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Wildflower diary

Autumn 2022

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Acorns festooning the oak trees by the playground on Lords Hill: acorns seem to be particularly abundant this year in Shamley Green
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The acorn on the right has been peeled and split to reveal the embryo at the tip, which will grow into a new oak tree
Ornamental apple, Lords Hill

For wild plants, having put all that effort into producing flowers in the spring and summer, autumn is all about ensuring that the resulting seeds are dispersed as widely as possible. The seeds in edible fruits, like these rose hips or the little ornamental apples shown above, pass largely unscathed through the guts of birds and other animals and enjoy a nice dollop of fertiliser where they are finally deposited.

 

 

But what about larger seeds like acorns? Surely they would be too damaged if they got chewed and eaten. Do they rely on being buried for later use and then forgotten? Well maybe not - one study has shown that  acorns can still germinate and even thrive after being 60% eaten by grey squirrels - the acorn cleverly protects its vital embryo by concentrating unpalatable tannins around it!

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Rose hips in the hedgerow by Westland Farm

Green acorns are toxic to horses and cattle because of their tannins, but some animals like pigs are immune due to a neutralising chemical in their saliva. That's one reason why 'pannage' came about in places like the New Forest - the practice of allowing pigs to fatten on green acorns before the New Forest ponies can eat too many, particularly important in a year like this when acorns are particularly abundant. For a fascinating account of tannins, pigs and pannage click here.

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Climbing nightshade or Bittersweet, in a hedgerow in Norley Lane, flowers (June) and fruits (Sept). Thrushes and some other birds are immune to its toxins.
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Wood avens growing by the canal, flower and seed head

Less problematic are the  seeds which spread by latching on to animal fur to hitch a ride to somewhere else, like wood avens (or Herb Bennet), a common plant of wood edges and hedgerows, as well as a weed in gardens.

The tempting red fruits of climbing nightshade will give you a nasty experience if you eat them, although they are not as toxic as the shiny black berries of deadly nightshade. Fatalities are actually rare, and largely in children, but you could experience scratchy throat, headache, dizziness, enlarged eye pupils, trouble speaking, low body temperature, vomiting, diarrhoea, bleeding in the stomach or intestines, slowed blood circulation and breathing, and convulsions. Best avoided!

It's the chemical 'solanine' which is the culprit, found in other members of the nightshade family such as potatoes (solanine poisoning can occur when potatoes which have gone green are eaten). Tomatoes and aubergines also have very small amounts of solanine, but don't seem to have poisoned anyone yet - the chemical disappears as tomatoes ripen, and you would have to eat enormous quantities of aubergine to become ill.

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Rocky helpfully demonstrating animal dispersal of wood avens seeds
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Another plant using hooks to stick its seeds  really tenaciously to animal fur is burdock, a big plant with huge leaves which you can find down near the bridge by Westland Farm. The roots were originally used with dandelion leaves to make dandelion and burdock, a drink consumed in the British Isles since the Middle Ages. At first it was a type of light mead but over the years it has evolved into the soft drink commercially available today.

The purple flowers of burdock can still be found alongside mature brown burs well into the autumn.

Related to strawberries, its little yellow flowers, only 1cm across,  appear from May until late autumn, and instead of producing edible fruits they quickly turn into clinging seed heads which anyone with a dog will have seen after it has been snuffling about in the undergrowth!

Greater Burdock growing near the bridge by Westland Farm

Rather than rely on animals, many plants produce enormous quantities of light seeds and use parachutes to catch the wind, hoping to land somewhere suitable. One such is Fireweed or Rosebay Willowherb, a familiar and rather lovely sight on disturbed ground everywhere, particularly ground that has been burned. In Britain it was considered a rare species in the 18th century but the expansion of the railway network and the associated soil disturbance seems to have given it an opportunity to spread, and it rapidly colonised bomb craters in the Second World War, earning it the title of 'bombweed'!

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Fireweed (or Rosebay Willowherb) growing alongside the bridleway to the Downs Link
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Greater Birdsfoot Trefoil, seen here growing on Lordshill Common, has yellow flowers and its fruits resemble a bird's foot

Although they aren't as numerous as they were earlier on, there are still plenty of flowers to be found late in the year as our wild plants make a last ditch attempt to reproduce before winter takes hold.

 

It's good to see the seed heads of Greater birdsfoot trefoil alongside some late flowers because the reason for the odd name now becomes clear - the seed heads look very like a bird's foot, albeit with rather too many toes. Each flower in the cluster turns into a 'toe' and there can be as many as 12! We also have another slighty smaller species in drier areas, Common birdsfoot trefoil, with more convincing birds feet having a more realistic toe count.

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Field speedwell, Plonks Hill
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Scentless mayweed, Plonks Hill
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Common mallow, Plonks Hill
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Black medick, shop triangle

Now we have had some rain there are flowers appearing on every bit of bare ground:

By the barley field on Plonks Hill bright blue field speedwell flowers jostle for space with the daisy heads of scentless mayweed, a relative of chamomile, and in the hedgerow nearby there is mallow with fresh new leaves and big mauve flowers.

Tucked between the plants on the triangle by the village shop you can find black medick with its heads of many tiny yellow pea flowers, each flower the same shape as that of a pea or runner bean flower but only 2-3mm long, eventually developing into tiny curved black seed pods.

Seedlings

Since the middle of August an enormous number of seedlings have appeared alongside the bridleway from Lords Hill to the Downs Link - maybe they are occupying space left bare by other plants which succumbed to the drought? The majority of them are dovesfoot cranesbill, which often germinates in the autumn on bare ground and flowers the following year

- watch this space next year for a carpet of pretty pink flowers! This dove's foot cranesbill was photographed on Blackheath recently, so maybe our population in Shamley Green will give us a few early blooms this autumn - let us know if you spot any!

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Dove's foot cranesbill on Blackheath
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Thousands of seedlings by bridleway: Dove's foot cranesbill?
Knotgrass by Lords Hill playground

The trick to finding wildflowers in the autumn and winter is searching sheltered nooks and crannies, and getting in close because they are often pretty small. This knotgrass for instance, hugging the ground near the playground at Lords Hill, has perfect little 5-petalled flowers only 1-2mm across. It's easier to take a photo with your phone and zoom in to see it!

If you investigate the ditches by Duck Pond Green you will find the pretty yellow flowers, about 1cm across, of square-stalked St. John's wort, a close relative of common St. John's wort which is used as a herbal anti-depressant.

Some of these later-flowering species, and some opportunistic annuals, will continue to bloom in milder weather throughout the winter if they are in a sheltered spot, and with climate change this is becoming a more frequent phenomenon.

Others are truly late flowering plants - like ivy, a reliable source of nectar right through to November for many insects, particularly flies, hoverflies, wasps and bees. The leaves on the older flowering stems tend not to be the typical ivy shape, but are more simple and without lobes. Once the flowers are pollinated they develop into black berries which have a high fat content and are a nutritious food for birds over the winter months.

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St Johns Wort in the ditch on Duck Pond Green
Wildflowers in 2023

Unless something very dramatic and unusual happens with our local flora, this will probably be the last Wildflower Diary for 2022, but we will publish details for the 2023 New Year Plant Hunt when they are available. This is a nationwide scheme run by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) since 2012 in which thousands of wildflower lovers both amateur and expert record the flowers they spot on a 3 hour walk around New Year. It's not only great fun and very interesting, but also provides valuable data about how plants in Britain are responding to climate change.

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Ivy, Long Common
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