Road verges are a refuge for some of our rarest plants
Driving around my local roads recently I started to wonder just how many plants grow on our verges? The buttercups, bluebells and oxeye daisies are easy to spot, quick ticks in the game of roadside botanical bingo. But others – such as betony (Betonica officinalis), ragged-Robin (Silene flos-cuculi) and early-purple orchid (Orchis mascula) – are more elusive, scoring more points in my head and a little sigh of relief that they’re still surviving.
And then there are the real rarities. To paraphrase the Great Bard, I know a bank where the wood bitter-vetch blows. Unfortunately, it’s not over-canopied with luscious woodbine, with sweet musk-roses and with eglantine, but is on the side of the A740 just past the nuclear power station. I always try and stop to check it out; the delicately painted flowers give me a moment of joy as the rest of the world hurtles past (photo below of wood-bitter vetch Vicia orobus © Trevor Dines/Plantlife)
Like many botanists, I form a mental map of the roads I travel. It’s a picture of what grows where and when, which verges have been mown and which might still harbour a treasure or two. There are very old friends – the knapweed broomrape (Orobanche elatior) on the road to Fullerton that I found as a child – and new ones, like the man orchid (Orchis anthropophora) that I saw on a verge near Plantlife’s Ranscombe Farm reserve in Kent for the first time last year.
The richness of our roadside flora is astonishing. Our new road verges report brings this flora together for the first time – a national catalogue of all those species known to grow on verges and roadsides somewhere in the UK.
We’ve found that over 720 species grow on our road verges. This is an astonishing total. If we add in hedgerows and ditches, the total rises to over 800 species, representing nearly half our total flora. As well as highlighting the sheer diversity of our verges and roadsides, it really drives home their value for wildlife.
But unfortunately, the story of loss and destruction of road verge plants is a long one. In 1641 a road in Kent was widened, destroying the first colony of lizard orchid (Himantoglossum hircinum) ever recorded in Great Britain.
Today, nearly 100 ‘threatened’ or ‘near threatened’ species are found on our verges. Many of these were once more abundant in meadows, pastures and woodlands. But today, with these habitats gone or in poor condition, we’ve found that road verges now represent their last refuge. For example:
- The only remaining native site for fen ragwort (Senecio paludosus) is a road-side ditch in Cambridgeshire where it regularly suffers litter from a nearby burger van, traffic cones and even a burning car.
- Over two thirds of sulphur clover (Trifolium ochroleucon) sites are on grassy road verges, having been lost from neighbouring meadows and pastures
- Over half of crested cow-wheat (Melampyrum cristatum) records are on shaded and wooded road verges and hedgerows (photo below © Sandy Wildlife).