Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Say GO to the mow!

Dr Trevor Dines
Plantlife Botanical Specialist

I’m standing in a meadow in Sussex on the hottest day of the year. The July sun is doing a good job of bleaching the scene but, even this late in the season, the straw-brown field is punctuated with colour; deep purple betony (Stachys officinalis) with its short, fat flower spikes and tall Devils’-bit Scabious (Succisa pratensis) throwing blue discs above the grasses. At my feet, yellow Lady’s-bedstraw (Galium verum) is sprawled through the sward, reminiscent of its former use to sweeten the scent of straw-stuffed mattresses.

The sound is incredible too, the myriad of crickets, grasshoppers, hoverflies and bees reminiscent of a tropical rainforest. But walking through the meadow creates another sound too. The pods of Yellow-rattle (Rhinanthus minor - image right) are ripe – dry, swollen and fat with seeds that rattle under every footstep. Traditionally, Lammas Day, the 1st August, was the day to start cutting hay cut, the first harvest of the year. But farmers would instead often be guided by Yellow-rattle, the rattling a signal to farmers that the hay was ready to cut.

It can feel like an horrific act of brutality to cut down a meadow in its prime, but in fact it is the single most important point in the annual meadow cycle. It provides valuable fodder and bedding for livestock, it removes nutrients from the field, keeping soil fertility down and allowing more delicate flowers to thrive, and it keeps brambles, bracken, saplings and other thuggish plants in check. If it wasn’t for the hay cut, meadows would quickly revert to scrub and woodland, losing much of their colour and wildlife along the way.

All over the country, meadows are resonating not just with the sounds of wildlife but with tractors, mowers, hay turners and bailers. As well as providing a valuable farm income, this green hay is also being used to literally seed new meadows. The sites for these will have first been cleared and lightly cultivated, just enough to break up the soil surface. Green hay is then taken from a good, ancient, flower-rich meadow nearby and transported to the new fields where it is strewn and then either rolled or grazed by cattle. In this way, all the seed from the plants in the hay drops into the soil, ready to germinate with the first rains. The results can be spectacular, with apparently ancient meadows, full of the flowers characteristic of the local area becoming established in just two or three years. As part of the Coronation Meadows project, 12 such meadows were recreated in 2013, and over 120 hectares of restoration are planned this year.

Volunteers from local communities all over the UK are involved, helping out with both cutting and spreading green hay. Scything courses have become popular, this traditional form of mowing providing a tough work-out. In some cases, seed of special flowers, such as Melancholy Thistle (Cirsium heterophyllum) and Dyer’s Greenweed (Genista tinctoria), are being collected and grown to plant out in local meadows next year. Artists are capturing the action of the hay-cut, as well as the beauty of the meadows themselves, and sound-recorders are capturing that cacophony of meadow music that’s so much part of the meadow experience.

So, from now on it’s essential that we say GO to the mow! Not just in meadows, either:

  • If you’ve left a patch of grass unmown in your lawn, you can give it a good trim. Attack it with a strimmer or pair of shears, remove the growth and then mow the grass hard back. Treat it like a normal lawn until Christmas and then leave the same patch to grow back next year. Managed this way, the number of species and flowers is likely to increase.
  • Our flower-rich roadside verges are meadows too. As part of our Road Verge Campaign, we’re asking Local Councils to start mowing the entire width of their verges now and remove clippings where possible. If you see verges being cut for the first time now, they might have signed up to our Campaign. If not, or if they’ve been cut already, why not lend your signature to our petition?

Kicking my way through the meadow, another sound can be heard. A tractor pulls into the field with mower in tow. The farmer engages the machinery and sets to work, the tall grass reduced to strips of hay in an instant. It looks so destructive as the stunning meadow is turned to an apparently nondescript agricultural field. But this hay will soon be taken from here and put to good use. I pick some up and give it a shake. My palm and fingers are showered with the precious seed, yellow-rattle in particular. I hold a new meadow in my hand.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Commonwealth Flowers Exhibition opens in Glasgow

Seona Anderson
European Projects Coordinator

Our Commonwealth Flowers Exhibition, featuring patchwork squares celebrating national and culturally important plants from across the Commonwealth, is up and running at the Hidden Gardens in Glasgow just in time for the Games. In fact, we managed to coincide (by accident) with the Queen’s Baton Relay as we were setting up:

Many of the Commonwealth squares on display were created by Madderty Primary School in Perthshire. Others were made by folk of all ages and backgrounds: one is by a six year old school boy, another by a 96 year old man.

