Flowers of open grassland
Water meadow in the Welland Valley
More flowers of Rockingham Forest
by Jeremy Purseglove
Here we describe some of the most striking and obvious species of flowers that can be found in open grassland, quarries and landfill sites. There are three other flower pages, one with the rarest and most unusual flowers, and others with the most obvious species that occur on the forest floor and along the forest rides.
More happy flower hunting in grassy parts of the forest!
Flowers of open grassland, quarries and landfill sites
Flower etchings are by the artist, Robin Tanner (1904-1988) and are taken from ‘Woodland Plants’ by Heather and Robin Tanner, Impact Books, 1981.
Coloured botanical plates are taken from ‘Medical Botany’ by Stephenson and Churchill, 1834.
Unless otherwise indicated, photos are by Barrie Galpin.
‘Cowslap’ was the old Northamptonshire name for Cowslip, which came from the Old English cu-sloppe or ‘cow’s slop’ - the flower that flourishes among the cowpats. All over the grazing pastures, the common Cowslip was taken for granted, as abundant up to the 1950s as dandelions or buttercups. They were made into wine and in Somerset made into balls known as ‘tistie-tosties’. In Lambton, Nottinghamshire on the first Sunday in May, ‘Cowslip Sunday’, they were brought into the church and parties of townsfolk came out to buy bunches of them.
Then suddenly they weren’t there. The people who looked at these things were saying ‘When did you last see a Cowslip?’ Like a canary in the mine, the vanishing Cowslip became a warning symbol of the massive changes taking place in the English countryside. This resulted from herbicides, which were even routine on roadsides until the 1980s but above all from the ploughing of permanent pasture for intensive farming.
Cowslip, Primula veris
But given half a chance, Cowslips germinate very easily and as churchyards and roadsides were more sympathetically managed from the 1990s, the flowers began to return. Any highways engineer worth their salt will be expected to specify wildflower seeds on new road embankments and you can now see huge colonies of Cowslips on the sides of the trunk roads in Northamptonshire. They also thrive on the dry limestone slopes of quarries within Rockingham Forest.
In Derbyshire we always used to call this cheerful little flower ‘Bacon and Eggs’ because of the way the yolk yellow flowers are often tinged with red when opening. The common name comes from the way that the seed pods are spread out finger-wise like a bird’s foot. In fact, up to seventy local names have been recorded. The claw-like pods have given it the rather wicked name of ‘Granny’s Toenails.’ Under the name ‘Hop-o’-my-Thumb’, it was commonly associated with the goblin Tom Thumb, which was believed to have clawed feet. The Northamptonshire name was ‘Jack-Jump-About’.
Birdsfoot Trefoil is always swarming with bees and although moths also sip its nectar, they do not pollinate it.
Birdsfoot Trefoil, Lotus corniculatus
Most importantly it is the host plant for a large range of butterflies. Where it occurs on landfill sites and quarries within the forest, you will often find it with Common Blue butterflies, the larvae of which feed on it. Other butterflies, which occur in the forest, and which feed on Birdsfoot Trefoil leaves are Dingy Skipper, Wood White, Green Hairstreak, Clouded Yellow and Chalk Hill Blue. If you walk down woodland rides in the forest, you will often find the Greater Birdsfoot Trefoil, Lotus uliginosus. This is a taller, hairier relative, which prefers much damper places. This plant also feeds the caterpillars of the Common Blue, Dingy Skipper and Wood White butterflies.
The clown-like colourful Bee Orchid is always a thrill to find especially as it has the mysterious habit of suddenly appearing in large numbers and then abruptly disappearing again. It likes disturbed lime-rich soil and is known to favour industrial sites and roundabouts. It absolutely loves old quarries and some large
colonies have appeared on working landfill sites within Rockingham Forest.
Like its close relative the Fly Orchid, the Bee Orchid is famous for the phenomenon of pseudo-copulation, whereby in its case, a bee attempts to mate with the bee-like flower Charles Darwin believed that this was the case and was told about some
unconfirmed instances of what he called the plant’s ‘beautiful contrivances.’
Bee Orchid, Ophrys apifera
However, disappointingly this has never yet been reliably observed and in Britain, the flowers are self-pollinating. Normally the pollinia fall out of the anther and hang down to be caught on the sticky stigma with the slightest breath of wind. However, one bee, Eucera longicornis, that is known to pollinate Bee Orchids, does occur in the UK. In contrast to other British orchids almost every flower produces a seed capsule.
With its bright pink spikes of flower in July, the Pyramidal Orchid must be one of the most spectacular flowers occurring in open and grassy places within the forest. In addition to some quarries and road verges it also appears in the wider clearings of Fineshade and Bedford Purlieus, especially on limestone, which it prefers.
The Pyramidal Orchid was studied by Darwin, who regarded it as a beautiful example of perfect adjustment to pollination by butterflies and moths since the shape of the flower is precisely adapted to the butterfly’s long proboscis. As the proboscis rolls in and out of the flower’s narrow tube in search of nectar, the twin pollinia stick onto the tongue of the insect and then fasten on ever more tightly with a curling action and a hardening of natural cement. Darwin once observed eleven pairs of pollinia from successive flowers carried away on the proboscis of a single moth.
