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

Pink Frog Orchids in the Pasture

Orchid oddity found at Plantlife's Augill Pasture reserve

July 28 2015 - 14:44

X Dactyloglossum mixtum © Joe Costley/Plantlife

X Dactyloglossum mixtum © Joe Costley/Plantlife

It’s always exciting to find a wild orchid. But finding a very odd wild orchid you’ve never seen before – one that doesn’t quite fit the bill and looks rather extraordinary – brings a special type of excitement.

While scrutinizing every inch of the sward at Plantlife's Augill Pasture reserve in Cumbria, counting frog orchids (Coeloglossum viride), Lois Harbron was lucky enough to find one such oddity. Both frog orchid (52 counted this year) and common spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) grow at Augill but what Lois discovered was a rather wonderful cross between them. 

This beautiful hybrid goes by the ungainly name of “X Dactyloglossum mixtum” and, as you can see from the picture (right), it really is mixture of the two species. Maybe it needs a more descriptive common name, like “pink frog orchid” perhaps? 

Hybrid orchids are not actually that uncommon. They’re a promiscuous group of plants – especially the marsh and spotted Dactylorhiza orchids - and will readily get into bed with their fellow species given half a chance. Pollinating bees and other insects, of course, visit many different flowers on their forages, unconcerned that they might be mixing up the DNA gene pool. This mixing of genes is, of course, the very essence of evolution; orchids like these are often described as still “actively evolving”. Whenever you find several different species of orchids growing together, keep your eye out for hybrids.  

This particular one, however, is quite rare. Since 2000, it’s only been found at about 15 sites in Britain. It looks like this hybrid is also a new record for the county (it’s not mentioned in the superb Flora of Cumbria by Geoffrey Halliday, 1997) and since the nearest current record appears to be from the Peak District, this is a wonderful addition to the list of wildflowers found at the reserve. 

“I knew instantly what it was" Lois told me. "It’s something I had hoped to see somewhere, but I didn’t expect to find it at Augill. Despite strong wind and heavy rain, I had a huge beam on my face as I went home.”

Augill Pasture is managed on behalf of Plantlife by Cumbria Wildlife Trust

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Discovering Munsary Peatlands

July 24 2015 - 14:19

It was an overcast day in the far northeast of Scotland; the early promise of bright sunlight fled southeastwards as hazy clouds rolled in from the north Atlantic. Still, the threatened rain never fell. In short it turned out to be just right for a 6 mile, there-and-back walk to the edge of the bowl in the hills that holds Plantlife’s Munsary Peatlands nature reserve.

A group people turned up one morning in June at the small car park area at Loch Stemster, just by the C1053 to Lybster, just off the A9 at Achavanich on the Thurso road, with the prospect of a 3 mile hike along the farm track to the inbye at Munsary. This place is not dubbed “the Back of Beyond” for nothing.

Loch Stemster delayed the start of the walk as peewits, oystercatchers, common sandpipers and the like caught folks’ attention. Then we were off, taking in the bogbean Menyanthes trifoliatum peppering the surface of a small pool by the track, the old quarries that produced the stone that defines the architecture of the area, the bogcotton wafting white over the heather.  This in itself told us something of the ecological history of the adjacent land, as Hare’s-tail Cottongrass (Eriophorum vaginatum) indicates a recovering bog surface, a wetting up of a dried out surface.  The old stone sheep pens mutely tell the reason why; drained and burned for a sheep run.

The inclines and twists of the road gave the views – stunning at the top of the rise where the bowl of Munsary opens up, sweeping down northward from the ridge, with its green fringe of conifers, the grey of scattered farm buildings nestling in the brown muir, white towers of turbines against the skyline.

And onward past Ballachly (pronounced Balach-LIE), a working farm whose cattle help keep the Munsary inbye in good condition, grazing over the spring and summer, opening up the sward for feeding waders, and letting the Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia palustris) and Marsh Cinquefoil (Potentilla palustris) flourish.

Reaching the fence that encloses the inbye, buildings remain from previous lives, the drystane dyke of the park proving useful for containing the cattle. Stone walls give shelter for quietly enjoying a packed lunch.

Looking across beyond the dykes there is the expanse of slopes, hummocks and sinuous burns, to the glittering dubh lochs on the peatland domes, reflecting the sky – here is a tranquillity, an openness, a wildness that gently seeps in, even with the wind whipping the grasses into the “summer horses”; the mirage of grass stems across the landscape in waves of motion.

Munsary Peatlands demonstrates that curious conundrum – a managed landscape and a wild place, both at once. This is a place to seek out, expend time and energy reaching, enjoying. It is an experience that must be sought, not handed on a plate.

So follow the trail guide, find out about the plants, the peat, the culture of this hidden landscape in Caithness. No matter the weather, Munsary Peatlands will provide something to take home with you.

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“Ragwort, thou humble flower with tattered leaves…”

Do the facts justify the fear?

