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Wild Flower Fellowship

Summaries of the activities and learning from the period of time spent on the Flora locale 'Wild Flower Fellowship'.
Published by lucy grove on Fri 30 September 2016
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How many of us take the time to look at the seeds of wild flowers here in the UK? I do think most of us will have seen, picked up and played with the seeds of some of our native trees (conkers or sycamore helicopters anyone?). But how many of us have got on our hands and knees, to study up close, the shaving brush like seed of a Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus)? Or the wonderful geometric, cornflake coloured seed of a Fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris)? And once you start looking, the diversity of shape, colour, size and structure is fascinating. 

Cornflower brush like seeds
Cornflower brush like seeds

 

The seeds of Fritillary remind me of Cornflakes!
The seeds of Fritillary remind me of Cornflakes!

 

Once you’ve started to appreciate the diversity of seeds with the naked eye the next stage is having a much closer look under a microscope. Then you can’t help being amazed! I spent a full day glued to Emorsgate’s microscope and loved every minute. The tiny stripy seeds of Oxeye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) turn into massive, ridged humbugs and the complex surface structures of seeds such as Sainfoin (Onobrychis viciifolia) and Scarlet pimpernell (Anagallis arvensis) are revealed in such immense detail. 

 

I love using a microscope to look at things in detail
I love using a microscope to look at things in detail

 

 

The view looking at the seeds through the microscope
The view looking at the seeds through the microscope

 

Learning to identify the different species’ seeds under microscope, is an important skill to acquire, allowing seed mixtures to be analysed. Through the knowledge of the experts at Emorsgate and a couple of handy seed identification books I was ready to undertake some analysis. My job was to take a sample of the seed that Donald and myself had Brush harvested from meadow in Wales, then to infer what species of seeds were harvested and their relative abundances. This information will then provide customers with knowledge on the mixture they are sowing and what the likely species composition will be, but also allows us to compare differences across brush harvesting years. This can provide an insight into how meadows may be changing or how the date of harvest effects seed mix composition. 

 

A seed mix to be analysed
A seed mix to be analysed

 

 

Quick seed crib sheet
Quick seed crib sheet

 

From noticing the variability in seed structure, my mind automatically jumps to wanting to know why? Why are some seeds bullet shaped and shiny (Ribwort plantain) and others small and attached to a pappus (Rough Hawkbit)? Some answers can be found by looking into the diversity of seed dispersal mechanisms – another fascinating area to study (and the subject of my next blog post!)  

In conclusion, in addition to playing ‘he loves me, he loves me not’ with dandelion seed heads, or tormenting your siblings with sticky weed (aka Cleavers), I would thoroughly recommend spending time getting to know a few more of our wonderful native seeds. 

 

Published by lucy grove on Fri 23 September 2016
   
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Since starting my Wild Flower Fellowship, I’ve been asked on a number of occasions ‘so what’s your favourite wild flower?’ and it doesn’t take me long to answer – Daucus Carota or the Wild Carrot. I’ve loved this flower since I first took an interest in all things botanical.

It’s a relatively common species, found in many types of habitat such as grasslands and cliffs, but it is especially found in calcareous soils near the sea. But the glee for me is in the finding and identifying of it.

For anyone new to wild flower identification the Umbellifer family, within which Wild carrot falls, is often quite a tricky and daunting affair. From thumbing through my wild flower guide there are dozens of umberlliferous species, that all look quite similar!

But the Wild carrot has a wonderful little secret, that to this day I delight in searching for when I come across a plant. The attractive flower is a compound inflorescence made up of many small, white flowers but at its centre there is a central floret that is dark crimson in colour! Some of these crimson florets can be seen from afar, but often you have to take a very close look into the flower head, pealing apart the other flowers to see where it is hiding. 

 

The crimson jewel often hidden at the centre of the flowerhead
The crimson jewel often hidden at the centre of the flowerhead

 

I love finding this jewel and pondering its presence. There are a number of theories about its potential benefit to the plant. Some believe the ‘spot’ mimics a blood spot to attract fly pollinators, or for attracting wasp predators who think the spot may be a some tasty fly prey. Another theory is that its function is related to parasitism, potentially duping parasites into thinking a gall is already present and therefore protecting it against future attack. 

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Looking at Wild carrot from a seed harvesting perspective, it is a very late crop. The plants are still flowering in August and will not be ready for harvest before September.

