Sunday 31 May 2020

Wildflower of the Month: May: Meadow Saxifrage

Painting of meadow saxifrage
by Deborah Lambkin
In recent months, we’ve heard from BSBI Head of Science Kevin Walker about a few of his favourite wildflowers: in March, he told us about the pilgrimages he had made over the years to see Purple Saxifrage, first as a 26 year-old plant obsessive and then over the years with his young family; in April he told us about Snake’s-head fritillary and how botanists have long argued over whether it’s native or not.

Now a locked-down Kevin tells us about a favourite plant he managed to find recently while following BSBI guidance about social distancing and permitted exercise

Over to Kevin:

“One of my botanical highlights of lockdown was the discovery of a small population of Meadow Saxifrage Saxifraga granulata on a riverbank close to my home in Harrogate. This lowland saxifrage is nowhere common; in my part of North Yorkshire there are probably about a dozen colonies, scattered on riverbanks, road verges and in the occasional churchyard. 

Meadow saxifrage site near Harrogate
Image: K. Walker
"In other parts of Britain and Ireland, you’re more likely to see it in damp meadows or at the bottom of dry chalk downland slopes where the soils are a little deeper. In some areas it even occurs in ‘old lawns’ that have been sympathetically managed for wildflowers.

“It is a glorious plant to look at; quite tall for a saxifrage and with large porcelain-white flowers on long, almost leafless, hairy stems. It has rather attractive leaves the shape of scallop shells and most surprising of all it produces tiny red bulbils at the base of the stem; these are the ‘granulations’ that give the plant its name and form completely new (albeit genetically identical) plants.    
Meadow saxifrage bulbils
Image: K. Walker
“Meadow Saxifrage is well adapted to a life in hay meadows, flowering and fruiting well before the grass is cut in July. Elsewhere its survival is more precarious. On riverbanks it has a different ecology growing where floodwaters scour away the soil transporting its bulbils with it downstream. Indeed, the floods this spring almost entirely obliterated one colony I know growing close to the River Nidd. 

"On road verges it is highly susceptible to mowing, especially during May including one of my local sites on the verge of a quiet lane leading to a farm. Only once have I seen it produce flowers when the farmer missed a small section near to the base of a tree. The same is true of many churchyards where the grass amongst the graves is kept uniformly short. So it is heartening to hear that one of our local churchyard colonies, in St John’s in Sharow near to Ripon, is thriving under a sympathetic mowing regime.

Meadow saxifrage in St. John's churchyard, Sharow
Image: S. Warwick
"In recent years Plantlife have been promoting #NoMowMay so that wildflowers like Meadow Saxifrage get the chance to flower and set seed in our lawns, churchyards and public spaces. This is part of their Every Flower Counts scheme which encourages us to leave our lawns uncut and then to record what is in flower at the end of May. Last year participants recorded half a million flowers of over 200 species, including orchids and Meadow Saxifrage, which equates to around 12 grammes of nectar sugar produced by every garden each day. 

"Such schemes are highlighting the huge benefits of letting the grass grow, not only for wildflowers, but also for other wildlife. This year #NoMowMay, whether by design or accident, has meant that our urban environments are much more flower-rich which has benefitted us all during these dark days of lockdown.

Meadow saxifrage flowers
Image: J. Warwick
"So why had this population of Meadow Saxifrage eluded me for so long? I had walked that way many times before and, I’m embarrassed to say, I had even spent a day recording the wildflowers in the same 1 kilometre square. Maybe it was because you needed to make a special effort to find it. The plants are tucked away between the stream and a patch of gorse and were only discovered when we descended to the stream to look for otter prints and to paddle. It’s also one of our earliest wildflowers to flower, usually in mid-May, and so is easily overlooked later in the year when most botanical activity takes place.

"But probably the main reason for its discovery is that lockdown has given us a reason to explore the hidden corners that we ordinarily ignore. In doing so it has opened our eyes to the beauty and attraction of the commonplace all around us. And what better way to celebrate this than through the discovery of wildflowers. As Charles Raven noted during the dark wartime days of the 1940s, “But for an interest that is always available, which takes you out into the loveliest scenery and yet can be satisfied in your own backyard, and that continually offers fresh insight into the beauty and worth of nature, the study of wild plants stands high.” For many of us, wildflowers have brought some much-needed happiness during our own dark days and will continue to do so, as we emerge, blinking into the bright June sunlight".

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