Thoughts, news and updates from members of the Plantlife team.

Blooming late

Hundreds of wildflower species are still going strong in the unusually mild conditions...

November 19 2015 - 09:32

Hundreds of wildflower species are still going strong in the unusually mild conditions...

Hundreds of wildflower species are still going strong in the unusually mild conditions...

When it comes to the weather, I prefer to avoid sensationalist headlines exclaiming how exceptionally mild/cold/wet/dry/hot the current season is. I tend to take the long view; as my dad always says, “it’ll always come right in the end” – warm will be followed by cold, drought with rain.

But by any standard, this autumn really has proved to be exceptionally mild. In north Wales, where I live, November started off at around 20°C and temperatures since then have rarely dipped into single figures. It’s been very wet and very windy, but plants simply shrug off these extremes. At this time of year, temperature is the Governess of all things floral.

And there are flowers everywhere. In the last week I’ve delighted in seeing oxeye daisies, yarrow, red clover, meadow buttercup, white campion, smooth sow-thistle, dandelions, ragwort, common fumitory and scarlet pimpernel. Social media is alive with reports and sightings. In Kent, Kingfisher (@Barbus59) has seen (amongst others) tufted vetch, field scabious, wild marjoram, herb Robert, common poppy and viper’s-bugloss at our Ranscombe Farm reserve. In Lincolnshire, Grantham Ecologist (@GranthamEcology) found 17 species in flower along the Grantham Canal, while over in Devon, Martin Rand (@martin_rand) clocked an astonishing 97 species in flower on a 2.5 mile walk.

But this shouldn’t really come as a surprise. We must remember that plants are adaptable and opportunistic. If there's a chance for a quick bit of seed-setting they'll take it. The species flowering now are likely to have adopted one of the following strategies:

Summer-repeaters: Plants that tend to flower in late spring and summer - e.g. oxeye daisy, red clover (below), field scabious and meadow buttercup - tend to finish flowering in July/August and set seed between August and October. Normally they'd then go into a state of apparent dormancy, although they’re often actually putting effort into vegetative growth - spreading sideways by rhizomes and stolons to ‘clump up’. But if conditions stay mild some of this vegetative growth turns reproductive and flowering shoots are thrown up in the hope of setting a bit more seed before the winter.

Late hangers-on: Later-flowering plants, like yarrow (below), common toadflax and harebell) are programmed to flower towards the end of the summer – an event usually triggered by decreasing day-length rather than temperature. They will often simply continue going until stopped by the first frosts.  

Continual bloomers: A few plants, notably white deadnettle, seem to have no distinct flowering season and just keep flowering nearly all-year round. Even in the depth of winter you can often find this in flower, especially in a warmer urban areas.

Cornfield opportunists: These annuals are adapted to grow with our crops, germinating in autumn or spring, flowering the following summer and setting seed by July or August when the crops are harvested. But these are genuine opportunists and buried seed will readily germinate in soil disturbed during summer. Such plants often flower in autumn and early winter if it’s mild, and there are reports of field pansy, sun spurge, field woundwort and common poppies still going strong.


Genuine winter bloomers:  A few plants, such as winter heliotrope and common gorse, are actually programmed to flower from autumn to spring and will start early in mild years.

Precocious spring flowers: But the ones that really delight us are the spring flowers that emerge early, months ahead of schedule. Usually, the immature flower buds of these plants form in summer and sit tight over-winter, lying dormant in buds or bulbs ready for warmer spring weather. But a short cool snap followed by warmer weather in autumn can trick them into thinking spring has arrived and several have already been spotted, including scommon dog-violet (such as the ones below spotted by Marc Cruise @FloresHibernia in Co. Kerry, Ireland), cowslips and lesser celandines.

This weekend winter conditions are set to arrive. With hill-snow and just-above-freezing temperatures forecast (probably along with some ridiculous headlines including the words 'blast' and 'arctic'), it’ll be a reminder that we’ve been spoilt rotten by the balmy weather.