The plant has a fabulous feature in that as the seeds are ripening the head curls inwards forming a distinct cup like structure. This cup forms a wonderful habitat for many insects, especially spiders, which can often be found by softly poking your nose inside for a look. 

Wonderful cup like structures are formed as the seeds develop
Wonderful cup like structures are formed as the seeds develop

 

The seeds themselves are around 2-4mm in diameter and have spiny ridges. Through attaching to the fur of passing animals the Wild carrot can then spread its seeds.

I would fully recommend taking the time to try and find this plant next time you are out on a walk, studying it a little closer. Maybe even growing some in your garden to allow you to study its life cycle up close. It is truly a lovely wild plant! 

 

Wild carrot in flower and various stages of seed development
Wild carrot in flower and various stages of seed development

 

 

Published by lucy grove on Fri 16 September 2016

 

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In the last couple of years I’ve heard a lot of talk about Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) and the important role it can play in helping supress coarse grass growth and support the restoration of species rich meadows. 

The plant is quite interesting looking, with two lipped, bright yellow flowers behind which the sepals inflate to form a green bladder. It is in this bladder in which a seed capsule forms, and once matured it rattles around in this now brown and papery chamber.  Yellow rattle has another common name of ‘Hay rattle’ as it was said that once the seeds were rattling within the seed heads it was time to cut the meadow for hay.

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Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor)
Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor)

Yellow rattle is termed a ‘hemiparasitic’ plant. This means it has quite and unique strategy of acquiring the resources it needs, combining parasitism of other plant species and also photosynthesising itself.

Several scientific papers have been published on the competitive ability of Yellow rattle, and many other smaller scale pot experiment studies have been undertaken. These studies have provided some information of those species that seem to be susceptible and those tolerant of Yellow rattle.

I was tasked with recording the results from the 2015 planted experiment and helping design and set up 2016’s study. The scientist in me loved undertaking this task, as I love collecting and analysing any data to help contribute to our knowledge of our natural world.

The pot experiment, ready to collect data from
The pot experiment, ready to collect data from

 

The advantage of undertaking pot experiments is its simplicity. Many different treatments can be investigated in a small area (for example growing Yellow Rattle with Perennial rye grass, and Yellow rattle with Perennial rye grass and Creeping thistle). In addition, these treatments can be replicated (several pots with the same treatments). However there are a couple of drawbacks. The majority of pot experiments are conducted under environmental conditions that are different to ‘natural’ field conditions. Also such experiments can be a little sparse in data to allow levels of significance to be established and relationships to be determined with great confidence. However these experiments are wonderful pilot studies and the stepping stones to testing theories and undertaking more rigours scientific studies in the future, and can be undertaken by anyone, anywhere. 

 

Measuring the heights of different species across all of the pots
Measuring the heights of different species across all of the pots

 

Preliminary results, although data deficient, do seem to indicate that creeping thistle may be susceptible to yellow rattle.  Much more data is needed to be able to draw any firmer conclusions, and for the 2016 study we will be increasing the number of replicates of each treatment, and also trialling some other combinations of plants to investigate their relationships. 

 

2016\\\'s experiment set up, with lots more replicates. Now the wait....
2016\\\'s experiment set up, with lots more replicates. Now the wait....

 

 

 

Published by lucy grove on Fri 09 September 2016
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I’ve quickly learnt that harvesting seeds is very much only the start of the process. Instinct will tell you that freshly collected seed is likely to need some preparation before storage and that storing seed wet is not a good idea. As soon as a seed is harvested we started the drying process. You don’t want to keep newly harvested, unprocessed seed in bags, as the living plant material will continue to respire and result in decay. There is also a second stage of decay that would occur if drying was delayed, due to the respiration of the resulting microbial action. Temperature increases the rate of respiration (for every 10°C increase in temperature there is roughly a doubling in the rate of respiration). Therefore ensuring the seed does not heat up too much is also important.  

