Tuesday, 1 April 2014

A plant to be taken with a pinch of salt!

Danish Scurvy grass - a clever little plant! 
I was sitting in my car on the M3 yesterday, going absolutely no where as you often do on our motorways, which gave me time to study the central reservation. This is one of the major benefits of being interested in Natural History, as it really does not matter where you are, in a stuffy office in London (as long as it has windows, which some don’t!) on a train or stuck in a queue, you can always resort to a bit of wildlife spotting!!

My attention turned to a small, low growing plant with four delicate white flowers, some of which had a slightly pinkish or mauve hue.  It was Danish Scurvy grass, a species that was traditionally considered a coastal plant, growing on shingle beaches, so what on earth is it doing growing on the central reservation of the M3 in Hampshire?

Well, if you stop to think about it, if you take the gravel based area under the crash barriers and add plenty of salt, washed from the roads during wintry periods, you land up with a long thin line of “coastal shingle!”
In recent times it has begun to colonise the verges of our roads and motorways thanks to extensive gritting in winter and has now moved into most areas during the past half-century, giving it the title of the plant that has seen the most dramatic change in distribution of any wild plant in Britain.

Most plants of course hate salt as it gives them “salt burn” which kills them or at least severely stunts their growth, however, if you like living in salty conditions, then this scenario creates plenty of vegetation free zones to colonize!
But how has it got from the coast to grow alongside just about every main road in Britain? Well, it probably only took the odd small seed, perhaps stuck to a holidaymaker’s car wheel, to become established in its new noisy habitat by the tarmac and flourish, producing thousands of tiny seeds, which are then easily blown along the road in the slipstream of any passing vehicle!

Despite being called “Danish” Scurvy grass it is actually native to our shores, but what about the Scurvy part of the name?  Well, scurvy is an affliction caused by a lack of Vitamin C and sailors were particularly prone due to spending long periods at sea with no fresh fruit or vegetables to hand. Step up Scurvy grass, as the leaves are particularly rich in Vitamin C so it was often taken on long journeys as a tonic drink and also eaten between journeys - hence the name.

So, next time you are travelling along a main road, take a look at the road side and see if you can spot this remarkably nimble little plant, which on certain occasions if probably travelling to its destination more quickly than you are!!

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