17 Jun 2020

Wildflower Highlights – Eyebright

Bruce Langridge

Waun Las National Nature Reserve is an organic working farm which is physically part of the National Botanic Garden of Wales – it’s less than 5 minutes’ walk away from the Great Glasshouse.

It has meadows full of rare and endangered wildflowers which have arrived naturally due to the way we farm – mainly through strategic grazing and hay cutting.  We hope what we do will also encourage others to manage their land for nature.

In 2016 we carried out an experiment to move freshly cut ‘green hay’ from two wildflower rich meadows (Cae Trawsgoed and Cae Tegeirianau) to two species-poor pasture (Cae Derwen and Cae Waun). Within just three years, orchids were growing on the receiver fields. In 2019 we also added ‘green hay’ to another grass-dominated pasture Cae Gwair. We soon intend to harvest the wildflower seed on these meadows.

Eyebright is one the wildflowers that has benefitted from our approach.

Euphrasia sp. – Eyebright

This small but beautiful plant helps to keep our meadows rich in wildflowers. Eyebrights steal water and mineral nutrients from nearby grasses, so keeping their numbers down and allowing other wildflowers to colonise – where you find eyebright you usually find lots of other wildflowers.

Why is it called eyebright? If you’ve ever used eyedrops to soothe your eyes, there’s a fair chance eyebright has been used in the droplets – eyebright been used for centuries for treating reddened and inflamed eyes. But did the appearance of its flower influence this? The scientific name of eyebright,  Euphrasia, means cheerful, an apt name for how it makes me feel when I see it.

It took 5-10 years for eyebright to arrive and naturally spread across our hay meadows after we started to manage Cae Trawsgoed and Cae Tegeirianau as hay meadows in the early 2000s. But after we spread green hay from these meadows onto Cae Derwen and Cae Waun in 2016, we’ve seen eyebright colonise the new hay meadows much quicker and more extensively.

So well that this year we’ll be collecting eyebright seed and selling it to you if you have a patch of lawn or meadow that you’d like to encourage wildflowers onto.

We’ve not done this before and it seems like it might be a fiddly business. Eyebrights are quite short and might be really hard to see once their flowers have gone to seed. But we’ve got lots of volunteers willing to help us and we’ll try cropping in late June/early July.

Another issue is working out what kind of eyebright we have.

There are 19 species of eyebright in the UK and they are really hard to tell apart. The type of hairs found on the stems and leaves are a useful identification character – the hairs can be short or long, with or without blobs of oil at their tips, or not present at all. But to complicate things further, the species often cross-pollinate to form hybrids and could be different from field to field. Luckily, we have botanist Dr Kevin McGinn on our Growing the Future team and he is on the case of trying to identify them and sending samples for verification by an expert at the Botanic Society of Britain and Ireland.

A recent scientific paper co-written by our own Head of Science Dr Natasha De Vere, used eyebrights from Waun Las and other places across the UK to test the technique of DNA barcoding to see how well it helped to identify different eyebright species. But even at this microscopic level, scientists still find it hard. But their research did help them find out that the eyebright species we find in Britain today evolved along two different paths (clades) dating back over 8 million years, and that the British eyebrights have all colonised from Europe, rather than evolved in Britain.

If you’d like to purchase eyebright, and/or other wildflowers that we’re harvesting from Waun Las NNR this year, let me know by emailing bruce.langridge@gardenofwales.org.uk and I’ll let you know the prices and availability. Eyebright is an annual so would have to be sown this year, by autumn at the latest. Ideally you should cut your lawn meadow first, take away the cuttings and if possible, scarify the ground with a rake or chain harrow, to allow the seeds to bed into the soil.