One is by a Sri Lanka lady who has lived in Glasgow for 35 years. We even have a patch the Magellan brown rush (right), found in the South Georgia Islands stitched by a lady from Stirling!

The exhibition is free to all and open Tuesday to Saturday 10am until 8pm and on Sundays 12pm until 6pm. Thanks to the Hidden Gardens for their support in hosting this exhibition. This project is funded by the Celebrate It fund.

More info:

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Coronation Meadows: One year on

Dr Trevor Dines
Plantlife Botanical Specialist

Over a year has passed since our patron, HRH The Prince of Wales hosted the launch of his ambitious Coronation Meadows project. Much has happened since then and in many ways the real work has now begun. The Prince’s vision to identify a flagship Coronation Meadow in each county and then use green hay from these to literally seed new meadows is gradually taking shape.

Muker Meadows, a Coronation Meadow in North Yorkshire. Image by Don Gamble.

Here are some highlights from the last 12 months:

  • Coronation Meadows have now been identified in all but one of the 72 counties of England, Wales and Northern Ireland (just two counties remain).
  • In Scotland, where there are fewer suitable sites, Coronation Meadows have been identified in 22 of the 34 counties.
  • Restoration work in 2013 saw 12 new meadows created in 12 counties, and many of these are showing spectacular results this year with superb germination following the mild winter and the warm, wet spring.
  • Thanks to a generous grant from Biffa Award, £990k of funding has been secured towards the creation and restoration of meadows across England and Wales over the next 3 years.
  • As a result of this funding, work is underway this summer to create and restore 30 meadows in 24 counties.

Harvesting green hay to seed a new meadow.
The creation and restoration of meadows is not an easy task. It requires lots of planning, site preparation, hard work and skill. The funding from Biffa Award will now pave the way for much of this activity. But it’s matched with an equal amount of enthusiasm from meadow owners and farmers who are beginning to appreciate the true value of flower-rich meadows. With their dedication and help, the vision of a new meadow in every county can be achieved, securing a legacy for the next 60 years.

It also goes without saying that Plantlife could not be leading this project without the support we receive from our members. Why not help us do more by becoming a member?

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

114 million orchids in the slipstreams of our cars

Andy Byfield
Landscape Conservation Manager

I guess I could be voted Britain’s worst driver during the summer months, for when at the wheel my eyes are invariably affixed to our glorious flower-covered road verges, and all-too-rarely on the road ahead.  A recent distraction has been the fabulous displays of pyramidal orchids (Anacamptis pyramidalis) across our warmer, more lime-rich parts of the countryside.  Last week I spotted them on every verge and roundabout on the outskirts of Gloucester, but a particular favourite are the pyramidals that adorn the Ilminster bypass, the gateway to the south-west, for those hauling westwards along the A303.

The Ilminster bypass was opened in 1988, and today drivers pass dense displays of the orchids on warm, south facing road cuttings along the few miles of this route, roughly 25 years after the habitat was created.  I ‘guestimated’ roughly 1100 flowering plants along the short few miles earlier this year, but suspect that there are many, many more (the Ilminster bypass is a notorious accident blackspot, so I cast only half an eye on the verges).  The great thing is that they are being managed properly – being allowed to flower and seed, before the grass cutters ‘go in’ to clean up.

Of course, the orchids and other flowers make my car journeys immeasurably more pleasurable, but in a landscape ever more devoid of colourful grassland, these verge refuges become ever more important for myriad flowers, insects, mammals, birds and much more.  Now, here is a heartening thought about Britain’s changing attitude to road verge management: on average, a typical pyramidal orchid produces 65 flowers, of which 80% set viable seed (information so far from the orchid books).  If we make the conservative assumption that each developing seed pod produces 2000 seeds (plump bee orchid pods can contain as many as 26,000!), then the Ilminster colony will produce a staggering 114 million seeds this year, to be carried in your and my slipstreams as we head away on holiday.

I am thrilled to say that the Highways Agency division that manages the Ilminster bypass verges do so very much with wildlife in mind: they do the essential verge cuts, but they do them late in the year (often even in winter).  But how very sad that so many of our verges are cut down in the prime, when plants are in full flower, destroying literally in a single swipe so much potential for bringing colour back to the countryside.

