Dr Dines' Meadow Making Adventure pt.9

Dr Trevor Dines

Dr Trevor Dines

Plantlife Botanical Specialist

12th May 2016

It’s been a thrilling and absolutely fascinating few weeks in the meadow. With the appearance of the first yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) seedlings in the first week of April (hooray!), we moved the cows up into their summer quarters, a field above the meadow which perhaps we should call Y Hafod (or ‘summer dwelling’). They’ll stay there now until late summer, returning to the meadow again after the hay has been cut.

With the grazing removed, the meadow has sprung into life. Although the rest of April was cold, it didn’t stop the celandines (Ficaria vesca) and field woodrush (Luzula campestris) coming into flower; it’s not without reason that the latter is often called ‘Easter grass’. There are certainly more of both than last year, the celandines especially finding more room to grow in the open turf.

But it’s the yellow rattle that’s really been capturing my attention. Also known as ‘the meadow maker’, this is the number one species we want to establish in quantity. Its roots tap into those of the grasses growing around it, taking their water and nutrients and suppressing their growth by up to 60%. As a result, other wildflowers have more room to grow and aren’t swamped by the vigorous grass. As soon as the first yellow rattle seedlings appeared I thought we’d get a great rush of germination across the meadow. But no - a single seedling here, another one way over there – I was quite despondent that not enough seed had arrived after all the hard work we did last September.

But I need not have worried. I now know that yellow rattle plays a slightly different game. Since those first seedlings appeared nearly 6 weeks ago, more and more have steadily appeared. Even now, with the first plants growing strongly and some nearly 5” tall, new tiny seedlings are still appearing. The meadow is thick with yellow rattle and I couldn’t be happier.

Along with the yellow rattle, one of its relatives is also putting in an appearance. I have a personal fascination with eyebrights (Euphrasia sp), beautiful little white flowers that are also semi-parasitic on grass. Around 20 different (but very similar-looking) species grow in Britain and they hybridise together like mad (over 70 hybrids are known), making identification a challenge for even the most nerdy of botanists. Following the remarkable flowering of one plant in our meadow mid-winter I knew they were here, but thousands of seedlings are now appearing. Their leaves are slightly different to those of yellow rattle – blunter and more rounded – and I’ll try and identify the ones we have when they come into flower.

I’m spending far too much time wandering around the meadow at the moment, trying to find what’s coming up. I’ve even been called in to dinner a few times, returning to the house feeling like a naughty boy who’s been playing outside with his friends for too long. It’s a strangely satisfying feeling I’ve not experience for many, many years!

But it’s just too exciting. Along with the yellow rattle and eyebright – both of which are new to the meadow - several other flowers seem to be appearing in quantity. There’s definitely lots more common bird’s-foot-trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), cat’s-ear (Hypochaeris radicata), common knapweed (Centaurea nigra) and common sorrel (Rumex acetosa). Both oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) and tufted vetch (Vicia cracca) are also new to the meadow.

I cannot account for the biggest surprise so far though. Wandering rather aimlessly across the slope at the bottom of the meadow one evening, I found a patch of leaves I just didn’t recognise. Like a familiar friend seen in an unexpected place, I just couldn’t work out what it was. I now think (in that way where you’re almost certain but fear you’ve made a huge mistake), that it’s common restharrow (Ononis repens). This is a beautiful wildflower which usually grows in sunny spots on well-drained lime-rich soil – think seaside, sand dunes and chalk downland. What it’s doing here on a shaded bank with damp, acid soil I cannot say. It certainly hasn’t come from the donor meadow, so it must have been in the soil seed bank –quite a few plants are appearing over a large area. My only thought is that it must have come from the estuary, which is about 100 metres away; the Conwy River is tidal at this point and is flanked with saltmarsh vegetation, but I’ve not actually seen it there either. Wherever it came from, it’s a very welcome addition to our meadow.

But there’s absolutely no sign of devil’s-bit scabious (Succisa pratensis) or betony (Betonica officinalis), despite sowing the seed from the donor Coronation Meadow. It’s a reminder that we’re actually playing a long game here and we shouldn’t expect everything to happen in the first year. Others have reported difficulties with establishing these species in other meadows, so it might be that our seed is simply lying dormant for now and might appear next year.

All of this botanical interest was brought into sharp focus when a crew from a local TV company arrived to film the meadow recently. With drones, hand-held cameras and time-lapse cameras on posts, they produced a lovely little item for a new series, Garddio a Mwy (‘Gardening and more’). You can catch my attempts at Welsh here (the item starts after 4 minutes and subtitles are available by clicking the icon next to the speaker).

As the season starts to get underway, thousands of bulbous buttercups (Ranunculus bulbosus) are starting to flower. Standing in the meadow early on a warm, humid morning, I detect a delightful vanilla fragrance. I’m not sure if this is coming from the buttercups or the sweet vernal grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum) that’s also starting to flower in profusion.

Either way, it’s a magical moment and reminder that meadows can feed the soul on many different levels.