This blog post steps outside of my usual UK sphere and across to Europe to share some photographs from our holiday in the Dolomites. We spent 6 fantastic days in the Val Gardena and mid-June was the perfect time for exploring the mountains and valleys at the beginning of the real flush of summer flowers.
We stayed in Ortesei – a popular skiing resort in the winter which lent its infrastructure to summer explorers such as us. Two cablecars and a funicular railway would take you up to 2,500m to alpine meadows to the south of the town, pine forests to the north and the scree-slopes below ancient elevated reefs to the west. With the help of these we walked over 100km of trails during out time there and passed through a wide range of habitat with the variety of flora to match.
This was a fascinating experience for me as an ecologist. Firstly, it was an opportunity to see a number of species which I would dearly love to see in the UK, from the much-celebrated lady’s slipper orchid to the delicate lesser butterfly orchid. I also saw a wide range of species I would recognise in the UK only as a garden ornamentals, such as the daphne and orange lilies. Then there were a whole host of species which could be identified to genus through their correspondence with familiar UK species, but which I had never encountered before such as the alpine colt’s foot and the alpine pasque flower. From these examples a naming system occured to me, similar to the way this landlocked ecologist deals with new coastal species. Whereas the prefix ‘sea…’ works with familiar-but-different‘s beside the coast (think sea mayweed, sea holly, sea campion), so the prefix ‘alpine’ often seems to work in the Dolomites! Finally there were utter unknowns which were quite unlike anything I had seen before – spotted gentian and box-leaved milkwort to name but two!
I worked through my charity-shop copy of ‘Mountain Flowers of Europe’, googled latin names of the right genus from the Plant Life of the Dolomites and refered to this excellent blog post. For the last few, I appealed to twitter and as usual for the botanical community there, some incredibly generous and helpful people offered identifications. However this slightly scattershot approach to ID has led to a number of ‘possibly’ and ‘probably’ ID’s whilst others might quite simply be wrong. If you spot anything in the following collection of photographs which looks awry, I would welcome any corrections or confirmations!
I would highly recommend this region, and Ortesei in particular, as an excellent spot for the extensive trails, the beautiful wildflowers and the predictably enjoyable food and drink. And that’s to say nothing of the marmots!
Alternatively, for an armchair whirl through some of the flora which these mountains have to offer, scroll on!
We had a wonderful hard frost just after Christmas so I took the opportunity to get out in the morning sunshine to take a few photos!
The frost serves to outline these seed heads, making them stand out against the background but also helping to highlight the structure which is best appreciated at this time of year when the leaves and flowers have fallen.
The arrival of hazel flowers is one of my favourite sights of spring – in amongst the bare hedgerows, there is something magical about finding a hazel heavy with catkins, as though somebody had been out and hung decorations upon a bare tree in the middle of nowhere.
The hazel has both male and female flowers on each shrub, and the two flowers are quite different. The male flowers are gathered within the long, breeze-blown catkins and these are by far the most prominent. Each catkin is made up of many individual flowers – these are the small green/yellow male flowers which produce the pollen. There are around 240 male flowers in each catkin and they form during the previous summer so that they are ready to open in the dead of winter and flower through the spring.
The hazel is wind pollinated and the pollen from the catkins blows to reach the female flowers which you would never spot unless you looked carefully – they are tiny individual flowers, visible only as red styles protruding from a green bud-like structure on the same branches as the male flowers.
Hazels typically begin flowering in January and will go on into April, although there were open flowers in December this winter. Once pollinated in the springtime, the female flowers set to work producing the hazelnuts which ripen in the autumn.
Hazel flowers are an important source of pollen for bees, especially those individuals which have overwintered and emerge early when there is little alternative pollen available. Bees collect pollen in medium sized pellets as it is a source of fats and proteins. This is distinct from their need for nectar which is a sugary food source to provide energy and allow production of honey.
Hazels are wind pollinated and do not therefore require bees for pollination, although it is noticeable that the female styles are pigmented which may indicate an attractive function. A paper by Pietrowska mentions that the bracts of hazel are adapted for pollen retention. This means that the pollen collects when it leaves the male flowers rather than scattering immediately to the wind – this benefits wind dispersal but also facilitates the collection of pollen by bees. Perhaps the red pigmentation of the yellow flowers is a trick to entice bees into making the occasional visit to a red female flower, in the hope that nectar may be available, and therefore supplementing the primary wind pollination strategy?
Each year, the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI) run a New Year’s Plant Hunt where they invite people to record as many species in flower as they can in the New Year – between 1st and 4th January.
I started in the dark so the first few photographs are interesting examples of headtorch botany, but the sun steadily rose and the images soon lit themselves. I walked from Harlaxton village to the A1 along a stretch of the Grantham Canal, and then into the centre of town. Having stopped the clock for a morning at work, I headed back out at lunchtime to close out the three hours allowed for a search by heading up to the Hills and Hollows at the back of the town. The whole route was around 5.5 miles and took a little under 3 hours to complete.