If you like the idea of 114 million orchids on our verges, why not add your voice add your voice to our campaign for better management?

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The best of our beautiful wildflower-rich road verges

Luke Morton
Plantlife Moderator

We've had a fantastic response to our Road Verge Campaign this year. Four Councils have signed up for Alan's Challenge and many, many more are talking to us, trying to find a way to improve how their roadsides are managed for wildlife. A huge part of this is down to you. We've been overwhelmed by your support. Whether its engaging your council, raising awareness, taking photos or signing the petition every action has helped. So thank you - both from us and our roadside wildlife.

Of course, we cannot be complacent. There's still a long way to go. If you haven't already, please sign our petition and if you have a friend who loves wildlife please encourage them to do so too.

With so many beautiful wildflowers being mown down in their prime, its easy to forget how wonderful our road verges can look. Thank goodness then, for all you photographers out there who've snapped some fabulous displays. We've been compiling them on a special Storify page and it never fails to brighten our day. Have a scroll through yourself and if you've any you'd like to submit please tweet them to @Love_plants.

In a couple of weeks the growing season will be over and it'll be time to "Say YES to the Mow". Dr Trevor Dines will be here with a blog explaining how and why, but in the meantime enjoy them while they last...

Friday, 4 July 2014

The Wildflowers of Inchnadamph

Davie Black
Conservation Co-ordinator, Plantlife Scotland

We in the Plantlife Scotland team like to give members something of a interesting challenge occasionally: this year was an exploration to discover the special collection of wildflowers that grow on the limestone rocks on the eastern fringe of Assynt, in the far north-west of Scotland.

15 suitably kitted-out explorers joined myself and Andy and Roz Summers from The Highland Council ranger Service to trek up the path toward The Bone Caves of Inchnadamph.
A lovely speckling of yellow, purple and blue in amongst the green grass and brown heather greeted us on a misty and slightly midgy morning as we slowly worked our way along the trail. As ever with botanical excursion we didn’t progress very fast as cries of “what’s this one?” diverted us into the sward to check some small but beautifully coloured wild plant.

Milkwort (Polygara vulgaris) (right) was an interesting one for me as in Scotland I am used to finding the small, indigo flowers of Heath Milkwort lurking in the heather.  Here however, due to the richness of the minerals in the limestone rocks it turned out to be Common Milkwort for a change, and had us rooting around the base of the stem to see if the leaves were opposite or alternate – one of the more obvious diagnostic features.

Viviparous Fescue (Fetusca vivipara) caused some exclamations on the curiousness of nature – a grass that doesn’t produce flowers and set seed, but the flowerhead composed of small, living plantlets, that drop off and, hopefully, take root.

A detour to a small waterfall brought lunch and a lovely sprinkling of Yellow Saxifrage (Saxifraga aizoides) (left, © Laurie Campbell) over the rocks nearby.  Here it was that we came across the Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala) (left) a plant with a flower of 8 white petals and a cluster of bonny yellow stamens in the centre.  This transforms itself in seed to produce the most amazing long silky hairs, that take a twist to themselves, looking mostly like a delicate shaving brush, twirling itself up out of the flower stalk, while nestling in its bed of crinkly dark green leaves.

The specialty of the place was saved until after lunch and a criss-crossing of the boulder-strewn bed of a burn.  What caught our eye first was the bright curving blades of Holly Fern (Polystichum lonchitis), clear, glossy green, with slightly pointed tips to the leaflets.  Since it grows on calcareous rocks it is something of a rarity to see in Scotland.

But that wasn’t what we were looking for. We were after the Scottish Asphodel (Tofieldia pusilla) (right, © Hedwig Storch under Creative Commons BY-SA licence). This wildflower is tiny, so its hard to find but don't let its size put you off. A hidden treasure, it usually grows up on mountain slopes and is rarely found on the coast. But because of its unique environment, Inchnadamph is one of the few locations this miniature beauty grows.

One sharp-eyed plant hunter said quietly to me “what’s that beside the Holly Fern?” and yes, we had been focused on the bright green fern and hadn’t noticed the small delicate spike of white flowers that was the Scottish Asphodel, nestling in a crack in the rock where some soil had accumulated.

