Bright red poppies, delicate corncockle and sunny corn marigolds were once very familiar to the arable farmers of Wales and grew side-by-side with them for centuries. The diversity of wildflowers that used to pepper our fields may have once been a thorn in the farmer’s side, but our arable ‘weeds’ are now facing a high risk of extinction in Wales and across the UK. Conservationists are now working hard across the country to protect these fascinating survivors from the threats of intensive farming, herbicides and new seed cleaning methods. Luckily, you can see all of these plants together in the Conserving Welsh Plants area, which was opened by HRH Prince Charles last week.
Salvia pratensis– Meadow Clary
This plant was declared extinct in Wales after it vanished from its last known site in Pembrokeshire in 2004. A few plants were rescued from the final Welsh population just before it died out, and in 2016 the National Botanic Garden of Wales joined a national collaboration to bring Meadow Clary back to Wales. Those last remaining plants were crossed with English populations to reinvigorate their gene pool and then planted back into a protected Welsh nature reserve.
Bromus interruptus– Interrupted Brome
This quirky grass has been extinct from the wild since 1972 and is only found in Britain due to a recent twist of evolution. Phillip M. Smith, a botanist from Edinburgh Botanic Gardens, took a few seedheads just before it vanished to show to his students. He kept the seeds, and grew them on his office windowsill for several years. After showing his plants at a 1979 botanical conference, Professor Smith gave his seeds to Kew and Edinburgh botanic gardens to be kept alive in cultivation for the next 3 decades. Interrupted brome was finally successfully re-introduced to an Oxfordshire nature reserve in 2004- the first known reintroduction of an extinct plant in Britain.
Campanula patula– Spreading Bellflower
Despite being one of our most beautiful wildflowers, the spreading bellflower was all-but wiped out in Wales. It prefers to grow in either coppice woodland or free-draining banks by farmland, footpaths or even railways. The loss of traditional coppicing and the increased use of herbicides to ‘tidy up’ margins have caused numbers to dwindle. Research by the Garden’s scientists has shown that Welsh populations now have such tiny gene pools that they won’t be able to flourish without human help.
Bupleurum rotundifolium– Thorow Wax
Although it might be very easy to buy seeds of this plant for your cut flower garden, this pretty little wildflower has been lost from arable land since the introduction of seed screening machines in the 1960s. It’s zingy, lemony-green flowers look a lot like a Spurge (Euphorbia spp.), however this guy is more closely related to plants like wild carrot and cow parsley.
Lolium temulentum– Darnel
Although not necessarily native (it may have been brought over to Britain by Roman settlers), darnel is an ancient weed of wheat fields. It is a carrier of the Ergot fungus, and when the grains of darnel became mixed up with the wheat harvest it was impossible to tell the difference. Better seed cleaning techniques have ended the outbreaks of Ergot poisoning that many believe triggered the witch trials, but poison darnel, as it is sometimes known, will still occasionally pop up from time to time on waste ground.
To find out more about our threatened arable plants, check out Plantlife’s campaign to save arable plants here