Flowers of Wet Grassland
Rivers and streams flow through many a wood and where the wood ends and open grassland or meadowland begins flowering
herbaceous plants grow in abundance and burst into flower every Spring and Summer. The grassland below is wet grassland.
Water is seeped into the soil from the nearby river and species particular to wet grassland are most abundant. Within this
meadow it is easy to recognise 6,7 or even more species of grass, such as the meadow foxtail (Alopecurus pratensis) with its
narrow conical head of flowers resembling a miniature fox's tail; smooth and rough meadow grasses (Poa pratensis and Poa
trivialis) with their radiating whorls of delicate flowers which are often a delicate purple in colour; cocksfoot (Dactylis glomerata),
tufted hair-grass (Deschampsia caespitosa), perennial rye grass (Lolium perenne) and meadow fescue (Festuca pratensis) - all
of which I have seen here, among others.
plantain can also be seen in the foreground. It is here that grasses come into their own. If one lives in a city,
then it is easy to think of grass as simply a lush green cushion, pleasant for recreation, but otherwise
non-distinct. If one lives on or near to arable land then it is easy to think of grass as only a few cultivated
varieties of cereal. Wild grasses, however, are beautiful plants when in flower and when setting seed. The
diversity in grass flowers makes it strike home how many different species of grass there are.
Near to a nearby pond you will find other types of wetland grasses that prefer even wetter soil. Reeds, with
their tough hollow stems and beautiful flower-heads and the common rush (Juncus conglomeratus) with its
quite showy reddish flower clusters with a stem-like spathe above the inflorescence (making it appear as if
the flowers are borne half-way up the stem).
Grasses produce numerous small flowers, dull in
colour (though sometimes with reddish or purplish
or whitish tinge) and borne on long flexible stalks.
They produce copious amounts of pollen. All these
features favour wind-pollination. Although there are
woodland grasses, it is really in large open
windswept spaces where grasses dominate.
Grasses actively absorb silicon from the soil and
this is incorporated into silica (silicon dioxide)
crystals, often in specialised cells. Presumably, this
silica has a structural role, adding to the toughness
and hardness of grass tissues, along with the
strong fibres present in grass flower-stalks.
Strength is important in such long, thin and flexible
stalks that must remain upright for wind pollination.
The red flower heads of Great Burnet (Sanguisorba officinalis) held atop stems up to one metre in length give
attractive clumps of colour to the meadow. They produce compound fruit (false fruit) containing a number of dry
achenes (dry fruit containing a single seed). Their extensive root system is good for holding soil together and
these plants are useful at removing toxins from the soil. Their leaves have been eaten as a salad vegetable.
Great Burnet grows in damp meadows.
The Lady's Bedstraw (Galium verum) or Yellow Bedstraw prefers dry grassy places and clumps grow here in the drier
parts of these meadows. It's flowers are very soft and fluffy to the touch and this plant was used as bedding in the
Middle Ages, being dried and then used to stuff mattresses. This plant was also used for curdling milk when making
cheese and as a source of a yellow dye.
Above: a plantain (Plantago). The tall inflorescence springs from a rosette of leaves and bears many flowers clustered together in a spike. The flowers develop
first at the base of the spike and the female parts mature before the male parts (protogyny). The whorl of white hairlike tufts seen protruding in the specimen
above are the anthers of the mature male flowers. This separation in time, between the development of the female and male organs helps promote
cross-pollination. Even though plantains may exhibit genetic self-incompatibility (meaning that its own pollen grains will not germinate when in contact with the
female stigmas of the same plant, protogyny reduces pollen-pistil interference which occurs when the plant's own (incompatible) pollen clogs the stigmas,
reducing the likelihood that pollen from another plant will attach. (The pistil is the female part of the flower, comprising one or more carpels that may be fused
together). Plantains are wind-pollinated. The plantain above is the Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata) with its narrow leaves and blackish flower-heads.
Along the well-trodden paths leading to the meadow another species of plantain is found, Plantago major, the Greater Plantain, which has much longer,
narrower and greener flower-heads and broad leaves. (Good external link).