Back to the lochside, the botanising at an end, and we each of us learned something that we had never known before about the wild plants that we share the land with. We didn’t walk too far, but we scrambled off the track, up over rocky knowes, and hopped cautiously over burns. We peered closely at the form and structure of the wild plants we found; from the tiny perforations in the leaf of St John’s Wort, to the shape of the lips of the Twayblade flowerhead.  Pleasantly tired we knew we had had a good day out and certainly left me wanting to roam the hills again.

Its special places like these that the Plantlife Scotland team works to protect. By providing landowners with help and advice, they can manage their land in such a way that helps our threatened wild flora and fungi. And where there are wild plants, you get other wildlife: butterflies, bees, birds and other creatures all creating a healthy habitat. Just recently we produced a free management guide for coastal grasslands like those those found at Assynt. You can find out what we're up to on our webpage or even better why not join us?

Monday, 23 June 2014

Guest Blog: James Fair hits the road to see wildflowers

James Fair
Environment Editor, BBC Wildlife Magazine

Taking to my bike for a rare morning away from the kids at the weekend, I was happy to realise that it was a really good way to see wildflowers. I was going fast enough to cover plenty of ground, but slow enough to spot things as I went, and I didn't have to worry about blocking a narrow country lane when I stopped to take some shots.

I went with nothing but my not-very-top-of-the-range smartphone, and while some photos didn't come off, most look pretty good.

This picture of common poppies Papaver rhoeas and ox-eye daisies Leucanthemum vulgare was taken on the edge of a field, but it was easily accessible from the road.

I found these pyramidal orchids Anacamptis pyramidalis on the very steep Culver Hill which makes its way up some 500 feet or so from the bottom of the Nailsworth Valley to Minchinhampton Common.

I saw this white campion Silene latifolia at the Rodmarton Long Barrow – a neolithic burial site that's in the middle of vast fields of wheat.

As I said, I was only carrying my smartphone, so some shots didn't quite come off. These meadow cranesbills Geranium pratense – at least I hope they're meadow cranesbills – were swaying in the wind, which may be why I haven't quite got the focus right.

Dog roses Rosa canina were everywhere and looked fantastic.

These flowers have tested my ID skills – they don't look quite right for red campion Silene dioica to me, so I wonder if they could be hybrids. The wildflower guide in the office suggests they could be.

There was only one point when I regretted not having a proper camera with a long lens with me. I saw a roe deer sitting among a huge wheat field, and when it ran off, leaping high over the lush crop, it would have made a fantastic photo.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Saving wildlife with fields of peas and beans

Dr Trevor Dines
Plantlife Botanical Specialist

It’s not often that I’m rendered utterly speechless by Defra, but last week I struggled to make sense of what I was reading. I genuinely checked that the date wasn’t April 1st. Defra has announced that farmers can now receive public money, originally intended to conserve farm wildlife, for growing crops of peas and beans. The idea is that this will help pollinators.

As I read Roger Harrabins BBC article it got worse. While acknowledging the lack of biodiversity compared to pasture, the National Farmers Union actually provided the following quote: “Anyone with broad beans in their garden will see they are full of pollinators at the moment. Wildflower meadows tend to have quite a limited flowering season but some legumes are flowering from April to June, and others much later in summer. We think including this measure is very positive for the environment."

We think Defra and NFU need to visit a wildflower meadow. This decision clearly demonstrates the lack of understanding that Defra and NFU have of farmland wildlife, a disconnect with the reality of nature and ecology. Just to put the record straight:

  • Many wildflower meadows begin their provision of nectar and pollen in February and March with flowers such as primroses, violets and celandines . The supply peaks in June and July and continues into September and beyond with late-flowering knapweed (Centaurea nigra), betony (Stachys officinalis) and devil’s-bit scabious (Succisa pratensis). I’d call it a good and varied diet over a very long season indeed. 
  • Research indicates that not many pollinators will actually benefit from peas and beans. In her excellent blog on nectar provision by legumes, Lynn Dicks shows that while bumblebees might benefit from beans for a short period, solitary bees are unable to feed from the chunky flowers. For peas, there is less evidence, but some studies show that solitary bees don’t find related clover and alfalfa crops particularly attractive either.
  • A meadow sustains a wide range of important pollinators, such as butterflies and moths, beetles, wasps, hoverflies and other flies. Despite the focus of attention at the moment, it’s not just all about the bees. This is a simple ecological lesson; maybe Defra and NFU should study Buglife’s Pollinator Identification Chart.
  • It’s also about plants providing food for invertebrates. A field of peas or beans will support just over 40 invertebrate species. A meadow with just nine of the most common meadow flowers, like bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), red clover (Trifolium pratense), knapweed and Yorkshire fog (Holcus lanatus), can support over ten times this number (422 in total). And remember, all these inverts are what farmland birds feed on; it’s about sustaining the complete food chain from the roots up. 
  • With no restrictions on the use of pesticides and fertilizers on these crops, these chemicals can be freely applied with consequent effects on wildlife.  So even those 40 invertebrate species are likely to be wiped out, while the fertilizer will scupper any chance for cornfield flowers, like nectar and pollen rich poppies and dead nettles, to grow amongst the crop, further reducing benefits to wildlife. 

