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

5 native herbs for “More Herbs, Less Salt” Day

One or two may surprise you...

August 28 2015 - 09:44

Any excuse to use native plants in your cooking is a good one in our book, and if it encourages healthy eating all the better. So why not join us in swapping the salt for a few more herbs as part of More Herbs, Less Salt Day tomorrow? By way of encouragement, here are five herbs that are native to these Isles. One or two may surprise you...

1. Wild Basil (Clinopodium vulgare)

A staple of Mediterranean cooking, this herb often conjures images of more sun-kissed climes. But did you know this wild relative is common on the lime-rich soils of southern Britain? Sadly it is less frequently found in northern areas, where it seems to be declining. According to folklore this herb belongs to Satan, hence why some gardeners curse the ground as they plant it, in order for it to grow properly. Image © pveronk/CC BY-NC.

2. Oregano (Origanum vulgare)

Now this one must be a Mediterranean herb, surely? Oregano is, after all the "pizza herb" - so named by American G.I.s who took a liking to it whilst stationed in Italy during Word War II. Actually, this herb is even more common than Basil on these shores. More frequently known as WIld Marjorum, it is widely scattered through Britain but rarer in Scotland. It grows on dry, infertile soils, especially those on chalk and limestone. Image © littlehonda_350/CC BY-NC-ND.

3. Thyme (Thymus polytrichus)

Three species of thyme are native to Britain. Wild thyme is the most widespread but the least scented. Large Thyme - found in south and east England - is more pungent, but strongest of all is Breckland Thyme, a rare plant found in East Anglia. Roman soldiers once bathed in thyme-infused water as they believed the herb gave them courage and strength.  Image © Erutuon/CC BY-SA.

4. Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)

Used for centuries in relaxing infusions, this spreading perennial herb is found mostly in southern and western England and Wales. Sadly, it’s been lost from many sites and in Britain is considered vulnerable to extinction. Thanks, in part, to our efforts this wildflower was brought back from the brink. It likes light, mildly acidic soil and grows on heaths and commons. Its name derives from the Greek for "ground apple", probably because of its apple-like scent.

5. Salad Burnet (Sanguisorba minor)

The young leaves of Salad Burnet can be added to salads and are said to have a taste similar to cucumber. More or less confined to soils with chalk or limestone, it grows mainly in parts of England and Wales where these rocks outcrop. It’s rare in Scotland. Soldiers fighting in the American Revolution allegedly drank tea made with this herb, believing that if they were wounded, the ingested burnet would stop them from bleeding to death. Image © Dluogs/CC BY-SA.

Want to know how to grow wild flowers in your garden? Here's how...

Special thanks to Rowan Sutton for herbal fact research.

Dr Dines’ Meadow Making Adventure: pt 3

A visit to the "donor" meadow.

August 25 2015 - 14:39

Thirteen miles away up the valley from where we live, a small mountain stream – the Afon Machno - enters the River Conwy. On the banks of this tributary lies a remarkable little meadow. It might be small – just 2.9 acres (1.2 ha) in size – but it packs an incredibly impressive botanical punch, with a wealth of wildlife on show even in the middle August. 

This is Moss Hill, the Coronation Meadow for the county of Conwy. Owned and managed by the National Trust, it’s a real gem of a place, thoroughly deserving of its accolade as a flagship meadow for the county.  In a few weeks time, some of the precious seed will be harvested from this “donor” meadow and brought to our own “recipient” meadow. The seed from one good meadow will sow the future of another.  

So, early one morning earlier this week, I paid a visit to Moss Hill. What I love most about the Coronation Meadows is that each one is different. Each has its own special community of plants – different species in different quantities - that gives it character and identity. Moss Hill is unique. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. 

Protected by a colonnade of trees, the meadow undulates over the rocks below. In one spot, the rock breaks through the surface, a broad dome of stone that provides a viewpoint over the flowers. Elsewhere, folds in the rock accumulate deeper soil and I think it’s this variation – thin, skeletal dry soil in some parts and deep, moist, fertile soil in others that fosters the diversity of vegetation at Moss Hill.

Everywhere I looked there was a haze of Common Knapweed (Centaurea nigra), Betony (Betonica officinalis) and Devil’s-bit Scabious (Succisa pratensis), this latter a real feature of the meadow, growing in quantities you don’t often see. All these flowers hosted a myriad of bees, butterflies, hoverflies and beetles, a frantic morning rush hour infinitely more pleasant to be involved with than our own commutes. 

