Wildflowers Don’t Read Books

I have been having lots of fun this summer getting to know the various wildflowers that grow around Thorpe Cloud and the River Dove, and identifying those previously unfamiliar to me from photographs. (See my earlier post on Wildflower Surveying.) Now that the school holidays over, I am finally able to sort out all the information I have scribbled, photos I have taken, and try to make sense of it. However I am constantly amused by the flowers that don’t read the guidebooks.

Of the various ‘Indicator Species’ that I need to record,

  • Wood sage was not found in my patch of woodland, but growing happily on the rocky cliff.
  • Wild Marjoram was not found in the sunny grassland, but in the woods.
  • Quaking grass grows not in either place, but by the stream.
  • Bedstraws grow everywhere, but almost never the species I am checking for.
  • A friend tried to identify a sedge for me that, if correct, isn’t supposed to grow anywhere near here. (I might leave that one to recheck next year since there are only one or two!)

I am also amazed at just how many different species of plant grow in some habitats – to identify everything along my 25m of stream, or 25m2 of grassland would take me most of a day each, if I was to look at everything with magnifying glass and book(s) in hand. Luckily I don’t have to, as a list of habitat-specific plants has been drawn up that will indicate how healthy and happy it is over time, and checking for those can, thankfully, be done within the time I have available. However when it comes to the river, I can actually do all the plants – there are only six in the water, of which only two species (water mint and river crowfoot) are actually on the list.

Eyebright (Euphrasia sp.) – a solitary flower in June became a whole carpet by August.

Here are a few favourites from Thorpe Cloud, which definitely don’t grow wild around where I live. Some are within my survey area, others were photographed higher up on the hill.

Close-up of Thyme-leaved Sandwort (Arenaria serpyllifolia)

It may seem obvious when enlarged like this, but counting petals is critical! So many of these flowers are only 2-3mm across and look very similar at first glance, especially as their leaves can be mixed with other plants. Even plants like Dove’s-foot Crane’s-bill grow tiny up here – a thin covering of soil over rock, and being regularly grazed by rabbits means that very little gets to any great size.

It is fortunate that the ground is very steep, bringing the plants close to eye-level, or else I would spend all my time crouching over!

Biting Stonecrop (Sedum acre), Thyme-leaved Sandwort (Arenaria serpyllifolia), and Dove’s-foot Crane’s-bill (Geranium molle) growing together.

Thyme (Thymus polytrichus ssp britannicus) and Limestone Bedstraw (Galium sterneri) are fairly abundant in the area.

Field Madder (Sherardia arvensis), a close relative of the bedstraws.

Common Stork’s-bill (Erodium cicutarium)

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A Return To Wildflower Surveying

A first view of Thorpe Cloud, as approached from Thorpe village.

Years ago I used to do the ‘Common Plants Survey’ for Plantlife; the final year of the scheme (in 2014) I wrote about here. I enjoyed it and learned quite a bit, but several things changed including the survey and it felt like time for a break. Then a few weeks ago I decided I would like to take part again, so I looked to see what squares a surveyor was still needed for – and there was nothing anywhere near me at all. The new National Plant Monitoring Survey which replaced the original scheme has tried to distribute squares evenly across the country rather than just near where people live, so there are currently many squares needing surveyors in Scotland with a scattering of empty spaces across the rest of the country, the majority of which are in the less populated areas… Then I thought why not choose a square I would like to visit?

Thorpe Cloud rising above the River Dove by the stepping stones.

Thorpe Cloud rising above the River Dove by the stepping stones.[/caption]My new square, which has the wonderfully palindromic number of 1551, is quite a long way from here, up to an hour’s drive depending on traffic, but what an amazing place I am getting to know! Derbyshire’s favourite rocky ‘mountain’, Thorpe Cloud, once a coral reef all of 287m high, rises above the river Dove where you can cross the stepping stones to Staffordshire if you wish. Ancient ash woodland lines the banks further along, and there is a stream that comes out of a cave at the foot of the Cloud.

Heath Bedstraw and wild Thyme

I don’t consider myself any kind of plant expert, I am simply a gardener who likes getting to know flowers, weeds… and now grasses. What I love the most is seeing how the same family adapts to surroundings. Galium for example, varies from the rather annoying Stickyweed / Cleavers / Goosegrass that invades my garden although makes a nice tea, to lady’s bedstraw that smelled sweet enough to be dried and used in the home, to the short, spreading Woodruff that carpets woodland floor, to truly tiny plants on top of mountains. Quite a lot of it grows on top of Thorpe Cloud along with wild thyme, saxifrages, sedums, tiny geraniums…

What I hadn’t anticipated was that surveying wildflowers would be any kind of spiritual experience or practice, yet it has proved to be so. I had planned to do the first visits with a friend who is an experienced and trained ecologist – who knows different plants from me and is more practiced in looking up oddities in a book. However, every time she was free, it rained. Plans were made, and cancelled repeatedly. I finally realised I should go for a reconnaissance visit by myself on a nearly-dry day, which proved very worthwhile in all sorts of ways.

Lin Spring emerging out of a cave at the foot of Thorpe Cloud

Lin Spring emerging out of a cave at the foot of Thorpe Cloud[/caption]Being by myself, I was able to do a blessing by the Spring and ask the mountain’s permission and support to survey this area of beautiful countryside. I then had a mini-pilgrimage to the top of the hill, where I had never been before, and had the summit to myself. It is a very beautiful ridge, and felt welcoming to me. Just as well after my sleepless night before – I seemed to know in advance this was going to be big for me.

I returned home, with a better idea of what plant groups to study in advance (my soil is acid clay so the flora is rather different) and see how unprepared I was the first time. I also had the oddest feeling that I was studying plants each night while I slept.

New plans were made with my friend, but no, I really was meant to do this by myself – the only day forecast to be dry was the only one she wasn’t free. However there were difficulties. I had to be back earlier than on the day we hoped to go, and there were roadworks and road closures, making for a longer route and busy roads getting there. I just had to trust I would be capable of doing the job, and that I had long enough there.

Thorpe Cloud summit looking North up Dovedale

I woke up early, not nervous this second time but excited and confident. On arrival I again asked the mountain’s permission and support. Remarkably I had whatever space I needed to carry out the survey, without winding a rope around anyone’s legs or lunch despite it being a much busier day, and somehow I got finished with just enough time to climb to the top again. Five areas surveyed, each exactly 25 square metres although some were square and some long, covering five different habitat types. I have a selection of photos to go through to complete more thorough plant identifications, not having time to look anything up and wanting eventually to know every plant that appears on my plots, but goodness I have a lot of work to do on grasses if I am ever to really understand and be able to identify them! As yet, knowing to the family name when they are in flower feels like an achievement, but it is apparently possible to know many of them even after the tops have been nibbled off by rabbits.

I look forward to many return visits.