The Government's own biodiversity strategy is about the multiple benefits that intact, semi-natural habitats can bring in providing a range of 'ecosystem services'. But Defra are failing to appreciate these benefits. Instead, they seem to be focusing solely on pollinating bumblebees and providing them with a quick, cheap, sugar rush. A bee will feed on a bean flower in the same way that you and I might occasionally eat a MacDonalds, but that’s not a healthy, long-term solution to declining farmland wildlife. And, of course, it does nothing at all for Britain’s declining wild flowers.

The decision also turns back the clock to the headage payments and crop subsidies of yesteryear, something that the government is meant to be moving away from. Since peas and beans are a crop, taxpayers money will directly supplement farm income, rather than supporting wildlife in the public good.

In order to get maximum value from public money, Defra must place the focus of CAP reform back on to semi-natural habitats with their constituent species and the diversity of these habitats in the farmed landscape. This aim should be underpinned with good, evidence-based habitat management. Habitat restoration can’t be rushed, there are no quick fixes, and it should be done with the wild in mind; naturally regenerating set-aside fields can have three times as many nesting bee species as clover fields and arable field margins come from soil seed banks, not from seed packets.  

How any right thinking person can accept that an intensively farmed crop is as good for wildlife as a meadow bursting with wild flowers and alive with all of its attendant birds, butterflies and bees is a bit scary.  There are many alternative and ecologically rigorous measures that could be put in place, perhaps as part of a National Certification Scheme, including ecological set-aside, creation of "buffer zones" for high nature value areas, management of uncultivated strips and field margins and conversion of arable land into extensive low-input grassland. All of these will allow our wild plants to do their thing, bringing colour back to the countryside and ultimately providing food and shelter for all our other farmland wildlife.

We ask that Defra reconsider this decision.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

What happened when I said "No to the Mow"...

Dr Trevor Dines
Plantlife Botanical Specialist

It was not a good start. I marked out a patch of lawn in early March, selecting an area that wasn’t particularly special but did at least have a few cowslips. I could see their rounded leaves poking through the turf and thought it’d be nice to spare them the mower and allow them to flower.

But a few weeks later they had gone – completely vanished – and the grass didn’t seem to have grown much either. I couldn’t work it out. Then, returning from work one day I found the culprits; three sheep had found their way through the fence and were having a very merry time munching away on the lawn. I’m amazed they were so selective, but they’d found each cowslip plant and eaten them right down to the roots.

My new campaign, “say no to the sheep”, started with a patch they’d thankfully not reached. The mower came out of hibernation in a grumbling, spluttering mood and over the next few weeks the patch began to take on its shape and texture as the grass grew. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that my lawn won’t win any prizes in the next series of “The Great British Lawn Off” or “Come Mow With Me”; it’s not seen any herbicides or fertilizers in the 18 years I’ve looked after it so it’s pretty full of things other than grass. But this doesn’t mean they get to flower. Most of the lawn is kept pretty tightly mown so it’s rare that anything taller than a daisy gets to raise its head above the blades.

It has therefore, frankly, been a joy therefore to see what has come up. While not a mad riot of wild flowers, the procession of species has been fascinating to watch over the last few weeks, starting with cuckoo flower, dandelions and thyme-leaved speedwell, moving on to creeping buttercup and a few glorious oxeye daisies at the moment, and with self heal and clovers to come. It’s been a delight to actually pause and look in detail at a small patch of grass, noticing that this is where the pheasants now like to linger and where banded snails are most frequent.