July 20 2015 - 19:16

Bee feeding on ragwort © Beth Halski

Bee feeding on ragwort © Beth Halski

In an 1832 poem, The Ragwort, John Clare, countryman and perhaps our greatest nature poet, celebrated ragwort as a beautiful wild flower. Clare, ever the triumphalist of what many would call weeds, revels in ragwort’s simple beauty, it’s colours - ‘gold’, ‘browns of all hues’, and ‘shining blossoms’ -  which adorn sites that would otherwise be ‘dreary to behold’. 

Such a view is an anathema  to many modern country folk who believe ragwort to be a dangerously poisonous weed, which must be eradicated. There is even the Ragwort Control Act 2003.

But do the facts justify the fear? Perhaps it’s time for us to adopt a more balanced understanding of this much maligned native wild flower and learn to celebrate its role as a vital habitat and food source for a number of our country’s rarest insects.

Common ragwort (Jacobaea vulgaris) is seriously poisonous to some grazing animals, so important to our landscape, recreation, our farmers and our economy. Horses can be particularly vulnerable to ragwort poisoning.  Generally they avoid the live plant so it only becomes a problem when the plant is dead in hay or if the pasture is overgrazed and there is nothing else left to eat unless they are supplied with alternative food then horses can consume lethal doses of the plant – usually 5-25% of the body weight. For this reason, it is important to  keep ragwort under control in fields where animals are grazing and especially where fodder, such as hay, is being cut. 

Yet, is there any need to pull up or spray ragwort  where it poses no risk to grazing animals? Unbeknown to many, ragwort also supports a wide range of wildlife, playing a vital role in the ever diminishing biodiversity of our country. At a time when biodiversity indicators are showing continued stress on habitats, it is time to revaluate the role of this infamous plant and ensure that we do not proceed with an unnecessary national eradication plan, which could further damage our already fragile biodiversity. It should also be borne in mind that pulling up ragwort without the landowner’s permission is a crime under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

Cinnabar Moth caterpillar on ragwort - its exclusive food source. © Henry Hemming

Common ragwort is understood to be home and food source to at least 77 insect species in the UK. Over half of these use ragwort as their exclusive food source. There are even 10 rare or threatened species for which ragwort is the exclusive food source. These include the picture winged fly Campiglossa malaris, the Scarce Clouded Knot Horn micro moth (Homocosoma nimbella), and the Sussex Emerald moth (Thalera fimbrialis). The most famous is the Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaeae - pictured above). There are also 14 species of fungi associated with the plant.

These are just a few examples of why we need to update our thinking on common ragwort. We should understand that ragwort, like many plants considered ‘weeds’, has a critical role in supporting our natural biodiversity. Instead the focus should turn to improved grazing management regimes since pasture with a tight sward and little or no bare ground will suppress ragwort emergence.

In addition, the sale of fodder containing common ragwort is illegal, and there would seem to be much that could effectively be done by Trading Standards to ensure that horse feed does not contain high concentrations of ragwort.

The final area of focus should be on improving the welfare of horses through eliminating fly grazing and ensuring horses are not left for long periods in fields with insufficient fodder and prevalent ragwort.

Where horses are well cared for, and feed carefully monitored, there is a negligible risk of ragwort poisoning. As Professor Andy Durham of the Liphook Equine Hospital recently stated “There is no evidence that ragwort toxicity represents a large health hazard in UK horses that are subject to veterinary care”.  

Just as Clare fashions us with a richer understanding of the beauty of ragwort, so should we learn to love this plant – not only through seeing its beauty, as Clare did, but also seeing the beauty in the role it plays in the UK’s biodiversity, protecting a myriad of important species.

The Ragwort (1832)

Ragwort, thou humble flower with tattered leaves 
I love to see thee come & litter gold, 
What time the summer binds her russet sheaves; 
Decking rude spots in beauties manifold, 
That without thee were dreary to behold, 
Sunburnt and bare-- the meadow bank, the baulk 
That leads a wagon-way through mellow fields, 
Rich with the tints that harvest's plenty yields, 
Browns of all hues; and everywhere I walk 
Thy waste of shining blossoms richly shields 
The sun tanned sward in splendid hues that burn 
So bright & glaring that the very light 
Of the rich sunshine doth to paleness turn 
& seems but very shadows in thy sight. 

John Clare (1793-1864)

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Knapweed in the pink at Skylark Meadows

July 20 2015 - 14:49

There's a splash of pink across our Skylark Meadows reserve in Somerset at the moment. This photo - taken recently by Jane King - shows the tufty heads of common knapweed (Centaurea nigra) swaying amongst the grasses.

Also known as "hardheads", common knapweed is the tough guy of the meadows, able to barge aside competitors on land not grazed or annually cut. That said, it's also incredibly generous: its a rich source of nectar for bees, butterflies and other pollinators and its seeds feed goldfinches and many other birds.

It's also prone to popping up on the odd road verge or two. Perhaps you've seen it near you? If you have let us know.

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A bee’s eye view of flowers

July 15 2015 - 10:07

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. So how do plants attract them?

