“Still flowerings”

from Simon Leach 11th November

Weeks 29 to 34 – drop-outs, hangers-on, second flings and upstarts

The start of another lockdown, and as good a moment as any to peep over the parapet again. Almost miraculously, the weather on the eve of this second lockdown was exactly the same as it was back in March at the start of the first. A ground frost, followed by a day of unbroken sunshine, and an afternoon high of 13°C. It felt almost spring-like!

Given my year-long obsession with spring you won’t be surprised to learn that I’m finding autumn a bit of a challenge. If I were to claim otherwise, I’d be lying. But this isn’t for want of trying, I can tell you. Vicki and I have been dipping into and out of BBC’s Autumnwatch, and like Chris Packham I’ve spent quality time with conkers, sniffed great fistfuls of leaf litter and humus, and welcomed the arrival of Fieldfares and Redwings. We’ve marvelled, too, at flocks of two-hundred or more Avocets on the Parrett Estuary. And uncountable numbers of Dunlin. We’ve seen Peregrines and departing Swallows; and Red Admirals on late bramble blossom and rotting windfalls. I’ve been revelling, as best I can, in the autumn colours this year, even after our failed attempt to ‘pre-book’ a visit to Westonbirt. We went to Ashton Court instead, meeting up with some of Vicki’s family for a socially-distanced picnic in the rain; the Beech trees, in particular, were stunning.

But despite such autumnal highlights, it’s the things still flowering that have really helped to keep my spirits up. Spurred on by the “chairman’s challenge”, on 1st October—at the start of my ‘Week 29’—I resolved, if I could, to keep a weekly list of species still flowering on my local patch. Steve asked us to concentrate on a 1-km square, but I found it hard not to stray beyond the gridlines, and have ended up making a note of anything still flowering on any of our usual dog-walking circuits in and around Taunton. Even so, it’s hard to ignore the extras seen while making a rare trip along the M5 (Great Mullein, Verbascum thapsus), or when traipsing across Steart Marshes (Parsley Water-dropwort, Oenanthe lachenalii), or on one-off visits to Ash Priors Common (Devil’s-bit Scabious, Succisa pratensis) or Langford Heathfield (Sneezewort, Achillea ptarmica), or Lydeard Hill (Bell Heather, Erica cinerea, and Cross-leaved Heath, Erica tetralix), or…

Which means I’ve ended up trying to keep multiple lists, involving another spread-sheet, damn it. For the “chairman’s challenge” I decided to confine my recording to Longrun Meadow, although even this falls foul of Steve’s rules (or were they guidelines?) in that this not-very-big site inconveniently straddles not one, not two, not three, but four monads. Apart from that, all but one of our usual dog-walking routes lie within ST22—the only exception being Orchard Wood which annoyingly strays into ST12 at its southern end.

The start of Week 29 coincided nicely with the beginning of October and the launch date for the “chairman’s challenge”. I have to say that, challenge or not, the last six weeks have been something of a revelation, with my own list of flowerers amounting to 257 species, and most of these—well, at least 200—on our regular dog-walking routes. Of these, 80 were seen flowering in Longrun Meadow. Yet even the relatively short list for Longrun contains a few surprises. Hoary Cinquefoil, Potentilla argentea, is (as of 7th November) still flowering nicely, but the most astonishing ‘still-flowerer’ has to be Grass-leaved Vetchling, Lathyrus nissolia. There’s a big patch of it on the bank of the western-most flood retention lagoon—the end nearest the Hospice—and it’s still throwing out the odd flower more than five months after the first flowers appeared in late May. And let’s not forget Alastair’s first record of it flowering in Minehead, on 20th April. To put these extreme dates into perspective, Walter Watson gave the flowering period for Grass-leaved Vetchling as ‘June to July’. Clapham, Tutin & Warburg suggests ‘May to July’. No mention of November (or April) anywhere…