Left: Birdsfoot Trefoil, a small lotus flower of the
peaflower family. There are two species
commonly found in these habitats: Lotus
corniculatus and Lotus pedunculata (formerly
Lotus uliginosus). Lotus corniculatus has variable
flower colour, ranging from orange-red to yellow,
giving it its common name of Eggs and Bacon. In
particular the lower of the three petallate lobes,
the keel formed of two petals pressed together,
varies in colour according to temperature (this
being under both genetic and environmental
control). The sexual organs are beneath the keel
and the weight of a bee landing on the keel
springs it apart to reveal the sexual parts for
pollination. Dark coloured keels, those that are
orange-red, keep the sexual organs at a much
warmer temperature as they absorb more light
radiation. Presumably, this variation in colour
maintains the sexual organs at their optimum
temperature. These flowers are called 'birdsfoot'
because of the arrangement of the pea-like pods
that radiate from the inflorescence like the toes of
a bird's foot. Trefoil refers to the arrangement of
the leaves: each leaf has five leaflets, but two of
these are held back, so that the leaves appear to
be made of three leaflets each and so appear to
the casual observer like leaves arranged in
groups of three.
Left: the bulrush, Typha latifolia, or reedmace occurs at
the margins of ponds, lakes and rivers. Here it is beside a
pond in the meadow. The bulrush flower stem grows up
to 2.5 m tall and bears a cylindrical mass of brown female
flowers and above that a smaller mass of male flowers.
An average bulrush may produce a quarter of a million
seeds! It is one of the few brown flowers found in Britain.
Explore the pond
Learn more about grasses
Grasses have their enemies! Growing in this meadow is the Yellow Rattle or Hay Rattle, which is a hemiparasite (partial
parasite that also makes its own food by photosynthesis) that feeds on grasses. Its roots form junctions with grass roots, called
haustoria. In these junctions the xylem systems of the host and parasite interconnect and the parasite draws xylem sap,
containing water and minerals absorbed by the grass roots, into its own body. The Hay Rattle is good for the meadow, as it
keeps the grass in check and stops it from completely dominating and so increases biodiversity.
Left: this orchid, probably the Common Spotted Orchid,
Dactylorhiza fuchsii, is the only orchid flowering in
these meadows at present.
Orchids are extremely diverse plants with fascinating
habits and beautiful flowers. Most are tropical, and
tropical orchids can have especially fantastic flowers,
however, temperate orchids can also have
extraordinary, though often smaller, flowers.
Some orchids of the New World Tropics have
specialised pollinators, the orchid bees. These bees
are solitary and collect perfume (terpenes) produced
by the orchid. They have groups of absorbant hairs,
called mops, on the tarsi of their forelegs with which
they rub the orchid scent gland and about once a
minute, they stop rubbing, hover above the orchid and
wipe their foreleg mops against the metatarsi of their
middle legs, each of which is equipped with a ridge
bearing bristles that rake the scent droplets from the
mops. The hind legs contain the perfume storage
chambers (sponge chambers) on their tibia. The
openings of these chambers are brought into contact
with the rakes on the midlegs and hairs around the
openings wick up the scent and conduct it inside the
perfume chamber where it is taken up by a mass of
branching hairs inside, forming a sponge.
wall of a bean pod. The outermost layer is the
exocarp, made-up of the epidermis and a hypodermis
of tough sclerenchyma fibres. The middle layer, or
parenchyma cells (containing chloropolasts with
chlorophyll). The inner layer is the endocarp,
consisting of several layers of tough sclerenchyma
fibres and an epidermis lining the inside of the pod.
Think of broad bean pods. Young pods are soft
scrape away the soft parenchyma and epidermises
from each valve with your teeth, rather like eating an
artichoke leaf, and you will be left with a tough
sheet-like structure on the inside of the valve, which is
the sclerenchyma of the endocarp. Notice that the
fibres in the endocarp run more-or-less at right angles
to the sclerenchyma in the exocarp. The fibres will
contract along their length when they dry out, exerting
a pulling force, so those in the exocarp pull in a
different direction to those in the endocarp. This will
cause the two valves of the pod to twist and pull apart,
scattering their seeds with explosive force.
Furthermore, the cell walls of the sclerenchyma fibres
have helical; fibres within them, which wrap around the
axis of each cell like a spring and the pitch of these
helical springs within each layer of sclerenchyma is
different to those in the adjacent layers, so some
layers contract more than others. This also assists
with twisting and pulling apart the valves.
Above: a legume pod having dehisced
(dried-out) and opened.