The answer is that they produce designs that we cannot see but bees can...

The photo above (courtesy of © Bjørn Rørslett/NN) 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.

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.

The pattern has been highlighted in red in the "bee vision" 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).

Meadow crane's-bill (Geranium pratense) shows a similar effect...

Meadow cranesbill as we see it (top) and under UV light (below) © Bjørn Rørslett/NN 

A pattern has been 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.

Can you give our bees and other pollinators a helping hand? Add your name to our road verge campaign.

“You primrose small and low…”

Emyr Roberts, Chief Executive of Natural Resources Wales, comments on Plantlife’s recent vote to find the Nation’s Favourite Wild Flowers.

July 07 2015 - 13:14

The National Wildflower Vote has been a great way to raise interest and awareness in the plants that are around us and in getting people to think about what they value in their local environment.

The idea of involving the public and enthusiastic amateurs alongside the professionals in plant recording is of course a great tradition and one which Natural Resources Wales fully supports. Wales has a long history of both professional and citizen-based science. Many early British botanical notes and books relate to the Welsh flora and plant localities in Wales and they include works by famous names including Salisbury, Ray, Llwyd, Brewer and Banks. The wilds of Snowdonia were a particular attraction to the plant-crazed Victorians seeking out romantic landscapes alongside rare ferns and plants, with the help of local botanical guides.

Coming from Anglesey, I am pleased to be able to hold in my hands here today a copy of “Welsh Botanology” (1813) by Hugh Davies from our library in Bangor. This was the first book devoted to the flora of any part of Wales, and it describes the flora of my home county. Many of the flowers from Plantlife’s vote are still found on Anglesey, especially the woodland plant that are a common sight along the many lanes bounded by cloddiau (earth-filled stone walls) and road verges that still retain a varied flora.

While it’s no surprise that bluebell took the overall title and was also the winner in England, in a remarkable demonstration of devolution Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all voted for primrose as their national favourite flower. I think many people love primroses because they’re one of the first harbingers of spring (the ‘prima rosa’ or ‘first rose’ of the year). It’s a plant that has attracted many superstitions. It was believed unlucky, for example, to bring less than 13 primrose flowers into the house. If you did, this would be the number of chicks your hens or geese would hatch that year.

In Wales, primroses, called ‘briallu’ or ‘briallen’ have inspired some very well known verses. A famous hymn, which I remember from my childhood, starts:


Ti friallen fach ar lawr
(You primrose small and low) 
Dan goronog wlith y wawr
(Under a crown of the dawn’s dew) 
Yn disgleirio ngolau’r haul
(Sparkling in the light of the sun)
Duw fu’n gwneud mor hardd dy ddail
(God made your leaves so beautiful)


Primroses are also very long-lived and we often become attached to our favourite little clump. Unlike other wildlife, we see the same plants growing in the same place each year and are able to form a relationship with them. Over time, the flowering of a favourite clump of primroses on a regular walk is like the return of an old friend.

When I was a boy growing up on Anglesey, my uncle and aunt had a small farm. They milked cows and I vividly remember the cows walking slowly up and down the lane to the farm when they were turned out in the mornings and returned in the evenings. The hedges were lined with primroses and they provided a stunning show each spring.

One day, my uncle and aunt returned home after a day out and met two elderly ladies carrying bags down the lane. Asking what was in the bags they were told primroses; the ladies had dug them up to take them back their gardens.

I remember the outrage which our family felt at this vandalism; we felt that our heritage was being taken away from us. The primroses never returned.

Fifty years later, my connections with the village are now almost gone, but when I do walk down that lane, I look out for the primroses. And they’re not there. It seems to me that all of us who are concerned about conserving the natural environment should retain that sense of outrage and passion, and combine it with the science that started centuries ago with the Reverend Davies and which continues today. That is our mission.

This is an extract of a speech given by Emyr at the recent 25th Anniversary celebrations for Plantlife Cymru held at the Millennium Centre, Cardiff.

The Gorse of true love…

Why you should check the gorse on International Kissing Day.

July 06 2015 - 14:30

Did you know today is International Kissing Day? If you did and you're preparing for a smooch, you might want to check one of our commonest prickly shrubs first. According to a traditional saying "When gorse is out of bloom, kissing's out of season." 

The good news is that it very rarely isn't in bloom somewhere. For the first half of the year common gorse (Ulex europaeus) produces yellow flowers with its close relative western gorse (Ulex gallii) following in the second. In fact, a few flowers can generally be seen even in the harsh winter months.

So there you have it - kissing is never out of season, as the saying's originators likely knew all too well.

Here's a few more fascinating gorse facts:

  • Gorse flowers are said to have a distinctive coconut smell, but its strength depends upon the person who's smelling it. The scent is said to be quite pungent to some individuals, but weak to others.
  • Before the Industrial Revolution, gorse was valued as a fuel for fires and kilns.
  • Gorse was voted the County Flower of Belfast.

If you would like show some love for our wild flowers, here's a few easy ways you can help: