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A blooming awful summer?

Summer flowers are a rarer sight on our road verges

June 20 2016

The last few decades has seen huge changes in our road verge flora.  

As a result of mowing earlier in the year we have effectively lost summer from verges in many areas. We often get magnificent displays of bluebells, cowslips and  celandines that give a clear sign that spring is here but sadly we don’t get the same floral signs to welcome the arrival of summer. Only plants that flower early get the chance to set seed before the mowers arrive. As a result some spring flowers are thriving and spreading, but many summer flowers are disappearing. This isn’t just bad news for the 700 species of flowers that grow on our verges, it’s bad news for the bees, beetles, butterflies and birds that rely on them for food.

As a result of these management changes we can reveal some road verge winners and losers....  

Winners...

  • Cuckooflower, cowslip, garlic mustard and celandine. All these early spring-flowering species put on fantastic displays on many verges. They set their seed quickly – within just a few weeks – and are therefore able to spread before the first cut. 
  • Three-cornered Garlic. This highly invasive non-native bulb produces white flowers in spring and first escaped from gardens in 1849.  It’s spreading rapidly along road verges outcompeting native vegetation, and is found from Land’s End to Orkney, being especially abundant in southern England.
  • Cow parsley. Although loved by many, especially when roads are garlanded with delicate white lace in May, this is a very invasive native perennial. It has undergone an explosion in abundance on our verges, where it relishes the increasingly fertile soils. It reproduces vigorously by vegetative spread and doesn’t need to set seed to survive, so it can spread in the face of early mowing, out-competing many other roadside flowers.

Losers...

  • Yellow rattle and eyebrights. These summer flowering annuals are classic meadow species, but they need to set seed every year in order to survive. Early spring cutting has all but eradicated them from verges, which is ironic as they could be the saviours of our verge flowers and help control the growth of grass (see below).
  • White campion. Once common and widespread on our verges, this summer-flowering perennial is short-lived and relies on new plants regularly growing from seed. Like many other summer-flowering meadow perennials, such as field scabious, betony and knapweed, it’s becoming rarer on verges, with knock-on consequences for pollinating insects.
  • Man orchid, greater butterfly-orchid, green-winged orchid and frog orchid. While these orchids flower in early summer, like most of the 25 orchid species on our roadsides their seed pods take weeks to fully ripen. Early cutting destroys them and the hundreds of thousands of seeds they contain. As a result these orchids are now rare on verges, except those that are properly managed.  

This month Plantlife launch their road verge campaign to encourage those in charge of our verges to cut less and cut later in the year. As part of their campaign, the conservation charity have created a new “Good Verge Guide” which will offer councils and community groups expert advice on how to better manage road verges for wildflowers whilst keeping them safe for motorists. 

One solution the Good Verge Guide will explore is the use of yellow rattle, an annual meadow plant that was once common on flower-rich road verges. As it germinates each spring, its roots tap into those of the grasses growing around it, stealing water and nutrients reducing their growth by 40-60%. With less competition from vigorous grasses, other wildflowers like harebells and orchids have more room to thrive. Instead of cutting grass three or four times a year, Councils such as Dorset, Anglesey and Gwynedd are experimenting with introducing Yellow Rattle onto road verges, bringing in seed from those few surviving ancient wildflower meadows.

Plantlife’s Botantical Expert Dr Trevor Dines says “It’s a win-win situation. Yellow rattle acts like nature’s lawn mower. With grass growth reduced naturally, less mowing is needed (with savings for the council budget) and more flowers grow, bringing colour back to verges and providing essential nectar for pollinators and food and shelter for a wealth of other wildlife”   

Plantlife are currently working with councils across the UK and as a result 2,370 hectares of road verges is protected but far more needs to be done. In June 2016, Plantlife launches its road verge campaign for the 5th year and are urging people who love wildflowers to sign the petition to show councils it’s crucial for road verges to be managed with wildflowers and wildlife in mind.