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Wildflower diary

August 2022

With the desperately dry weather at the moment our local flora is having a tough time and you need to look a bit harder to find plants in bloom. One of the most noticeable at the moment is knapweed, shown above growing on Duck Pond Green. It's a valuable source of nectar for insects, with rather thistle-like flowers. You can easily distinguish it from true thistles because its leaves are soft, narrow structures unlike the visciously spiny thistles.

There are brightly coloured spear thistles and the paler creeping thistle both out now in Shamley Green, the spear thistle usually the nastier of the two with really dreadful spines all over. Our other thistle, the marsh thistle, came out quite early this year but can still be found in flower - it's recognisable by its rather congested groups of flowers at the top of the stalk. All thistles are valuable for nectar and for their abundant fluffy windborne seeds which birds such as goldfinches enjoy.

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Spear thistle, Lords Hill

Another of this month's stars is one of the species we planted last year,  the wild carrot. It's putting on a great show on Malthouse Green and Hullmead, with its tall stems bearing lacy white flower heads rather like cow parsley.

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Creeping thistle, Hullbrook Lane
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Wild carrot (a.k.a. Queen Anne's Lace), Hullmead

Most of the heads have a central darker floret, thought to attract insects looking for a mating opportunity! The tallest flower head in the picture is curling up as it goes to seed, revealing the spidery forked bracts below - carrots are the only common white-flowered umbellifer to have forked bracts like this.

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Decoy 'insects' in the middle of wild carrot flower heads
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Marsh thistle by canal, June 22

Another slightly thistle-like plant with rather spiny leaves but with yellow dandelion-like flowers is the prickly sowthistle, here seen growing on the edge of the barley field on Plonk's Hill. It's a common weed of roadsides and waste ground. Look at the strange way the bases of the leaves wrap around the stem of the plant.

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Harebells, churchyard
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Brambles, Plonk's Hill

Where the grass has been allowed to grow longer in some parts of Christ Church yard, we now have a thriving population of harebells nestling in the shelter of the gravestones. These delicate looking flowers are found in grassy places from mountain tops to sand dunes, but only where it is dry - they hate damp conditions.

Tucked into crevices along the side of the churchyard paths  you can find bright little scarlet pimpernel flowers (easily missed, they are only 5 or 6 mm across). It is sometimes also known as 'Old man's weathervane' or 'Shepherd's weather-glass' as the flowers close when atmospheric pressure falls and bad weather approaches.

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Scarlet Pimpernel, churchyard
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Prickly sowthistle, Plonk's Hill

Just over the road from the church on the bridleway down Plonk's Hill there are some luscious early blackberries, sweet and ripe due to all this sunshine. They are an important food for small mammals like wood mice, as well as larger ones like badgers and foxes (if you find a badger latrine in berry season it will often be bright purple due to the quantity of fruit consumed).

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Female hazel flowers, February
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Hazel nuts, Long Common, August
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Hazel catkins (male flowers), February

Hazel is a common shrub or small tree in this area, its catkins being a familiar sign that spring has arrived, but many people don't notice the tiny feathery red female flowers which will eventually turn into the nuts we are seeing now. Pollen from the male catkins has wafted on the wind to fertilise them, and it only succeeds if the pollen is from a different tree, which helps to maintain the genetic diversity of the species.

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Reed Mace or Bulrush, Brickies Pond

Our ponds still  have a healthy population of plants around them, although they certainly aren't as lush as they would usually be at this time of year.

Instantly recognisable are the cigar-shaped heads of reed mace (Typha latifolia), which everybody now calls a bulrush even though strictly that is a different species altogether (Schoenoplectus lacustris) with completely different flower heads. Botanists have been correcting people on this for years but with everyone on the internet calling it a bulrush now they have given up!

Apparently the confusion arose in Victorian times when some Sunday school pamphlets depicted 'Moses in the Bulrushes' surrounded by reed mace instead.

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Water mint, by the Duck Pond

Water mint growing on the margin of the duckpond would normally be spreading out over the surface of the water by now, making a raft of vegetation which provides cover for creatures living in the pond. It can be eaten and used in cooking in the same way as garden mint, although it's a slightly different flavour.

Here and there are areas of the very invasive Himalayan balsam, this patch seen in Norley Lane. We have had working parties removing it, and luckily we don't have it around either of the village ponds. It normally grows in damp areas, reaching heights of 2.5 metres in a few weeks, then producing masses of very lovely flowers (which is why it was first brought here in 1839 from the Himalayas). The seed pods spring open when ripe, flinging the seeds up to 4 metres away.

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Himalayan balsam flowers and seed pods
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Himalayan balsam, Norley Lane
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Poppy, Hullmead
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Mugwort, Plonk's Hill

Poppies have done well in Hullmead where we included them in our wildflower planting scheme, and they are still flowering and setting seed so maybe we will see some of their offspring next year if the seeds can find some bare ground in which to germinate.

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Court House Green

Yarrow is a late-summer favourite of bees and beetles who visit for nectar and pollen. Found on all our commons and roadside verges, it's a tough grassland plant with strongly aromatic feathery leaves and flat-topped clusters of white flower heads which will continue opening until about November. Like daisies to which it is related the 'flowers' are deceptive and what appears to be an individual flower is actually made up of yellowish disc florets and pinky-white ray florets - all are separate flowers really, but together they give the impression of one flower with a yellow centre and white petals. 

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Ribwort, Cricket Green

Ribwort is abundant everywhere and is a well known lawn weed but here it's seen thriving in a really challenging environment, the cricket green. It is mainly wind pollinated but hoverflies and some bumble bees use its copious pollen as a food source, and they may also be responsible for some pollination so there are studies ongoing at the moment looking into this.

Mugwort is a striking plant reaching heights of 1 or 1.5 metres, which can be seen growing in Hullbrook Lane and by the barley field on Plonk's Hill. It has a greyish overall appearance and small knobbly flowers which are wind-pollinated and so produce a lot of pollen. During the mugwort pollen seasons of late summer and autumn, it is one of the main causes of pollen-related allergic reactions, where it affects roughly 10 to 15 percent of sufferers. Earlier in the year grasses and trees tend to be the main culprits.

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Tormentil, Lords Hill

Creeping about amongst the grasses on Lords Hill is pretty yellow tormentil with its little flowers only about 1cm across. It looks a bit like a small 4-petalled buttercup, but buttercups all have 5 petals so it's easy to tell the difference. It's a common plant over the whole country, but unfortunately seems to be declining in SE England so we need to cherish our local population.

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