The grasses are also playing their part of course, with tiny spreading meadow-grass now dwarfed by Yorkshire fog with its soft, downy leaves and purple haze. Common sorrel is also there, looking rusted-red and hinting at the poor nature of the soil. In total, I’ve found eighteen species in a 2m x 2m square, not a spectacular haul but far better than your average rye-grass and bent-grass dominated lawn. It’s not a diversity of species that I’m looking for (although this will come in time) but giving an opportunity for plants to flower, provide nectar and pollen, set seed, be eaten by caterpillars and froghoppers and maybe even give a home to a grasshopper or two.

In a way, my patch of unmown lawn is like a little window on a real wildflower meadow or roadside verge. Around it, my lawn is green but bereft of any colour, just like many of the improved fields around our relict wildflower meadows and beside our verges. Many of the plants are still there: if we just give them a chance to grow and flower they grasp the opportunity and work wonders for our wildlife.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Jewels of the Limestone Landscape: Summer wildflowers are blooming at our Deep Dale reserve.

Joe Costley
Reserves Manager

Our Deep Dale nature reserve in the Derbyshire Dales has a long flowering season, glorious at any time.  Yet when I visited earlier this week, its flora seemed to be at the absolute zenith of its riches.  

Deep Dale
I was there to review grazing management with our tenant farmer, cattle having been turned out earlier than usual this year. This is in line with the way that the dales were farmed historically and we believe that it makes sense to follow that tradition in some years.  Having the same fixed dates every year cannot benefit everything and does not reflect seasonal variations in the way that would have happened historically.  It is early days, but we are pleased with the way things are going so far.

The visit was also an excuse to see lots of wonderful plants, and there were "wow" moments at almost every turn.  The spectacular show of early purple orchid flowers has finished, but these are replaced by a host of others including colombine (blue and white versions), lily-of-the-valley, bird's nest orchid, mountain pansy and common spotted orchid.  Here's few I captured on camera:


Bird's Nest Orchid


There were flower buds emerging on the small colony of dark red helleborines and some big plants of moonwort on old mounds of lead spoil.  I was also delighted to find a rosette of saw-wort, which is rare in Derbyshire and has never previously been recorded on the reserve.  This is typical of Deep Dale; never predictable, but always rewarding.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Showtime for Wildflowers

Dr Trevor Dines
Plantlife Botanical Specialist

I was a botanist on a mission: find as many native plants as possible. With show gardens, a massive Floral Marquee and loads of nurseries, the RHS Malvern Spring Festival appeals to both the ordinary gardener and the plantaholic. It’s a good way of seeing what, horticulturally, is in vogue each year and I was there to discover how our native flora fares against the rest of the world.

A few years ago, there was a trend for native plants in “wildlife” gardens. Designers were using them as statements in their gardens, a way of challenging the norm. These days, our native flora is finding more of a natural home in the designs, being woven through the tapestry of the garden rather than a tick-box “this is our wildflower bit”.

So, winner of “Best Festival Garden” was an exquisite little formal garden by designers Ana Mari Bull and Lorenzo Volpini of LSV Gardens & Associates. Striking cloud-clipped hornbeam bushes lined a central path flanked by geometric blocks of planting, with native box alternating with softer ragged-robin, white wood crane’s-bill and tufted hair-grass. Mixed in with these were non-natives including dame’s-violet and snowy woodrush. I loved the way natives species featured strongly, but as an integral part of the design and not as a gimmick.

Ragged-robin (pictured left) was actually a bit of a star of the whole show. In the floral marquee, I found it featured it many nursery displays, the wild pink form sitting alongside the sublime white variety ‘White Robin’ and the double ‘Jenny’ (this one rather garish to my eyes, but fine if you like bright pink pom-poms). White was a theme too; Hardy’s Cottage Plants paired frothy woodruff with a white herb Robert under a canopy of solomon's-seal with its hanging ivory bells (pictured below right).

Not surprisingly, the fern nurseries drew heavily on our native fern heritage. In Fibrex Nursery’s bold display, it was good to see magnificent native royal ferns holding their own alongside tropical tree ferns. Beneath them grew a plethora of varieties of male fern, soft shield fern and lady fern, the latter including ‘frizelliae’ with its bizarre, tiny, alternating fronds.

I was particularly pleased to see the Alpine Garden Society display, one of their competitive events in which members growing skills are put to the test. Among the various categories I spotted dwarf birch ‘Glengarry’, several stunning pots of Dickie’s bladder fern (which originates from a single cave in Aberdeenshire) and, my personal highlight, a large clump of lady’s slipper orchid with a dozen pristine blooms.