A few, of course, like Ivy, Hedera helix, Gorse, Ulex europaeus, and Sowbread, Cyclamen hederifolium, are species that we’d expect to be flowering in the autumn. Most of October’s flowerers, however, are probably best regarded as ‘hangers-on’ from summer, with some of these finally throwing in the towel at some point during the six weeks since Steve’s “challenge” began. I estimate that at least 30 species have been lost over that time, joining a long list of others that had already ceased flowering before the end of September. It is a curious fact that quite a few species coming into flower relatively late in the summer also seem to drop out remarkably early in the autumn. Carline Thistle, Carlina vulgaris, and Strawberry Clover, Trifolium fragiferum, are two examples of this. And notice how Small Teasel, Dipsacus pilosus, starts later and finishes earlier than Wild Teasel, D. fullonum, with the latter still flowering in one or two favoured spots as late as the fourth week of October. Amongst my own ‘drop-outs’, last records of flowering Bird’s-foot-trefoil, Lotus corniculatus, Meadow Vetchling, Lathyrus pratensis,and Dodder, Cuscuta epithymum, were all in the first week of the month. The second week saw more species succumbing, including the last Field Bindweed, Convolvulus arvensis, Great Willowherb, Epilobium hirsutum, Purple Loosestrife, Lythrum salicaria, and Greater Plantain, Plantago major—although the last of these is hard to spot, its rather underwhelming flowers making it look ‘past its best’ even when it’s at its peak! Lesser Burdock, Arctium minus, also petered out, for me at least, in the second week of October.

The third week of October (Week 31) had a host of last-flowerers. At Thurlbear, for instance, I witnessed what turned out to be the final flowering of Wild Parsnip, Pastinaca sativa, Stemless Thistle, Cirsium acaule, and Mouse-ear Hawkweed, Pilosella officinarum. In town, down by the river, we had the last Marsh Woundwort, Stachys palustris, Water Figwort, Scrophularia auriculata, Water Mint, Mentha aquatica,Amphibious Bistort, Persicaria amphibia, and Hemp-agrimony, Eupatorium cannabinum. None of these gave the impression that they’d be gone so soon, and yet the following week, and the week after that, the inevitability of their absence gradually dawned…

Being certain of the week of the final ‘curtain call’ for each species gets more problematic the nearer you get to the present moment, since there’s always the hope that something apparently gone in the last week may yet come back to surprise us next week. So I hesitate to claim, yet, the last Bush Vetch, Vicia sepium, or Fool’s Watercress, Apium nodiflorum. And only this week am I starting to feel confident that I’ve probably seen the last of Thurlbear’s Autumn Gentians, Gentianella amarella, and Eyebrights, Euphrasia agg. Although, having said that, I thought we’d lost Yellow-wort, Blackstonia perfoliata, last week, and then miraculously it popped into view again on Monday. Struck off one week, reinstated the next!

So, these are the drop-outs, but then there’s the (currently much bigger) group of what I’m calling ‘hangers-on’, the spring- and summer-flowering species that seem intent on continuing to flower through thick and thin, although in almost every case we have to acknowledge that at some date, yet to be specified, they too will (in some cases quite literally) fall by the wayside. My own list currently has upwards of 130 such species, and one wonders which will be next to make the switch from ‘hanger-on’ to ‘drop-out’. Within Taunton there are no fewer than five still-flowering Crane’s-bills, Geranium spp., although three of them—Dove’s-foot, G. molle, Small-flowered, G.  pusillum, and Hedgerow, G. pyrenaicum—haven’t been seen this week so may have already gone. Meadow Crane’s-bill, G. pratense, continues to light up patches of long grassland by the River Tone between Obridge and Creech Castle, but there’s less each week, and I’m preparing myself for the shock of its vanishing—it’s been a constant companion since its first appearance on 12th May, almost exactly six months ago. Meanwhile, Herb Robert, G. robertianum, the hardiest of the lot, carries on undeterred, and might well continue to produce flowers even in the middle of winter if it stays reasonably mild.

Alongside Herb Robert there’s a gang of species renowned for their all-year-round ability to keep going when those around them have long since stuttered to a halt. Daisy, Bellis perennis, Shepherd’s-purse, Capsella bursa-pastoris, Petty Spurge, Euphorbia peplus, Annual Meadow-grass, Poa annua, Groundsel, Senecio vulgaris,and Dandelion, Taraxacum agg., are six such species. But, in Taunton, and maybe more widely in Somerset, there are others flowering now that in the past you wouldn’t have expected to persist through the darkest quarter of the year. White Dead-nettle, Lamium album, is a case in point. Watson had its average first flowering date (FFD) as 11th March, yet in the last decade we’ve usually seen it already blooming on New Year’s Day. A still more extreme example is Pellitory-of-the-wall, Parietaria judaica: Watson had it flowering between May and October, but that seems almost ludicrous now, as this is another one that in recent years has continued to flower right through the winter. Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, is another. As is Annual Mercury, Mercurialis annua. And Hogweed, Heracleum sphondylium. And maybe Cow Parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris? And it’s worth keeping an eye on your local Ivy-leaved Toadflax, Cymbalaria muralis, too. The list of these ‘all-rounders’ seems to get longer with each passing year…

