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

If you go down to the woods…

The winter months have seen a lot of activity in our woodlands.

February 27 2015 - 15:18

Wild flowers may be thin on the ground, but Plantlife have not been idle. We've been working hard with our partners to give at least two a helping hand. Narrow-leaved helleborine (Cephalanthera longifolia) and spreading bellflower (Campanula patula) are rare and beautiful wild flowers. If you've not seen them in the wild (and chances are many won't) here's what they look like: 

Narrow-leaved helleborine:

Spreading bellflower:], via Wikimedia Commons">Campanula patula - Harilik kellukas

So what have we been up to? Here's a brief summary:

  • On Rodborough Common, Gloucestershire, where we're working with the National Trust, we've been creating small glades, extending the area where narrow-leaved helleborine appears. We'll be following up later this month to remove the overlying grass that local cattle have not grazed off.
  • In the Wyre forest, two more narrow-leaved helleborine sites have been connected together with the support of the Forestry Commission an area of semi mature wood-land is being opened up to connect two narrow-leaved helleborine sites by a large corridor. Work includes tree removal, stump grinding to establish more permanent open glades in the woodland.
  • Near Ledbury, Herefordshire,we've been restoring spreading bellflower to woodland rides with the Forestry Commission, by clearing thick vegetation and coppicing chestnut and hazel trees.
  • At Frith wood in Gloucestershire, we're enhancing growing conditions for spreading bellflower (and other wild plants) and trialling some soil management techniques. 
  • At Dorstone in Herefordshire we're working with Herefordshire Wildlife Trust and private landowners, at three sites all within a few miles of each other where spreading bellflower has been recorded, have had work carried out over the last month removing over shading vegetation. The sites have been neglected for many years so we shall watch with interest to see what appears later this year.
  • In the Forest of Dean we are continuing to monitor the regeneration of vegetation along ride sides in the Reddings inclosure, another spreading bellflower site.
  • At Savernake in Wiltshire, two training days have been run over the winter and another this week to recruit volunteers to assist in the ancient tree survey and to re-record information about the ancient and veteran tree assemblage. This initiative is being supported by North Wessex Downs AONB and Forestry Commission. This information is being backed up by an up dated lichen survey of the forest. 

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In praise of hedgerows

There can be few places that rival Britain's extraordinary diversity of hedges, or that have a more ancient hedgerow history.

February 24 2015 - 14:52

Hedges were common in the English landscape by the eighth century, and many of our surviving hedgerows are over one thousand years old. There are even hedge banks in Cornwall that have been dated to the Bronze Age.

Not all hedgerows were planted. Some are what Oliver Rackham calls the ghost of woods that have since been grubbed out to leave only their edge as a field boundary. Others have arisen where tree seedlings colonise a linear feature such as a ditch or fence, and become established because they are protected from livestock. These various origins of our hedgerows, their differing agricultural histories, geographies, ages and soil types is what gives rise to their exceptional diversity. The pattern of diversity also defines locality; our hedges "reflect and embody the nature of the particular place" as Adam Nicholson wrote*. Think of the tall beech hedges of Exmoor, the windswept gorse and thorn hedges of North Cornwall or the elm-dominated hedgerows of the Suffolk coast.  

There was a drastic loss of hedgerows in the decades after the Second World War, with many being grubbed out to make larger fields for modern farming. In some parts of the country, 50% of hedgerows were destroyed. Of those that do survive, the zealously-trimmed examples - comprised of low, mushroom-shaped stubs - are all too familiar. Many others are neglected and evolving into gappy lines of trees. Thus most hedgerows ultimately require some management (but not too much) if they are to survive.

Plashing or laying is a traditional technique that is used to rejuvenate hedgerows that have become gappy at the base. This involves cutting the upright stems near to the ground and 'laying' them down; bending them in effect, but leaving enough of the stem uncut to keep it alive. In this way, new growth is stimulated and a dense, bushy structure is restored.  With funding from the Veolia Environmental Trust, Plantlife is currently restoring over 250 metres of hedgerow at our Joan's Hill Farm nature reserve in Herefordshire using this method. It is skilled work, for which a specialist is required. Fortunately there has been something of a revival in this country craft and we have been able to recruit a young and enthusiastic hedgelayer (Dave Jackson, below, working on one of the hedgerows at Joan's Hill Farm. Dave's business combines woodland and hedgerow management with the production of traditional and innovative wood products) whose impressive skill is the result of both extensive practical experience and a keen academic interest in the subject.

