New Year Plant Hunt – Grantham 2017

The first few days of New Year can be a little underwhelming – Christmas is over and it’s a long old drag until springtime. But there’s still colour and life out there and the BSBI‘s annual New Year Plant Hunt is a great way to experience this, as well as contribute your data to a national recording scheme. Everybody is welcome to get involved – even if this is just spotting a daisy on the lawn or gorse flowering by the roadside on your way to work!

Last year I found 44 species flowering in Grantham so I thought I’d cover a similar patch this year and see what I could find!

I started just before sunrise on a Bank Holiday Monday – thinking this would be a good time to explore the roads and walls around the centre without too many funny looks! It was just below zero and as slippery as an ice-rink when I started but the road down from the Railway Station was a very fruitful location with yarrow and daisy visible before I even got out of the car! A total of nine species were flowering here against the wall including two non-natives – Oxford ragwort and Guernsey fleabane. The sun strikes this wall first thing in the morning which might explain why this spot was good for flowers persisting through the winter.

Around Grantham town itself, I found a few more species including feverfew, smooth sow-thistle and common chickweed. A wander around the Sainsbury’s carpark also provided me with a flowering grass – annual meadowgrass.

Down by the River Witham, the earliest blackthorn I know was in flower – just a couple of individual flowers amongst the bare branches – along with frosted white deadnettle and the winter heliotrope.

Onwards through St Wulfrum’s churchyard, I picked up shepherd’s purse flowering in the sunshine against the stone archway of the South Entrance. Sun spurge was another species growing next to a pedestrian crossing – this is a species whose flowers look so much like leaves that you really do need to know to lean close and check in order to realise they’re in bloom!

A few naturalised species were added to the list as I continued around Grantham. These were not growing in gardens but were self-set, often finding little niches in walls or at the edges of pavements. Such species flourish in urban settings, where there are plenty of gardens to escape from and little niches of soil and warmth in which seeds can germinate and bloom. This collection includes yellow corydalis, greater periwinkle and Michaelmas daisy.

One advantage of carrying out a Plant Hunt on your home-turf is visiting locations where you have seen species flowering in the lead-up to Christmas. In this case, a carpark towards the north of the town had a colony of gallant soldier – a member of the daisy family with large yellow centres and white petals. Red deadnettle and ox-eye daisy were also flowering on the walls here, along with a stalwart of the NY Plant Hunt – the beautiful ivy-leaved toadflax.

I walked up to the Hills and Hollows above Grantham to finish – picking up a few individual dogwood flowers amongst the unopened buds, along with red campion and, of course, gorse to finish. The saying goes ‘when gorse is out of flower, kissing is out of fashion‘ and this held as true as always with several bunches of yellow flowers brightening the spiky shrubs.

Nine kilometers and three hours later, my total count this year was 30 species – not too bad but lower than any of my counts from last year. The beginning of 2016 was preceded by unusually mild weather and many late-season species were still hanging on. This year by contrast, we have had a few good frosts which I know have finished off a few plants which were in flower up until that point including yellow toadflax and common mallow. This trend for lower numbers seems to be mirrored by others who have completed counts across the midlands and east, but we will need to await the full results to fully understand the picture for this year.

A new feature of the hunt this year is the excellent New Year Plant Hunt App which you can download here – this is so easy to use on a smartphone when you’re out hunting, or equally easy to enter the data into when you get back home. I uploaded all of my data onto the app and even popped back on to edit a record the next morning, when I realised I had made an error in the ID of one species. It works off the back of the iRecord system and is a good introduction to an excellent tool for keeping and submitting biological records when you’re out and about.

Linked in with the app, is a brilliant Results website which updates the records on the fly, showing the locations where hunts have been completed and tallying up the most commonly recorded species to date. So far, daisy is in the lead with groundsel running a close second, but with a day to go yet, there’s all to play for! Get out and see what you can find – Happy Hunting!

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A montage of all the flowers found and photographed for the New Year Plant Hunt around Grantham in 2017
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Hazel flowers

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.

A tiny female hazel flower in the foreground with the male hazel catkins - an inflorescence containing an average of 240 individual flowers - in the background.
A tiny female hazel flower in the foreground with the male hazel catkins – an inflorescence containing an average of 240 individual flowers – in the background.

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.

A female hazel flower - the tiny red styles can be seen protruding from the green bud-like structure on the branch. The styles are each just a few milimetres long so you need to look closely to spot them amongst the catkins!
A female hazel flower – the tiny red styles can be seen protruding from the green bud-like structure on the branch. The styles are each just a few milimetres long so you need to look closely to spot them amongst the catkins!