For me, the show encapsulated the many ways in which gardeners engage with native plants. I loved the common alongside the rare, the formal alongside the informal, and the perfect alongside the imperfect. All were welcome and all had a part to play alongside plants from around the world.

We had a plant of bastard balm on the Plantlife stand at the show. It really drew an audience, its flowers looking like rude faces with pink tongues sticking out. Those that knew it were often surprised to learn it’s a rare native species and of our work to conserve it. This is the aim of The Wildflower Garden, to celebrate our native flora and make connections between gardens and wild flowers. Many of them are rather wonderful garden plants.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Why Our Road Verge Wildflowers are Worth Saving for Wildlife

Andy Byfield
Landscape Conservation Manager

For a few short weeks in May, the great outdoors turns a vibrant, almost claustrophobic green.  Oak, beech and sycamore are in fresh young leaf, whilst the grasses of pastureland and arable field alike seemingly burgeon before our very eyes.  With so much herbage all around, the environment should be in fine fettle, yet so often those same green fields are largely devoid of wildlife, save for a fine sward of ryegrass, and the occasional weed in a gateway.  Their former life and colour has literally been swamped by the repeated dosing of fertilisers and weedkillers.

At the same time, our best road verges give an inkling of just how colourful our countryside used to be. Down here in the south-west of England, a ‘technicolour dreamcoat’ of bluebell, red campion, greater stitchwort, buttercup and early purple orchid are at their glorious best as I write these words, and as the season progresses, so these will be replaced in turn by marsh orchid, ox-eye daisy and much else.  In fact, our verges can be seen as a microcosm of Britain’s hugely varied habitats and landscapes, providing dry and wet rocky outcrop, fine turf,heath, scrub and woodland, often in surprisingly short succession.

Thus verges in Hampshire harbour gleaming long-leaved helleborines and other woodlanders, mimicking the vegetation of nearby woodland; in East Anglia, the likes of rarities such as field wormwood, grape hyacinth and perennial knawel on Breckland verges are a reminder of the summer-dry continental climate of this peculiar corner of England; whilst globeflower, melancholy thistle and wood cranesbill crammed verges of northern England and Scotland are a glimpse of the former glory of our lost upland haymeadows. Apparently, roughly two-thirds of our flowering plants crop up somewhere or other along a wayside.  Its a sad fact, but as the wider countryside has lost its meadows and heathlands, so our verges become an ever more important haven for plants and animals, the unofficial nature reserves of cliché.

Of course, in the distant past – before my time even! – wayside verges were grazed by livestock and doubtless cut as a bonus crop of hay, yet in the sixties and seventies, I remember when the exuberant May-time verge-side herbage were routinely ‘dampened’ with a liberal dose of weedkiller.  In more enlightened times, the sprays have largely gone and the conservation movement has been effective in identifying special stretches as protected verges, perhaps to conserve some rare butterfly or orchid, or a particularly flowery grassland.  These latter efforts have unquestionably saved some of our finest surviving verge habitat, but it seems to me that the time has come to make sure that all verges are managed sympathetically, not just the best.  After all, the 2013 State of Nature report showed that 60% of our rarer plants and animals continue to decline, confirming the findings of Defra’s 2010 review of England’s wildlife sites, Making space for nature.

In it, the panel’s chair, Professor Sir John Lawton, commented that there “is compelling evidence that England’s collection of wildlife sites are generally too small and too isolated, leading to declines in many of England’s characteristic species”. According to Lawton, the solution lies in ‘bigger, better and more joined-up’ habitats for biodiversity, recognising the real benefits that ecological corridors could have in allowing nature to thrive.  I cannot think of any way of linking our landscapes together, than bringing good management to our stock of road verges.

The area of vergeland habitat in Britain is equivalent to the area of the Public Forest Estate in England – a thrillingly large resource if managed properly.  And there is plenty of evidence that with good management, verges can rapidly develop stunning, flower-rich habitats, with a bounty of insect life in tow, in a surprisingly short time under such management.

True, the budgets available to our highways authorities – the Highways Agency and the county councils – is more restricted than ever before, but sympathetic management could involve as little as shifting the mowing dates by just a few weeks.  It is great that Plantlife is relaunching its road verge campaign this month – and we’d love it if you join our campaign, alongside our generous celebrities, in encouraging our councils to cherish this invaluable wildlife resource.

