Monday, 26 March 2012

Yellow star-of-Bethlehem - a hidden gem?

Yellow star-of-Bethlehem Gagea lutea is not a scarce plant in England, but is Endangered in the Welsh Red Data List - with one known native population. This population (in Denbighshire, near Llanarmon-yn-Ial) has been known for some decades. Delyth Williams (VCR for Denbighshire) and I were able to visit last week, and saw a number of flowering plants - although many appeared to have had the flowers bitten off (perhaps by pheasants?) Flowering is known to vary from year to year, but Delyth was disappointed to see fewer plants and none in some outlying patches compared to a visit she had made in 2009. 

The following day Delyth phoned me again to say she had heard from her predecessor, Jean Green, of another population of Gagea lutea, not far away, near Llanfair Dyffryn Clwyd. I spoke to Jean, and today I was able to visit the site with the owner, who has known about it for some 20 years, although she may not have seen flowers every year. Only one flower, partly gone over, was visible today, but also large numbers of small narrow leaves. I think these were Gagea leaves, as where there were wider leaves present these had the characteristic ribs on the underside. However, when not flowering it is hard to be confident that the juvenile leaves are not those of Galanthus, Hyacinthoides or Narcissus, which were all present. 

Interestingly, this small patch of limestone woodland has been used by a young boy who rides a toy quad bike around, and it now appears that the disturbance of creating a small track may have stimulated or exposed some seeds or bulbils, which have grown up in dense patches - and are now being protected! It appears that one of the threats may be competition from ransoms, Allium ursinum, which has been suppressed by the clearance. The owner is now talking about carrying out a little limited clearance of the Allium in places where Gagea has not been seen for several years, to see if the same process can be stimulated. 

I also saw one of the most beautiful woods I have seen for a while - dominated by ash Fraxinus excelsior but with a beautiful ground flora of bluebells Hyacinthoides non-scripta, anemones Anemone nemorosa, white violets Viola odorata and wild daffodils Narcissus pseudonarcissus. It is almost impossible to be certain of the purity of the daffodils, as cultivated types have been planted around nearby houses, but it is certainly a beautiful sight. No Gagea here, although we did find some similarly narrow bright green leaves, but it seemed more likely that they belonged to the bluebells or wild daffodils. 

Meanwhile, Gagea lutea remains a small mystery. This brings the known populations in Denbighshire from one to two. There is an unverified record in Cardiff, and several in Radnorshire. However, it is not thought to be native in Radnorshire. There is still time in the next few weeks to visit potential sites so I would encourage anyone to go and have a look. What better place to be on a sunny March day than in a limestone woodland! 

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