Wild flowers in my past and present

Suddenly it is mid-summer’s day. Where did the spring go? I have hardly been in the woods in the last  four months which has made me realise how much I have missed the changing patterns of wild flowers. They have been part of my life from childhood, starting with the patch of celandines and cuckoo-pint that appeared each year in the ‘back-garden’, a rough patch of shady ground between two hedges. At primary school there was the nature table where, along with a carefully labelled ‘badger skull’ (actually part of a chicken), was usually a jar of seasonal flowers – bluebells, stitchwort, red campion.

Celandine and cuckoo-pint – among the first woodland plants I came across.

Our secondary school biology teacher was not very inspiring but he got us into drawing and naming the parts of flowers – stamens and stigmas, inferior and superior ovaries. However on the odd occasions when he took us out into the field he was transformed – a great natural historian. I cannot claim to match his knowledge, but I did spend a lot of time walking in the fields and woods around our home. For a while I also collected and pressed flowers, adding a purpose to those walks. Somehow, I settled on the idea of a career in forestry in my mid-teens, probably imagining a lifetime of driving a land-rover, walking through woods and wielding an axe!

henslow drawing

The parts of a flower – a 19th century teaching aid (with permission of the Department of Plant Sciences, Oxford).

A degree course in agricultural and forest sciences disabused me as to what forestry in Britain was then really about (this was the era of high Sitka farming) but introduced me to plant ecology and Wytham Woods. This was the start of a, sometimes scratchy, relationship with brambles and where I encountered more woodland plants including probably my favourite, herb Paris. From Oxford, I moved on to the Lake District for a couple of years where the northern herbs such globeflower and wood crane’s-bill were completely new to me. Then to a career with Nature Conservancy Council, English Nature, Natural England as a woodland ecologist – no land-rover or axe, but I did get to spend a lot of time in the woods looking at the flora, at the wood beneath the trees.

Wood crane’s-bill and herb paris.

Woods are often compared to buildings with the trees and shrubs providing the structure, but much of the variety is down around your feet. There are usually five to ten times as many species in the ground flora as there are woody plants and they are the ‘soft furnishings’: carpets of bluebell or wild garlic, cushions of bilberry, curtains of ivy and honeysuckle hanging off the trees.

Carpets of bluebells and cushions of bilberry

We must not assume that what is good for the woodland flora will be good for other species groups (sometimes it is, sometimes not) but plants have the advantage that they are relatively easy to study. They do not fly away or hide themselves in bushes just before you work out what they are. Most can be found throughout much of the year. There is a good variety of species to learn to identify, but not the almost overwhelming numbers of insects. There are, admittedly, the 400 or so micro-species of bramble, but many of us lump these together as the aggregate species Rubus fruticosus. As a proper taxonomist once told me ‘Don’t bother to try to separate them, dear boy. No-one would believe your identifications!’.

Woodland plants pick up the sorts of variations in the environment that humans can easily appreciate: the differences between wet and dry soils (do you need wellington boots or not). From our gardens, we know that plants such as heather like acid conditions, whilst others like old-Man’s beard need more limey soils. People gravitate towards the sunny glades and open patches in woods where much of the floral richness lies.

Lime and light lovers

So woodland plants provided us with a way into many of the woodland conservation issues of the last few decades. Wood anemone, dog’s mercury and wood sanicle occurring in some woods but not others led to an appreciation of how woodland history affects species patterns – the importance of ancient woodland. The lack of ground vegetation under many spruce plantations was an easily understood message in the 1980s when we were arguing the case for not converting broadleaved woodland to conifers. The recovery of the ground flora in those same stands, now the conifers are being removed, can be used as an indication of success of our restoration efforts. In the 1990s the trend towards earlier flowering of species such as lady’s smock became a tangible indicator of climate change. The impact of rising deer populations was more easily demonstrated  through the reduction in bramble and increase in grasses than by the less visible effects on bird or butterfly populations. Nettles at the edge of woods where none grew previously could be used as a signal of fertiliser drift from adjacent arable fields.

The bluebells more-or-less stop at the ancient woodland bank; elsewhere the effects of coniferous shade on the ground flora is apparent.

Moreover, the ground flora is critical to the way that woodland works.  It can protect the soil from erosion and capture nutrients that might otherwise be washed out of the system in the spring and late autumn when the trees are generally dormant. Dense stands of flowers, ferns and grasses can prevent tree seedlings from establishing successfully, but in other situations, provide shelter to the young trees against being grazed-off by deer and sheep. Flowers produce nectar and pollen that feed a wide range of insects. Fruits and seeds, such as blackberries, are eaten by birds and mammals. The leaves provide food for tiny insects that mine the cells within the leaf itself, through to our largest wild land mammal, the red deer.

So, in the last few years I have been looking at woodland conservation through the lens of the ground flora, in order to give the bluebells, primroses and even the brambles their place in the sun: and (shameless plug) the book is due out in August in the British Wildlife Collection. https://www.nhbs.com/6/series/british-wildlife-collection

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