Bonsai botany

Chalk grasslands on downland are often case of bonsai botany – the low nutrient status due to the chalky substrate, combined with grazing by sheep or cows favours low creeping species, or those willing to operate in miniature.

Squinancy wort - Asperula cynanchica
Squinancy wort – Asperula cynanchica

Squinancywort is a small, mauve-lilac flowered member of the bedstraw family, of which the strong, scrambling sticky-weed or cleavers is perhaps the most commonly known example.

Ladies bedstraw - Galium verum
Ladies bedstraw – Galium verum

Ladies bedstraw is another member of the bedstraw family – the four-petalled flowers are common to all members of the bedstraws although the majority are white – ladies bedstraw is one of two yellow flowered members of the genus.

Beaked Hawk's-beard - Crepis vesicaria
Beaked Hawk’s-beard – Crepis vesicaria

Beaked hawk’s beard is usually a more robust plant, but here it was growing in a low, creeping habit. The red-flecked undersides to the petals however make it distinctive.

Common restharrow - Ononis repens
Common restharrow – Ononis repens

Common restharrow is a low-growing member of the pea family with beautiful, striated foxglove-purple flowers.

Bird's foot trefoil - Lotus spp.
Bird’s foot trefoil – Lotus spp.

Birds-foot trefoil is another member of the pea family with sunshine-yellow flowers. It is quite a common sight, often included in wildflower mixes and a big hit with many of the butteflies such as the skippers and the blues.

Kidney vetch - Anthyllis vulneraria
Kidney vetch – Anthyllis vulneraria

Kidney vetch is a third member of the pea family – the flower heads contain clusters of the small pea-flowers – just as the bird’s-foot trefoil but multiple and in miniature.

Small scabious - Scabiosa columbaria
Small scabious – Scabiosa columbaria

Small scabious is a a soft lilac coloured flower with open heads which attract a wide range of pollinators including solitary bees, bumblebees and butterflies.

Round-headed rampion - Phyteuma orbiculare
Round-headed rampion – Phyteuma orbiculare

Round-headed rampion is something of a rarity nationally, but was quite common in patches of the grassland on the south downs. It is the County Flower of Sussex and quite a striking blue up close. It seemed to be a particular favourite of the six-spot burnet moths which had just emerged, judging by the empty pupae cases lining the dry grass stems.

The downs have a particular character of their own, but many of the species above (with the exception of the rampion) can be seen much closer to home in the Midlands – there are a number of excellent calcareous grassland sites around Grantham, the finest of which has to be Barnack Hills and Holes NNR just down the A1 near Stamford but a number of other Lincolnshire and Leicestershire Wildlife Trust sites also boast an exciting range of calcareous meadow species – use the Nature Finder app to see what is closest to you.

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