Useful links:

Friday, 2 May 2014

The Wildflower Garden

Dr Trevor Dines
Plantlife Botanical Specialist

Did you know that many of our garden favourites, like box (Buxus sempervirens) and Welsh poppy (Meconopsis cambrica) are also some of our rarest native plants?

It always amazes me that you can pop into almost any garden centre, DIY shop or nursery in the country and buy a plant of shrubby cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa), but this same species is a beautiful native wildflower restricted to just two small areas of Britain.

It was partly because of this that we decided to launch Plantlife’s Wildflower Garden. It aims to celebrate the rare and common native flowers we probably already grow, introduce you to a few new ones and also uncover the fascinating stories behind them (according to legend, for example, Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla vulgaris) grows from the blood of buried Viking warriors!) We want to celebrate our wild flowers and help you make the most of growing them in your own garden.

We’ll also help you select wild flowers suitable for your own garden and give advice on how best to grow them. You don’t need to let your garden become overgrown and tatty to enjoy wild flowers, they can be woven into the tapestry of all garden styles, from informal cottage to clipped and formal.

The subject is one close to my heart. As well as being Botanical Specialist at Plantlife, I’m also a passionate gardener. I inherited the gardening bug from my grandparents; one of my clearest childhood memories is of my grandmother discovering wild fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris) in water meadows on the farm where I grew up. Back in her own garden she showed me the same flowers she’d planted in the lawn and the connection between garden and the wild has fascinated me ever since.

Watch out for regular updates as we go through the gardening year. We’ll be adding more plant profiles to the list and features with ideas and suggestions on how to make the most of wild flowers in your garden throughout the year.

So what are you waiting for? Why not sit back with a cup of tea and explore our native garden flora…

Thursday, 24 April 2014

A Walk in the Woods with Spring Wildflowers

Richard Moyse
Ranscombe Farm Reserve Manager

There are some mighty mood-lifters in the natural world. There's always a kick in seeing an interesting plant or animal for the first time, and it doesn't even have to be something spectacular - I got quite excited by early meadow-grass a few weeks back, which is a diddy little plant and a bit anaemic-looking to boot. But the big pick-me-up, raising us all out of the winter gloom, is the arrival of spring. Robert Browning wrote "Oh, to be in England, now that April's there," as a hymn to the English spring, even though he was in Italy at the time. Or, if you're in the mood for a bit less poetry and a bit more outright enthusiasm, Johnny Mercer, who wrote the lyrics for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, gave us "Ma Nature's lyrical with her yearly miracle, Spring, Spring, Spring", accompanied by a troupe of dancing farmhands.

For myself, a walk in woods in April is a heart-filling joy, with the previously dull vegetation suddenly chucking a load of colour at us: white stitchwort, yellow celandines, pink cuckoo-flowers, purple orchids and, of course, bluebells.
Bluebells at our Ranscombe Farm reserve.
Why is it so exciting when the flowers open in spring? Yes, there's the contrast with what's gone before, but it's also the promise of a good, long season of flowers to come. The first flowers of spring are like the opening number at a concert by your favourite band: they are bright and familiar and you know you're in for plenty more good stuff before the show's over.

All our spring plants have different stories to tell. People have had such a long familiarity with woodland wild flowers that a they've all got their nicknames, mythologies and back-stories. Lesser celandine was "butter and cheese" or (less lovely) "pilewort". Greater stitchwort ("dead man's bones" - pictured on the left) was a cure for pains in the side for some, a plant of the devil for others. We know these plants because people have lived in and with woodlands for millennia: woods were where you gathered fuel, pastured pigs, obtained building materials.

Pretty much all the woodlands of England and Wales have been exploited by people for many centuries, and this exploitation shaped the woodland we see today. Particularly important in this respect has been coppicing of trees - cutting them down and allowing them to regrow, before cutting them again, all on a cycle of 15 to 25 years. It is this practice which has encouraged the diverse flora of many woodlands through the alternation of period of bright light and deep shade. At Ranscombe Farm Reserve, we are continuing the long practice of coppicing precisely because it works so well for wild flowers.

So get out in the woods right now. They are looking wonderful, and the curtain has only just gone up on what's going to be a great show.

Find out more about how Ranscombe Farm Reserve is managed as a farm and as a nature reserve on short, guided walks with our tenant farmer and the Reserve Warden, on Saturday 26 April. For more information go to our website.