Freshly unloaded harvest needing to be dried before it heats up too much
Freshly unloaded harvest needing to be dried before it heats up too much

 

Drying seeds collected at home from the garden, or on wild forays, is relatively simple. However on the scale undertaken on Emorsgates’ farms, processes need to be scaled up somewhat. Large tarpaulins are laid out in the sun and freshly harvested seed is unloaded from the trailer. Then the raking begins – lots of raking! Getting the seed into as thin a layer as possible will aid drying and speed up the process. Then throughout the day the seed needs to be turned to ensure all the seeds are dry. Like any other farming, the weather has the controlling hand of when seeds can be harvested and when and for how long seeds need to be left drying. I’ve quickly become an ardent weather watcher, checking the forecast, checking the skies, and on more than one occasion running for the tarpaulins when I’ve felt a speck of rain!

I really enjoy the raking of the harvest with this lovely yellow rake!
I really enjoy the raking of the harvest with this lovely yellow rake!

 

 

There is lots and lots of seed to dry
There is lots and lots of seed to dry

 

Properly dried seed, if stored in the right conditions, can remain viable for many years. In nature this is an important strategy for many plants.  Nestled down in the soil are living bank of seeds, little capsules of potential just waiting for the right conditions to allow them to germinate and grow. This is often most noticeable in newly cleared areas of woodland. Following the opening up of the woodland canopy and the associated increase of light, foxgloves emerge in great carpets – their seeds having laid dormant in the soil for years.

I quickly found that some seeds need more careful drying than others. The Woolly thistle seeds were dealt with using pitch fork and gloves.  The Orchid harvest on the other hand needed a much more gentle approach. With thousands of tiny, dust like seeds bursting from each capsule, any turning that is too vigorous or any gusting wind, would see the seed puffing into the surrounding air and being lost from the harvest.

Bagging up the dried woolly thistle seed heads
Bagging up the dried woolly thistle seed heads

 

These orchids will need a lot more drying before we can collect the seed
These orchids will need a lot more drying before we can collect the seed

 

After drying the harvest, the seeds then go on be further processed- removing any non-desirable seeds from grassland mixtures or sorting the seeds into pure form to be distributed to Emorsgates’ clients. This all happens in Norfolk – and I will be following the seeds there shortly! 

Published by lucy grove on Fri 02 September 2016
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A majority of wild flower seeds that Emorsgate grow is harvested by machinery. However, there are a number of species that need to be hand harvested.

Some seeds are hand harvested as only small quantities are required, such as for re-sowing of a crop. This was the case when we collected the seeds of White campion (Silene latifolia), where we walked through the crop, picking only the seed heads ready for harvesting. Although more time consuming than harvesting by machinery, it results in a more ‘pure’ collection. I was able to collect only the ‘ready’ seeds, and not those that had already shed. It also allowed me to be selective and only harvest the seeds of the species I required (many methods of machine harvesting result in a mixture of seeds that need to be further sorted).

 

Seiving the seed of White campion (Silene latifolia)
Seiving the seed of White campion (Silene latifolia)

 

Others species are hand harvested as they have emerged amongst another crop which will be harvested at a later date. We hand harvested a couple of bucket loads of Hoary plantain (Plantago media) which was growing amongst a good crop of Marjoram (Origanum vulgare). This species is primarily a plant of chalk and limestone but can be found on heavy clays and water meadows where conditions are calcareous and the sward is kept short.

 
   

 

Hoary Plantain (Plantago media) have these wonderful pinkish stamens with purple stalks
Hoary Plantain (Plantago media) have these wonderful pinkish stamens with purple stalks

 

Collecting the seeds of orchids is also undertaken by hand, and is personally my favourite wild flower to harvest. Spotting the orchids seed spikes was initially quite a challenge, but once I got my eye in they were everywhere, and my collecting bucket quickly filled. 

A much easier seed to spot, yet one that is a lot less friendlier to harvest, is that of the Woolly Thistle (Cirsium eriophorum). Thick gloves and sharp secateurs were in order for this harvest. The Wooly Thistle is a very distinctive with wonderful globular woolly heads topped with vibrant purple florets.

 

Common spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) harvested from amongst a crop of Rough Hawkbit (Leontodon hispidus)
Common spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) harvested from amongst a crop of Rough Hawkbit (Leontodon hispidus)
The Woolly thistle (Cirsium eriophorum) is an easilty identifiable species by its large and very woolly heads!
The Woolly thistle (Cirsium eriophorum) is an easilty identifiable species by its large and very woolly heads!

Like farming any other crop it’s important to keep an eye on how the flowers are growing and when their seeds are becoming ready for harvesting. In the coming weeks there will be a lot of other species becoming ready for hand harvesting such as Field Scabious (Knautia arvensis). These have very attractive pincushion blue-violet flower heads and is a highly attractive nectar source for an array of butterflies, bees and other insects.

