In this post I’ll be discussing the wildflowers at my favourite place to hang out in all Edinburgh: Leith Community Croft, a small piece of common good land positioned within the Leith Links. Run by a local charity, the croft is an urban wildlife haven, space for locals to grow their own food, and a venue for green education workshops.
As a crofter I grow food on a shared plot. As a volunteer I spend my time improving the plant biodiversity of a woodland edge habitat. We also have semi-natural grassland on sandy soil (the Links used to be a beach!), and the first trees of a forest garden were planted this Spring. Our activity on the croft has been relatively recent and ground disturbance high, with grass removed to make space for growing food or trees, and the wood edge stripped of neglected council scrub.
As a result, seeds lying dormant for decades under thick grass have luxuriated in the Leith sun. Opportunists have scrambled in to grow on the bare, sandy earth. Interesting plants have popped up all over the shop!
I have been privileged to spend a lot of time at the croft since Autumn 2015 and I keep a close eye on the flora. For a fully domesticated plant nutter it is a real treat. In this blog post I want to share the observed effect of disturbance, land use change, and ‘restoration’ on the croft.
The croft has many of the wildflowers typical of an urban northeastern site. Buttercups are abundant, their flowers spreading up and out amongst grass inflorescences. On bright days they almost produce their own golden heat haze. Closer to the ground, Fabs like Hairy Tare (Vicia hirsuta) and Common Vetch (Vicia sativa ssp. segetalis) tangle up the growth. Hairy Tare flowers are only a few millimetres long so it isn’t exactly an attention grabber, or ‘obviously’ beautiful. But spend a little time with it under a hand lens and you’ll see satin white petals big as a ship’s sails, enclosed by sharp, hard-looking, hairy sepals.
The grassy areas also contain plenty of Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa), Catsear (Hypochaeris radicata), Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris), and at one end of the site highly abundant Creeping Thistle (Cirsium arvense) – whose flowers have the most divine sweet scent in summertime. The hard standing is gravelly with a pinch of top soil and supports, mostly, the little chicks: a thin strip of White Clover (Trifolium repens), diffuse sprays of Common Whitlowgrass (Erophila verna), and entire landscapes of Black Medick (Medicago lupulina). The occasional clump of Biting Stonecrop (Sedum acre) jut out of raised beds, totally at home in the dusty gravel, first covered in lemon-yellow flower buds and then later blooms of green-tinged-acid-yellow flowers. Overseeing all this (and more) is the stately and aromatic Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), which has heeled its way into a few of the grassier spots.
Over in the wood edge this Spring we had masses of Oxford Ragwort (Senecio squalidus), Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris), Sticky Willy (Galium aparine), Common and Small Nettles (Urtica dioica and U. urens, respectively), and Chickweed (Stellaria media). Basically a laundry list of ‘weeds’ hated by gardeners across the UK. In honesty, we did pull a lot of them up. We need to give the sown ‘wildflower’ seeds a chance to germinate and establish, so management like this is necessary. The ‘weed’ plants are so numerous that we could never eradicate them from the site. In fact, I wouldn’t want to – they are part of the diversity. It is just a question of available space, competition, and establishing a balance. Other common species that have shown up include Sticky and Common Mouse-Ears (Cerastium glomeratum and C. fontanum, respectively), Wood Avens (Geum urbanum), Thale Cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), and Henbit Dead-Nettle: a plant ‘supposed’ to have only a few flowers open at once, but which remained absolutely covered in blooms for over a month!
On the plots we regularly see Common Fumitory, Mayweeds (species TBD), Fat Hen (Chenopodium album), and Knotgrass (Polygonum aviculare agg). Creeping Thistle is a constant aggravation. There is plenty of Corn Spurrey on the plots and some in the wood edge. It is quite a nice plant. The fine leaves are sticky-hairy, with stems spreading across the sun-drenched plots but ramping in the shaded grassy wood edge. The flowers – which unlike the Henbit Dead-Nettle do open a few at a time – only spread their petals fully in the sunshine. The anthers and pollen are yellow as any Buttercup petal, and the ovary is stout, breathy-green, crowned with radiating and thready stigmas. Most of the UK plants in this family (Caryophyllaceae) have similar female parts and I always enjoy getting them under the hand lens. Importantly, typical farming practices are driving down Corn Spurrey numbers in the UK. It is therefore in the odd position of being Threatened whilst common.
