The Sid Valley Biodiversity Group is carrying out a year-long survey of the valley’s herbaceous plants recording what is in flower each month.
This is a citizen scientist project with volunteers from the group noting which flowers they see when out walking around the town and in the countryside. This is not totally random, apart from casual walks, a number of sites around the valley have been selected for regular survey to represent a range of habitats including the beach, hedgerows, heath, and open grassland, the sites are spread to cover the valley from north to south and east to west.
The observations are logged into the iNaturalist international database, either directly through a phone app out on the walk or back home on a computer or tablet. The iNaturalist system allows us to sort observations by month, location, or species, it also allows for a degree of validation for the observations which is important as we are all amateurs.
The first three months of the year showed how sheltered is the Sid Valley’s climate with 90 species of herbaceous plant in flower, many outside their normally accepted flowering period. In April, the volunteers recorded 117 species in flower and the month has seen 45 species recorded for the first time this year, although 18 of the earlier species were not recorded this month. Some of those are the winter flowering species such as Winter Heliotrope and Snowdrop whose season has passed; others are possibly flowering still but were not seen. A full list of the month’s records is in an Appendix to this report. The reports for the first three months can be found on the SVBG’s website https://sidvalleybiodiversity.org.uk/reports/. More details of this month’s observations, including photographs, can be found on iNaturalist at https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/april-sidmouth-hedgerow-herbaceous.
As was said above, as the months progress, the scene changes as new species replace earlier ones. March was the month for the glossy yellow stars of Lesser Celandine and the soft yellow of Primroses. While some of these were still flowering into April, the hedgerows are now spangled with the white stars of Greater Stitchwort and the glossy, hard yellow Buttercups are beginning to open in the grassy areas.
There are three common species of Buttercup: Bulbous, Creeping, and Meadow. Bulbous Buttercups are the easiest to identify because the sepals that wrap the flower bud turn down, the technical term is reflex, when the flower opens. Creeping Buttercup can be a troublesome weed in gardens not dedicated to wildlife, but they are an important food source for insects, you will often see various small beetles feeding on the flowers. The Meadow Buttercup is distinguished by its finely divided leaves.
Last month’s report recorded four species of Speedwell with a fifth, Thyme-leaved Speedwell, being found as the report was being written. We now know that we have six species of these delightful little plants with the addition of the Pink Ivy-leaved Speedwell to the list. This has tiny, pale flowers about 5mm across that hardly show above the sepals. We still have some way to go, there are more than twenty different Speedwells listed in the British Flora.
As the daylight periods lengthen and more species come into flower, one plant family in particular provides benefit to the increasing number of flying insects, the Fabaceae. Often referred to as the Bean and Pea family, the Fabaceae includes Clovers and Vetches, and they are a good food source for the many different types of bee found in the valley. The flowers range in size from the tiny yellow Medicks to the much larger Gorse. We have plenty of Gorse flowering around the valley, particularly up on the heathland, but it does not feature in the survey because it is woody and not herbaceous. There are patches of Dwarf Gorse that have escaped from a garden to take up home in the hedgerows around the Manor Road car park. The bank above the service road down to Jacob’s Ladder is the home for a colony of Common Vetch with its purple flowers and curling tendrils that allow it to climb above the other plants to the light for photosynthesis and the bees for pollination.
The shape of the Fabaceae flowers has evolved an ingenious association with the insects that they rely on for pollination. The lower petals stick out as a landing stage called the keel. When an insect lands on the keel their weight opens the flower and, as the insect enters to collect nectar, the stamens dip down to dab pollen on the insects back. At a later stage, the flower stops producing pollen but the female part, the style, dips down and the sticky stigma will pick up any pollen from another flower that might be on the insect’s back.
Members of the mint family have evolved a similar system with a lower lip as a landing stage to the flower instead of the keel, the family name is Labiates, literally plants with lips. Lipped flowers that were recorded in April were Red Deadnettle, White Deadnettle, Yellow Archangel, Ground Ivy (a common name confusion, it is nothing to do with Ivy), and Bugle. Bugle grows as an erect spike of purple flowers, in areas such as the parkland of Knowle they look like a miniature conifer forest spreading across the grass.