I counted up a total of 44 species on this hunt – the most of any of the individual five hunts undertaken which perhaps shows the benifit of walking on familiar ground! The full list and a montage of all the species is provided at the end of this post but I’ll focus now on a few examples of the kinds of flowers which I encountered and the trends which seemed to appear across four days of hunting for flowers in different habitats and counties.
One of the most fruitful locations seems to be cracks, crevices, edges and other overlooked places in built-up areas. Think of those splashes of green at the side of pavements, at the bottoms of walls and fences, or the edges of front gardens. Survival in locations such as these often means a quick turnaround from seed germination, to flowering, to setting seed before the opportunity vanishes. In this way, the species is maintained wherever niches arise, and persist with a constantly shifting distribution map. Such species encountered in this hunt include petty spurge, shepherd’s purse and annual meadow grass.
Groundsel – Senecio vulgaris
Shephard’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)
Petty spurge – Euphorbia peplus
Canadian fleabane – Conyza canadensis
Then there are those species which are flowering precisely when they intended to. Gorse typically begins flowering on the Hills and Hollows to the east of Grantham in December and continues through into the summer although flowers can really be found at any time of the year. This gives rise to the saying ‘when gorse is out of flower, kissing is out of fashion’. Winter heliotrope is another species which is often found flowering over Christmas and into the new year – there is a colony of this growing beside the River Witham, right in the centre of town. Naturalised species can also be counted in the New Year Plant Hunt – these are non-native species which are growing wild without intervention Periwinkle is a brightly-coloured example of a winter-flowering naturalised species which was growing towards the Hills and Hollows.
Winter Heliotrope – Petasites fragrans
Gorse – Ulex europaeus
Next are a bunch of slightly early spring species. These are those which are preparing to flower soon but have apparently been tricked into doing so a little earlier than usual by the clement conditions. Examples include shrubs – such as hazel, blackthorn, holly and dogwood – as well as some spring flowers such as primrose and lesser celandine. Another naturalised species on the list was wood spurge, a healthy self-set colony of which was flowering away at the base of a hedge towards the east of the town. These species typically flower between February and May so a January flowering is not excessively early.
Holly – Ilex aquifolium
Lesser celandine – Ranunculus ficaria
Blackthorn – Prunus spinosa
Hazel – Corylus avellana – male catkin
Hazel – Corylus avellana – female flower
Primrose – Primula veris
Another common theme I have spotted is the propensity for species to flower where the vegetation has been cut recently. This can be easily visualised where the daisies and dandelions still brighten up most lawns. Along the Grantham Canal, it was noticable that hogweed and cow parsley both flower just to the sides of the towpath where there was a late-summer/early-autumn cut but are absent further out where the sward escaped the blades. Perhaps this works a little like the Chelsea Chop technique which delays and extends the flowering period, but cutting is also a form of stress to the plants, and this can encourage them to flower and set seed as a survival response.
Daisy – Bellis perennis
Hogweed – Heracleum sphondylium
Cow parsley – Anthriscus sylvatica
Finally there are the long-season species – these are flowers which naturally flower late into the year. Examples include wood avens, red and white campion, white deadnettle, field speedwell and yarrow all of which were recorded flowering along the Grantham Canal towpath. The ever-delightful ivy-leaved toadflax also falls into this category flowering from May right through into the early winter – this delicate little flower grows in cracks and crevices in many of the walls throughout Grantham. The persistence of these species, especially considering there has been little frost to speak of so far this year, is broadly in-keeping with their general phenology.
Ivy-leaved Toadflax – Cymbalaria muralis
White deadnettle – Lamium album
Red campion – Silene dioica
White campion – Silene latifolia
Yarrow – Achillia millefolium
It’s been a good few days and a great excuse to get out and find some wildlife in the depths (although clearly not the dead) of winter. I found a total of 64 different species across five hunts in four counties! Many thanks to BSBI for organising this – the deadline for the results is the 8th January and I’m looking forward to seeing the results and analysis which will follow their collation of records from around the country. From the conversations on twitter, it appears that many people have got involved this year. If you want to get involved next year, check out the BSBI webpage and get recording when New Year’s Day comes around again!
A montage of the photographs of all the species recorded on the Grantham New Year Plant Hunt is provided below, along with the complete species list.
The few weeks before the harvest are the best time to go out in search of a declining subset of our native flora – the arable ‘weeds’ for want of a better term. I find this term fascinating as it reflects their current status but ignores their origins – the majority of arable plants in the UK have been found by archaeologists to pre-date the commencement of agriculture in this country. The current catch-all term refers however to their ubiquity in our arable environment and many of the rarer species are now exclusively found on cultivated land.