These bright pink and blue highlights were softened by patches of billow Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) and, surprisingly, lots of Burnet Saxifrage (Pimpinella saxifraga) – a species that usually prefers lime-rich soil and was unexpected on this mildly acidic site.

Getting down on hands and knees in the damp grass, the Eyebrights (Euphrasia sp.) were flowering abundantly. Each sparkling flower was striped with purple and stained with a single yellow spot. Their resemblance to a bruised eye means they were once used to cure all sorts of eye problems, hence the common name. They’re some of the most difficult plants to identify correctly (22 species and 71 hybrids are known in Britain, confounding even the best experts), but these were some of the loveliest I’ve seen with large, soft lilac flowers.

Unfortunately, the Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor), Greater Butterfly Orchids (Platanthera chlorantha) and Northern Marsh Orchids (Dactylorhiza purpurella) were long over, but their seed pods could be seen ripening amongst the grass. Still in joyous flower, though, were Harebells (Campanula rotundifolia), a lovely form growing here with very deep blue flowers, translucent and luminescent in the morning sun. 

Then a final and very unexpected surprise. Growing in scattered patches and clumps at one end of the meadow was Common Cow-wheat (Melampyrum pratense). While not uncommon in north Wales, it’s really a plant of oak woodland and, occasionally, open moors. I’ve never seen it growing in a meadow before, but hear it was, having not read the textbook and happily breaking all the rules. 

Once we get a bit of warm sun in this dismal summer, the seed in this wonderful meadow will quickly ripen. It will then be brought down the valley and scattered on our own field. I can’t wait to see what will appear.

Buzzing about bee stamps

But can you ID the wildflowers they're feeding on?

August 21 2015 - 14:48

We love these new stamps from Royal Mail featuring six of our 250 native species of bees. The illustrations by Richard Lewington are meticulous and vivid, really bringing each bee to life. 

We also love that they’ve been shown in context, feeding from some of the wildflowers on which they rely for pollen and nectar. But can you identify the flowers? Time for a bit of detective work...

(clockwise from top left)

Scabious Bee (Andrena hattorfiana).

No prizes for guessing this one – but which Scabious is it? This rare bee is closely associated with Field Scabious (Knautia arvensis) but also Small Scabious (Scabiosa columbaria). The pollen collected from Field Scabious, though, has a very characteristic salmon-pink colour, clearly visible in the stamp.

Verdict: Field Scabious

Great Yellow Bumblebee (Bombus distinguendus).

This bee is confined to the far north and northwest of Scotland where it lives in flower-rich grassland. As with most bumblebees, it forages from many species of flower, but newly emerged queens show a preference for Bird’s-foot Trefoil in spring. The orange tint to the flowers on the stamp help confirm this flower.

Verdict: Bird’s-foot Trefoil 

Northern Colletes Bee (Colletes floralis).

Another very rare bee found in the Western Isles of Scotland, one site in Cumbria and also in Ireland. This species feeds on a very wide range of flowers – from at least 10 different plant families – making this the most tricky one to identify. The bee does have a preference for the carrot family (Apiaceae) and the illustration could be one of several of these - Pignut (Conopodium majus) or Burnet Saxifrage (Pimpinella saxifraga) perhaps – but something about the shape and crimping of the flowers suggests Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) to me.

Verdict: Yarrow

Potter Flower Bee (Anthophora retusa).

Now found only on the south east coast of England, this species excavates small burrows in sandy soil. It is thought to forage from plants in the cabbage (Brassicaceae) and dead-nettle (Lamiaceae) families, and plant illustrated so beautifully is Ground-ivy (Glechoma hederacea) with its distinctive dead-nettle-like flowers.

Verdict: Ground-ivy

Large Mason Bee (Osmia xanthomelana).

This bee on the brink of extinction, being found at a single site on the Isle of Wight. There, the females feed only on Bird's-foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) and Horseshoe Vetch (Hippocrepis comosa). The clear yellow of the flowers illustrated and the arrangement and shape of the leaflets (rather like an Ash leaf) identify this as Horseshoe Vetch.

Verdict: Horseshoe Vetch

Bilberry Bumblebee (Bombus monticola).

