Nearly exactly a month ago I was delighted to find the tiny lilac-purple flowers of field madder on the bareish bank, to the north east side of the Recreation Ground. But there is no missing the tall yellow spikes of the gloriously named ‘wild mignonette’ now out in flower along the same bank. These are wild flowers dressed to go to a ball… and our insects love them!
Apart from the joy of the plants themselves, wild flowers tell us about the makeup of the underlying soil. Only certain species grow on particular soils. As all those of you who are gardeners know, one of the commonest failures in gardening is to put plants in that do not suit the local soil – they do not grow well! So to with wild flowers – different areas of the country, or even different lanes within the same village, have different wild flowers according to the underlying soil and climate. So, wild mignonette can be seen growing along road verges and on edges of cultivated land all around the chalky land of the Brecks, to the north of Burwell.
These flowers become part of the culture of the area – as reflected in the naming of a county flower. For Cambridgeshire people voted for pasque flower, which we are lucky to have growing near us along the chalky Devil’s Dyke. (Devon’s county flower is primrose, which would not enjoy Devils’ Dyke’s chalky soil at all!)
Wild mignonette, is growing at the Rec because this species has adapted to thrive on chalky soil. The whole ecosystem at the Rec is built round this chalky under-surface with the insects, including moths and butterflies, that depend on plants for their food, ones that feed off these specialist chalk loving plants. Each individual flower looks slightly scruffy, it wouldn’t make a Chelsea Flower Show Gold – but it does its job.
I am going this afternoon to see how many different insects I can find feeding on one plant. Lets have a competition: let me know how many insects, and different species of insects you find on one clump of wild mignonette. I will publish the results in a future post… the person with the most will win a hand lens!
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Yesterday I found a gem of an area for wild flowers. I was walking (I should have been jogging!) round the trim track at the Recreation Ground. Along the north-east edge – the long side that runs on from the skate park – is a bareish length of chalky ground. At first glance this area looks a bit of a mess and lacking in growth – especially compared to the lush green of the Rec’s grass. But this is just the sort of area where wild flowers have a chance to grow.
As I looked closer I spotted big clumps of Field Madder. I use ‘big’ advisedly, for this is a low-growing, creeping plant with tiny leaves and even tinier flowers. But once you have spotted the flowers, you see more and more.
Field madder used to be common in arable fields, but is now much less frequent because of arable intensification. This patch of what looks like wasteland, gives gems such as this beautiful small plant a place to thrive.
What has happened here is that seeds of wild flowers which have sat in the soil for years – in the ‘seed bank’ – have suddenly been given the right conditions to grow – a bit of disturbance, and space – they are not competing with the vigorous grass, or nettles or thistles. The plant species growing here are ones that love chalk, and so are similar to the special flora of the chalky Devil’s Dyke. We need to keep watching this area, as who knows what special species will appear.
I counted the number of different species in a small patch of this area and compared this with the number of species in the same size patch of lush green grass. The bareish patch won hands down. Soon it will be dazzling with all sorts of wild flowers in bloom, which in turn will provide a feast for butterflies, bees, hoverflies.. and our eyes.
To really appreciate how special this area, have a go yourself at counting the number of species in a small area of this edge, and contrast the total with the number in the same sized area of the adjacent grassland. If you have children, take huulahoops or a skipping rope, to mark out an area to count. You don’t need to be able to identify the species. The difference in leaf shapes will enable you to tell and so count different species.
Look out for similar bareish patches as you walk round the village. These are where wild plants get a chance to grow. In particular, I’d love to know if you see field madder elsewhere.