Spring flowers on roadsides and arable margins

I was out surveying a site for badgers earlier this week and tried to catch a photo of all of the flowering plants I could see as I went along. These are all iPhone photographs so do excuse any deficiencies in quality! These were all recorded along arable margins or roadside verges which demonstrates the importance of these less-managed areas within the landscape to allow these species to continue to flourish. Judging by the number of butterflies and bumblebees which were soaring or buzzing as I walked around, there were plenty of pollinators grateful for these early flowering species.

Cowslip, Primula veris, is a native member of the primrose family which is familiar to many as garden plants. Notice the little orange streaks within the yellow flowers. If you get your nose close to the ground and sniff the flowers, you can pick up the scent of apricots from the flowers.
CowslipPrimula veris, is a native member of the primrose family which is familiar to many as garden plants. Notice the little orange streaks within the yellow flowers. If you get your nose close to the ground and sniff the flowers, you can pick up the scent of apricots from the flowers.
Dandelion - Taraxacum officinalis is a member of the daisy family and is one of the few species which are probably known by the majority of the population, even if only as a weed to be decimated upon sight. It is in fact a beautiful species if you look a little closer, and a very important species as an abundant and early source of nectar for early spring species such as queen bumblebees who emerge and must feed before eastablishing their new nests. The dandelion is actually a clonal species and the correct latin name should finish with the suffix agg. because they are an aggregate of clones which do not reproduce sexually. Experts can allegedly distinguish between these clones to identify the particular variety of a dandelion.
DandelionTaraxacum officinalis is a member of the daisy family and is one of the few species which are probably known by the majority of the population, even if only as a weed to be decimated upon sight. It is in fact a beautiful species if you look a little closer, and a very important as an abundant and early source of nectar for early spring species such as queen bumblebees which emerge and must feed before establishing their new nests. The dandelion is actually a clonal species and the correct latin name should finish with the suffix agg. because they are an aggregate of clones which do not reproduce sexually. Experts can allegedly distinguish between these clones to identify the particular variety of a dandelion.
Colt's-foot - Tussilago farfara is another member of the daisy family but is quite distinct from the dandelion. The flowers emerge long before the leaves, with scaly flower stems rising from the bare earth with bright yellow flowers above them. The leaves, large broad kidney-shaped leaves emerging later into the year.
Colt’s-footTussilago farfara is another member of the daisy family but is quite distinct from the dandelion. The flowers emerge long before the leaves, with scaly flower stems rising from the bare earth with bright yellow flowers above them. The leaves, large broad kidney-shaped leaves emerging later into the year.
Groundsel - Senecio vulgaris is yet another yellow member of the daisy family. It is an annual species which is frequently identified as a weed in gardens and arable fields. The flowers look as though they are not yet fully opened but they are in fact mature in this image - the flower lacks florets which usually fan out and form a feathered effect around a flower. Imagine taking the colt's-foot flower in the image above and strip away the feathery florets around the edge and you would end up with a very similar looking flower.
Groundsel Senecio vulgaris is yet another yellow member of the daisy family. It is an annual species which is frequently identified as a weed in gardens and arable fields. The flowers look as though they are not yet fully opened but they are in fact mature in this image – the flower lacks florets which usually fan out and form a feathered effect around a flower. Imagine taking the colt’s-foot flower in the image above and strip away the feathery florets around the edge and you would end up with a very similar looking flower.
Lesser celandine - Ranunculus ficaria is a member of the buttercup family and has the distinctive shiny yellow flowers of the buttercups. It should be correctly named as the lesser celandine as there is also a greater celandine although the two are not related with the latter a member of the poppy family and quite different in appearance. The celandine is a distinctive spring species whose flowers upon in response to the sunlight and close up at night.
Lesser celandine Ranunculus ficaria is a member of the buttercup family and has the distinctive shiny yellow flowers. It should be correctly named as the lesser celandine as there is also a greater celandine, although the two are not related with the latter a member of the poppy family and quite different in appearance. The celandine is a distinctive spring species whose flowers upon in response to the sunlight and close up at night.