An evening check of the crops to monitor maturing seeds
An evening check of the crops to monitor maturing seeds
Field Scabious (Knautia arvensis) - I think one of our most beautiful wild flowers
Field Scabious (Knautia arvensis) - I think one of our most beautiful wild flowers
 
Published by lucy grove on Fri 26 August 2016
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I’ve been lucky in that my fellowship started just in time for me to help with Emorsgate’s last Brush Harvesting trip of the season. Brush harvesting is a technique whereby wild flower and grass seed is collected by towing a harvester across a meadow, seed being swept through thick brushes and then collected into a hopper. Emorsgate invented this technique (after much imaginative thinking and design development) and it has been used across a wide range of harvesting schemes.

Our destination for this harvesting event was a number of meadows nestled in the hills near Llwynywermod, Wales. The main meadow to be harvested was a wonderful example of a lowland, unimproved Welsh meadow. At our time of visiting it was full of species I rarely get to see, such as Great burnet (Sanguisorba officinalis), Sneezewort (Achillea ptarmica) and Whorled Caraway (Carum verticillatum).

Great Burnet (Sanguisorba officinalis) looking wonderful in the afternoon sun
Great Burnet (Sanguisorba officinalis) looking wonderful in the afternoon sun

Upon arriving at the site, Donald walks over the meadows, assessing and noting the species present and stages of seed development. This surveying also allows us to identify any particular species of interest that could be hand harvested before being ‘brushed’ - in this instance it was my job to hand pick the seed stalks of the heath spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza maculata).

 
Donald surveying the meadow before harvesting
Donald surveying the meadow before harvesting

I started off a little wary of the new machinery and my ability to undertake tasks competently, however by the end of the day (with Donald’s kind guidance and patience) I was confidently attaching the harvester, unloading the hopper, bagging up the seed and loading the trailer among other tasks. I’ve always thought the best way to learn was to just get stuck in, and today was the perfect example.

It was a long, busy day but most definitely reaffirmed my love of a hard days work in our wonderful countryside. We retuned back to our farm gone 11pm, unloaded the seed, and then I went straight to bed.

Some of todays harvest bagged up
Some of todays harvest bagged up

What happens to the harvested seed?

The landowner requested that, after processing, they could acquire a proportion of the harvested seed back for their own sowing. The majority of the seed will however be processed by Emorsgate ready for sale, adding a wonderful Welsh meadow mixture to their wide seed range.

Harvested seed now ready for processing
Harvested seed now ready for processing
Published by lucy grove on Fri 19 August 2016

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Hello and welcome to my Wild Flower Fellowship blog. My name is Lucy Grove and I have taken on a 3 month role training and working with Flora Locale, Emorsgate Seeds and the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University. Exciting times lie ahead as I am working in partnership with some of the most knowledgeable and experienced people involved in habitat and biodiversity restoration in the UK.

Wild Flower Fellowship The beginning

For the first half of my placement I will be training and working alongside the renowned Emorsgate Seeds. This pioneering and longstanding wild seed company was established by Donald MacIntyre in 1980. I will be working alongside Donald and the rest of the team across their farms in Somerset and Norfolk. Here I will be immersed in learning all that’s involved in producing wild seeds, including wild stock collection, cultivation, agronomy, seed harvesting and seed cleaning and storage. During this time I will be developing ideas and identifying gaps in knowledge or applications. 

The remainder of my time will be spent working with Dr Barbara Smith and the excellent research group at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University. Here I will working to develop ideas further and begin the process of planning an interesting and engaging project in habitat restoration.

I come from a background in Conservation Biology and Ecology, and Wildlife Disease Management, with particular focus and experience in tackling issues in our farmed environment. I am passionate about the health and sustainability of farming and wildlife in the UK. With farming family and my previous role as Vice Chairman for the Women’s Food and Farming Union (South West branch), I have an awareness and understanding of the issues and opportunities in managing the land for biodiversity and farming. I have an immense love for wild flowers and the crucial role they play in supporting healthy ecosystems.

I am brimming with excitement to be undertaking this role and this blog will track my time as my knowledge, experience and ideas develop. I hope it will make an interesting and informative read!

 

 

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