Above: a legume pod splits into two halves when it dries. The
vascular bundles are shown as dotted areas. Note that the
vascular bundle in the mid-vein is split into two when the pod
The perfume seems to intoxicate the bees and may even be addictive! The orchid Gongora maculata is pollinated by the bee Euglossa cordata. The bee
becomes intoxicated and slips, falling into a chutelike structure in the flower, rear-end first. Its abdomen bumps a sticky disc (the viscidium) containing the pair
of pollen packets (pollinia, characteristic of orchids in which pollen is dispersed in packets) which therefore become stuck to the rear end of the bee. The
picking up more pollen. This flower wilts within hours of pollination.
The orchid Catesetum has a trigger mechanism which is activated when the pollinating insect lands on the flower, firing the pollinia attached to an adhesive disc
at the insect!
The Lady's Slipper Orchid, Cypripedium calceolus, is a temperate orchid which also occurs in Britain. This has a chute down which the pollinating insect slides.
The exit is a hairy path, giving the insect grip, which takes the insect under the stigma and an anther and is flanked by translucent spots or windows which guide
the insect (insects are often attracted to light when attempting to exit an enclosed space).
found mostly in the Mediterranean, but some as far north as Norway. These
are pollinating by hymenopterans (bees and wasps). Each flower is a false
female, mimicking the female insect of its pollinator species in shape, colour,
texture (being hairy in the right places) and most importantly, in scent. These
orchids secrete molecules that mimic insect pheromones! Males of the
exploited insect species are attracted by the scent, identify with the colour,
size and shape of the false female and attempt to copulate - so-called
pseudocopulation in which the attempt is eventually aborted with release of
spermatophores (packets of sperm, the form in which sperm are released by
insects). By this time, however, the insect has already delivered any pollinia it
brought from another flower and picked up the flower's own pollinia. Clearly, in
order to work, the male must be fooled more than once by different flowers!
The insect receives no food or perfume reward, and is simply being exploited
by the orchid. Ophrys apifera, the bee orchid, found on mainland Europe is
pollinated by its exploited insect species, but in England its pollinator is absent
and there it self-pollinates.
Orchids also form interesting relations with fungi and plants. Like most
flowering plants, orchids rely on fungi associated with their roots (and forming
mycorhizae) to obtain sufficient nutrients from the soil. Orchid's produce small
seeds with few food reserves and their seedlings will not grow without a
suitable fungal partner, which 'infects' the orchid roots as soon as germination
carbon obtained by photosynthesis, in return for soil minerals, such as
phosphorous. Orchid mycorhizae are the exception, in that the orchid also
draws organic carbon from the fungus, indeed transfer of nutrients from the
plant to the fungus is not observed - the orchid appears to be parasitising the
fungus! Indeed, whenever the fungus infects a cell in the orchid root, the part
of the fungus mycelium inside the cell is short-lived as it is soon digested by
the orchid, which is eating the fungus! Some of these fungi obtain their food
from rotting plant matter, others are parasites of other plants, including trees,
in which case the orchid is parasitising a parasite and effectively steeling
nutrients from the host tree! This allows some orchids to endure long periods
in shade, enabling them to fluorish beneath the dense canopies of beech
trees, which exclude so much light that few plants can thrive beneath them.
The bird's nest orchid is brown, lacking chlorophyll as it has no need to
photosynthesise, being totally dependent on its mycorhizal fungus, and can
grow in the most shaded beech woodlands.
Above: The Indian Balsam (Himalyan Balsam, Policeman's Helmet) Impatiens glandulifera. This
tall plant, with its exotic looking flowers, was introduced to Britain from Asian in 1839 and
subsequently escaped from greenhouses to become naturalised. It's flowers vary from white, to
pink, to purple and form capsular fruit, the capsules exploding when dry, throwing seeds about 2
800 seeds. Indian Balsam is a common wetland plant.
Above: thistles with their spiny leaves are abundant in clumps around the
edges of the meadows. These are composites, like daisies, in which each
apparent 'petal' is actually a small flower. I also found a stemless
knapweed nearby, growing low to the ground (probably Carduncellus
mitissimus) and a week later, more knapweeds were in flower.
Knapweeds are similar to thistles, but their leaves are less spiky. The
fruit are very fluffy and silky and easily carried off by the wind.
In the close-up of a Great Burnet flower head above, the individual flowers that make
up the head can be easily seen.