A scarce bee of upland areas in Britain, this species feeds on several species but has a distinct preference for bilberries (Vaccinium sp.) in spring. We have five different Vaccinium in Britain – Bilberry, Cranberry, Small Cranberry, Bog Bilberry and Cowberry – but the combination of the broad leaf and the dark pink flower with a very narrow opening means this can only be Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus).

Verdict: Bilberry

Remember, all our bees rely on flowers for supplies of pollen and nectar. Some feed from lots of different types of flower while others rely on just one or two species. Restoring flower-rich habitats across our countryside, as we are doing with projects like Coronation Meadows and Save Our Magnificent Meadows, is essential if we are to save our bees.

You can pick up a set of Bee Stamps on the Royal Mail website here.

Dr Dines’ Meadow Making Adventure: pt 2

Making hay while the sun shines...

August 14 2015 - 15:45

As a farmer’s son, I probably shouldn’t have been quite so excited, but I arrived home on Tuesday to find our hay being cut at last. The first local farmer we approached feared the fields were full of boulders, the second couldn’t get his machinery down the steep track and the third just failed to show up (I suspect a heavy night at the local agricultural show), so it was a huge relief when the fourth chap we asked arrived with his tractor and mower and got to work. 

It was a perfect summer’s evening and there were no signs of any boulders. Just over an hour later the meadows were cut – all that thick growth chopped off at two inches above the ground and reduced to rows of wilting grass. A couple of buzzards who’d nested nearby got as excited as me, mewing loudly as they searched for an easy meal in the fields. As the evening gathered a red kite joined them, cartwheeling overhead, and as the dark arrived the shadow of a fox moved across the rows of hay.

Then Wednesday was glorious drying weather, with warm, unbroken sunshine all day. What a relief! In the evening, the farmer returned to turn the hay. This operation, of course, aims to get the grass as dry as possible – damp grass at the bottom of the rows gets thrown around, exposing it to air and sunshine – but it also inadvertently shakes and scatters any wildflower seed from their capsules and pods, keeping it in the meadow. 

Then on Thursday we had the threat of thunderstorms spreading from the south. It was a bit of a race – could we get the bailing done before the rain arrived? 

In the nick of time we did. I must say, it’s a far cry from when I was a lad growing up on a farm. In those days, a tractor and bailer would have to go at walking pace. These days, they operate at a sprint! The fields were bailed and cleared in under an hour and the buzzards returned to scout the bare grass.

With this job done, we’re now ready for the next exciting stage...

Dr Dines’ Meadow Making Adventure: pt 1

An introduction to our fields of green

August 12 2015 - 15:30

Last winter we moved to live in the Conwy valley. For anyone familiar with north Wales, Dyffryn Conwy (as it’s called in Welsh) is a magical place. It follows the course of the Afon Conwy from the Migneint moors in Snowdonia down to the sea at Conwy, where its mouth is guarded by the majestic ramparts of Conwy Castle. Nestled between steep hills, much of the valley is a verdant sliver of green – a pastoral antidote to the harsher slate landscapes of Snowdonia to the south.  

Here, in countryside the colour of a Mallards’ head, we’ve been lucky enough to buy two small meadows. I still can’t really believe it. After years of visiting meadows, helping manage other people’s meadows and advising people how to look after meadows, I can call two of these tapestry squares my own. I can’t really put my excitement into words and I’ve spent most of the spring and summer exploring my little patches of green.

Nestled on a slope next to the river, our two pastures have not been ploughed or re-seeded since the war, so they should be bursting with wildflowers. Years of continuous grazing, though, have prevented many wildflowers from seeding. The effect of this over time has been to reduce the diversity of flowers in the pasture. Small, early-flowering species survive - for example, there are lots of buttercups ... 

There's celandine, field wood-rush, red clover and lesser stitchwort, this last one a good indicator of neglected pasture. In one corner, you'll find some late-flowering knapweed and there’s even a bit of bird’s-foot trefoil...  

But mostly it is a kingdom of grass, with vigorous things like cock’s-foot, perennial rye, fescue and creeping bent joined by more welcome company – a bit of sweet vernal and crested dog’s-tail. Of yellow rattle, eyebright, betony, orchids, vetches, crane’s-bills and oxeye daisy there are none. 

And so, in the next few days and weeks, I’ll be practising what I’ve been preaching for years. We’re about to embark on the floral restoration of our fields. 

