Rainbow colours

No, I’m not talking real rainbows…the rainfall over Surrey has been really low this month, and the sight of yellow lawns and falling leaves might well be a lasting one!

I’m talking grasslands, chalk grasslands again, but this time a bit different from the ones found in Guildford. This is Sheepleas reserve, managed by Surrey Wildlife Trust, a 300 acre SSSI (“Site of Special Scientific Interest”, a conservation designation which indicates a site of great geological and/or biological value). Located between Guildford and Leatherhead, it offers a great view on London’s landmark buildings…spot the Shard!

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The walk crosses a woodland, before arriving to a shrubby area. Some colourful plants there, like the very recognizable Rosebay Willowherb (Chamerion angustifolium), a species of  St. John’s wort (Hypericum sp) and the Dark Mullein (Verbascum nigrum, a tall herb with bright yellow spikes and strange pink and hairy stamens).

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Under some small trees, I spot the locally abundant Rock Rose (Helianthemum nummularium). This is a member of the Cistaceae, a mainly Mediterranean plant family which loves dry and poor soils. The pink one is Malva moschata (Musk Mallow, as the flowers have a musky scent), a perennial often found in hedgerows or roadsides.


The walk then leads to a flower-rich meadow, with hints of blues, pinks, reds, yellows and whites…

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Blue and white forms of the same plant, the Clustered Bellflower (Campanula glomerata) :


There is another, frailer Campanula species growing there, the Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia). The yellow flower on the right, an umbellifer, is Wild Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa). It seemed much loved by insects, like this seven-spot ladybird (Coccinella septempunctata).


Flower variants are common in these diversified grasslands : this is another example, with blue and white form of the Small Scabious (Scabiosa columbaria) :


There are some more unusual plants too, like the Common centaury (Centaurium erythraea) or the Red Bartsia (Odontites vernus). This is a hemiparasite, a plant which takes part of its water and nutrients from “hosts”, in this case grasses :


Speaking of parasites, I was very excited to see for the first time the Dodder (Cuscuta epithymum), a low-growing plant with reddish stems. Dodder is a holoparasite (it does not possess chlorophyll and relies entirely on its hosts such as gorse, clover, heather or grasses for food). Contrary to other holoparasites like Broomrapes which suck nutrients through the roots of their hosts, Dodder is a stem parasite : its suckers (called haustoria) pierce the stem of the host and suck nutrients from the sap….Bon appétit!
Many Cuscuta species are considered as vile crop pests in the world, but in the UK, Dodder is actually in decline, and now classified as VU (Vulnerable) on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red list.


In 2012, Sheepleas was selected as one of Surrey’s  Coronation Meadows. The “Coronation Meadows” Project was launched by HRH the Prince of Wales in collaboration with the charity Plantlife, to highlight 60 grassland sites of particular beauty and value (marking the 60 year’s since the Queen’s Coronation). The aim of the project is to help manage and conserve these sites, but also to use seeds coming from these sites to recreate grasslands areas that have been lost.
97% of the UK’s wild flower meadows have been lost since the 1930s, so I can only hope that they succeed!


    1. I tend to eat plants on the spot, have never tried collecting them and cooking them, although I would be very interested to learn how to prepare them (wild parsnip is obvious, as there is a cultivated version, but I know that some plants require more preparation).

      I don’t how it is in the US, but here in the UK, foraging courses and walks, whether it is for food, cosmetics or medicines, are becoming increasingly popular (even in the middle of big cities like London) and I think it’s a great thing – connecting people back to where food comes from, i.e nature and not a supermarket shelf!

      1. I thought “wild” parsnip was actually the cultivated version, hence the “sativa.” (I have found, though, that unless the soil is loose and deep, it’s a lot of work to collect them for not much in the way of payoff–the roots are often dense, small, and curled up.) I don’t know if you have common milkweed there (Asclepias syriaca), but it’s my favorite and doesn’t need much preparation, despite what many foraging books say. And apparently there are lots of wild salad greens, which I’m just beginning to learn about, and have seen identified in many of your blog posts. Very exciting.

        I’m so glad there are foraging classes there; there are many here, too! It’s such a great way to become more thoughtful about food and nature and ecosystems, not to mention cultivating a connection between us and the land we live on!

      2. I guess botanists named it “sativa” when they noticed that it was edible and quite good. I think that wild parnsip has much slender roots than the cultivated version (from which it is derived). I have always wanted to dig one and verify that!

        We don’t have milkweed here, but I have heard that it’s good…can’t it be slightly toxic though?

        It’s weird to think that the very abundant and potentially “nasty” plants (clovers, nettles, dandelions, chickweeds, plantains, violets etc…) are almost all edible, but few people know about it!

      3. There are conflicting reports on milkweed. It’s often misidentified, with people (even experienced foragers like Euell Gibbons) apparently picking dogbane instead of milkweed shoots, and getting sick. The foraging writer Sam Thayer has a great discussion of this.

        I love nettles, but haven’t been able to find any lately. 🙂

  1. Hi Sophie,

    Nice to see an enthusiastic naturalist in south England. And please, don’t remind me of the Shard! Thanks for the differentiation on the small scabious. I was in the Czech Republic and it drove me mad trying to understand which species the white-cream scabious was. Very common in the grasslands there.

    Best wishes,


  2. Nice post Sophie, like you I really hope that the Coronation Meadow project succeeds and raises public awareness of what we have lost. A wild meadow full of flowers is one of the worlds natural wonders! Was your meadow also full of bees and butterflies?

    1. Thanks Finn, I was unaware of the whole Coronation Meadow project before doing a bit of research on the reserve. On a biodiversity scale, these meadows are the rainforests of our temperate countries but sadly, they are also very easy to lose (you don’t even have to cut trees to occupy them…).
      The reserve was teeming with bees, hoverflies, butterflies and all sorts of other insects (especially warm-loving things such as spiders and crickets). They might be the topic of my next post!

      1. In that case I’m really looking forward to the next instalment!

        It’s a good point you make about our ‘rain forests’, the meadows harbour large numbers of important species. And whereas they can easily be lost because trees don’t need to be felled to destroy them, they don’t need to be planted to create them either. They can be recreated and become established in a relatively short space of time.

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