Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Two Native Stars of the Winter Garden

Posted by Dr Trevor Dines

During the long, dark days of winter, we make many demands on our gardens, craving colour, form and texture. Two stalwarts that rise to the challenge admirably are box and dogwood, providing evergreen structure and coloured stems respectively. Yet both are also native to Britain, one being common, one rare.

The common one is dogwood Cornus sanguinea, a familiar plant along hedgerows and in woodland and scrub on lime-rich soils. It grows with such frequency that it’s often taken for granted, but take a second glance and you’ll see it’s a handsome shrub, with broad, deeply corrugated leaves and umbels of white flowers, followed in autumn by black berries.

These are all set off by its young shoots; lustrous, dark red stems that give the plant the scientific name, sanguinea, from the Latin meaning blood-red. As a final performance at the end of the autumn, the leaves turn fiery reds and butter yellows before falling, allowing the bare shoots to glow vibrantly in the winter sunshine.

Mature plants yield a dense, strong and flexible wood; this was once used to manufacture whippletrees (a cross-bar used to tether a horse to a cart or plough). This was another name for the plant. The wood was also used for making ‘dags’ (skewers and daggers) and called ‘dagwood’ as a result, which over time became dogwood, although other histories tell that the bark was used as a mange treatment for dogs, hence ‘dogwood’.

Box Buxus sempervirens needs little description – the familiar clipped, sculptured and topiaried evergreen so prominent in countless gardens. Given its popularity, it might come as a surprise that it’s one of our rarest native plants.

Although widely naturalised and planted in woodlands throughout England and Wales, it is believed to be truly native at just two chalk downland sites. Not surprisingly their names bear witness to the presence of the plant - Box Hill in Surrey and Boxley in Kent.

In the wild and unconstrained by man, box grows into luxuriant trees with wonderful twisted trunks and branches. Most plants grow in open woodland along with yew Taxus baccata and are home to the equally rare Box Hill bug. Like dogwood, box gives a very fine-grained, beautiful wood that is still in demand for making a variety of things from rolling pins to chess pieces and wind instruments.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Save Our Magnificent Meadows

Posted by Nicola Hutchinson, Head of Conservation Programmes, England and Wales.

If you happen to see fireworks around the Plantlife HQ it isn’t just because of we like to celebrate the Chinese New Year – it’s because the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has this past week agreed to fund a grassland programme of unrivalled scale.  It is the first time that the HLF's UK committee has considered a natural heritage bid - usually environment projects are decided on by HLF at regional level - so this is totally new territory for the HLF, and for Plantlife, and a resounding achievement for the hard work over several years that goes into submitting a bid of this ambition.

Save Our Magnificent Meadows is a £3million programme of meadow and other grassland conservation, with community and people engagement at its heart, to be delivered across the UK.  It is headed up by Plantlife, with the following partners: Ulster Wildlife Trust, RSPB Scotland, Scottish Wildlife Trust, Northumberland Wildlife Trust, National Trust in Wales, Cotswolds Conservation Board, Somerset Wildlife Trust, RSPB in Wiltshire, Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, and the Medway Valley Countryside Partnership (Kent CC). The project partners are a mighty bunch who have worked long and hard to work out the best approach to the most important grassland needs in their areas, and we are all thrilled.  For the conservation of grassland plants and other wildlife this is incredible news. It is an amazing opportunity for our grassland wildlife, so often the 'Cinderellas of the conservation world' - talked about in terms of extreme loss and decline but often overlooked in the wake of higher profile habitats such as woodlands and wetlands. This time they have a chance to go to the Ball!

The key to Save our Magnificent Meadows is that it isn't simply a series of independent local projects, rather there is a strong nationwide programme of activities to link local activities and to take the message as wide as possible.  The project has received £2.1million from the HLF and will begin in Spring 2014 for three years.  We will work with landowners to restore and create wildlife-rich grasslands; we will directly safeguard over 3000 ha of our most vulnerable grassland habitats and influence the management of a further 3000 ha. Crucially, the project will foster greater understanding of the values of meadows and grasslands by landowners, communities and wider society with over 550,000 people expected to participate.

I've spent the past few days spreading the news and thanking the many people who have helped bring this incredible opportunity to life.  My hope is that one day the sights and sounds of wildlife-rich meadows and grasslands will again be a familiar summer experience for the many and not just the few as it sadly is today.

We’ll keep you updated of events as they happen via this blog, our website, Facebook and Twitter.