evidence to show that the chemical compounds producing these patterns can also deter herbivorous insects, in particular caterpillars, protecting the plant’s reproductive capability.

If you would like to help us keep track of some our most common wildflowers, why not sign up for Wildflowers Count - the UK’s only annual national wild plant survey? 2012's survey is still active until the end of August. Find out more at

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Flowers on the edge

Road verges are close to many peoples’ hearts. In fact, Plantlife receives more enquiries about them than anything else, from both our members and non-members frustrated and upset when their favourite local flower-rich verge is mown to within an inch of its life.

In response we felt moved to launch our 'Flowers on the Edge' campaign. Road verges are the bank we should all be investing in. They give so much pleasure: we pass them every day, colourful slivers of countryside in towns, or vital sanctuaries for wildlife in an intensively farmed countryside. Whilst there are only 85,000 hectares of flower-rich grassland left, there are about 238,000 hectares of road verge in Great Britain. They are literally on our doorstep.

A road verge in North Wales. Photo by Pierino Algieri.
Yet so often, this vital habitat is mismanaged and under attack; cut too early when still in flower, sprayed off with poisons as ‘weeds’ and smothered with cuttings so leading to the loss of diversity as nettles, coarse grasses and cow parsley take over. As the floral diversity disappears, so both its value for wildlife and its beauty vanishes.

So please help us do something about it. Visit our campaign page here and sign our petition, send an email to your council, rate your local verges or simply send us a lovely photo. Together we can change things for the better - for our wildflowers and the wildlife they support.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Maiden pink.
© Andrew Gagg / Plantlife

A blooming new blog!

Hello and welcome to the Plantlife blog.

Over the course of our posts we hope to bring you stories, updates and insights from our botanists, staff and supporters. We hope you'll find them interesting and get involved in any discussion it might provoke.

Best wishes,

Luke (Plantlife Mod.)