NATURE NOTES: It has been a long and very hot summer. After reading Ken Towl’s latest jaunt through Happy Valley, MOIRA O’DONNELL set off with her field guide to plants and butterflies and armed with her camera to find how Croydon’s wildlife has coped with the drought conditions
Now I don’t need much of an excuse to go out botanising, so after reading Ken Towl’s account of his recent walk through Happy Valley, I thought I would pay a quick visit to see what flowering plants were managing to survive the prolonged hot, dry weather.
As usual with my “quick visits”, I ended up spending several hours wandering around – looking at flowers, chasing butterflies and taking photographs.
Before the thunder storms came, a couple of days ago when I visited Happy Valley, it was still very hot and dry. What flowers could possibly be surviving in these parched conditions? Well, quite a few as it happens.
Most of Happy Valley is chalk grassland, characterised by thin, nutrient-poor soil which holds little water and heats up quickly.
So the plants that thrive here are already quite resilient and well-adapted to their habitat.
Chalk grasslands develop on shallow, lime-rich soils overlying chalk rocks. Chalk is composed of the remains of marine plants and animals, and was formed around 100 million years ago at the bottom of the Cretaceous sea.
In the south-east of England this chalk was deposited on to a huge dome of rocks. When the sea receded, the top of the dome was eroded away, and the remaining rims of chalk now form the North Downs, close to Croydon, and South Downs, just north of Brighton and the south coast.
The chalk grasslands as we know them today were originally created by human activity around 8,000 years ago, when our ancestors cleared the land of trees and scrub.
These cleared areas were then kept open by grazing livestock. It is an extremely biodiverse habitat and, properly managed by regular grazing or cutting, supports a very large number of plants, wildflowers and insects.
On the western slopes of Happy Valley the chalk is overlain with clay-with-flints and this clay soil supports a neutral grassland community.
So what did I find?
Yellow rattle, red bartsia and eyebright
These first three plants, pictured above, are interesting because they are semi-parasites on the roots of grasses, gaining extra nutrients from their hosts – a useful adaptation when growing in nutrient poor soil.
They are helpful plants to have as part of the chalk grassland floral community, as they help to curb the growth of rough grasses, thus enabling other wildflowers to flourish.
Next door, at Farthing Downs, is the largest British colony of greater yellow rattle, which is nationally rare. Red bartsia is not a particularly eye-catching plant, but the flowers are quite pretty close-up. The eyebright shown here is actually a photo I took at Happy Valley last year, as although I found it flowering on this visit, the flowers were not quite as photogenic as these!
Small and field scabious
Then there are two of my favourite flowers – small and field scabious. I love their gorgeous colour. We also have devil’s-bit scabious in Croydon, growing in one of the meadows in Littleheath Wood.
Common restharrow and bird’s foot trefoil
These two pretty low-growing plants are common restharrow and bird’s-foot trefoil. Restharrow is so called because it has extremely tough, thick roots that spread in a dense network and, during the days of horse-drawn cultivation, could stop (“arrest”) a harrow in its tracks.
Bird’s-foot trefoil gets its name because its seed pods spread out into the shape of a bird’s foot. I always think that the little yellow flowers look like balloon-dog heads floating above the grass.
Greater burdock and mugwort
From the small to the large.
Two of the downs’ bigger plants, almost shrub-like, are greater burdock (of dandelion and burdock fame) and mugwort.
Greater burdock can grow to a height of more than six foot, and has huge leaves which are “big enough to wrap an elephant’s butty”, as someone recently remarked to me.
Mugwort has been described as “the queen of herbs” and in days gone by had a whole host of uses. It was one of the nine magical herbs used to combat witchcraft and evil, and it is said that if you sleep on a pillow stuffed with mugwort you will have prophetic dreams!
Bellflower, marjoram, meadow crane’s-bill and common knapweed
Clustered bellflower has pretty violet-blue flowers and is related to the campanulas that you might grow in your garden. Wild marjoram is actually the same as the culinary herb oregano, its flowers, as the photograph shows, resembles the herb many of us keep in our gardens, although I haven’t tried using it in cooking yet.
