Flowers of Dry Pastures and Grasslands

Over the centuries, Britain’s pastures and meadows have been created from cleared forests. Many of the plants and flowers that grow in the drier grasslands were once planted as fodder crops, or are able to survive constant grazing of the land.

Most of Britain’s grasslands can be classed as artificial in the sense that our islands were once almost completely covered by forest. Around 5000 years ago, man started to make temporary clearings in the forest, cutting and burning the trees and making ash to fertilise the ground for his crops. Gradually, this type of agriculture gave way to more extensive clearance of upland sites where tree growth was less vigorous. Wild grasses and other plants colonized cleared sites, providing grazing for domesticated animals and forming Britain’s first pastures. With the improvement of agricultural methods, notably the invention of the Anglo-Saxon eight-ox plough, the richer soils of the river valleys were cultivated. Many of the upland sites cultivated earlier were turned over to animal grazing instead.

The Saxons worked with large, open fields divided into strips by shallow ditches, the remnants of which may still be seen in some areas. Today’s patchwork of fields, divided by hedgerows or walls, is largely a result of the enclosure acts of the mid 18th and early 19th centuries. These acts were mostly concerned with the enclosure of land in central and southern England, so areas to the east, west and north often show quite a different pattern of fields.

Grassland features

The common feature of each type of grassland — whether river valley, chalk downland, heath, or dry lowland pasture — is that the plants are grazed or, in the case of hay-meadows, cut. Grasses are able to grow well under these conditions as they are monocotyledonous plants and grow from the base. Even after a grass leaf has been cut in half, it can still grow from below. Most dicotyledonous plants cannot survive such repeated damage as the growing points at the tips of the leaves and stems are removed by grazing and cutting.

However, some species have special features that enable them to survive this constant grazing and cutting. They produce a rosette of leaves or tuft of stems close to the ground, or are able to produce new stems from underground storage organs.

Grazing-resistant species

Ribwort plantainRibwort plantain, one of several species of plantain common in various types of grassland, is resistant not only to grazing but also to trampling and is thus a familiar plant of lawns. It has a rosette of leaves with prominent, parallel veins, to which the common name refers. The flowers are produced in a compact head on the end of a long, wiry stalk and are pollinated by the wind.

The lady’s bedstraw does not have a basal rosette of leaves but spreads by numerous underground stems produced from a creeping rootstock. The exact appearance of the plant depends on the height of the surrounding grasses which support the bedstraw’s weak, clambering stems. The common name refers to the plant’s former use in bedding, where it was valued for its honey-like scent, the smell of new-mown hay given off by the dried foliage, and its apparent effectiveness against fleas.

A species valuable to our ancestors for culinary reasons was sorrel. Its sharp, acidic taste gave a characteristic flavour to fish, although the large-scale importation of lemons into this country has led to a decline in the use of sorrel. It is a close relative of the docks and, as it grows from strong, underground tubers, it is a grazing-resistant species.

Fertilisers and fodder plants

Sometimes old grassland with low productivity is ploughed in and resown to make new pastures or hay-meadows. Arable land may be resown as temporary grassland as part of a crop rotation to restore the fertility of the soil. The grass is often cut for hay at first, but later animals may be put out to graze on it. Farmers are no longer content to rely on the wild grasses and weeds that invade untended land and various higher-yielding strains of grasses are sown together with forage plants belonging to the pea family. Plants of a particular species may be so numerous that the entire field takes on the colour of the flowers.

Records show that red clover has been sown as a fodder crop for cattle since at least 1645. More vigorous strains have been developed gradually, and the modern cultivated plants differ from wild plants in their hollow stems and in leaflets which lack teeth on the margins. The plants can be ploughed in for green manuring, their root nodules further enriching the soil.

Other similar species of clover are sometimes cultivated, such as the aptly named zigzag clover with its zigzag stems, and the introduced crimson clover. The native white clover is also familiar in grassy places, particularly where the grass is closely grazed or cut, and is rarely cultivated. The stems differ from those of red clover as they creep along the ground, rooting and sending up flower stalks at intervals, each bearing a rounded head of white or pink flowers.

The hop trefoils are less familiar clovers; not because they are any rarer, but because the flowers are less conspicuous. The yellow petals of the hop trefoil (Trifolium campestre) wither, but remain attached to the developing fruits. The brown, papery remnants of the petals give the fruiting head the appearance of a small, upturned hop, hence the common name of the species.

A species easily confused with the hop trefoil while in flower is the black medick (Medicago lupulina). As soon as the fruits develop, however, the two species are easily distinguished. The petals of black medick fall after fertilisation to reveal the head of black pods which gives the species its common name Black medick has been used as a fodder plant in the past, and still is in some parts of Europe, but a much more important species in this respect is the closely related alfalfa, or lucerne. This species has been deliberately introduced into Britain as a crop, and the plants produce abundant seed, spreading rapidly into neighbouring grassy areas.

Grassland daisies

Many species of the daisy family are also found in grassland. Each flower of the daisy itself is actually composed of numerous florets ; the yellow, tubular ones in the centre of the flower are known as disc florets while the florets round the edge have a long, strap-shaped white petal on one side and are known as ray florets.

Some species of the daisy family have only one sort of floret; the dandelion, for example, has only ray florets. Many other yellow-flowered members of the daisy family, growing in similar grassland, also have only ray florets. The cat’s ear is one example. This is usually a much taller plant than the dandelion, with a rosette of lobed leaves at the base of the branched flowering stems.

The dandelion flowers sporadically throughout the summer and into the autumn. It is quite nutritious for cattle, and the plants are also used by man. The leaves and flower buds can be eaten in salads; the dried, ground root makes a coffee substitute and the florets can be turned into a potent wine.

The milfoil or yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a grassland daisy with quite a different appearance. It has small flower heads, each composed of disc and ray florets clustered together in characteristically flattened heads which give the impression of a single, large flower. The flowers are usually white or pink, but rare, purple-flowered plants may be seen. It is a deeply rooted species and survives constant cutting. Normally, only the flowers are lost, and these grow again quickly.

The common name of the milfoil refers to the feathery leaves, each divided into numerous fine segments, and means ‘thousands of leaves’. Milfoil has had a great variety of medicinal uses and is still sold in herbalists’ shops for home use. In fact, the Latin name Achillea refers to the legend of Achilles, who is reputed to have cured his soldiers’ wounds with milfoil.

28. July 2011 by admin
Categories: Grasses, Wildflowers | Tags: | Comments Off on Flowers of Dry Pastures and Grasslands

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