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

“Cornflowers do not last”

March 24 2015 - 16:30

Did anyone catch Poldark the other night? We have to admit, we were drooling during the scene in the hay meadow... No, not the sight of Aidan Turner going topless, but the gorgeous blue cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus, pictured below © Lliam Rooney) that surrounded him!

"Cornflowers do not last," says Elizabeth in the same episode "see, they're fading already." She is talking about Demelza's posy but the same could be said about this flower in the wild. In Poldark's time it was a common sight but today there are very few natural populations.

 This is where Plantlife aims to help: part of the work we do is advising landowners, so they can manage their land so that wildflowers thrive alongside their crops. With your help, perhaps we can stop those cornflowers from fading.

What plant is the shamrock?

Red clover? White clover? Or wood sorrel?

March 17 2015 - 15:05

Wood sorrel - is this the elusive shamrock? © Laurie Campbell

Wood sorrel - is this the elusive shamrock? © Laurie Campbell

What is a shamrock?

On the face of it, the answer is obvious: the distinctive three-leaved sprig that symbolises Ireland. St Patrick famously used it to symbolise the Holy Trinity. However delve a little deeper and a mystery emerges. Unlike the daffodil of Wales or the red rose of England, there is no plant commonly called “shamrock”. Given its St Patrick’s Day, we thought we’d take a closer look.

The word shamrock actually derives from the Irish seamróg, which means “little clover”. And the shamrock’s leaves do indeed suggest a clover. But which clover is it? Even the great names of botany disagreed:

As it happens, the most likely candidate is none of these. Toward the end of the 19th century, various investigations and surveys of what the Irish public thought was a shamrock – including one where people were asked to send in a sprig which was then identified by botanists - revealed lesser trefoil (Trifolium dubium - below, © Andrew Gagg/Plantlife) as the favourite.

Even as recently as 1988, however, the matter still wasn’t clear cut with over a third preferring white clover. It may be fairer to say there is no “true” shamrock, at least in a botanical sense!

We have 20 native species of Trifolium clover in Britain, some with evocative names like hare’s-foot, subterranean and strawberry, Clovers are such oft-seen plants it might be surprising to hear some species are threatened. For example, did you know that roadsides in East Anglia are one of the few places you can still find sulphur clover (Trifolium ochroleucon)? We have many miles of road verge that could provide similar sanctuaries if they were only managed better for wildlife. Please help us bring about that change by adding your voice here.

Do you know what a catkin is?

March 16 2015 - 11:24

The word ‘catkin’ has been in use for at least 437 years. It is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as, “an inflorescence consisting of a spike, usually hanging, of much reduced flowers of either sex: occurs in birch, hazel, etc”.

That rather dry description belies the rather more poetic origin to the word. Picking up on the phrase “usually hanging”, catkins do just that - hang like a little tails from the bare branches. The word catkin comes from a now obsolete Dutch word katteken, meaning kitten, from their resemblance to kitten’s tails. In a similar vein, another common British name for hazel catkins is lamb’s-tails, encapsulating not just their appearance but the time of their appearance too – just as the fields fill with lambs in the spring (although these days, most of the lambs I ever see are sadly bereft of their catkin-like tails).

This year, the hazel catkins seem to be especially prolific. Hedgerows, coppices and woods are thick with them, as if some sort of mustard-yellow smoke hangs amongst the branches. Catkins like these are the male flowers of plants pollinated by the wind. They don’t have to be big and blousy to attract insect pollinators, so their tiny flowers are produced in huge quantities, ensuring that enough pollen is released into the wind to reach the smaller female flowers nearby. Good for reproduction, but bad for anyone that suffers pollen allergies. 

Hazel catkins will soon fade and be replaced by others. Alders are coming into bloom now (pic, right) – look out for the particularly long, fat catkins of Italian alder (Alnus cordata), often planted as a street tree and in parks. Then, of course, there are the willows. Spring just wouldn’t be complete without the lovely, furry pussy willow catkins produced by both goat willow (Salix caprea) and grey willow (Salix cinerea).

When I was little, we’d always collect a few sprigs of hazel catkins or pussy willows when we first saw them on our walks. They were often the very first sign of spring – a hint that the sap was rising at last. They didn’t last long indoors, but I loved to watch how they elongated over the course of a few days – kitten’s tails unfurling in the spring sunshine.