Thanks to Biffa Award funding through the Coronation Meadows project, we’re about to receive seed from the Conwy Coronation Meadow – Mosshill. This National Trust owned meadow near the top of the valley is remarkable for its display of wildflowers, especially devil’s-bit scabious and knapweed in late summer. 

Of course, there’s no better way to learn than to be thrown in at the deep end, and I’m rapidly coming to appreciate just how involved the process of meadow restoration can be. It’s a carefully orchestrated set of operations, all of which need to happen in sync:

  1. Cut the field closely for hay – bale and remove
  2. Before the grass re-grows, harrow the field to open up the turf and expose bare soil
  3. At the same time, collect seed from the donor site (Mosshill)
  4. Transport the donor seed to the receptor site (our meadow) and spread over the whole area
  5. Bring livestock onto the field to trample seed into the soil

There’s also a world of difference between advising other people on how it’s done and doing it yourself. It’s all a bit more scary, but also very thrilling. 

We’ve already had some preparatory work done. When we arrived last winter, some of the fences were in such a bad state they were laying on the floor. A contractor from the local village of Eglwysbach has done a fantastic job putting up new fences and replacing the gates to make the fields thoroughly stock-proof.

We’re now playing a waiting game. The awful cold and wet summer has delayed everything and we’re hoping for a break in the weather to do the hay cut (number 1 on the list above!). Once that’s been done, the real fun can begin.

Watch this space!

10 Top tips for taking photos of wildflowers and meadows

With the Magnificent Meadows closing at the end of the month, some tips on how to snap that winning shot ...

August 11 2015 - 13:31

1.    Wait for the right light

This is what photography is all about, really: thinking about the light in terms of its quality, quantity and direction, and how it suits the subject. To reveal detail and reduce the contrast of a scene, shoot when the light is soft and diffused. Outdoor portraits and macro photos look great when shot under bright but overcast skies. Less so at midday on a bright, clear day – the light is just too harsh.

2.    Use Simple Backgrounds

The simple approach is usually the best in digital photography, and you have to decide what needs to be in the shot, while not including anything that is a distraction. If possible, choose a plain background – in other words, neutral colors and simple patterns. You want the eye to be drawn to the focal point of the image rather than a patch of color or an odd building in the background.

3.    Compose in Thirds

To use the rule of thirds, imagine four lines, two lying horizontally across the image and two vertical creating nine even squares. Some images will look best with the focal point in the centre square, but placing the subject off centre will often create a more aesthetically composed photograph.

4.    Leading Lines

When we look at a photo our eye is naturally drawn along lines. By thinking about how you place lines in your composition, you can affect the way we view the image, pulling us into the picture, towards the subject, or on a journey "through" the scene. 

5.    Framing

The world is full of objects which make perfect natural frames, such as trees, archways and holes. By placing these around the edge of the composition you help to isolate the main subject from the outside world. The result is a more focused image which draws your eye naturally to the main point of interest.

6.    Take your time 

When you first encounter a beautiful meadow it can be quite daunting and difficult to know where to start. Don’t start taking photos as soon as you arrive unless you know where to go to get the best shots. Have a walk round and explore your surroundings first.

7.    Make a note of the name

Ask the people working at nature reserves the name of the flowers and plants you have taken. If you want your images used in books or magazines these details are vital. It can be easy to think you’ll remember it but after a few more photos or a few days you’ll forget. 

8.    Plant portraits

Consider cropping right in on a plant to isolate details. Look for colour and detail and what it is that makes each subject unique: only by focusing on a plant’s character – the sweep of a leaf, say, or the point of a petal – you’ll be able to create an image that’s more of a portrait of the plant than a standard shot.

9.    Kneesy does it

Because shooting wildlife and flowers outdoors involves spending a lot of time on your knees and elbows, a gardener’s mat could come in handy.

10.    Be wary of wind

A strong wind can be the flower photographer’s worst enemy. Even a gentle breeze can cause long-stemmed plants to bob about, resulting in blurred images that are no use to anyone. Early mornings are usually better – and try using a clamp on long-stemmed plants to steady them between gusts.

Enter your snaps in the Magnificent Meadows Photo Competition before 31 August 2015 and you could win a fabulous three night December stay at the National Trust's Cwm Ivy Lodge Bunkhouse on the Gower coast or a £100 voucher to spend in RSPB's online shop. For more information, click the link below: