2016 in Wildflowers

Every week this year, with just one or two exceptions, I’ve taken part in the excellent #wildflowerhour on twitter where people across the UK share their sightings for the week between 8-9pm each Sunday – an excellent way to draw a weekend to a close.

Many of these photos made an appearance at some point but this is a run-through a few of my favourite wildflower finds or photos from 2016. The absence of orchids can be explained by a whole post all of their own from earlier this week – take a look here!

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Tree flowers are some of the first to make their appearance each year and this set shows a few of these in silhouette against a white February sky. The photo on the left is the male catkins of alder whilst the right two images are the female flowers of two different willow species. Many of these early tree species have both male and female flowers. Some, such as the hazel and alder, have both male and female flowers on the same tree. Others, such as these willows, have male trees or female trees which produce just one type of flower.
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An early-morning walk in May treated me to these frosted flowers in Muston Meadows NNR. The sward was still low, with many of the larger, later meadow species such as salad burnet and meadowsweet still to appear, and these smaller early-summer flowering species were the stars of the show. Clockwise from top left are bulbous buttercup,  cuckooflower, green-winged orchid and cowslip.
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Spring sandwort is a member of the campion family and I came across these cushions of flowers at a disused leadworking site in Derbyshire. It is quite a scarce plant across the UK but frequents these old spoil heaps – such is its connection that  leadwort is another name for this flower. I like that this species has specific habitat preferences which are far from the pristine grasslands and woodlands which are associated with the conservation of many species.
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This is another example of where a closer look rewards the curious – this is a view down the spadix of an arum lily – also known as Lords and Ladies. This reminds me of one of the plasma balls I used to see in Science Museums when I was younger!
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It would be difficult to exclude bluebells from this selection as the sight of a good bluebell wood, with wood anemone, primrose, violets and yellow archangel mixed in, is one of those sights which is profoundly uplifting after a long winter. Many species begin to flower before these, but the bluebell season marks a threshold between the sparsity of spring and the abundance of summer which is just on the horizon. I like the lightness and delicacy of this shot – taken at the Notts Wildlife Trust site – Treswell Wood.
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Another photograph from Treswell Wood. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such an abundance of greater stitchwort than at this site this year – glades were filled with the snow-white flowers of this native woodland specialist.
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This is another photograph from Muston Meadows NNR – this time at sunset. I liked the moody, hazy feel of this photograph with buttercups and grass flowers against a darkening sky.
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This set was taken on my birthday this year – we were camping just below Old Sarum outside Salisbury and woke up early to climb the old hillside and watch the sun rise. The fields and landscape below were misty and I liked the contrast of these wildflowers against the sunrise haze.Clockwise from top left is dock, cow parsley, nettle and bulbous buttercup.
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Smooth tare is a member of the pea family with these tiny white flowers with delicate purple veining. Easily overlooked in a grassland sward, I like the way that they stand out against the soft greens of the surrounding vegetation when you get low enough to appreciate them!
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I took a treacherous walk up to the Hills and Hollows on the outskirts of Grantham one very stormy lunchtime in June – somehow these ominous heavens never opened but gave a nice opportunity to capture some common wildflowers against a dark sky. Clockwise from top left is white campion, poppy, white clover and hogweed.
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I have a real soft spot for arable weeds – modern farming works hard to eradicate competition from arable fields but many species still find a way to brighten a dull monoculture. This flax field was quite an amazing sight in itself with its array of ripe seeds, but flecked throughout where the glaucous green and delicate mauve of fumitory which scrambled up and through the crop.
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Harebells are common in more acidic conditions but can pop up in a variety of habitats. I found them for the first time in the grasslands above Grantham this year, nestled in amongst the Hills and Hollows, but this photo was taken on the Laurie Lee Wildlife Walk in Slad this autumn. You have to get down low to see inside these little flowers, and when i did, I was surprised to find two invertebrate residents settled in for the day. I guess a downwards-facing bell makes perfect cover for a snail to wait until nightfall!
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The Longshaw Estate in Derbyshire comes brightly to life with the purple wash of heather in August and this photograph was taken on one of my favourite walks which cuts across this land. The bell heather was frequented by the beautiful heather colletes bees which emerge to coincide with this floral abundance each year, feeding on the flowers and making their nest holes in the sandy soils beneath the roots.
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Another from the Peak District – this time the coconut-scented flowers of gorse against a backdrop of heather. The old saying goes, ‘when gorse is out of flower, kissing is out of fashion’ because you can find this species flowering pretty much anytime throughout the year. There are many fewer pollinators at work during the winter, but when a warm day awakens a hibernating bumblebee, it can be fairly sure of a nectar source amongst a stand of gorse.

