Sunday, 28 June 2015

A brownfield jewel

Sandwiched between the River Nene and the Peterborough to Cambridge railway line there is a little sliver of brownfield land, the remains of the old Peterborough East station, which is probably the most botanically important area in the city centre. If you travel on the Cambridge train you can pick it out by the startling chrome-yellow sheets of Biting Stonecrop Sedum acre that are in flower at the moment. 

The best quality habitat is to the west of the Frank Perkins parkway, and is easily accessible from a well-used footpath to Stanground. The area forms part of a more extensive corridor of brownfield land along the railway, which further east is included within the Wildlife Trust's Stanground Wash nature reserve. The substrate is formed from railway clinker, which is very nutrient poor and highly base-rich when fresh, but over time the calcium ions leach out leaving areas of more acid substrate. These unusual properties encourage a very rich flora, with both calcicole and calcifuge species growing in close proximity.

Peterborough East station shares many characteristic species with the railway land at Stanground Wash, including Viper's Bugloss Echium vulgare, Common Stork's-bill Erodium cicutarium and Perforate St.John's-wort Hypericum perforatum but it also has strong populations of several species that are not known from the nature reserve, such as Heath Speedwell Veronica officinalis, which is considered to be Near Threatened in England, and Grey Sedge Carex divulsa subsp. divulsa.

Viper's Bugloss, a typical brownfield species

Heath Speedwell, a calcifuge species which is well-established adjacent to the railway fence
The most important of these additional species is undoubtedly Wall Bedstraw Galium parisiense, a species that is listed as Vulnerable in Red Lists for both the UK and England. This diminutive cousin of Cleavers Galium aparine is a small annual of bare ground, favouring very nutrient-poor, summer-parched substrates which prevent competition from more robust species. This predominantly Mediterranean species is largely restricted to the warm and dry climates of the south-east but many former populations have been lost. There are only a handful of populations in Cambridgeshire, the most important of which occur on similar substrates at Whitemoor Railway sidings in March and at Conington tip, where it was introduced with translocated soils from Whitemoor. The population at Peterborough East station is well-established and numbers many hundred individuals.

The sprawling mats of Wall Bedstraw on typical railway substrate
Wall Bedstraw only reproduces by seed
Like many brownfield sites, the flora of Peterborough East station  also contains a number of species that have become established in the UK more recently such as Large-flowered Evening-primrose Oenothera glazioviana. However, the presence of sheets of a small, fluffy grass with noticeably purplish awns was initially a puzzle, but after a little detective work it was confirmed as Southern Beard-grass Polypogon maritimus. This species is slenderer than Annual Beard-grass Polypogon monspeliensis, which is now widely established in brownfield sites around Peterborough, and has more deeply bifid and longer hairy glumes and an unawned lemma.

Sheets of Southern Beard-grass, with noticeably purplish awns
A single spike of Southern Beard-grass

Detailed structure of Southern Beard-grass florets
Southern Beard-grass has rarely been recorded in the UK, but several of the previous records are associated with railway land. It has been recorded in Cambridgeshire once previously, at Cottenham, but has never been recorded from the Peterborough area. The population at the Peterborough Station East site is considerable, numbering many thousands of individuals.

The invertebrates of the site have scarcely been looked at, but even based on a half-hour of superficial examination, are interesting. Biting Stonecrop Sedum acre supports the rather local bug Chlamydatus evanescens, at one of its most northerly British locations; Stork's-bill Erodium cicutarium has the very local squashbug Arenocoris falleni and the only currently known Peterborough population of the burrower bug Odontoscelis lineola at the northern limit of its British range; and two Nationally Scarce weevils, Sibinia primita and Gronops lunatus, are associated with Pearlwort Sagina spp.

The whole site is included within the Fletton Quays Opportunity Area and will be developed in the near future. Listed buildings on the site will be protected and enhanced, and it is to be hoped that the same enlightened attitude will be taken to this biodiversity hot-spot, which could provide a colourful and low maintenance area of open space for all the residents of the city to enjoy.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Orchid Hunting

Chris and I took a couple of hours off this morning to go orchid hunting at a couple of local sites. Our first stop was Southorpe Meadow NR, where a Greater Butterfly Orchid had been reported. We found it quite easily, a bit worse for wear, but now protected by a wire cage. The hay-meadow was looking in very good condition, and there were many other orchids present, including Southern Marsh Orchids, Common Spotted Orchids, Pyramidal Orchids and Bee Orchids. 