Another group of species flowering at the moment are those that I like to think of as having a ‘second fling’—these are plants that, following a (usually lengthy) period without flowers in mid to late summer, have recently indulged in a second spike[1] of flowering due to the exceptionally mild (and until last week, frost-free) autumn. Some of them you had already begun noting in September: Gill’s Holly, Ilex aquifolium, and Ann’s Wayfaring-tree, Viburnum lantana, for example. But there have been many others in October. The one that’s surprised me the most has been Heath Speedwell, Veronica officinalis, at Thurlbear and Orchard Wood. It’s not just the odd plant either, it’s dozens of plants, maybe hundreds. Watson’s flowering period for it is May to August, but I’m starting to think that this new flush of flowers could keep going until December, weather permitting.

Other species engaged in a ‘second fling’ have included Soft-brome, Bromus hordeaceus, Rye-brome, B. secalinus, Long-stalked Crane’s-bill, Geranium columbinum, Ground-ivy, Glechoma hederacea, Cowslip, Primula veris, and Blackthorn, Prunus spinosa. On one wood-bank at Thurlbear I’ve even seen fresh-flowering Wood Melick, Melica uniflora, stamens and all, while the amount of Dogwood, Cornus sanguinea, blossoming now is quite exceptional—although this is one that Watson did recognise as being peculiarly prone to a second bout of flowering in mild autumns.

And then there’s the group of species that I’m calling ‘upstarts’—the ones that seem to be getting ahead of themselves, behaving as though winter’s nearly done and spring’s starting gun is about to be fired. Maybe a few of the ‘second flings’, like the Blackthorn, have been acting in a similar way, but there are others: Early Dog-violet, Viola reichenbachiana, is already flowering in the back garden, while Primrose, Primula vulgaris, is beginning to bloom up at Thurlbear. At Orchard Wood this morning there was lots of flowering Ivy-leaved Speedwell, Veronica hederifolia, and Wall Speedwell, Veronica arvensis, where two weeks ago there was none. Watson’s flowering period for Ivy-leaved Speedwell was February to June! And Cut-leaved Crane’s-bill, Geranium dissectum, was flowering there too. Watson reckoned on its flowering period to be May to August, so to see a new generation of plants beginning to flower in November is odd, to put it mildly (pun intended).

I’ve reflected more than once this year on how much harder it is to record the ending of something than its start. The latter only requires you to make one record, the date on which you first see it. But endings mean you have to keep noting something over and over, and over again; and then it’s only when you stop noting it that you realise, with the benefit of hindsight, that it’s finally slipped from view. Much like trying to spot the last Swift. But the “chairman’s challenge” invites us to try to keep track of these disappearances, and although my own catalogue of losses will be quite unlike anyone else’s, it’ll be interesting to see what similarities there are between our various lists. As Steve says, we should find the lists getting shorter as the year progresses, with December’s possibly the shortest of the lot. Unless, of course, the weather continues to stay mild, which might allow some of the ‘hangers-on’ to keep going until the earliest of next year’s spring-flowerers like Hazel, Corylus avellana, Spurge-laurel, Daphne laureola, and Sweet Violet, Viola odorata, are underway. In the meantime, for those of us impatient to begin next spring’s main course, within a matter of days there could be Winter Heliotrope, Petasites fragrans, to whet the appetite.

Yes, I know it can be a bit of a thug, but it does at least do an admirable job (despite its name) of signalling spring when everything else seems to be screaming winter.

[1] There are many words and phrases that have been purloined by the pandemic, and as such have lost their innocence and acquired more sinister meanings. I think ‘second spike’ is a good example of that—which is a pity. There are other words that didn’t seem to even exist a year ago. Where, for instance, did the horrid word ‘uptick’ come from? It just means ‘increase’, doesn’t it? So why don’t they just say ‘increase’? In my view uptick should be banned from the English language. (And then there’s ‘lockdown’ which is probably here to stay, unfortunately.)