According to the National Hedgelaying Society, there are over 30 different hedgelaying styles in Britain, reflecting the varied nature and uses of hedges. We are using the Midlands style because it is relevant to the region of which Joan's Hill Farm is part (see example, below). Hedgerow trees will be retained, and these include mature oaks and (locally characteristic) cider apples.

In the second half of the 20th century there was a decline in the practice of hedge laying due to labour costs, use of machines to cut hedges and increased reliance on wire fencing. Yet the experience of our project at Joan's Hill Farm suggests that there is a new generation of hedge layers with a serious interest and pride in their craft. In our modern agricultural landscapes, hedgerows are a vital refuge for wild plants and other wildlife. The need to conserve our hedgerows is clear, and a new generation of enthusiasts offers hope for the future.

*Quoted in "England in Particular: A Celebration of the Commonplace, the Local, the Vernacular and the Distinctive" by Sue Clifford and Angela King.

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Have you seen a celandine?

Did you know that the 21st February is traditionally noted as celandine day?

February 21 2015 - 10:08

Lesser celandine at Plantlife's Caeau Tan y Bwlch Reserve.

Lesser celandine at Plantlife's Caeau Tan y Bwlch Reserve.

In 1795, the renowned naturalist Gilbert White observed that the first celandines usually appeared in his Hampshire village of Selborne on this date. A hundred years later, exactly the same average date was observed by Hertfordshire botanist John Hopkinson. Even today, this date holds more or less true; in 2014 the first peak in flowering was around the 17th February. 

The name 'celandine' is derived from the Greek chelidon meaning ‘a swallow'. Of course, the two don’t appear in our countryside at the same time; instead it’s thought that the name might have arisen because celandines were simply viewed as a vegetable version of the swallow – a floral first sign of spring.

Talking of names, the lesser celandine (as opposed to the greater celandine, which is an entirely different plant) has recently undergone a bit of taxonomic jiggling around. Familiar to generations of field botanists as Ranunculus ficaria, the name originally bestowed upon it by Carl Linnaeus in 1753, it was changed to Ficaria verna in 2010 (in the 3rd edition of Clive Stace’s New Flora of the British Isles). Just we begin to get used to the new name, it’s been put back again to Ranunculus ficaria. Now, I don’t in any way object to taxonomic accuracy - there are rules to follow, after all – but this sort of meddling is unnecessary and gives taxonomy a bad name (pardon the pun!). I suggest we have a moratorium on names, only accepting new ones after a review every 10 years. This would allow taxonomists to make up their minds, and field botanists to have fewer headaches (and don’t get me started on poor old corn marigold, which has gone from the poetic Chrysanthemum segetum to the downright ghastly Glebionis segetum). 

Anyway, back to the lovely little lesser celandine (image, above copyright Laurie Campbell). The bright flowers, with their paler lemon eyes, really are a thoroughly cheerful sight in early spring, but I also love them because of their leaves. Small, rounded and slightly fleshy, they can be delightfully patterned with pale green and purple shades, and many an hour can be spent searching for different combinations. Sometimes the purple takes prominence and occasionally covers the whole leaf, as in the popular garden variety ‘Brazen Hussy’ (what is it with these names?). 

Celandines grow in woodland and along hedgerows, verges, riverbanks and cliff tops. Often they form complete carpets of yellow stars, especially where the soil is damp and conditions are cool.You might think that William Wordsworth’s favourite flower would have been the daffodil of his famous poem. In fact, it was the lesser celandine. He wrote no less than three poems about this bright and beautiful flower - The Small Celandine, To the Same Flower and To the Small Celandine

Pansies, Lilies, Kingcups, Daisies,
Let them live upon their praises;
Long as there's a sun that sets
Primroses will have their glory;

Long as there are Violets,
They will have a place in story:
There's a flower that shall be mine,
'Tis the little Celandine.