Arable plants are a mixed bunch, but a number of characteristics tend to link them. The majority are annuals meaning that they can complete their life-cycle in a year. A small number are perennials, meaning the same plant survives from one year to the next. The annual life-cycle predisposes species towards success in an environment which, by the nature of modern agriculture, involves the wholesale destruction of the habitat on an annual or even bi-annual basis. The plants grow in spring, flower and rapidly set seed, often allowing a surprisingly stable annual population to persist in a particular location even though an individual plant will never survive from one year to the next. Taking these photographs, it was noticeable that particular species were prevalent within certain fields but absent from the majority of sites.
Another common characteristic of arable plants is that their seeds have a long dormancy period – this means that they can persist in the soil for long periods of time until conditions become suitable again. This is an obvious benefit for species which rely upon an outside influence to create the bare, open conditions they thrive in, or where frequent predictable disturbances make for a cyclical habitat suitability.
The original habitats of some of these species are probably lost from our current ecosystem dynamics, as many of our rarer species are now almost completely restricted to arable land where they find the conditions they require to persist. Many however can still be found in other modern habitats which receive frequent disturbance, such as coastal shingle or waste ground.
The eradication of competition on arable land is one of the stated objectives of modern agriculture and arable plants have decreased rapidly in the last century in response to the increased intensification of agriculture. Whilst their biology enabled them to deal well and indeed flourish in the conditions of annual disturbance, they are increasingly unable to deal with modern herbicides; with changes in the timing of cropping which prevents them from setting seed; with the superior ability of modern crops to respond to fertiliser enrichment and out-compete them; and with changes in drainage.
The common label of ‘arable weeds’ reflects not only their habitat, but their relationship to a particular group of people – the farmers who exploit the land. These widely-accepted terms always require consideration – one person’s weed is another person’s wildflower. These are ‘weeds’ in a similar way to the blase acceptance that foxes are ‘vermin’ – to label a fox as such is an understandable view if you keep poultry, raise pheasants or, at a stretch, farm sheep, but indefensible across arable swathes of the countryside or in semi-natural habitats. These arable plants are often beautiful examples of our native flora and many of the rarer species have little or no negative impact on the crops they share the fields with. So don’t be put off by the derogatory epithet – go out, seek and enjoy them! They are often the only flashes of wild nature left in an otherwise ecologically-inert arable landscape.
The Arum Lily is a fascinating plant which stands out from the crowd throughout its life. The latin name is Arum maculatum but it has many old English names, the two most common being Lords and Ladies and Cuckoo Pint.
In the spring, the leaves unfurl, growing and turning out of the bare ground before most other plants are beginning to burst their buds.
From the cluster of lush dark-green heart-shaped leaves arises the flower, a creamy white wrap-around cone with a peaked tip. Within this white cowl – actually a bract rather than a flower – dwells the spadix which is a purple tower of tiny inflorescences.
Looking down into the centre of the flower from above gives a unique view reminiscent of a plasma ball, the looping tendrils creeping like electricity made visible.
The flowers die back and the leaves soon follow and you could all but forget about the lily through mid-summer. Then in late summer and early autumn, it asserts itself once more as the berries become apparent, growing from the spadix which is all that remains of the flower. These fruiting spikes are reminiscent more of a mushroom than a flower, appearing alone on a solitary leafless stalk where the berries soon shade from bright green to brighter red.
This is a fairly common species can be seen throughout the UK in hedgerow bases and woodlands. They are a plant of shady habits and often represent the only species where the darkness is densest under the closer canopies.
Willows (Salix genus) are one of the earliest flowering tree species in the UK and are a fantastic nectar source for early pollinators such as bumblebees and butterflies. These trees are dioecious which means that there are separate male and female trees which can be distinguished by their flowers. Another more commonly known example of a dioecious tree would be the holly – only the female trees bear the red berries. One of the traditional names for willow flowers was ‘vegetable goslings’ which seems a perfect description to me!
The flowers are quite unusual when compared with a simple flower such as a buttercup which follows the classic textbook diagram. Willow flowers are catkins – these are spikes of numerous tiny flowers rather than each catkin representing a single flower. Each of the yellow-tipped spikes in the male flower is one of the stamens and there are generally two or more of these to each individual flower within the catkin – the number varies with species. The same is true, although less easily illustrated, for the female flowers which have two or more stigmas per flower.
The male and female flowers appear at the same time in order that the pollen from the male flowers is able to fertilise the female flowers. The flowers are quite different from one another in appearance and, side by side, it would be easy to assume that a male and a female willow tree were two different species.
The willow flowers are an excellent source of nectar for early pollinating species, such as queen bumblebees which have emerged from hibernation and are establishing nests, or the early Nymphalidae butterflies which hibernate through the winter.