This is the August 2021 update to the year-long survey of the valley’s herbaceous plants being carried out by volunteers with the Sid Valley Biodiversity Group.
Reports from previous months can be found on the Group’s website https://sidvalleybiodiversity.org.uk/ and all of the group’s records can be found on the iNaturalist database at https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/umbrella-to-sidmouth-hedgerow-herbaceous.
186 species were recorded in August (Appendix 1) and so far this year, the group has located 382 species of flowering herbaceous plants living in the valley. In 1849, local doctor W.H. Cullen published his book Flora Sidostiensis or a Catalogue of the Plants Indigenous to the Vicinity of Sidmouth which listed 659 species. These included trees and shrubs and non-flowering plants such as ferns which have not been included in this year’s surveys. Also, the grasses, sedges and rushes have been omitted largely. Cullen lists 17 sedges, but we have only listed 3 this year, we will be looking for the other 14 next year.
You could ask what defines a British wildflower. Botanical purists debate whether plants are native (arrived here without human help), archaeophytes (arrived here with human help but so long ago we don’t know when, 1492 is the accepted cut off), and neophytes (arrived here after 1492). The survey is recording several cultivated species that have escaped and taken up home outside the garden gate. Some, such as the 3 Cornered Leek and Himalayan Balsam, are a nuisance, but they all contribute to life in the valley and so we include them if they are now growing wild.
The 382 species means that the majority of the herbaceous diversity from 170 years ago is still with us, plus some new species such as the Mexican and Canadian Fleabanes which seem to have colonised every wall and pavement in the town. However, we cannot be complacent about that. We have a list of species, but we have no idea of abundance. Lots of the Victorian flowers are listed as being found in meadows and pastures and Cullen describes them as plentiful, common, abundant, or frequent. There are not many species that would attract such adjectives today. We have less than half the grassland that Cullen would have seen, and the plant population of modern grassland is made up by volume of more grass and less non-grass species. Last year’s survey of local hedgerows revealed that we have far fewer miles of these important wildlife havens than Cullen would have known, and modern maintenance methods mean the hedgerows we have left will support fewer wildflowers. We know that this is having a knock on effect on biodiversity with fewer insects such as butterflies and bees that depend on the flowers, and fewer birds that depend on the insects to feed their young.
We have located 26 new species in August. Most are late summer flowers but were possibly flowering in July although not observed. The stately Angelica has taken over from the more delicate Cow Parsley in some of the grassland edges such as the Delderfield Nature Reserve and James Cornish Field. Dandelions continue to do their important job (apologies for the anthropomorphism of working plants) but now they are outnumbered by the smaller and more delicate heads of their cousins the Hawkbits. The acid uplands such as Muttersmoor have their purple blanket of various species of Heather, and the tangled mat of Spear-leaved Orache on the beach has put forward its tiny flowers.
In May, we reported having nine species of Speedwell in the valley. This month, with the addition of the Short-fruited species growing beside the croquet lawns in Station Road, we know that we have nine species of Willowherb in the valley, although Spear-leaved and Square-stalked were not recorded this month.
One unusual family are the Broomrapes. The flowers show that they are cousins to Deadnettles, Snapdragons and Foxgloves, but they do not have green leaves. All you see is a straw-coloured flower spike clothed in small scale-like leaves. They do not need chlorophyll because, like their other cousin Purple Toothwort that was obs
erved in March and April, they are parasites. The seeds remain dormant until stimulated by the presence of the roots of a suitable
host. The seed germinates and, rather than producing its own roots, it attaches to the roots of the host and draws off water and nutrients. The Latin name Orobanche comes from the Greek for strangling bitter vetch, and individual species are often named after the usual host plant.
There is a colony of Ivy Broomrape in Station Road feeding on the ivy in the old hedgerow boundary to Elysian Fields. It pushes up its flower spikes in mid-summer, but they dry to a dark brown and persist after seed dispersal and can be seen right through the winter.
John Keats’ Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness was written in September, but we are now two months past the summer solstice and many of our herbaceous plants are well into autumn. As well as the Willowherbs,
Thistles are releasing their seeds with their pappus parachutes, a favourite of the Goldfinches. The Brambles are loaded with blackberries, a favourite of Blackbirds and the tiny Wood Mouse. The umbels of the Wild Carrot and Parsleys are now studded with their various fruits. This bounty is so important for many animals as they prepare for winter whether they stay and need reserves against the cold, or they are flying away to warmer climes.
As we move into August, the volunteers may locate some of the species that have been flowering but have escaped detection so far. One plant that should be growing in Sidmouth but has not been observed so far is Sea Bindweed. Very similar to Field Bindweed with its pink flower trumpets, this seaside specialist has reniform (kidney shaped) leaves as distinct from the sagittate (arrowhead) leaves of its Field cousin.
There will be few species awaiting their turn in the calendar before they start flowering. One plant that doesn’t flower until September usually is Ivy which is budding up as we leave August behind. Its flowers are an important food for late flying bees and hoverflies. The Ivy will be joined soon by spring flowers that open early in the mild climate of our sheltered valley and were recorded in our January survey; nature’s cycle continues.