I was also pleased to see the lovely blue meadow crane’s-bill, another one of my favourites. The crane’s-bills get their name from their long, pointed seed pods. Common knapweed is abundant here, although most of the purple thistle-like flowers had gone over. I did however find some that were still in flower. Knapweed is often known as hardheads.
Bladder campion, wild mignonette, hoary ragwort and yarrow
It is not difficult to see how bladder campion got its name, as the white flowers have a bladder-like inflated calyx (the bit behind the petals).
The greenish-yellow flowers of wild mignonette are not particularly showy, but they always remind me of rocket nose-cones.
The yellow flowers are hoary ragwort, which can be distinguished from common ragwort by their different leaves.
Yarrow is a very common wildflower and has distinctive aromatic, feathery, finely cut leaves. The flowers are normally white, but they are quite commonly an attractive pink. It is a frequent plant on the road verges around Croydon.
Woolly thistle and round-headed rampion
Lastly, two fantastic Happy Valley specialities.
The spectacular woolly thistle is uncommon in London and Surrey, and round-headed rampion is nationally scarce. A joy to see both so close to home.
Clouded yellow, comma and speckled wood butterflies
There were lots of butterflies on the wing and I managed to get photos of some of them.
I was particularly pleased with the clouded yellow, as I have never managed to get this close to one before, and I had to stalk it for some time before I got this shot.
The comma obligingly had its wings open, even though it wasn’t on a particularly photogenic background.
I spotted the speckled wood, one of my favourite butterflies, on the walk back through the woodland to where I had parked my car in the Farthing Down car park.
All very enjoyable, if taking slightly longer than anticipated. I shall be back to Happy Valley soon to gather the sloes for this year’s sloe gin – last year, we harvested our supplies in September, but with the rains coming now after such a hot summer, it might be a good idea to keep a close check on when our bramble larder is ready for picking.
Click here to catch up with Moira O’Donnell’s previous Nature Notes and foraging tips.
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A big thank you to Ken and now to Moira for such knowledge-expanding and beautifully illustrated articles.
I recently visited the north east corner of Happy Valley, an area called New Hill, which can be accessed easily both from the Farthing Down car park by walking in a NE direction down into the deep end of the Valley itself, or by driving or walking to the end of the cul de sac road called Chaldon Way (off Marlpit Lane) and entering the countryside at that point.
New Hill, like the adjacent whaleback ridge of Farthing Down, belongs to the City of London, and is well-managed by their countryside team. It has been cleared of encroaching scrub over the last 10 or so years, and is now a joyous, huge and open expanse of chalk grassland.
When I saw it this summer, it was a sea of yellow rattle, peppered with orchids and other colourful chalk-loving wild flowers. In fact, I have never seen such a beautiful sea of yellow flowers, definitely on a par, beauty wise, with a Wordsworthian sea of golden daffodils, but very different.
Happy Valley, owned and managed by Croydon Council, is, likelwise, a fantastic area of chalk grassland, fringed and sheletered by ancient woodlands, including the sinisterly named Devils Den. Together with the rare and and lovely wild flowers and the wonderful smooth chalk valley landscape, another amazing fact about the valley is that from most parts of it, you can see no houses, radio masts or other man-made artefact. All this, and less than 15 miles from Charing Cross!
That we have such wildlife and landscape gems as Happy Valley, Farthing Down and New Hill, is remarkable, and due to the designation of these areas as Green Belt, plus the benign ownership, investment and active management of City of London Commons and Croydon Council, particularly the wardens working for both organsiations, and also of the Conservation Volunteers, not forgetting the care and attention invested in both areas by the Coulsdon-based Friends of Farthing Downs.
Anyone interested in beautiful landscapes, recreation in the open air, enjoying wild flowers and seeing other wildlife, and in meeting others who care about protecting these fantastic areas for the publc, but who does not already know these sites, should go along and see the superb countryside we have here right on the doorstep of Croydon, and maybe get involved in some way in helping to care for these unique and precious areas.
Join the Friends, or volunteer with the conservation volunteers! You will be rewarded by being part of this fantastic environment !