Why not show us what’s still in flower where you live? Every Sunday evening, @Fernandfennel run #wildflowerhour on Twitter from 8-9pm, when people share photos of wild flowers they’ve seen during the week. It’s a great way to take the pulse of our flora and share and learn about what our flora is up to.


You might not have heard of it, but you’ll know its effects...

November 18 2015 - 12:17

Cladoptosis in action.

Cladoptosis in action.

With storm Barney bringing wind gusts of 85 mph overnight, the botanical word of today has to be cladoptosis

You might not have heard of this term before, but you’ll be very familiar with its effects. Venture outside this morning and as you step over and around the scattering of fallen twigs and small branches that litter the pavement, maybe cursing as you do, you’re seeing cladoptosis in action. 

The term comes from the Greek clados, meaning a branch, and ptosis, meaning falling (the ‘p’ in cladoptosis is sometimes silent, but sometimes not. I tend to take after our university lecturer who did pronounce it). 

The word describes the process of self-pruning in trees as they grow. Just as unwanted leaves are shed in autumn, so are any unwanted small twigs and branches. If this didn’t happen, tree crowns would become hopelessly crowded and congested, with too many leaves to support and too much shade being cast on lower branches. It’s all part of the way that trees grow – opportunistically producing lots of smaller shoots and branches that can fill the spaces around them if need be.  As trees grow over time, their canopies bump into neighbouring trees; in the resulting jostling for space this extra ‘shoot’ capacity is shed when it’s no longer needed. In addition, cladoptosis also allows any damaged and diseased branches to be dropped from the tree.  

The process itself is similar to that of leaves when they’re shed in autumn, with a small disk of tissue – the abscission layer – developing at the base of the leaf stalk or twig. When this tissue dies and gives way, a clean scar is left behind which helps to prevent infections. 

Cladoptosis can occur at any time of year but in Britain it’s most visible in autumn as gales sweep in and help the process along. When you see all those small twigs and branches lying on the ground, don’t think of them as having just ‘fallen off’. Most of them will actually have been shed on purpose, part of a carefully orchestrated pattern of growth being played out by the trees above your head. 

Related pages:


November 18 2015 - 10:33

Wood anemones © Andrew Gagg/Plantlife

Wood anemones © Andrew Gagg/Plantlife

How's the weather near you? For much of the country Storm Barney has been creating a bit of a bluster.

In such conditions we can't help but be reminded of the Wood Anemone (Anemone nemorosa) which also goes by the name of the Windflower. Why? Well, the word "anemone" is actually Greek and means "daughter of the wind". 

Ironically, though, windflowers don't need the wind to spread their seed. Instead, they rely on the humble ant. By releasing a special oil, they persuade the insects to take their seeds into their nests, where conditions are perfect to germinate. This is one of the reasons that wood anemones spread so slowly!

For other plants, storms such as Barney can be a good thing and Dr Trevor Dines will be reveal why in a blog later today.

In the meantime, please share any thoughts about windflowers in the comments below...

Related pages:

Dr Dines’ Meadow Making Adventure: pt 7

Germination, regrowth and grazing

November 05 2015 - 10:55

After all the excitement of the restoration work a sense of quiet descended over the meadow. The brown, scalped field was covered with a fine scattering of seed. But with gulls, pigeons and pheasants flocking to the field, we needed a suitably scary means of scaring them off. A couple of ‘hawkeye’ spinning globes did the job admirably, with flashing faces designed to frighten the living daylights out of anything flappable. 

And then it came warm - unseasonably warm. And then it came wet – predictably wet. I was told that, despite the severe scalping it had received, the grass would grow back, “it always does”. And my word it has. I didn’t expect it to grow quite so rapidly though. In just a few weeks the field has gone from brown (above) to deep green (below), and there’s now little trace of the trauma it suffered.

With temperatures in the teens, and even reaching the 20s at the start of November, germination has been amazingly rapid. There can be few greater pleasures than wandering rather aimlessly around the meadow and finding thousands upon thousands of seedlings appearing in the turf at your feet.

