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!

Arable flora

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.

The incredible midnight-blue cornflower against a backdrop of wheat
The incredible midnight-blue cornflower against a backdrop of wheat

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.

The yellow and white daisy-like flowers of mayweed in a parched, arable field
The yellow and white daisy-like flowers of mayweed in a parched, arable field

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.

Corn marigold growing amongst the ears of wheat
Corn marigold growing amongst the ears of wheat

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 small, subtle cream flowers of field pansy growing at the base of a wheat field
The small, subtle cream flowers of field pansy growing at the base of a wheat field

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.

Field speedwell flowering in August, shortly before the harvest and the plough
Field speedwell flowering in August, shortly before the harvest

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.

Poppy flowers which escaped the harvest in the arable margin and continued flowering into September
Poppy flowers which escaped the harvest and the plough in the arable margin and continued flowering into September

Beautiful meadows at Easton Walled Gardens

Wildlife friendly gardening has been gaining interest for some time now, and this year seems to have attained a status close to dominance if RHS Chelsea was anything to go by. More numerous perhaps even than the stylised show-gardens were those on a natural theme; wildflowers were everywhere, although many were in bloom well before their wild counterparts suggesting that these were some of the most well-tended ‘weeds’ in the country. Meadow planting figured strongly in a number of gardens and retail stands seemed to follow the trend, with pots of ragged robin and buttercup adding colour and context to their products.

Easton Walled Gardens, by all accounts, was developing this theme before it was quite so fashionable and a visit illustrates the ease with which aesthetically pleasing displays can incorporate or even comprise, wild flowers and communities.

Poppies in the meadows at Easton Walled Gardens

I have only visited the gardens once before, in snowdrop week in February, and was determined to pay another visit to what looked to be a fascinating project. Sweet pea week (running now until Sunday 8th July) seemed a good excuse to do this – if anybody has only visited for the spring bulbs, I would strongly recommend you see in the summertime too.

The use of wild meadows within the gardens is varied and original. The swathes of long grass beneath the trees within the woodland area is perhaps unsurprising, but their use on the terraces down to the stream is quite unique. Here, the sloping banks are unmown, allowing a mist of Arrhenatherum to form with wildflowers such as scabious and poppy adding instances of colour beneath. Trefoil creeps from the wild areas into the flat walkways which, alternating in strips, are mown short allowing you to walk between the banks of grassland without so much as brushing your legs upon the soft seed heads, nor interrupting the bumblebees which attend the meadows in their masses. These terraces stretch out on either side of the stone steps which descend between topiary shrubs to the plateau before the stream. It is perhaps this novel interpretation of a traditional formal landscaping design which makes the effect so successful.

Meadow terraces at Easton Walled Gardens

From these steps, you can see the lie of the remainder of the garden. Over the stream is a superb herbaceous border which would take pride of place in any National Trust formal gardens and beyond, behind the border, is the deep, dark archway of an old yew avenue. Upon either side of this, complementing the heavy shade of the evergreens are light ephemeral meadows arrayed with glorious roses which seem to fizz and overflow from somewhere below the gossamer swell of grasses. One of the key concerns when incorporating nature into gardens is to display intent and these ebullient features, coupled with cut-grass paths which allow you to move through the medley, leave you in no doubt that this is design.

Roses within meadows at Easton Walled Gardens
These are not yet species-rich meadows and the range of wildflowers is limited, but perhaps counter to common sense, a wildflower meadow takes time and care, or at least appropriate management, to establish. But it is beginning. The terraces were cleared of trees which had developed for fifty years before they were removed and this long-established habitat would have built up a good organic layer of soil, full of nutrients. Where nutrients are high, grasses will almost always out-compete the smaller, slower wildflowers, towering above and shading them out before they have much of a chance to get started, and those which do are the less aesthetically desirable ‘ruderals’ – species which specialise in quickly springing up and setting seed, moving between transient opportunities. Easton have a programme of removing these ruderals – thistles and ragwort specifically, before they have chance to flower with the eventual aim of reducing their presence within the sward. As for the dominance of grasses; this can be dealt with by reducing the fertility of the soil through cutting and removing the grasses throughout the season (taking the clippings away takes the nutrients with them) or, more drastically, stripping the topsoil to reach the more nutrient poor soil horizons. This occurs naturally when the meadows are grazed by livestock. Another trick is to sow yellow rattle – you can see this flourishing in Easton’s meadows – which actually parasitises the grasses, tapping into their roots and thereby reducing their vigour.

Walking back across the lawn, between swallows which skate across the grass as though on ice, the path takes you to the left into Red-tailed bumblebee on sweetpea at Easton Walled Gardensthe vegetable garden and the delightfully named ‘pickery’ which is designed for just that – cut flowers abound. Right now, the centrepiece of this garden is the sweet pea collection – over sixty varieties on display and the opportunity to pick your own to take away. As well as the taxonomic arrays there are famous sweetpea’s from history, showing the development of this flower which as been so bred and refined. It is amusing to watch the bees visiting the peas indiscriminately and pollinating at will showing a callous carelessness for the years of linear selection which have created the unique lines, I wonder quite what cross-breeds would grow from the subsequent seeds!

Our visit was completed with tea and cake which are a highly recommended finale to any trip. And I should add, this brief description has concentrated on the meadows and wildlife; this is to say nothing of the giraffes grazing beside the cedar, the countless other plants and flowers of interest such as the collection of hostas and ferns in the shaded archway as you enter the garden, the developing orchard, the swing which was rarely un-occupied or the other myriad thoughts and touches which show the time which has gone into this garden. It is only 11 years into its restoration from its abandoned state and I look forward to returning to see how it continues to develop.

For more details on location and opening hours, take a look at their homepage here.

Giraffes beside the cedars