The Indian Balsam is a large annual plant. Flowering herbs (herb = non-woody plant) can be annual, living and flowering only for a single
season, biennial or perennial. Perennials flower each year and may die-back above ground completely over the winter, surviving as
underground storage organs, such as bulbs and rhizomes (both types of underground stem) which store nutrients. These stems store
nutrients for growth of new shoots the following year, during which time photosynthesis by the new shoots will replenish the underground
storage organs ready for next year. Orchids are perennial and have a pair of bulbs beneath the soil, one old and depleted and one new and
replete with nutrients. This is how they derive their name, 'orchid' literally means 'testicle plant'. Great Burnet is also perennial, as is the
bluebell (grows from a bulb and flowers in spring), Birdsfoot Trefoil, the Ribwort Plantain, and the Cuckoo Pint (growing from a rhizome).
Grasses may be annual or perennial (forming rhizomes).
Above: a grass flower-head (with trefoil in the background). The grass looks like a species of Poa (Meadow grass).
Grass flowers are arranged in spikes, each spike being carried on a peduncle
(stalk). A number of spikes may be attached to a single inflorescence.
Conveniently, the flowers are also arranged in three distinct parts, the lower keel and the two wings. Being members of the pea-family, the trefoils
are legumes and so their roots develop nodules, especially in nitrogen-poor soil, that contain a symbiotic bacterium, Rhizobium, which 'fixes'
nitrogen, that is it takes atmospheric nitrogen gas and converts it into compounds of nitrogen that the plant can use as building blocks for
nitrogen-containing molecules (principally amino acids which make proteins and nucleotides which make the nucleic acids DNA and RNA).
Another member of the peaflower family found in these meadows is clover, both white clover (Trifolium repens) and red clover (Trifolium pratense).
These too are capable of fixing nitrogen in root-nodules and are also sometimes called 'trefoil' because of their leaves which are divided into three
leaflets, this name is given especially to yellow clovers. The head of the clover is a cluster of small tube-like flowers (each flower looking like a
petal). These narrow floral tubes restrict the types of pollinators that can access the nectar and pollen. White clovers, with their smaller more
spherical flower-heads, have shorter tubes, short enough for the honey bee to reach with its short 'tongue' or proboscis. The honeybee cannot
reach the nectaries of the red clover which has longer floral tubes. Red clover is pollinated by bumble bees, which have longer 'tongues'.
Honeybees reside in hedges and woods and meadows next to suitable bumble bee habitats produce much more seed. The white clover, however,
is good food for honeybees and hence suited for honey production. The robber bumble bee cheats, it makes a hole in the base of the red clover
floret to suck out the nectar without pollinating the flower!
In addition to nitrogen fixation, legumes have characteristic fruit - pods. Each pod is a single carpel with a single internal locule (cavity) formed, in
evolutionary terms, by a single leaf folding over upon itself, and enclosing several ovules within, which become the seeds after fertilisation.
Characteristic of these pods is their mechanism of seed dispersal. As the pod dries, it suddenly violently ruptures, sending the seeds flying. To
understand how this happens, look at the structure of the pod (carpel) wall for a typical bean pod, shown below:
Seed Dispersal in Legumes
Click on the image above to enlarge it and see how many different grass
species you can find.
The photos above depict these meadows in June/July. However, earlier in the year, around April/May these meadows were yellow, not with
pea flowers, but with cowslips (Primula veris) a type of primrose. Primroses have an interesting mechanism to reduce self-pollination and
enhance cross-pollination, meaning that they are designed to be pollinated most easily by pollen from a different plant. Cross-pollination
prevents 'in-breeding' and maintains genetic diversity in a population, which also helps to counteract the effects of detrimental mutations in
genes, since with cross-breeding, an organism is more likely to inherit a healthy copy of a gene if its parent population contains faulty copies.
Primrose flowers, even on the same plant, come in two morphological varieties: pine-eyed and thrum-eyed. pin-eyed are so-called because
the carpel has a long style that raises the stigma to the top of the floral tube, where it is visible from above as a 'pin-eye' like structure. In a
pin-eyed flower the stamens are lower down than the stigma in the floral tube. In thrum-eyed flowers, the style is shorter and the stamens
higher, so that the stigma is far beneath the stamens. Pollen must travel from a stamen to a stigma, and attach to the stigma, to effect
If an insect with a long proboscis visits a pin-eye flower and reaches for the nectar at the base of the floral tube, then pollen
will rub onto its proboscis. If this same insect then visits a thrum-eye flower, then the pollen is at the right height to rub off
onto the short stigma of the thrum-eye flower. The insect's head will also become covered with pollen from the thrum-eye
flower. If this insect now returns to a pin-eye flower then the pollen on its head will be at the correct height to rub off onto
the stigma of the pin-eye flower.