Pyramidal Orchid, Anacamptis pyramidalis
The rich purple flowers of Clustered Bellflower are to be found in limestone grassland within the forest. This picture was taken at Collyweston Deeps, among the old quarry workings. They are also a feature of Tixover churchyard, not exactly within the forest but with one of the best views of it.
A local name for the flower in Wiltshire is Danes’ Blood because of its crimson stems and due to the belief, that it had sprung up on the site of ancient battle grounds. It greatly varies in size depending on the soil conditions where it grows. In poor tightly grazed turf, it is a tiny purple jewel whereas in richer cooler conditions it is a robust clump reaching two feet high and that is how it appears when grown in cottage gardens,
Clustered Bellflower, Campanula glomerata
This distinctive yellow-flowered annual with grey glaucous leaves loves dry places rich in limestone and so is often found in quarries.
Like the pink Centaury, with which it is often found, it is rather surprisingly a member of the gentian family. It's Latin name comes from the London apothecary and botanist John Blackstone (1712-53).
Yellow Wort, Blackstonia perfoliata
This slightly queer plant with felty leaves and faded purplish flowers is a biennial of open patches in rough grassland often associated with rabbits. It grows in grazing pasture near King's Cliffe, as well as other places in the forest.
The leaves were seen as sufficiently similar to a dog’s tongue to give the plant its name. The herbalist Culpepper (1616-1654) took the analogy further, starting the use of Hound's Tongue as a charm against dogs. The plant became a remedy against dog bites and a leaf was placed in one’s shoe to deter them. Culpepper also stated that it ‘ties the tongues of hounds’ leading to the improbable suggestion that a leaf laid on the tongue of a guard dog would silence it, enabling thieves to rob a house. Quite how a leaf could be laid on the ferocious hound’s tongue before it was silenced is left to the imagination.
Hound's Tongue, Cynoglossum officinale
Photo: Brian Skilton
The bristly spires of Viper’s Bugloss are the most intense blue of any English wildflower. This biennial revels in the poorest and driest conditions, even thriving on the pebble beaches of Dungeness. Unsurprisingly, it is found in quarries within the forest. Viperish in all its parts, the fruits were thought to resemble adders’ heads and the speckled stem compared to a snake’s skin. The Latin name comes from echis, a viper, and the plant was used to treat snake bites.
Viper's Bugloss, Echium vulgare
Few wild British plants can have had as dramatic a turn round in status and value as the Yellow or Hay Rattle. This semi-parasite has long white roots, which attach themselves to surrounding grasses, robbing them of nutrients and so greatly reducing biomass and the consequent value of a potential hay crop or grazing sward. For this reason, the rattle, named for its rattling seed pods was understandably hated by many farmers, who named it ‘Poverty Weed’. John Gerard, writing in the 1590s, stated that ‘it is accounted unprofitable.’ As recently as 1966, Professor Ian Moore simply dismissed rattle plants as ‘troublesome weeds’ in his New Naturalist volume ‘Grass and Grasslands’.
Yellow Rattle, Rhinanthus minor
How things have changed! With the huge interest from gardeners, park managers and conservationists in establishing new flower-rich meadows, Yellow Rattle is the perfect agent by which this can be achieved. Its ability to starve out grass is now seen as a virtue. The destroyer of crops has in turn become a valuable crop. In 2023 rattle seed was selling for £384 a kilogram and a 15-acre field of flowers harvested for seed could realise £18,000 a year. ‘With no fertilizer or spray requirements’ proclaimed the Farmers Weekly, wildflowers ‘produce exceedingly good profit margins.’
Wild Thyme, Thymus serpyllum
On the sunniest and driest banks in the forest, especially in quarries and landfill sites, carpets of Wild Thyme are covered in purple flowers, which are attractive to bees. Their familiar fragrance, shared by the culinary thyme Thymus vulgaris, results from a volatile oil thymol, which is also a reasonably powerful antiseptic.
The last word in this account of Rockingham’s flowers should come from William Shakespeare. We believe that Shakespeare must have travelled through the Rockingham Forest on the old Nottingham Road to reach Burley in Rutland, where his acting company performed his play ‘Titus Andronicus’ in 1595.
More significantly Shakespeare also grew up beside the Forest of Arden in Warwickshire, which extended across the northern half of the county and was contiguous with Northamptonshire. Arden was subsequently cleared for iron smelting and the few tiny scraps that survived have been filled with conifers or vanished beneath the southern suburbs of Birmingham. The adjacent Forest of Rockingham is the nearest surviving Ancient Woodland and would have been very similar. So, to walk into our woods is the closest you can get to experiencing Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden, the setting for his finest comedy ‘As You Like It’ and the inspiration for all the wonderful woods that fill his other plays and sonnets.
Oberon’s speech to Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream is so familiar as to be almost hackneyed but look at it again and it seems to me to be a perfect evocation of Rockingham Forest complete with honeysuckle (woodbine), briar roses (eglantine) and the other familiar flowers we have been describing, not to mention an Adder shedding its skin.
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk roses and with eglantine.
And there the snake throws her enamell'd skin,
Weed* wide enough to wrap a fairy in.
*weed = garment, as in widow’s weeds