Shepherd's purse - Capsella bursa-pastoris is a fairly inconspicuous member of the cabbage family with rather small white flowers. It becomes much more recognisable when the seed pods emerge which are heart shaped and give the flower it's common and latin name. The species name is bursa-pastoris which translates as purse-shephard.
Shepherd’s purseCapsella bursa-pastoris is a fairly inconspicuous member of the cabbage family with rather small white flowers. It becomes much more recognisable when the seed pods emerge which are heart shaped and give the flower it’s common and latin name. The species name is bursa-pastoris which translates as purse-shepherd.
Danish scurvey-grass - Cochlearia danica is one of the fastest spreading species in the UK. The salting and gritting of roads through the winter leads to the burning off of the existing vegetation which cannot tolerate the conditions. This favours this coastal species which is adapted to higher salt conditions and exploits the new niche which as become available. You might have spotted the drifts of white flowers which can be seen lining many roads, including the central reservation of the A1 where it passes past Grantham.
Danish scurvey-grassCochlearia danica is one of the fastest spreading species in the UK. The salting and gritting of roads through the winter leads to the burning off of the existing vegetation at the road edges as they cannot tolerate the conditions. This favours this native coastal species which is adapted to higher salt conditions and exploits the new niche which has become available. You might have spotted the drifts of white flowers which can be seen lining many roads, including the central reservation of the A1 where it passes past Grantham.
Sweet violet - Viola odorata comes in white or purple and a range of tints in between. These beautiful flowers are robust but small - you need to get quite low to the ground to appreciate this small plant. If you get even closer, you can pick up the fragrance from the flowers - this is the only British violet species which is fragrant.
Sweet violetViola odorata comes in white or purple and a range of tints in between. These beautiful flowers are robust but small – you need to get quite low to the ground to appreciate them plant. If you get even closer, you can pick up the scent from the flowers – this is the only British violet species which is fragrant.
Germander speedwell - Veronica chamaedrys is one of a number of speedwell species which you can find. It is quite characteristic of the genus with its bright blue flowers and low, creeping habit. These speedwell were abundant along the edges of the arable fields where we were surveying but strayed little into the field itself, perhaps a result of chemical herbicide spraying.
Germander speedwellVeronica chamaedrys is one of a number of speedwell species which you can find in the UK. It is quite characteristic of the genus with its bright blue flowers and low, creeping habit. These speedwell were abundant along the edges of the arable fields where we were surveying but strayed little into the field itself, perhaps a result of chemical herbicide spraying.
Red deadnettle - Lamium purpureum is one of the early flowering deadnettle species. They are named for their visual similarity to nettles but, as the 'dead' suggests, they are not able to sting like the true nettle. The flowers are two-lipped with a distinct upper and lower element. Look out too for the more robust white dead-nettle which is also flowering early in the year.
Red deadnettleLamium purpureum is one of the early flowering deadnettle species. They are named for their visual similarity to nettles but, as the ‘dead’ suggests, they are not able to sting like the true nettle. The flowers are two-lipped with a distinct upper and lower element. Look out too for the more robust white dead-nettle which is also flowering early in the year.
Common dog-violet - Viola riviniana is the commonest violet and can become quite a weed in gardens and on arable land - I know that it is certainly well represented in our garden although it can be spotted around Grantham in a number of places, such as the sunny bank along the road frontage to Grantham College. Like the sweet violet described earlier, it's necessary to get close to this low, compacy but beautiful species to really appreciate it.
Common dog-violetViola riviniana is the commonest violet and can become quite a weed in gardens and on arable land – I know that it is certainly well represented in our garden and it can be spotted around Grantham in a number of places, such as the sunny bank along the road frontage to Grantham College. Like the sweet violet described earlier, it’s necessary to get close to this low, compacy but beautiful species to really appreciate it.
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Brimstone butterflies – the perfect harbinger of spring

Brimstone butterflies are the perfect harbinger of spring. They are typically the first butterfly seen in most years – excepting the occasional tatty small tortoiseshell or peacocks – and they always look pristine. Perhaps the connection with spring is so strong because they confirm our own perception of the first spring day – they need the warmth and clemency of sun and still blue-skies in February or March to take to the wing.

