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Wildflowers provide early spring preview

Botanists were scouring the countryside on New Year’s Day, recording the number of native wild plants in flower for the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland. It was a chance to get out and walk off the excesses of Christmas after what may have been Britain’s mildest year since 1659. We counted 20 plants in flower, including primrose, spurge laurel, red campion, creeping buttercup, daisy, dandelion, stinking hellebore, herb Robert, gorse and bramble. It’s an impressive list, but similar records were compiled after a mild autumn as long ago as the 18th century, and again by the Bishopsbourne author and botanist Jocelyn Brooke in the 1950s. Brooke wandered over much of the downs and woods to the south of Canterbury. In his book The Flower in Season he listed what he had seen or expected to see each month. mentioning that the 18th century naturalist Gilbert White also saw gorse, daisy, stinking hellebore and daphne mezereum in December.

We were, however, able to add one plant to the list, which might be a first for east Kent in mid-winter: a solitary wood anemone seen flowering in a small wood a few days earlier. Primroses often flower out of season. In northern Portugal, where their pale yellow petals have given them the name bread and butter, they are usually at their best in November. They occur in two forms: pin-eyed, with prominent stigma and the anthers below; and thrum-eyed, with the anthers clustered at the top and the stigma below. They pollinate each other and both produce seeds so they do not become in-bred. My weather records, recorded half-hourly, show 2014 to have been the warmest of the past 14 years, with a mean temperature of 11.3C (52.4F), which was 1.1C (2F) higher than the mean for the 30 years from 1971 to 2000. Four of the preceding six years were cooler than the 30-year mean, however, and my records indicate only a very slight warming trend so far this century.

More significant was the rainfall, with a yearly total of 1,570mm (62 inches) recorded in the upper Elham Valley, with 550mm (more than 21 inches) in the first two months. That is the highest yearly total I have recorded. An old winter saying warns “that as the days grow longer, the cold gets stronger”, and that is certainly true in Kent when February is often the coldest month of the year. But more daylight also brings more bird chatter. I am still unsure whether I am seeing marsh or willow tits, two species that have caused confusion ever since they were first separated on the basis of very slight and debatable differences in 1897. I suspect that one day we will reunite the species, perhaps citing that we do not separate humans into separate species by the colour of their hair and housing habits.

Splitting plants unnecessarily is a more common practice, especially on the Continent. A few years ago, a well-known botanist attended a conference in France, at which he showed some photographs of late spider orchids, a very variable and beautiful species that is quite frequent around the Mediterranean but in Britain only occurs between Wye and Folkestone. Continental botanists assigned them to four different species and were mystified when he explained that they all came from one small site on the downs above Folkestone.

Herne Bay Gazette, January 15th 2015

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