Thursday, 27 May 2010

A tale of two plants

Some of the trackways that criss-cross the Brecks are currently smudged with red, an apparent stain that might suggest some grisly occurrence has recently taken place. When viewed more closely it soon emerges that the stain is actually formed by a small plant, a nationally scarce species called Mossy Stonecrop. This tiny annual is a poor competitor and so only occurs on ground that is kept free of other vegetation by regular disturbance. The compacted ground of forest rides and paths suits the plant, especially here on the light Breckland soils. It also occurs on the Goodsands of northwest Norfolk and, sporadically, at a small number of other sites across the county. The range extends south into Suffolk and there are also populations in the New Forest and at a handful of sites elsewhere.

As I have noted before, the Brecks are dominated by light sandy soils, of varying depths, that sit on top of a deeper chalk geology. The climate also exerts an influence on the nature of the vegetation, with high summer temperatures and low rainfall, combining with sharp night-time frosts. Many authors have commented on the nature of this climate and its similarity to continental or more maritime conditions. Some of the many and insects found in the Brecks reflect this, with a number of the plant species found here being more typically found around the Mediterranean.

Of course, the distribution of many plants is the result of our activities rather than a consequence of climate and other natural factors. The history of bringing interesting and attractive plants into our gardens is one that goes back generations and it can often be difficult to determine whether a particular species is native or has been introduced. A good example of this is another plant that can be seen in Breckland at the moment. This is the Star-of-Bethlehem, a plant which, to be honest, has the appearance of being a non-native quite simply because of the way that it looks. A white-flowered member of the lily family, it has Bluebell-like qualities and seems exotic when viewed alongside our more familiar flowers. The species is most likely an introduction, albeit a rather old one. Some botanists consider the Breckland populations to be native but it was not recorded from the Brecks until 1772. It was certainly being cultivated in Britain by 1548 and the first record from the wild followed in 1650. That it should be considered native probably stems from its Mediterranean origins and that certain other species from this area are considered to have native populations in the Brecks. Either way, both Star-of-Bethlehem and Mossy Stonecrop are now part of the botanical richness of this part of Norfolk.

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