Insects and Flowers, The biology of a partnership. F.G. Barth, 1991. Princeton University Press.
Floral Aroma: How Far Will Plants Go to Attract Pollinators? David C. Robacker, Bastiaan J. D. Meeuse, Eric H. BioScience,
Vol. 38, No. 6 (Jun., 1988), pp. 390-398.
Dynamics of Thermogenesis and Structure of Epidermal Tissues in Inflorescences of Arum maculatum. Edith
Bermadinger-Stabentheiner and Anton Stabentheiner. New Phytologist, Vol. 131, No. 1 (Sep., 1995), pp. 41-50.
The Truth About Pollination in Arum. K. J. DormerSource: New Phytologist, Vol. 59, No. 3 (Dec., 1960), pp. 298-301.
Arum Maculatum L. F. A. Sowter. Journal of Ecology, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Jul., 1949), pp. 207-219.
The Keel Colour Polymorphism in Lotus corniculatus L.: Differences in Internal Flower Temperatures. Jennifer Jewell, Juno
McKee, A. J. Richards. New Phytologist, Vol. 128, No. 2 (Oct., 1994), pp. 363-368.
Lotus Corniculatus L. David A. Jones and Roy Turkington. Journal of Ecology, Vol. 74, No. 4 (Dec., 1986), pp. 1185-1212.
Chemical Defense Production in Lotus corniculatus L. I. The Effects of Nitrogen Source onGrowth, Reproduction and
Defense. Michelle A. Briggs. Oecologia, Vol. 83, No. 1 (1990), pp. 27-31.
The Endosperm-Embryo Relationship in an Autonomous Apomict, Taraxacum officinale. D. C. Cooper and R. A. Brink.
Botanical Gazette, Vol. 111, No. 2 (Dec., 1949), pp. 139-153.
Clonal Variation in Floral Stage Timing in the Common Dandelion Taraxacum officinale (Asteraceae). Matthew H. Collier
and Steven H. Rogstad. American Journal of Botany, Vol. 91, No. 11 (Nov., 2004), pp. 1828-1833.
Wild Flowers by Colour, The easy way to flower identification. M. Blamey, 1977. Dorling Kindersley.
Wild Flowers. Collins GEM Guides. M. Blamey, R. Fitter, 1980. Collins.
The Living countryside
Grass Flower Structure
Grass flowers have the classic morphology of
wind-pollinated flowers. The petals are small and lack
special colouring, the long feathery stigmas have a lot
of surface area with which to catch pollen and the
stamens hang down on long flexible filaments, so that
they are easily shaken about by the wind, shedding
their pollen. Other than that, the flowers of grasses
have a curiously unique arrangement of their parts.
The grass inflorescence is typically a spike or
panicle. In a spike, a monopodial axis (single
continuous central axis, also called rhachis or rachis)
bears either stalkless flowers or condensed clusters of
flowers. In a panicle a single monopodial axis bears
long side-branches which are themselves branched,
each terminus generally bearing a flower.
In grasses (and bamboos) the inflorescence contains
flower-like units called spikelets. Each spikelet is in
fact one or more flowers enclosed by a pair of scale
leaves or bracts called glumes. One glume is
inserted slightly lower on the axis (the lower glume). If
the spikelet is borne on a stalk then this stalk is called
a pedicel (a term normally used for the stalk of an
Within each pair of protective glumes are one or more
flowers. Each flower is in the axil of a bract, called the
lemma, and the short stalk of each flower bears a
secondary bract or bracteole, called the palea. The
lemma is thus the lower of these two inner bracts and
so usually envelopes the palea. These bracts protect
the flower inside.