There are small ones and large ones, single ones and clumps of them, some with rounded seed-leaves and some with pointed seed-leaves, some with smooth pairs of true leaves and some with single hairy leaves appearing. I’m not attempting to identify them at this stage – that seems a rather thankless task that would detract from the pure fun of it all – but some future flowers can already be guessed at, like this buttercup.

And could this grow up one day to be a knapweed, or rough hawkbit, or a daisy?

It would be wrong, though, for me to paint a picture of complete pastoral idyll appearing from the earth. As well as the seed we’ve scattered, the soil already has its own natural ‘seed bank’ – a store of seed lying dormant, like raisins scattered through a fruitcake. Once disturbed and brought to the surface, they too germinate. In a few patches of the meadow some less welcome plants are germinating, such as docks (below), thistles and nettles, plants that are echoes of the fields’ more agricultural past.

Thankfully they are the exception rather than the rule, though, and hopefully I’ll be able to control these more boisterous species next year, pulling by hand and preventing them from seeding again.

Along with the flowering plants, the cooler nights have triggered the appearance of a host of wonderful grassland fungi. The turf is now dotted, speckled and ringed with them, the brightly-coloured waxcaps being the most joyous. Butter Waxcap, with its pale yellow cap, is the most common, but there’s also the slimy orange Glutinous Waxcap, and the slightly sinister Blackening Waxcap, which turns from orange to black. Perhaps the most beautiful though, is Golden Waxcap (below).

With all the growth of the grass, we really need to keep on top of things. If it’s allowed to re-grow unhindered it will smother the small seedlings as they emerge. Thankfully, our two Highland cows – Breagha and Cadi - are on hand to munch away, grazing the grass down but leaving the small seedlings unharmed. They very rarely raise their heads from the sward at the moment.

Finally, we had great pleasure putting up our Coronation Meadows roundel on the gate to the meadow. We’re especially delighted with this version in Welsh - Dôl y Coroni – and it provides a lovely little highlight to the restoration work that’s been done this year. All of this has been very generously funded by Biffa Award and Natural Resources Wales and I want to thank them personally for the meadow making adventure they’ve supported.

This whole meadow creation adventure has been a complete eye-opener for me. Although I knew the principles and theory behind meadow restoration, such as why it’s better to use natural seeding techniques with seed coming from a local donor meadow and why you need to open up the sward so much before seeding, until you put it into practise for yourself you can’t imagine what’s really involved. One of the biggest joys has been acquiring our own livestock. I’m a botanist at heart, but I’ve become just as fascinated by the intimate role that grazing animals, like our Highland cows, play in the creation of meadows. Hopefully, they will both grow and flourish together, the way wildflower meadows have done for hundreds of years.


The complete meadow restoration story can be followed here:

Grounds for celebration

November 04 2015 - 12:52

Great news from our Ranscombe Farm Reserve. A recent count in Kitchen Field revealed that the endangered wildflower Ground-pine (Ajuga chamaepitys -below) is doing better than ever!

Since July over a hundred new seedlings have germinated bringing the current total to 157 - our highest count ever. This suggests there's been a substantial amount of summer germination (something notable in and of itself since the books will tell you that Ground-pine germinates in spring and autumn).

Despite the name, this rare wild flower isn't related to the pine tree, although it does bear a remarkable similarity to its seedlings at certain stages of growth. It also releases that distinctive "pine fresh" scent when its leaves are crushed. 

Ground-pine used to be fairly common in the south-east of England but has declined to such an extent that its now only found in less than a hundred sites in Britain. It needs small patches of open ground on chalk soil to grow and, traditionally, arable field margins in chalky areas provided just that. Changes in agricultural practices, however, have taken their toll and coupled with loss of grazing and smothering by coarse plants, Ground-pine now finds itself at very high risk of extinction where it was once abundant.

We're incredibly fortunate to have this diminutive wild flower thriving at Ranscombe Farm Reserve, but this just goes to show how important such havens can be. From just £3 a month you can help Ground-pine continue its recovery and provide a safe home many similar wild plants declining across the England, Scotland and Wales. Become a member today.