Ancient grassland, and the challenge of illustrating ecotypes within a species
This talk caught my interest because I had attended a talk by Dr Gary Mantle MBE on Transylvania at a Plantlife Meeting on 26th June 2016. Zalanpatak, in Romania, is a mosaic of woodland and meadow farmed in the old traditional ways. Dr Mantle did a blog of this visit (https://garyhome.wordpress.com/category/romania). He concluded that “One of the challenges is finding ways to get the true importance of these landscapes recognised and valued. The rich variety of plants can provide a valuable source of biochemicals and pharmaceuticals which are still being explored. Within the area are many wild plants that are relatives of common crops and so provide an essential genetic resource. Species rich grasslands are reported to store more carbon than mono cultures, so doing their bit against climate change”.
The Prince of Wales first visited Transylvania in 1998 and was “totally overwhelmed by its unique beauty and its extraordinarily rich heritage”. He saw the importance of this beautiful landscape, rich in meadows, with flora that is extremely rare and vulnerable to changes in farming methods. He suggested it should be recorded in the form of a florilegium: Martin was invited to contribute some illustrations and went out to Romania.
The Transylvanian Florilegium was published in 2018 (https://addisonpublications.com/portfolio/ transylvania-florilegium). Martin gave a scenario of a typical medieval village along a wide, untarmacked “road”. Each house had a long garden—effectively individual farmsteads with orchard and grazing sheep. Animals (cows and goats) were taken out to pastures every day. There were no hedges so there was free movement of herb seeds to and from the pastures and road verges.
Back at home Martin had noticed saw-wort (Serratula tinctoria) growing on a small area of grass verge near a local village, Long Newton. Using archival maps and a Lidar base map he was able to demonstrate how the land use had changed from 1600s to the present day (https://theintermingledpot.wordpress.com/2017/08/0 3/medieval-grassland-on-road-verges-and-where-tofind-it). There was a remarkable similarity in the layout of Long Newton and medieval villages in Romania. More than that, he confirmed that the verge supporting the saw-wort had probably never been disturbed or treated with chemicals.
A lot of work has been done on defining and protecting Ancient Woodland but there isn’t a definition of Ancient Grassland or an inventory of it. As Martin states in his article, Ancient grasslands in England—a summary (Inside Ecology 23rd April 2018), “Ancient grassland indicators for MG5 are mentioned in the outstandingly good Natural England Technical Information Note TIN147 as “probable indicators of long continuity of ‘traditional’ management (i.e. no phase of land use change such as ploughing and conversion to crops, woodland establishment etc)” (http://publications.naturalengland.org.uk/publication/ 6626052). Martin is hoping to redress this by writing a book based on his area using road verge surveys and the presence and absence of species.
Now, it is worth pausing to look at Martin’s credentials. He is well qualified and situated to tackle such a task: he has a BSc (Hons) in Environmental Horticulture. He works with Tees Valley Wildlife Trust on local native plant surveys here in the UK. And he also works as a botanical artist: he is Emeritus Fellow of the Chelsea Physic Garden Florilegium Society and member of the group that won a Gold Medal when they exhibited at the RHS. As he says: “As a botanical artist I feel our work has an important role to play in portraying biodiversity. Images are a powerful means of communication”.
Martin was not restricted in how he portrayed his saw-wort contribution to an exhibition in Poland (https://manggha.pl/en/exhibition/exploring-botany). Colour leached out to either side of the inflorescence as if to say, “this is part of Ancient Grassland, don’t let these sites fade away”.
When tackling a study of a plant we are encouraged to look at several plants and select representative, typical specimens. Martin showed examples of wildflower identification books. But there is genetic diversity within a species. An ecotype describes a genetically distinct geographical variety, population or race within a species, which is genotypically adapted to specific environmental conditions. They may look different but are capable of interbreeding.
A classic example is of the early-flowering common knapweed of floodplain meadows. Martin recorded clumps on a local flood plain site, with few inflorescences flowering on 16th July; and was able to collect seed by the beginning of August. The same species, on a site (not a flood plain) which had been pasture historically and grazed, was more branched and in full flower in September. The book British Knapweeds (Marsden-Jones & Turrill 1954) shows the variation in flower types, pages of photos of phyllaries, and mentions an early-flowering floodplain meadow ecotype of common knapweed. (The phyllaries are the involucral bracts around the base of the capitulum (the “flower”) of plants in the Compositae (Asteraceae) family.)
Martin then showed two photographs of birdsfoot trefoil, Lotus corniculatus. There seems to be an east/west and north/south distribution: the ecotype with light-keeled flowers more prevalent in the warmer, south-west of Britain; the other, dark-keeled ecotype in the colder, north-east of Britain (more details here https://botsocscot.wordpress.com/2020/06/22/plantvariation-and-citizen-science).
There are other examples. Bulbous buttercup has variants that grow on chalks, sands and clays. Jim Egginton suggested that grasses too can show ecotype variation—just look at how Stace 4 separates the red fescue aggregate where there is a huge genetic variation and salt tolerance. And what about the many microspecies of dandelions? It is estimated that 217 species exhibit flower colour variation in the British flora (Warren & Mackenzie 2001), and there are many examples of variants occurring for other traits, e.g. flower structure, leaf shape, seed coat and sex. Lawrence Hill did comparative studies of fritillaries and exhibited a large work “Fritillaria Icones” at Kew’s Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art in 2014. This piece was a sequence of photographs showing “both currently accepted diagnostic characters and other morphological and physiological elements” of ecotypes of fritillaries. The order in which Lawrence put the images was based on the most up-to-date genetic research from Kew’s Jodrell Laboratory. Illustrating these ecotypes is certainly a challenge! It may not be possible to work from live specimens. If photographs are taken, is it preferable to paint from the photographs or present the photographs as illustrations?
For some ecotypes the variation may not have been scientifically described yet, or they may all be visually similar but grow in different soils or perhaps have different fungal root associations which might be difficult to show visually.
Joyce Barrus and Martin Allen
Blogs by Dr Gary Mantle MBE (https://garyhome.wordpress.com).
Lidar maps. National Library of Scotland (https://maps.nls.uk/geo/explore/side-byside/#zoom=15&lat=51.80529&lon=- 2.18910&layers=10&right=LIDAR_DTM_2m).
Book of interest. Akeroyd, J. 2006.
The Historic Countryside of the Saxon Villages of Southern Transylvania. (Published in Romania.) Warren, J. & Mackenzie, S. 2001.
Why are all colour combinations not equally represented as flower-colour polymorphisms? New Phytologist 151: 237–241.
Martin Allen has added further links which may be of interest.
Information on Laurence Hill’s work.
Exploring the Future of Botanical Image Making by Laurence Hill (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qPanRG_s Q18).
Laurence’s website (http://www.fritillariaicones.com) and his art exhibitions (http://www.fritillariaicones.com/projects/exhibits. html).
Martin Hammond wrote an excellent book on the history of the Ouse Floodplain Meadows (floodplain meadows were the first meadows; https://rawcliffemeadows.com/2017/05/11/deepmeadows-and-transparent-floods-the-story-ofthe-ouse-ings).
And he gave a couple of excellent talks—this on how to understand the landscape of the past in terms of habitats (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TdeBFXvXq UM). This talk on using historical floras to understand how best to undertake future conservation work (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=djWhia4xK4
May 17th, 2021