Another important family that really gets going in April is the Geraniaceae, the Crane’s-bills, so-called because the fruits form a shape similar to a long-beaked bird. Geraniums and Pelargoniums are popular garden flowers, but they have about twenty smaller wild cousins several of whom can be found in Sidmouth. The small pink flowers of Herb Robert surrounded by their red-tinged feathery leaves have adorned many of the old walls around the town throughout the winter, but they have been joined by the more delicate Cut-leaved Crane’s-bill and glossy-leaved Shining Crane’s-bill. The family have a wonderful collection of common names. Next month we can look forward to seeing the Long-stalked, Bloody, and Dove’s-foot Crane’s-bills and we might even find some Sticky Stork’s-bill.
Many common names can be quite descriptive, but they can be misleading. The volunteers recorded Wood Sorrel and Common Sorrel in April and you might think they are related, but they are not. Wood Sorrel is a plant with delicate, five-petalled nodding flowers and trefoil (three-part) leaves. Common Sorrel is a much more robust plant with spikes of tiny flowers that have six sharp tepals (a mix of sepal and petal) and large leaves. The name Sorrel means sour and the link between these two unrelated species is that their leaves contain oxalic acid and so taste sour. The scientific names, like the common names, are often descriptive but in a more technical sense, Wood Sorrel is Oxalis acetosella and Common Sorrel is Rumex acetosa, ‘aceto’ means vinegary. Later in the year we should see Sheep’s Sorrel, Rumex acetosella too.
Apart from the informal observations as volunteers go for leisurely walks, the list of prescribed survey sites includes the beach. The area of the beach at the western end around the Bickwell Brook outfall and the pebbles alongside the Millennium Walkway are rather like the roadside verges and the cemetery, some people see them as untidy weed patches, others see them as wildlife opportunities. The two areas of beach are home to some seaside specialists, some of which came into flower in April. The Tree Mallows make quite a statement with their thick stems scarred by the old leaf stems of previous years. They are surrounded by the exquisite white flowers of Sea Campion alongside the Millennium Walkway.
A walk along Jacob’s Ladder beach at the foot of the cliff isn’t recommended, but the frequent slips of the sandy clay create a unique habitat and there are mixed colonies of seaside and farmland species with Thrift, Colt’s Foot, Sea Beet, and Bird’s Foot Trefoil in flower at present.
Traditionally, Bluebells are a significant feature of late April and there are many showing in the hedgerows, but the large shows of native Bluebells in the woods on Salcombe Hill are only just starting because April has been cooler than average. Many of the ones around town have coped with the weather because they are a hybrid between the robust Spanish Bluebell that has been planted in gardens for several decades and the more delicate native species. The native species is identified by its one-sided drooping peduncle or flower spike while the Spanish hybrid has flowers all around a stronger peduncle. There are concerns that the hybrid will continue to spread and eventually take over from the native species. We have to hope that invertebrates feeding on the native species will adapt over a long period. The hybrid may be better adapted to cope as the Devon climate warms, we don’t know but it is likely that this is a King Canute scenario, we cannot turn back the tide and we will have to wait and see.
The last emerging group to mention this month is the grasses. Grasses are with us all year and many people do not think of them as flowering plants, but they are wind pollinated and so the flowers are not showy. As any hay fever sufferer will tell you, they are starting to open their flowers to spread pollen on the wind. There is Meadow Foxtail waving on Alma Field, Knapp Meadow and in The Byes. Looking at the fluffy flower spike, it is well named. As is the Red Fescue that is just opening in the cemetery as the month closes. Common name confusion again, the Danish Scurvygrass that is still flowering on the beach isn’t a grass at all but a member of the Cabbage family.
The group will be continuing the project in May, hoping to see more of the six hundred different flowers that are thought to live in the valley, some obvious, in your face species such as the Foxgloves, some tiny things hiding in the undergrowth such as the Sanicle.
Herbaceous Plants Flowering in the Sid Valley – April 2021
Fritillary, Snake’s Head
Skunk Cabbage, American
Garlic, Three Cornered
Sorrel, Pale Pink
Golden-Saxifrage, Oppos. Leaf
Sorrel, Procumbent Yellow
Grape Hyacinth, Broad Leaf
Sow Thistle, Smooth
Speedwell, Common Field
Speedwell, Pink Ivy-leaved
Meadow Grass, Annual
Mind Your Own Business
Crane’s-bill, Cut Leaved
Violet, Common Dog
Violet, Early Dog
Orchid, Early Purple