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.

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A hazel nut – the eventual result of the pollination of the tiny female flowers with pollen from the male catkins. This photo taken at the end of August before the nuts are yet fully ripe.

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.

A close-up shot of the many male flowers which each make up a hazel catkin. It is these flowers which produce the pollen gathered by bees in the early springtime.
A close-up shot of the many male flowers which each make up a hazel catkin. It is these flowers which produce the pollen gathered by bees in the early springtime.

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?

A hazel in the Cotswolds in full flower in January 2015.
A hazel in full flower in January 2015.

New Year Plant Hunt

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.

After a few days away, and four plant hunts down, I decided to cheer up the first day back to work by carrying out a fifth and final Plant Hunt on the 4th of January, this time on home turf. Previous hunts had been in Exeter, Tyntesfield National Trust, Bristol City Centre and rather closer to home, in Stonesby Quarry and Branston just over the border in Leicestershire.

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.

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Green alkanet – Pentaglottis sempervirens – by headtorch

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Grantham Large

Daisy (Bellis perennis)
Annual meadow grass (Poa annua)
Lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)
Cock’s foot (Dactylis glomerata)
Winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans)
Primrose (Primula vulgaris)
Petty spurge (Euphorbia peplus)
Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris)
Ivy-leaved toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis)
Nipplewort (Lapsana communis)
Prickly sow-thistle (Sonchus asper)
Canadian fleabane (Conyza canadensis)
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale agg.)
Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum)
Hazel (Corylus avellana)
Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium)
Ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)
Red campion (Silene dioica)
Periwinkle (Vinca major)
Bramble (Rubus fruticosus agg.)
White dead-nettle (Lamium album)
Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.)
Common ragwort (Senecio jacobaea)
Dove’s foot cranesbill (Geranium mollis)
Common mouseear (Cerastium fontanum)
Perennial sowthistle (Sonchus arvensis)
Common field speedwell (Veronica persica)
Wood avens (Geum urbanum)
Shephard’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)
Green alkanet (Pentaglottis sempervirens)
Red deadnettle (Lamium purpureum)
Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)
Pineapple mayweed (Matricaria discoidea)
White campion (Silene latifolia)
Cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris)
Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)
Wall barley (Hordeum murinum)
Holly (Ilex aquifolium)
Wavy bittercress (Cardamine flexuosa)
Wood spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides)
Gorse (Ulex europaeus)
Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea)
Smooth Hawk’s-beard (Crepis capillaris)

New Year Plant Hunt

The Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI) runs an annual ‘New Years Plant Hunt’ which invites people to record species in flower between 1st and 4th of January. The aim is to find as many species in flower as you can within a 3 hour period. This is partly for fun but will also provide a dataset which could be used to compare trends between years and potentially geographical differences too.

My effort was a little poor as I only had a lunch break to hunt in but I managed to find 9 species in flower on the edge of Grantham. Surprisingly, the majority of records were from amenity grassland (lawns) and roadsides rather than the more species rich habitats at the Hills and Hollows to the south-east of the town.

My list was as follows:

  • Daisy (Bellis perennis)
  • Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale agg.)
  • Shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)
  • Field speedwell (Veronica persica)
  • Gorse (Ulex europaeus)
  • Annual meadow grass (Poa annua)
  • Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris)
  • Common chickweed (Stellaria media)
  • White dead-nettle (Lamium album)
White dead-nettle (Lamium album)
White dead-nettle (Lamium album)

All of the species were long-flowering rather than early specialists. A long flowering species can be found throughout the year such as dandelions, daisy and gorse – the old saying goes that ‘when gorse is out of flower, kissing is out of fashion’.

Gorse (Ulex europaeus)
Gorse (Ulex europaeus)

There are a range of species which selectively flower early in the year and can be found flowering as early as January – this includes species such as winter aconite, winter heliotrope and dog’s mercury. None of the species I spotted fell into this category.

Flower colour is a project I am exploring this year and it seems a good opportunity to consider the distribution of flower colours in January. Three of the species I found were white, four species are yellow, one species is green and one species is blue. This well reflects the colours of January flowers where white and yellow dominate; followed by green and blue; with pink and purple trailing at the back. For more information on this project, follow the Caratinoid&Betalain twitter feed or take a look at the Flower Colour UK blog.

Jan Colours