 

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Whilst I doubt this will be my last wildflower photo of 2016, it seems a nice place to end – a common mallow flower with ice crystals taken on my walk to work in December. A bitterly cold morning, the white edging brought a nice contrast to the deep purple of this flower. Many wildflowers of late-summer will continue flowering until the first hard frosts of winter finish them off so this might perhaps signal the end for this individual!

Can you eat hogweed?

Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) is a species which you can find almost everywhere – it thrives beside ditches, in hedgerow bottoms, in rough grassland, road verges, woodland. It is found, in fact, in many of the same habitats as nettle and, like common nettle, you can eat it! I will make it clear at this point that this refers to common hogweed rather than giant hogweed!

The description of hogweed taken from Rose’s Wildflower Key reads as follows:

Robust, roughly hairy biannual to 200cm; stems hollow, ridged, with downward pointing hairs. Leaves 15-60cm, once pinnate, rough, grey-green, with clasping bases and with ovel- to oblong-lobed, pointed, coarse-toothed leaflets to 15cm long, lower ones stalked. Umbels (flower heads) 5-15cm, stalked, many rayed; bracts usually none, bristle-like, down-turned. Flowers white or pinkish, 5-10mm across; petals notched, unequal. Fruits long, oval, whiteish green, very flattened, smooth with club shaped dark marks on sides.

Hogweed is a species which is fairly distinctive although a little care is required if you are not all that familiar with it. There are a number of other species in the carrot family which is could possibly be confused with but I have outlined below the key differences you need to look for.

1) Firstly, many other members of the carrot family have feathery or frilly leaves – think of cow parsley or even the tops of domestic carrots. Hogweed will never be thin and fine like these.

2) Never touch any member of the carrot family with red or purple spots on the stems – this will keep you clear of giant hogweed and hemlock which can be very toxic. It will also distinguish rough chervil whose leaves are much finer than the hogweed anyway.

3) Never eat any umbellifer which is hairless – again this should keep you away from hemlock!

4) Look in hedgerow bases and areas of rough grassland – these are favourite habitats. Species with similar leaves can be found on the coast amongst rocks and shingle such as Scot’s Lovage.

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Hogweed leaf arising from grass and ruderal vegetation. The hogweed leaf is centre shot - ignore the nettles above it!

5) Wild celery isn’t a million miles away from hogweed, but is perfectly paletable so no worries there!

6) The leaves are pinnate – that is, leaflets are arranged on either side of the main stem. Each of these leaves is spikey and serrated. Avoid species whose leaves are twice pinnate – that is, they split again. This will keep you away from Wild Angelica which is also paletable so no worries! Sanicle and Astrantia are not pinnate – that is, there are not three separate leaves coming off the stem.

7) The plant should not be huge! Giant hogweed is very poisonous but, like its name suggests, it really is enormous. The only potential risk would be when the giant hogweed was just establishing and sending up the first shoots but a) you should still be able to tell that it will grow into something very large and b) always check for the red/purple spots on the stem, as described in point 4!

8) If in doubt, don’t bother. This is always a good rule to live by but, once you have your eye in, hogweed is a very characteristic species which you can easily identify. There are plenty of photos littered around the internet so use these to cross reference if you need to.

So, once you’re sure of your ID, you’re ready to harvest although do be careful, the stems can cause blisters (like nettles, not a problem once they are cooked!) so do wear gloves.

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Hogweed leaf ready for preparation

The best time to eat the leaves and stems is now, when the plant is young and fresh. Take the younger leaves and strip the leaves; the stalks can be cooked and eaten like asparagus and are particuarly nice if fried lightly with soy sauce and sesame seeds for addition to an oriental-style meal.

You can also eat the fresh leaves raw or cooked in a similar way to any other green leaf vegetable – there are recipe’s which substitute it for cabbage such as in Toad in the Hole.

A little later in the year, the buds can be picked and cooked – again, fried as part of an oriental-style meal can be delicious. When picking the buds though, always give due care to making sure that the leaves are indeed hogweed – and that the bud does come from the leaves you think they do! Cow parsley for example grows in the same habitats and you must make sure that the flowers aren’t crossing over.

Enjoy!