Carol Klein once wrote, “every child should have the opportunity to feel against their cheek the sleek, silver catkins of the pussy willow”.

And so the decision to drop the word ‘catkin’ from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, along with a host of other words from our natural world such as ‘acorn’ and ‘buttercup’, is deeply shocking, especially as they’ve been replaced with words including ‘broadband’, ‘chatroom’ and ‘blog’. Nothing speaks more clearly of the sad disconnection between children and their natural world. We couldn’t agree more. Sadly, it seems that fewer and fewer even know what catkins are these days.  

Wolf Hall author Hilary Mantel and former laureate poet Andrew Motion have been among the many writers expressing their dismay at the move, and we’ve been raising awareness on social media ourselves with the #IknowWhataCatkinIs hashtag. If you feel like we do, why not let @OED know? Tweet a photo of your family with catkins tell them you want these words put back.

Why you should go wild this Mother’s Day

March 13 2015 - 14:13

I’ve not bought a bunch of flowers for years.

Now don’t get me wrong - I’m no misery guts. The symbolism involved with giving and receiving flowers is incredibly powerful and reveals the deep, subconscious relationship we have with plants; we don’t after all, “say it with seagulls”. I honestly don’t think there’s any better way to express your love for someone.

But, rather than using the flaccid forecourt fodder on offer at the local garage, what better way to do this than with a bunch wild flowers that you’ve picked yourself? Shops and supermarkets this weekend will have row upon row of the most garish and unseasonal blooms. Flown in from all over the world, they remind me more of plastic supermodels dressed for tarty night out in Ibiza.

Instead, a hand-picked bunch of wild flowers will mean so much more. It will be unique and personal - a blend of flowers and foliage that reflects you and where you live rather what some nursery manager in a far-flung continent thinks your mother will like. And when you consider the price, wild flowers become even more attractive.

Annoyingly, Mother’s Day falls a bit too early in the year, when many wild flowers are yet to bloom. But if you rise to the challenge, the finished bouquet will carry much more meaning. You’ll need to get outside and see what’s around. I did just this yesterday and was surprised at what I could find.

Rather than big and blousy, I’d suggest keeping it tasteful and refined. A mix of subtle colours and leaf textures can be bought together in a small, hand-tied bouquet. And you don’t have to be purist about it either; other garden flowers that are out now or a small bunch of tasteful blooms from the florist can be brought to life with the addition of some wild, foraged leaves and flowers.

You can see the result of my efforts in the photo above. Here, I’ve put together the following:

  • Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis): Although not native, they’re beautiful and familiar woodlanders that are wonderfully pure with their white and green nodding flowers.
  • Hazel (Corylus avellana): A sprig of this with some catkins looks very spring-like and very architectural.
  • Polypody fern (Polypodium vulgare): Evergreen and deeply lobed, these sometimes have bright orange spores on the back.
  • Ivy (Hedera helix): The flower stems and young berries are very distinctive and architectural.
  • Yew (Taxus baccata): A wonderful evergreen, which flowers early with beautiful pale yellow bobbles that go on to form its red berries.
  • Bog myrtle (Myrica gale): Dark mahogany coloured stems with distinctive short catkins. Not common but grows in western upland areas.
  • Lichen: Small fallen twigs with some lichen can be included for unusual colour and texture.

It all depends on what you find. Keep you eve out for other early flowers such as violets, and primroses, other textures from different ferns, and even dried seed-heads from last-year’s flowers.

But what about picking wild flowers? Isn’t that illegal? Usually it’s not. At Plantlife, we not only endorse but thoroughly encourage people to pick common wild flowers when it legal to do so. For full details, click here.

We want people to get back in touch with their wild flowers – literally - and bring them back into their lives and use them again. So on this Mother’s Day, why not find time to reconnect with wild plants? Your mum will probably be delighted.

Signs of spring

March 06 2015 - 16:01

There are many ways to tell that spring is round the corner: leaves sprouting from elder trees, lesser celandines in bloom. Or, in the case of those watching the Plantlife Twitter channel (@Love_plants for those who are interested) a sudden increase in wonderful wild flower pictures.

These images never fail to brighten our day, so we decided to set up a gallery so we could share them with you. Enjoy!