Brimstone  (Gonepteryx rhamni)
Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni)

I saw my first brimstone of 2014 a couple of week ago but they were out in abundance last Sunday – settling on the south-facing hedge in the garden to warm up and bask in the sunshine. A short drive across the Vale of Belvoir saw almost every hedge graced with at least one which bobbed and bounced around the periphery of the foliage.

The brimstone is one of five or six species of butterfly which hibernate in the UK. You may see much tattier and battered small tortoiseshell, comma and peacock butterflies at this time of year along with the occasional clouded yellow and, increasingly, the red admiral. All of these, excepting the brimstone and the clouded yellow, are in the Nymphalidae family – a group which includes many other familiar UK butterflies including the fritillaries and the browns. The brimstone is in the Pieridae family which also includes the whites.

Hibernating peacock butterflies which find dark places such as sheds, roof spaces, tunnels and tree cavities to close up their wings and wait for spring to return.
Hibernating peacock butterflies which find dark places such as sheds, roof spaces, tunnels and tree cavities to close up their wings and wait for spring to return.

Brimstone butterflies are a single brood species – the adult butterflies emerge in August and are on the wing, feeding and building up fat reserves, until they go into hibernation at the end of autumn. The butterflies, also called imago, re-emerge early in the spring to mate and begin their life cycle once more.

The comma and small tortoiseshell butterflies, in the Nymphalidae family, tend to have two broods in a year – that is the first batch of imago will mate and lay eggs which hatch and give rise to a second batch of imago in the same year. The red admiral has a single brood but the prevalence of imago is affected by migrating butterflies from the continent. The peacock has rather a similar life cycle to the brimstone.

It is always noticeable that the brimstone butterflies look pristine in spring, whereas the commas and small tortoiseshells often look much more battered and tatty. I was hoping this might be explained simply by the Nymphalidae butterflies being older – that is they had been on the wing longer in the previous season before hibernation, but the phenology doesn’t seem to bear this out for all. It could explain the particularly tatty comma and small tortoiseshell butterflies, if some of these are surviving stragglers from the first brood of the previous year.

Comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album)
Comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album)

 There is still a difference in family between the brimstone and all of the other hibernating butterflies and I wonder whether the brimstone is simply a more structurally sound butterfly, with stronger wings which are less likely to deteriorate than the other species. The species is the longest living of the UK species, at a year, so the imago would need to be hard-wearing! I would be fascinated to know an answer to this if anybody can advise.

Small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)
Small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)

The brimstone butterflies feed on a range of nectar sources – as they are so early to emerge they rely initially upon long-flowering species such as dandelion, or early flowering species such as bluebell, cowslip and primrose. The key food plant in the autumn is thistles with a range of other species also used.

The larval food plant is surprisingly specific and not abundantly common – they require buckthorn or alder buckthorn. The species name for the butterfly eludes to this link – rhamni which refers to the latin for buckthorn – Rhamnus sp. This is a shrub which can be found in hedgerows and woodlands but is not nearly as common as other similar species such as hawthorn or blackthorn. I do not know of any buckthorn in the area but the presence of the brimstone butterflies clearly proves its existence! The comparative scarcity of buckthorn has been directly addressed by Butterfly Conservation in the past with planting programmes to increase their presence within landscapes and this has had a positive effect on the brimstone populations.

The female is much paler than the male – I saw one in the distance on Sunday which I at first through to be a large white until I crept closer and saw the distinctive veined, contoured folded wing which looks so much like a leaf.

Brimstone  (Gonepteryx rhamni) pretending to be a leaf