Local delights

Latest sightings
Picture of a wet wood in the Weald in Sussex, with lots of ferns
Spanden Wood in May

Source: Scott, Brad. “Local delights.” Sussex Botanical Recording Society Newsletter, no. 91 (November 2020). https://www.sussexflora.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/Newsletter_nov_20.pdf.

The recent months have been scattered with early morning walks with a friend who has been keen to get to know the habitats and flora of the area around Forest Row. Lying on the northern edge of Ashdown Forest astride the river Medway, the village is surrounded by a pleasing mixture of different landscapes, shaped by the underlying geology, each offering contrasting botanical catalogues to discover.

While peering at my local natural history during the lockdown period, I can imagine that I have not been the only person to rediscover the joy and richness of where I live, having slightly forgotten its singularity amid the usual busy events and routine of normal life, and, in so doing, find new treasures and topographies nestling within a place I believed I knew exceptionally well.

The Kid brook rises on the Forest only about 3 km from the house, flowing through Hindleap Warren, then descending towards the village, with a lovely area of bog to its west. Over the summer, among the steadily-dominating Molinia, the spikes of Narthecium ossifragum (Bog Asphodel) stand there like beacons, pointing the way to mats of Drosera rotundifolia (Round-leaved Sundew) on the Sphagnum. It is an excellent spot for the bog-mosses, with 13 different taxa in the bog and nearby birch and pine woodlands. Like Ashdown Forest generally, the tetrad TQ43B is extraordinarily well recorded for bryophytes, so it was a pleasant surprise to find the small lettuce-like liverwort Fossombronia pusilla (Common Frillwort) as a casual coloniser of some of the sandy soil in a wet gulley when Sue Rubinstein and I showed a visiting American bryologist some of the Sussex sites earlier in the year. Plants of this genus can only be determined from the microscopic examination of the spore decoration, which is not as hard as it sounds, and those fine spores brought the tetrad bryophyte total to 138, which is a very high number for Sussex.

Spores of the liverwort Fossombronia pusilla, which look like small brown balls with lots of little spines on them
Spores of the liverwort Fossombronia pusilla

Away from the Ashdown Formation, to the north of Forest Row the geology changes to the mudstone of the Wadhurst Clay which is home to some very different plant communities, most strikingly in the small patches of ghyll woodland. About five years ago I found a large previously-unrecorded coppiced Tilia cordata (Small-leaved Lime) in Hazel Wood, which is within Tablehurst Farm, a community-supported agriculture enterprise about 20 minutes walk from the house. I took my friend to see that in the spring once it came into leaf and we looked at the emerging flora of the surrounding W8 (Fraxinus excelsiorAcer campestreMercurialis perennis woodland) assemblage, as described in the National Vegetation Classification.

This got me wondering whether there were any other potential sites for Tilia cordata nearby, and I have since focussed on Spanden Wood, which lies just to the west, and contains a beautiful and remarkably difficult-to-access ghyll that leads into the Medway. I had previously found some relatively noteworthy plants on the wood’s fringes, such as the liverwort Porella platyphylla (Wall Scalewort) on Ash, and, nearer the stream, the chunky moss Rhytidiadelphus triquetrus (Big Shaggy-moss), which is more typical of chalk and calcareous woods, yet realised I hadn’t recorded the area properly. And, looking at the bryophyte and vascular plant data for the tetrad it seemed like no-one else had either.

A visit in May revealed the particular pleasures of Spanden Wood; the understorey was dotted with thousands of spikes of Orchis mascula (Early-purple Orchid) among the Hyacinthoides non-scripta (Bluebells), and Crataegus laevigata (Midland Hawthorn) was not uncommon. Away from the single path through the wood, and keen to get to the bottom of the ghyll, most of that morning’s walk was a slow struggle, gingerly edging down some very slippery steep muddy slopes, which were often coated in brambles. By the stream, the botanical bounty was apparent, with many brilliant yellow spikes of Lamiastrum galeobdolon (Yellow Archangel) and abundant stands of Dryopteris borreri.

Several nice bryophytes caught my eye too, such as Orthotrichum stramineum (Straw Bristle-moss) with its dark tipped capsules on its sporophyte, and some mats of the liverwort Plagiochila porelloides (Lesser Featherwort), but the biggest delight was in finding multiple patches of the white-flowered Cardamine amara (Large Bitter-cress) threading down the ghyll for at least 200 m.

Six weeks later, another visit aimed to be a more comprehensive recording session, which ticked off a good number of the species in the Floristic table of the W8 community in the National Vegetation Classification, while giving opportunity to feast on supremely ripe and locally abundant Ribes rubrum (Red Currant). Still, the valley floor still needs more careful exploration, while avoiding the deep mud and gloop, but as yet I’ve not found any more Tilia cordata; another similar-looking wood to the west beckons, so that can be the target for next year.