A Botanist’s life in Lockdown

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Ophrys apifera on Cradle Hill

Source: Proctor, Helen. “A Botanist’s life in Lockdown.” Sussex Botanical Recording Society Newsletter, no. 91 (November 2020). https://www.sussexflora.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/Newsletter_nov_20.pdf.

In early March, my new neighbour started major reconstruction work on his house.  By the time that Lockdown placed restrictions on our lives, staying indoors meant listening to ear-splitting banging and hammering as the roof was demolished and rebuilt with part of the pitch raised. The front lawn was ripped up, trees removed and an excavator deafened the neighbourhood.  The radio played and the contractor’s dog demonstrated his powerful bark.  Impending insanity loomed.  Staying at home, indoors or in the garden was just not an option.

One form of exercise per day sometimes became a very long walk, sometimes accompanied by sandwiches, to an isolated place known only to me.  I could watch butterflies and dragonflies above a stream lined with Epilobium hirsutum and Stachys palustris.

My local walks turned up some interesting finds.  Close to home, I discovered one tall stem of Dactylorrhiza fuchsii, hiding behind a “wall” of Epilobium hirsutum just outside the local school’s boundary fence.  From a footpath down a steep hillside I counted over 100 plants of Ophioglossum vulgatum.  The tenant farmer takes a hay cut in late summer and then occasionally grazes sheep, though not intensively.  Later on, other local fields turned up Genista tinctoria, Silaum silaus and Scutellaria galericulata in quantity, not previously noticed and a new site for Achillea ptarmica.  Another walk on Milton Hyde revealed a wet patch with Veronica catenata.  Many more plants of Pedicularis sylvatica had benefitted from brush-cutting in a previous year.

The furlough scheme kept some of the local school’s groundsmen from mowing the sports fields quite so frequently. One day I counted 133 plants of Ranunculus bulbosus which had been allowed to flower.  I returned the same way in the afternoon and found that all had been mown off!

Michelham Priory was closed to the public and to all volunteers.  The resident Head Gardener was left to manage the grounds single- handed.  Clearly he could not!  By the third week in April a plea had gone out for help and I was one of two volunteers allowed entry for some solitary gardening.  James brought the tools I needed to me and brought me mugs of tea. I felt like royalty but it didn’t last!  This was a good opportunity to study the weeds, sorry, wild flowers.  Atriplex prostrata filled every space in the large herbaceous bed and seeds kept on germinating for several weeks. Galium aparine strangled every garden plant.  Urtica dioica sent its roots under the Alliums. The huge bonus was the utter peace. I sat by the moat with a robin for company. I watched the few ducks and saw a Heron flying over. A Jackdaw flew back and forth to a hole in a tree.  I watched a family of Canada Geese grow up.  Being able to escape the noise at home on up to three days a week was a godsend. 

I started my own mini-project at Michelham where the land is always accessible.  An unloved rectangular flower bed near the mill was populated only by Myosotis arvensis.  Deciding that arable weeds would be appropriate near the water mill, I sowed seeds from half a packet of cornfield annuals in late June. Despite watering in the seeds, these germinated on only one half of the flower bed.  None of the “nurse” grasses germinated but robust plants of Avena fatua appeared instead.  Agrostemma githago (Corn Cockle) was the first to germinate, followed by Calendula arvensis (Corn Marigold) and Anthemis arvensis (Chamomile) but no plants of Papaver rhoeas (Corn Poppy) appeared.  Other weeds that had been “waiting in the wings” included Amaranthus retroflexus, Sonchus asper, Senecio vulgaris and Euphorbia peplus.  Every now and then I dig out surplus Sonchus asper but leave the other plants undisturbed.

The school’s plan to turn the field behind the village into junior football pitches was put on hold.  The school had by default, created a “meadow” which has attracted lots of nectaring insects and provided food for birds. I may be the only village resident who appreciated the value of 40 plants of Trifolium pratense earlier in the year, then the flowering plants of Cirsium arvense, Epilobium hirsutum, Dipsacus fullonum and Rumex crispus now in seed and food for Goldfinches!  Nature is not tidy but I know that!

I wrote a chapter on churchyards for a book on “Meadow Folk”. A photograph of the author was required.  In late May, I could be seen peering at a group of 200 flower stems of Dactylorrhiza fuchsii in a corner of a churchyard.  Three of us, the photographer, the book’s editor and me made a huge equilateral triangle in the burial ground.  I had complained that I had not been able to visit a hairdresser so Iain brought me a sunhat with the largest brim ever to cover my mop!  When the photographer was too far distant, he asked me to use my white recording sheet to reflect light on to my face!  You will have to wait until next year to see the result!

In mid-June, Peter and I started recording local tetrads for the next decade.  Social distancing involved driving in separate cars to venues.  A warm, dry and sunny day made an exploration of Cradle Hill’s flowers a delight. Gymandenia conopsea was plentiful and Anacamptis pyramidalis was coming into flower. After careful searching, we eventually counted five plants of Orchis ustulata.  They were quite hard to spot as they were only 1” high! Further on we found five flowering plants of Ophrys apiferaThesium humifusum was in bud. I noticed an object coloured pink and orange which turned out to be a possible Small Elephant Hawkmoth.

Gymnadenia conopsea on Cradle Hill

On June 22nd our venue was the Seven Sisters Country Park.  Winter storms and the lack of action by the Environment Agency had led to the natural restructuring of the shingle bank which was now furrowed on the inward side and two ridges had effectively been created.  Sea water flowed through pools from west to east.  Frankenya laevis was flowering well at the west end of the shingle bank and one plant of Limonium binervosum was already in bloom.

Another Monday found us near Milton Gate where cattle-trampled unimproved, spring-fed marshy ground gave us Stellaria aquatica, and the leaves of Hydrocotyle vulgaris and Silene flos-cuculi amongst other species.

Sundays and evenings were the only time when I could enjoy my garden in relative peace.  I discovered that Kickxia elatine was in residence in the back garden and Kickxia spuria in the front garden.  Plants of Misopates orontium which I introduced from my aunt’s garden in Ringwood a long time ago still survive. In the front garden, lack of attention allowed Helianthus annuus in miniature to grow out of the kerbs at the lawn edge as well as Centaurea nigra, Malva sylvestris, Torilis japonica and the dreaded Equisetum arvense!

All the necessary social distancing measures in place, more garden volunteers returned to Michelham and the gate was opened to the public in July.  With the public and a take-away cafe, 32 Mallard ducks returned, eager to be fed!

During lockdown, a few people have contacted me, expressing an interest in conservation for biodiversity in churchyards, resulting in e-mailed advice and the writing of a management plan for one of the churches.

Most of the construction work next door has been completed.  The scaffolding which was due to be removed on April 30th is still in place over my path and causing an algal species to grow where rainwater drips off the poles!