The flower itself, or floret (if we consider the 'flower' to
be composed of more than one floret) has a superior
ovary, meaning the ovary is attached on the floral axis
higher up than the other floral parts. The ovary bears
one to three feathery styles. There are usually two
modified tepals (sometimes three or none) called
lodicules (tepal: sepal or petal, i.e. a perianth
segment when petals and sepals can not be
distinguished). The flowers generally have both male
and female parts, though may be unisexual in some
species. When mature, the lodicules swell up and
push the palea and lemma apart and the flower opens
and becomes visible as the anthers and styles are
exposed. There are one to three stamens (six in some
grasses and in bamboos).
The diversity in form of the flowering plants is truly
astonishing and if the botanist is to make sense of it
all then it helps to understand how standard
appendages such as petals, bracts and bracteoles,
become modified in the various forms. The flowering
plants generate a massive diversity in form by
variously modifying the same basic parts. The glumes,
lemma and palea are all interpreted as modified
bracts, which are themselves modified leaves, and are
usually thin, membranous cataphylls. Cataphylls, or
scale leaves, have primary functions other than
photosynthesis and may lack chlorophyll altogether. In
this case their function is to protect the developing
Left: 'Eggs-and-bacon', Lotus
corniculatus, Birdsfoot Trefoil is
adiiferent species to the Greater
Birdsfoot trefoil (shown above) and
has smaller leaves and flowers. Both
are found in this meadow, though the
lesser form became much more
dominant by August as the Greater
Birdsfoot trefoil was finishing flowering
(the lesser species flowers over a
Trefoils have the typical pea-flower
morphology: with a large uppermost
'flag' or 'standard' petal, 2 lateral
'wings' and two petals fused together
to form the basal 'keel'.
Vetches are another legume or pea-flower family member. They
have the characteristic pea-flower structure (like the trefoils) and
they may develop root nodules to fix nitrogen. The leaves are
compound and often the terminal leaflet is modified to form a tendril
(one tendril can be seen at the end of the leftmost leaf on the
close-up view on the left, disappearing out of the frame). The most
common species found in these meadows (and in one of the
meadows in particular) is the tufted vetch, Vicia cracca, with its
beautiful blue-purple flowers borne on one side of a floral spike.
These plants flower in June-August, but this year, in this meadow,
they have become more dominant, with the number flowering
increasing, in August as the trefoils go to seed.
Above: a Hay rattle gone to seed. By the end of July
most have finished flowering, the flowers are distinctive,
with small yellow beak-like flowers protruding between a
pair of clam-like green sepals, but the fruit gives the
plant its name - seeds can be heard rattling inside the
open papery fruits as they are shaken free by the wind
and by passing animals. This plant is a hemiparasite that
feeds off grasses.
Red Clover, Trifolium pratense, yet another
nitrogen-fixing legume of the peaflower family.
Above: a snapshot of the meadow - how many plant species can you identify? Can you explain some of their features of
The outer tubular florets of knapweed (Centaurea) are sterile and serve
only to attract pollinators. The inner florets have a special pollination
mechanism - when touched by an insect the stamen filaments rapidly
contract (in flowers with motile stamens this typically involves the
generation of electrical signals in the base of the stamen followed by
action potential propagation along the stamen). The anthers, which are
fused into a tube around the style are pulled back and the fixed style
pushing up amongst them pumps out the pollen onto the insect. To avoid
self-pollination, the stigma only becomes receptive when all the pollen is
shed, when the style extends out from the anther tube.
The study of any meadow would not be complete without a mention of meadow animals. Clearly so many different animal species are
associated with meadows that i would not be able to mention them all, so i shall mention a few that I have seen in these meadows myself.
The six-spot Burnet moth, Zygaena filipendulae, with its vivid black and red colouration, the larvae feed on birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus
corniculatus). This moth is day-flying and found on the wing from June to August. (External link).
The Gatekeeper butterfly, Satyridae-Pyronia tithonus, whose larvae feed on grasses. (External link).
Soldier beetles, so-called because of their bright red and long straight bodies (like redcoat soldiers) which feed on insects, including
grasshopper eggs. Manny can be seen alighting on the grasses. (External link).
Anthills are prominent in parts of the meadows.
