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.
On the last day of November, the decadence of summer is long gone. The flowers and leaves, butterflies and bees were so easy to take for granted until autumn and then winter take them from us. But every season has its own treasures and the wind-whipped, leaf-stripped trees are on glorious display across the countryside.
One thought which always strikes me when I see winter silhouettes, is how amazingly adept trees are at achieving their structure in an infinite number of ways. A line of trees planted together will each grow to maturity in a different form. The form will be dictated by species, by sub-species perhaps, by individual genetic variation, phenotypic plasticity to adapt to the conditions, defense responses to biotic attack or abiotic damage such as frost and wind, competition avoidance strategies and more besides. There are as many answers as there are trees to the simple question of how to be upright. And whilst the tree is growing, the process is never complete as the tree grows adaptively to maintain its balance and posture with continual interaction with their environment.
One recent 2015 study put an estimate of 3 trillion on the number of trees in the world. The mind boggles to even begin to comprehend the variety and scale which this number encompasses, but here are nine examples from my walk near Muston Meadows at dusk this evening.
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 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)
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’.
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.
Snow changes everything, if only for a few days. You can walk through the fields and see exactly who has been where – in which spot the blackbirds have chosen to dig for food, which gap in the hedge the rabbits run through, where the heron stalks along the canal in the early morning. Here’s a slightly unusual one but it struck me how obvious all the grass seed heads are when walking through the snow up to Belmount Tower. Usually half the battle with grass ID can be spotting the distinctive heads against the mass of green and brown around them but they stand out beautifully against the white. Here are a few which should be easy to see!
Cock’s foot – Dactylis glomerata
So called because of the spur which you can see at the base of the seed head, this grass is a common find where management isn’t too heavy. In this case, it is doing well in a field with a low level of sheep grazing but roadsides, wastegrounds and field edges are other good places to find it.
Crested dog’s tail – Cynosurus cristatus
This is a common, tufted perennial grass which is finer than some of the more boisterous grasses such as the cock’s foot above or the tufted hair grass below. Its distinctive feature is a line which runs from top to bottom and, a little like a parting, the seed grows one way or the other. This is distinct from some other similar grasses which grow all the way around in a cylindrical cone, a little more like a pipecleaner.
Tufted hair grass – Deschampsia cespitosa
This grass is large and imposing, growing in a tussock and sending its seed heads up and out a metre from the base. Its leaves are a good give-away if you’re in doubt – squeeze the blade between thumb and finger and you will find that it runs smoothly in one direction but drags with impressive friction if you try it the other. This grass is generally found in damper ground – this could be alongside rushes in a marshy grassland or simply a part of the field where the water collects.
Purple moor grass – Molinia caerulea
I think that this grass is purple moor grass – another large, tussock-forming species which can be up to a metre tall. Like the tufted hair grass, it is often found in slightly damper locations and is most commonly associated with acidic habitats such as moorlands, as the name suggests.
Common bent – Agrostis capillaris
This is a common grassland species which is likely, along with crested dog’s tail, to be one of the main constituent species within this field. It has a fine, spreading panicle (the term for the entire cluster of flowers) and likes nutrient poor conditions. Again, its prevalence will be down to the right level of management (grazing) to keep the nutrients low.