Seed collecting season is upon us, and so far it’s been a fruitful year! The National Seed Bank of Wales was launched at the end of 2018, and since then we have been busy gathering valuable collections of plant material from our own Waun Las National Nature Reserve.
This past month saw our first seed collecting trips of the year to Kenfig National Nature Reserve in Bridgend. Kenfig is one of the best places to see sand dune habitats in the UK and is home to many precious plants including the critically endangered Fen Orchid Liparis loeselii.
The reason for Kenfig’s rich plant communities is that it’s made up of many different types of habitat. Near the sea the dunes are bare and constantly shifting with the wind, providing room for pioneer species to grow with very little competition. As you get further inland, the dunes slowly become more stable and create a hilly, sandy grassland with lots of variation in wind, rain, soil fertility, and sun levels. Between the dunes are large, low-lying, flat areas called dune slacks. In these slacks, the soil is a lot muddier and the area regularly floods. This complex, constantly shifting system is a tough place to live if you’re a plant, but the plants that do manage to survive are as interesting and special as their home.
To track down the species we were looking for, we began with a recce trip in August to see how the plants had been doing this year and get an idea of when seed might be ripening. Armed with this valuable information, we were then able to plan our visit. I went along on September the 5th, and brought along two of our new science placement students Grace and Phoebe and our second-year horticultural apprentice Jen.
Searching for the Round-leaved wintergreen
The first plant that we wanted to find was the Round-leaved wintergreen Pyrola rotundifolia ssp maritima. This plant is nationally scarce and can be shy to flower, so it was going to be a challenge to find. I began with a description of the type of habitat it is usually found in- the edges of wet dune slacks, amongst clumps of Creeping willow Salix repens. Then, using satellite images of Kenfig, I tried to find discoloured spots that looked like they might be pools of water or wet ground. We could then use that map on our phones whilst we were there to lead us straight to the most promising locations.
Getting to those dark spots on the map was easier said than done though! Whilst the satellite image was great, it didn’t show that to reach our destination we’d have to scramble through boggy woodland (that luckily only one person’s shoe fell casualty to) and navigate steep, thorny dunes. Whilst we were picking our way across the grassland I suddenly stopped, my face lit up and I dropped to the ground- I had seen something!
It was the near-threatened Autumn lady’s tresses Spiranthes spiralis, a beautiful late-flowering orchid that I had never seen before. It’s one of our smallest native orchids, no more than 15-20cm at it’s full flowering height and it’s beautiful white flowers are arranged down the stem in a spiral. Our students had to put up with about 10 minutes of me being incredibly excited as I spotted more and more of them growing on the hills around us.
Eventually we reached the wet areas I’d spotted on the map, and were rewarded with a few little colonies of the round leaved wintergreen- its white, bell-shaped flowers bobbing amongst the willow exactly as it had been described. For the seed bank, we try to collect at least 10,000 individual seeds in order for the collection to be useful for conservation, and we try not to collect more than 10-20% of the seeds in the area so that we’re not damaging the population. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough plants for us to collect the critical 10,000 seeds, but we were able to take a smaller number to grow for our horticultural collection and put on display in the Conserving Welsh Plants area.
A successful day’s plant hunting
On our way back, we were able to make two large seed bank collections of Sea holly Eryngium maritimum and Burnet rose Rosa spinosissima. These spiny species love to grow in coastal dunes and are both very beautiful. Sea holly looks as though it belongs in a modern, architectural garden with its sharp blue-grey foliage and domed flowerheads, whilst Burnet rose grows in short, dark mounds topped with creamy, cupped flowers that become shiny black rosehips in autumn. We also made a few more collections for the horticultural display, and you can look forward to seeing these plants growing on the Kenfig raised bed next year.
By the end of the day we were driving back to the National Botanic Garden of Wales exhausted but pleased, my car boot stocked with collections that will allow us to continue our work with Wales’ wonderful native plants. Seed banking can be hard work, but it’s so important to the core mission of NBGW that I’m very proud that I get to be part of it every year.
The seed season is nowhere near over yet, and there are many more botanical adventures still to be had this year! To keep up with my work conserving our native plants, keep an eye on our blog. If you’re keen on the more exotic plants of the world, check out our curator Will Ritchie’s upcoming expedition to collect plants from Vietnam.