Sunday, 19 June 2011

Botanising the wasteland

Large flowered Evening Primrose.
Arid sands and gravels can be great places for botanists. Just think of the Brecks, or the sand dunes behind the Norfolk Beaches. I've found helleborines and orchids in dune-slacks behind beaches in Wales and the South West and then, in another league, there's the fabulous, flowery machair of Coll and other Western Isles. And there's Paxton Pits.

Even without much rain, some plants thrive on sand where you might not expect much to grow. These are often really common plants that colonise almost anywhere by using siege tactics; they just saturation-bomb an area with seed until it gives in. You can see a lot of these plants along railway lines and gravel tracks. Other less common plants may be drought tolerant and can survive here where they have little competition from bigger plants. It's definitely not the place to be if you have big leaves and you don't like direct sunlight. You need a good root system to gather what water there is and a way of storing what you collect.

Biting Stonecrop
Biting Stonecrop is a kind of Sedum that often grows on rocks. The one in the photo was growing out of the kerb, it grows in the edge of the road too. It has been planted on the roof of our new education centre because it will not grow into some monstrous jungle that we would have to mow. It's thick, swollen leaves store what little water there is and the waxy coating on the outside stops it from evaporating away. The hot, peppery taste of this plant may explain why rabbits don't seem to like it.

Wild strawberries are fruiting right now. They are tiny compared to the ones we grow at home, so they don't require much water; just lots of sunlight. Among the strawberries you will find a small yellow flower that you might mistake for a buttercup.

Creeping Cinquefoil

It's creeping cinquefoil. As its name suggests, it's leaves come in fives and it creeps about over the hard ground by means of red, exploratory, root-like runners. Silverweed, rockrose and tormentil do the same thing on other sites.

The plant that we get asked most about is Viper's Bugloss. It's a great favourite for bees that are attracted to the blue flowers with red hairs on them. The whole plant is rather dry and leathery as well as hairy and so it can stand very dry conditions.

Viper's Bugloss
Rosebay Willowherb is often called fireweed, especially in North America because it colonises hillsides after forest fires or widespread felling. It used to be really scarce in the UK but became especially prominent along railway lines in the days of steam because hot sparks often ignited the track-side in summer. After the Blitz in London, huge areas of rubble were colonised by the flowers making it look like someone had brushed purple watercolour paint across the scene. Sadly, all the photos were black and white! I know a place in Peterborough that you would call derelict, until June when the flowers come out, turning it into a wild garden. Buddleias love these places too. If you find such a site, keep your eyes open for butterflies, moths and black redstarts.

Rosebay Willowherb
There are many other plants out here in No-man's Land; Weld, Perforate St. John's Wort, Common Stork's bill, Dove's-foot Cranes-bill and Scarlet Pimpernel, but I want to finish with the big, obvious one; Large-flowered Evening Primrose.

This plant was introduced from the Americas to be decorative. Some people ate the roots, but it was basically a garden flower. It loved railway lines and happily spread along them, eventually making it to Paxton Pits in the bed of some lorry, probably. It's near relative, the Common Evening Primrose is grown to provide oil for the cosmetics industry. Why Evening Primrose? The flowers are only half open in day time: They unfurl at dusk.