Greater Butterfly Orchid Platanthera chlorantha

Southern Marsh-orchid Dactylorhiza praetermissa
Common Spotted-orchid Dactylorhiza fuchsii

Pyramidal Orchid Anacamptis pyramidalis

Bee orchid Ophrys apifera
Dactylorhiza orchids are very promiscuous and we also found the hybrid between Common Spotted and Southern Marsh Orchid Dactylorhiza x grandis and a rather more mysterious form which I suspect is a hybrid between Southern Marsh and Early Marsh Orchid Dactylorhiza x wintoni, as well as a splendidly deep purple specimen that is probably another hybrid.

Mystery orchid - very deep purple, quite large, with unspotted leaves and well-marked loops on lip

Dactylorhiza x grandis

Dactylorhiza x wintoni?

Very narrow flowers of possible D. x wintoni

We then headed out to Barnack Hills and Holes where there were sweeps of Fragrant Orchids. Chris had wanted to see Man Orchid and I managed to find one that was still flowering, though most were long over. However, the highlight was finding three Frog Orchids, two of which were extremely tiny. The other botanists examining them rather gave away their location! So within 10 miles of home we'd managed to see 10 different orchid taxa within the space of two hours - not bad at all!

A slope covered with Fragrant Orchids Gymnadenia conopsea

Fragrant Orchid Gymnadenia conopsea

A very tiny Frog Orchid Coeloglossum viride

The largest Frog Orchid, about 12cm in height

Wednesday, 25 February 2015


Snowdrops are still in flower and it's a good time to record them from your local area. The most frequent species naturalised locally is Snowdrop Galanthus nivalis, which can be recognised by its entirely glaucous (blue-green) leaves which are flat and less than 1cm in width. The inner tepals have a green patch at the apex only. This is the species that is so abundant in Old Sulehay Forest and at Orton Woods.

G.nivalis in Old Sulehay Forest

Quite often the double form 'flore pleno' can be found. This is present in Thorpe Wood NR and in many churchyards.

G.nivalis 'Flore Pleno' in Thorpe Wood

There are three other species that may be found occasionally in our area, most frequently in churchyards and cemeteries where they may originally have been planted. All three can be found in St. Botolph's Churchyard at Longthorpe.

The most distinctive perhaps is Woronow's Snowdrop Galanthus woronowii, as it is the only snowdrop that has a clear green leaf with no trace of glaucous colouration. Like G. nivalis, this species only has a green patch at the tip of the inner tepal. This appears to be fully naturalised in Longthorpe Churchyard, and I have also seen much smaller groups in several Lincolnshire churchyards this spring.

G.woronowii well established in Longthorpe Churchyard

Flowers of G.woronowii

Greater Snowdrop Galanthus elwesii has very glaucous leaves, but at least one will be more than 1.5cm wide after flowering, the leaves have their margins rolled when they are young and have a hooded apex. This species can have green patches at either just the apex, or at the base and apex of the inner tepals. I've never seen this species in large numbers, but it is occasionally present at low frequency in populations of G.nivalis.

G.elwesii in Longthorpe Churchyard


The last species is perhaps the rarest, and in some ways can be the trickiest to identify. Pleated Snowdrop Galanthus plicatus has glaucous leaves, but the margins are folded under at least along most of the length, especially when young. Although this sounds a relatively easy character it can be quite tricky to notice. The leaves are also supposed to have a paler central band on the upper side. Like G. elwesii, the inner tepals can be marked with green either just at the tip (subsp. plicatus) or at the apex and base (subsp. byzantinus).

G.plicatus in Longthorpe Churchyard

G.plicatus subsp. plicatus

Do have a closer look at your local snowdrops in the next couple of weeks and see if you can spot some of the less frequent species. Of course, like many plants, they will hybridise, but that's another story...