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The Lent Lily

February 17 2015 - 11:56

Wild daffodils © Andrew Gagg/Plantlife

Wild daffodils © Andrew Gagg/Plantlife

The season of Lent is upon us, and whilst there are a few things we'd recommend giving up (peat compost, for example, or mowing a patch of your lawn) looking out for wild flowers is not among them. 

In fact, there has never been a better time to start looking for signs of spring. The first blooms are already beginning to appear including one particularly pertinent to Lent: the wild daffodil.

Smaller and paler than many garden varieties, our native daffodil is often called the "Lent Lily" as it blooms and dies away between Ash Wednesday and Easter. It used to be a relatively common wild flower until it mysteriously declined in Victorian times (a fall in cash crops, advancements in agriculture and poor management of habitats have all been blamed) but you can still find it scattered in places, particularly in the west. One of the most famous areas is the ‘golden triangle' around the Gloucestershire villages of Newent and Dymock and you can even take a walk along The Daffodil Way. If you see any wild daffodils this Lent, we’d love to see pictures - you can tweet them as part of our Twitter bloomwatch (follow us via @Love_plants).

We'll leave you with this poem by A. E. Housman, who encapsulates its symbolism all too well:

'Tis spring; come out to ramble
The hilly brakes around,
For under thorn and bramble
About the hollow ground
The primroses are found.

And there's the windflower chilly
With all the winds at play,
And there's the Lenten lily
That has not long to stay
And dies on Easter day.

And since till girls go maying
You find the primrose still,
And find the windflower playing
With every wind at will,
But not the daffodil,

Bring baskets now, and sally
Upon the spring's array,
And bear from hill and valley
The daffodil away
That dies on Easter day.

Worried about climate change? Show the Love!

February 12 2015 - 10:37

Twinflower (Linnaea borealis) is one of many plants that might be affected by climate change. © Laurie Campbell

Twinflower (Linnaea borealis) is one of many plants that might be affected by climate change. © Laurie Campbell

With February 14th around the corner, Plantlife has decided to Show the Love as part of the Climate Coalition's Valentine's Day campaign

Climate change remains one of the greatest threats to the nature we love and too often take for granted. With wild flowers and other plants, it can be hard to predict exactly what may happen. It is almost undeniable however, that it will have an impact. Artic-alpine plants, for example, are especially at threat as they have nowhere to go: there will be no cooler higher ground to colonise and they cannot follow the 'climate space' as it tracks northwards. Sea level rise could affect coastal habitats and temperate rainforest - found in Britian and very few other places - could suffer. Losses are almost inevitable. 

In fact, we are already seeing the tip of the iceberg. Here, for example, are a handful of examples that have been noted by Plantlife botanists Dr Trevor Dines and Tim Wilkins:

  • Some plants, such as pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis), bee orchid (Ophrys apifera) and hart's-tongue fern (Phyllitis scolopendrium), are already moving north in their distribution. The diversity of southern Britain may increase with the arrival of new colonising species, such as tongue-orchid (Cryptostylis subulata), from the continent.
  • Lichens with a south-western distribution in Britain are extending their range north and east. Increasing warmth and moisture, however, will likely have a negative influence on many other species. Slug grazing will intensify, wood will rot faster and competing algae and bryophytes will become more vigorous. Eastern lichens of lowland trees, a strongly declining group even under the present climate, are particularly threatened.
  • The recent rise in tree diseases has been correlated to increasing international trade in plants but there is also evidence that the global ranges of many fungi & lichens are altering due to climate change. Some of these fungi will be pathogenic and could have major impacts on wild plants and their habitats.

Is there anything we can do? Well, as it happens, yes. You can "show the love" for those things we may lose on the Climate Coalition's website. Send a special Valentine's card with a personal image and message, share a star-studded video made for the campaign or make an origami heart for your sleeve. All these activities are intended to show the amount of support from the public to tackle climate change and send a message to politicians, building up to the biggest ever climate lobby of the UK parliament on 17 June.