Before moving on to cover the more uncommon finds I’d like to return to the Buttercups. I have found four different species here that have popped up of their own accord: Celery-Leaved, Creeping, Bulbous, and Meadow. They’re all very easy to tell apart when flowering. They do make the croft look an ecological contradiction, though. Bulbous indicates a a dry or free-draining soil, so that makes sense with all of the aforementioned sand. Yet Meadow is a lover of damp grassland. The Bulbous, Meadow, and Creeping are all mixed together and spread over the site, so I guess it illustrates a variety of niches. Regarding the Celery-Leaved – which has the most wonderfully dynamic sepals – this is completely the wrong environment in which to find it. But find it I did… in a neglected pot. This is a Buttercup that will grow in shallow water, so the pot must retain moisture. The question is: did the seed come in with the soil in the pot? Or was the pot filled with our soil which contained the seed already?
There are some species on the croft that you wouldn’t normally see in Edinburgh. Despite those in my picture being considered fairly/very common nationally, they aren’t locally. Their presence on the croft is telling of their habitat preference: disturbed soils. The neglected plots at the croft have been particularly good for botanising on, with diminutive Field Pansy (Viola arvensis) flowers peeping up in a few places, Redshank (Persicaria maculosa) leaves laying out with distinctive dark blotches and wavy edges, and Bugloss (Anchusa arvensis) happily pricking me with its stiffened hairs. I really enjoyed getting to know Lesser Swinecress (Lepidium didymum), whose tiny petal-less flowers surprised me with their strongly sweet scent.
Mixtures of wildflower seeds (mainly native species) were purchased from UK suppliers to sow in the newly created wood edge. In the main these were typical hedgerow and semi-shade plants such as Crosswort (Cruciata laevipes) and Hedge Bedstraw (Galium album). Both of these have germinated and taken, as have many more. Several dozen fluffy Red Campion (Silene dioica) plants produced leaves this year, so come late spring 2017 I expect to see a dance of hot pink flowers.
Cowslips (Primula veris) put on a fantastic show in the spring. I started these plants from seed at home and transplanted them out in Autumn 2015. One day, a passing botanist from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh told me that the Cowslips looked as if they had always been there. What a compliment! I did the same seed-starting process for Wild Strawberries (Fragaria vesca) which have happily runnered, formed many plantlets, and should next year give the birds and bugs some tasty little fruits.
Unfortunately I don’t have any photos to share from the croft, but I did manage to introduce three species of hemi-parasites from the Broomrape family, Orobanchaceae. All are common enough: Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor), Red Bartsia (Odontites verna), and Eyebright (Euphrasia agg.). None of these plants are well represented in Leith, though, and the only site in the vicinity I have seen them is imminently slated for development into flats. So I asked the developer for permission to access and collect plants and seeds – and was graciously given the go ahead.
As a result I managed to save not only a portion of the Leith gene pool for Eyebrights and Red Bartsia, rehoming them in the croft (which is very close to the building site), but also dozens of Common Spotted Orchids (Dactylorhiza fuchsii). Most people don’t get a chance to dig up bucketloads of orchids with a hori-hori. Its a real experience. The smell of the finger-like roots is intoxicating. The soil is full of white threads, likely the symbiotic partner species of mycorrhizal fungi. The flowers, which have an odour just like the roots, were once described to me as “like death and decay.” When I have been all alone sweating with the physical effort to save as many of these plants as possible, death and decay are far from my mind. To me it is a sweet smell. It holds the promise of life extended, saved, and the thrill of being a botanist doing a Good Thing(TM)!
I’m thrilled at the work we managed to do in only one year. What I have presented here is mainly Spring and very early Summer-related. It is only a portion from within those times. The diversity has been thrilling to observe, with many common species and even a few Midlothian rarities popping up. In terms of creating a space for wildlife within one of Edinburgh’s most famous parks I’m proud both of the charity for giving us the opportunity to do it, and to the volunteers (including myself!) for getting it established. We need high quality green spaces in British parks such as the woodland edge described here, that are managed to encourage biodiversity as the primary concern. People always stop to tell me how amazing the croft is with its many flowers and flying pollinators.
That’s really the lesson here. If you give folk a chance to experience plants, and I mean really experience rather than just gawk at some formal bedding, then they start to see the benefits with primacy. It goes far beyond what can be offered with words about rarities and ecology.
A few thanks
Thank you to Edinburgh City Council for allowing the croft to exist. Thank you to Crops in Pots for getting the croft started. Thank you to my fellow crofters and volunteers. Thanks to the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland, especially Communications Officer Louise Marsh who offers guidance and connection for and between members. And crucially… Thank you to the plants for having all that nasty botanical sex!