The 3rd January arrived and with New Year Plant Hunt‘s completed in two counties in the first two days (Devon and Bristol), I decided to get up early, before the rain, and nip across the border into Leicestershire to record in a third county.
I went to a Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust site first – Stonesby Quarry in the village of Waltham on the Wolds. This is a lovely spot in the summer and a good place to see butterflies such as common blue and dingy skipper. I wasn’t sure what the limestone grassland habitats would show up but I thought the landform might lead to some more sheltered conditions which might encourage winter flowering.
Sign at the entrance of Stonesby Quarry
The more established grassland swards turned up very little – or perhaps revealed very little – but the sparser more ephemeral areas revealed a few interesting species such as common mouse-ear (Cerastium fontanum), common field speedwell (Veronica persica), thyme-leaved sandwort (Arenaria serpyllifolia) and scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis).
Many of the more established areas of grassland sward held plenty of evidence of last season’s flowers but very few species in bloom during the January plant hunt.
Other typical long-season species were flowering towards the edges such as white deadnettle (Lamium album) and red campion (Silene dioica) along with wood avens (Geum urbanum) and hogweed (Heracleum sphonylium). My favourite find of the day was perhaps this red campion – usually a species with a few flowers on tall gangly stems, a close-chop for this one seemed to produce a profusion of flowers on a low flowering ‘spike’!
On the way back towards home, I called in at the village of Branston where I had spotted some interesting arable flora in the summer and was curious to see whether there was any remnants of them. Sadly only rosettes were present within bare ground, but the village itself held a few more species such as lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) and primrose (Primula veris).
Just as the rain settled in for the rest of the day, I spotted my last species of the day, the ever trust ivy-leaved toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis) which has been a staple of every Hunt so far this year!
Photo montage of the 26 species (highest count so far!) is below:
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.
This was the third Plant Hunt I found opportunity to do – this time in Bristol City Centre around Castle Park on the 2nd January 2016. I have spent little time exploring wildlife in more urban environments and was surprised just how many times I found people sleeping rough, or evidence of them doing so. In Exeter the day before, I tiptoed past a couple of sleeping bags under the shrubs and in Bristol came across several stashed caches of belongings as well as a pitched tent in a smaller park.
The species I recorded in the gloaming drizzle were often nestling into the cracks in the city – bright splashes of yellow came from dandelion (Taraxacum officinale agg.), Oregan grape (Mahonia spp.) ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) and creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens). The purple flowers of periwinkle (Vinca minor) appeared where it had escaped its garden origins and was flowering beside an underpass; whilst the mowed lawns of the Castle Gardens held naturalised stocks and sweet alyssum.
I think one of my favourite finds was annual mercury (Mercurialis annua) flowering in a shrubbery beside a city-centre church – this is a subtle and rather unimpressive relative of the more familiar woodland dog’s mercury (Mercurialis perennis), but a species I have rarely encountered.
Again, photographs are poor thanks to the conditions and the specimens, but the montage below shows the species recorded.
I’m currently reading Richard Mabey’s excellent book ‘The Unofficial Countryside’ which explores the wildlife of urban and suburban spaces.
In one passage, he is searching for orchids on a golf course and muses over the hold this group of flowers has over botanists. Amongst other observations, he nicely describes a parallel I’ve often thought upon, that “look closely at a red dead nettle and you won’t find the blossoms less charming or intricate than those of a spotted orchid”.
A fascination with rarity is ubiquitous throughout natural history – the dullest of rare migrant warblers are eulogised, but they are not a patch on a blue tit which would be much more highly prized if we had just 100 breeding pairs. Sometimes the familiarity of a species can stop you from appreciating it’s often exquisite beauty.
This photo was taken just yesterday – a single flower on a low-growing deadnettle. I’ve walked past thousands of these plants this year without a second glance, but the rarity of any flower in December invites you to pause and appreciate the familiar.
I took a walk along the River Witham in Grantham at lunchtime on Friday to see what was still in flower and found a few unexpected surprises.
There were the predictable long-season species such as daisy, dandelion, chickweed, white dead-nettle and ragwort which add a familar and most welcome splash of colour to the monotone greens.
Chickweed – Stellaria media
Ragwort – Senecio spp.
Daisy – Bellis perennis
Dandelion – Taraxacum officinale agg.
There is a patch of winter heliotrope along the Witham, just near to Grantham College, and one of the buds had broken to reveal the first of these truly winter-blooming flowers. They are a delicate white flowers, flecked with purple which typically appear between December and February.
Winter heliotrope – Petasites fragrans
Much more surprising was a truly spring species – wild primroses were flowering just behind a set of heras fencing. These usually flower from March to May but at least 5 flowers had appeared on this patch in November.
Wild primrose – Primula vulgaris
The frost last weekend might have put paid to many of the stragglers and hangers-on from summer, but the new wave of winter/spring species are not too far away!
Greater stitchwort (Stellaria holostea) is an archaetypal springtime species, seen to most dramatic effect in a woodland floor amongst bluebells. I was therefore a little surprised to see one in flower in October, a long time past the typical flowering season for the species (April – June).
A few days later, I spotted this lesser stitchwort (Stellaria gramminea) flowering profusely beneath autumn dew. This species is less characteristic of the springtime with a typical flowering period between May and August, but is still extending to the end of it’s typical flowering period in October.
The most frequent response to this seems to be ‘they don’t read the books’ which I always find a little intellectually unadventurous. The books characterise the usual habitats of these species and they are broadly correct when describing the norm. Rather than to dismiss exceptions, it is surely more interesting to note them, record them and wonder why? Is it something about the local conditions; or the weather this year; or an impact such as cutting which has encouraged them to flower again? I don’t know the answers in this case, but I will always keep on wondering why!
It’s the second of December and cowslips are flowering in the garden. November has been warm, and the newspapers are reporting apple blossom, breeding frogs and fresh leaves on the trees. On the driveway, the snowdrops are pushing their spears of glaucous green up through the wilting autumn leaves whilst last weekend’s trip to Wimpole Estate revealed daffodil leaves arrayed around a tree like soldiers awaiting their instruction to advance and flower.
The cowslips are wild, as far as can be told. I spotted them on a site inspection, in the path of a proposed access track, and salvaged those I could with clumps of the clayey soil still clustered around their roosts to ease the transition. Now they bask around the edges of the pond, or dapple the swaying light at the edge of the lawn.
Some of our cowslips are bold and triumphant, showy and brassy, with flowers packed so tight that they tremble like a firework just exploded, the shape held for a split second before the sound catches up with the light and all is shattered. Others are shy and retiring, demure and delicate, with single flowers bowed abashedly downcast until you lift them to look them in the face. The petals are a soft banana yellow with flecks of apricot orange which is also the scent that a closer sniff will reveal. The five petals are deeply notched and conspire into a deep corrola tube which the green calyx envelops. This encourages pollination by long-tongued invertebrates – bumblebees, butterflies, moths and bee-flies – which are in very short supply at this time of year meaning that the late flowers are unlikely to be fruitful.
The cowslip usually accompanies the other yellows of spring – the daffodil, the brimstone butterfly and the sun itself. I hope the unseasonable appearance will not affect the April display which heralds the winter’s end.