Rabbits are abundant here. I have seen many of them out of their burrows around midday. Their abundance is also evidenced by their
latrines (patches of short grass where they deposit their second droppings). Rabbits may crop the grass very short in places (and have
been known to destroy grass by cropping it too short). Rabbits were imported by the Normans in mediaeval times, for their fur and meat
(the mountain hare is a native to Britain, however). They live in communual subterranean burrows (warrens), consisting of a number of
chambers connected by tunnels. They are unable to fully digest cellulose on the first passage through their guts and will release the
first droppings whilst in their burrows, eating them (coprophagy) directly from the anus. These soft primary droppings are enclosed in
membranes and contain bacteria that carry on digesting the cellulose as the droppings are stored in the hind stomach. Secondary
droppings are deposited outside in designated areas (latrines) and are harder pellets. Rabbits used to be major crop pests, but
elimination by farmers and more so by myxomatosis, a disease of rabbits caused by the Myxoma virus which was introduced to control
rabbit populations. After initially decimating rabbit populations, they have been slowly recovering as they become more resistant and
the virus less virulent (a similar evolution toward equilibrium seen in dutch elm's disease). The disease still claims many young rabbits,
however. Currently rabbits are not serious pests in Britain. Apart from human beings, which do occasionally eat rabbits, their enemies
are cats, foxes and birds of prey, such as the red kites and hawks reported near here (the skreetching of a pair of raptors,
reportedly red kites, can be heard in the nearby woods). Cat and fox stools are similar in size and shape and I personally do not know
how to distinguish them, but I have found such near to the latrines, perhaps where a predator lay in ambush. Rabbits are not as
defenceless as they look, apart from being fast and agile and being able to dart into their burrows, they have powerful back legs with
sharp claws and their bite can be quite substantial.
Domestic cattle are periodically allowed to graze these meadows at certain times of the year. The cow-pat is an ecosystem all in itself
as well as adding valuable fibre (humus) and nitrogen to the soil.
Some grasses superficially
resemble plantains in their
inflorescence form, such as
the two shown on either side.
However, whereas plantains
grow from a cushion of
more-or-less broad leaves,
grasses have very narrow
leaves sheathing the stem.
The grasses shown here are
probably the Meadow Foxtail
(Alopecurus pratensis) on the
left and Timothy (Phleum
pratense), on the right, which
grow on wet meadows like
these. Timothy grass (meadow
cat's-tail) has a long cylindrical
flower head. The white or
purple anthers can be seen
projecting from the small
flowers on long stalks. One
way to be more sure of grass
identification in the field is to
look at a structure called the
This study was based on certain meadows, and surrounding wooded areas, near a place called Canley Ford in the British
Isles. It is a small nature reserve, but even so it holds a wealth of species which exhibit biological phenomena that are largely
hidden from the casual observer. Far from being merely empty fields of grass (which some would probably say are 'itching to
be developed') this is a fascinating and rich habitat. If their are meadows or grass fields near to you, look more closely - you
may be very surprised by what you find!
The Meadow Cranesbill (Geranium pratense) so-called
because of the long 'beak' of its fruit. I only noticed these
flowers at the end of July and they seem to have increased in
number at start of August in these meadows.
As August approached, other changes became apparent as
the hayrattles finished flowering and the number of birdsfoot
trefoil in flower diminished, the number of flowering
knapweeds seems to have increased considerably.
Insect life is abundant and diverse in these meadows. This
caterpillar is motionless and probably dead. The culprit is
revealed by the small white pupae covering its body. These are
pupating parasitic wasps. The mother used her long 'sting' to
lay eggs inside the caterpillar and the grubs fed upon their
host's internal tissues, killing it and then emerging to form their
pupae, which will eventually hatch to release new adult wasps.
Animals, such as these wasps, which consume a single host to
complete their life-cycle are called parasitoids. In contrast,
parasites do not generally need to destroy their host in order to
infect another and predators consume a number of hosts.
Above: a Black Knapweed (Centaurea nigra) being pollinated
by a hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus) - click to enlarge.
External links to hoverfies: microscopy-uk, wildlifeinsight.
The ligule is a flange or flap of tissue at the junction of each leaf blade and the part of the leaf that wraps around the stem (the leaf sheaf). This
flange of tissue is variously shaped, may be replaced by a fringe of hairs or may be absent. For example, in Timothy grass (Phleum pratense)
the ligule is a blunt membranous flap around the leaf base. This distinguishes it from the superficially similar Meadow Foxtail (Alopecurus
pratensis) in which the ligule is much shorter. The Meadow Foxtail also has a looser looking flower spike and the tips of the glumes in Timothy
are hard bristles or hornlike structures, whereas on Meadow Foxtail they are softer.
Above: this grass looks like Poa pratensis.