Do you want to build a snowman? No – I’d rather find some flowers…

February 05 2015 - 16:27

Gorse, snapped blooming just the other day. © Dr Trevor Dines

Gorse, snapped blooming just the other day. © Dr Trevor Dines

Every year it seems to come as a surprise that so many plants can be found in flower in the depths of winter. But this in nothing new. In 1869, Alfred Bennett published a paper in the Journal of the Linnaean Society on the subject, referring to flowers that “…may be found in December or January, and of which we are favoured with lists every year in the corners of newspapers, as evidence of ‘the extraordinary mildness of the season.’”. Well, there’s nothing wrong with keeping a tradition alive, and I love getting out for a wild flower hunt in depths of winter.

Only a few of our native plants are actually programmed to flower now. The most flamboyant, and the one that brings most colour to our otherwise dull winter countryside, is common gorse (Ulex europaeus). This shrub begins to bloom in late autumn and finishes with a triumphant flourish of flower in spring. This seemingly continuous display, though, is apparently provided by two types of gorse-bush: those that flower mostly in the winter, with a smaller number of flowers over a long period, and those that flower abundantly for a shorter period in the spring. This strategy has been adopted to help overcome predation of gorse seeds by the Exapion weevil. The weevil emerges in spring and can infect up to 95% of seed pods. Bushes that flower in winter therefore escape this predation, while those that flower abundantly in spring produce so much seed some of it is bound to survive. Surprisingly, pollination rates in winter and spring are similar; any mild winter days will see pollinators emerge and, with very little else in flower, insects flock to the only restaurant in town that’s open.

This winter, gorse seems to be especially prolific. Around where I live in north Wales, some hedgerows and heaths are splashed with yellow as if it were April already. It always amuses me when people say the scent of the flowers reminds them of coconut. Coconuts only received widespread popularity in Britain in the 1830s, so presumably, for a time people remarked that the scent of this new novelty reminded them of gorse. In an attempt to keep connected to our own native flora, whenever I smell coconut I try to think, “Oh, it smells just like gorse”!  

Many other plants can be found in bloom at this time of year too. During the wonderful New Year Plant Hunt organised by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland, an astonishing 368 species were found in flower. Admittedly, many of these were found in milder areas – the Channel Islands, south-west Ireland and western England and Wales, but over 50 species were flowering in the east and north of England, and 39 were even flowering in Edinburgh. Early spring flowering plants will often make the most of a mild winter to flower earlier than normal. These are often woodland plants that usually flower before the leaf canopy expands. There are reports of primrose (Primula vulgaris), early dog violet (Viola reichenbachiana), dog’s mercury (Mercurialis perennis) and stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus) already in flower, with bluebells in some woods already showing signs of growth. Hazel (Corylus sp.) can also be found in flower now – look out for the tiny female flowers as well as the long male catkins (pictured below, copyright Laurie Campbell).

The vast majority of plants in flower now, though, are pure opportunists - summer and autumn flowering plants that continue to grow and flower while the weather remains mild, setting seed for future generations. They include weedy annuals like groundsel (Senecio vulgaris), red dead-nettle (Lamium purpureum), shepherd's-purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris), sun spurge (Euphorbia helioscopia) and scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis), as well as more refined annuals like corn marigold (Glebionis segetum) and sharp-leaved fluellen (Kickxia elatine), all just about hanging on from better days in autumn. A large number are perennial plants, able to draw on resources in buried roots and rhizomes that are protected from the worst of the weather. White dead-nettle (Lamium album), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) and daisy (Bellis perennis) are commonly found in flower now, but more unusually cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris), hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium), angelica, oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), red clover (Trifolium pratense) and common knapweed (Centaurea nigra) are still in flower, survivors of the mild autumn and winter so far.

With sunnier aspects and a milder maritime climate, it’s not surprising that some coastal flowers are already in bloom too. Thrift (Armeria maritima, above, copyright Laurie Campbell), kidney vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria) and sea campion (Silene maritima) have all been spotted, along with the extraordinary bright pink flowers of Hottentot fig (Carpobrotus edulis) – a denizen south African that can escape from gardens and run riot on coastal cliffs.