Sunday, 27 September 2015

The Blue Flower


Small, intensely blue flowers are scattered in the sandy soil at my feet. They are pricking their way up among grass stalks here at Barnhamcross Common, near Thetford, England.  The terrain is hummocky, showing historic scars from many years of digging for sand and gravel.  This secluded corner of the Common is clothed with sedge and gorse, scattered oak and pine trees. It has a typical sandy Breckland soil, and lies not far from the Little Ouse river on level ground that was once part of the floodplain. In common with several of the Breckland heathland specialities, this blue flowering plant is tiny and unobtrusive, and yet quite beautiful in small detail.

I  have a real sense of a discovery here. Not only is the plant's identity a puzzle to me - its flower-head reminds me of a scabious, but isn't like any kind of scabious I can identify - but its beauty calls out to me: all shades of blue are gathered in its complexion: azure, caerulean, gentian, lapis, sky. I take photographs that barely do justice to this luminous phenomenon.


I emailed a photo to Martin Sanford at the SBRC, Ipswich, asking for an identification. He named it as Sheep's-bit, Jasione montana, a member of the Campanula family that grows on light, sandy or stony soils. He said Barnhamcross Common is one of its known Breckland strongholds. The species is sparsely present in Norfolk - Beckett and Bull's 'A Flora of Norfolk' (1999) shows it as very localised, 'confined to short, acid turf', with its principal population centred in the dunes round Winterton-on-Sea. The 'Encyclopaedia of Life' maps Jasione montana as a native of the temperate parts of Europe. NatureGate in Finland says it is a native of rocky outcrops, sandy areas and hillsides.

The native distribution of Jasione montana @ The Encyclopaedia of Life

Sheep's-bit has been expanding in my imagination. Its flowers are true-blue scintillae studded like stars against the gloomy backdrop of my daily thoughts. Harry Godwin's 'History of the British Flora' provides an interesting local history. Its fossil pollen has been identified from late Devensian (Weichselian) levels at Old Buckenham Mere, an almost dried-up natural lake about 15 miles away. The pollen was blown into it from surrounding land and preserved in the mud. This takes its history back over 12,000 years to the end of the Ice Age. It would have favoured the freely-draining, coversand soils and sparse vegetation of the period. He says it was also found in the Roman to Anglo-Saxon levels, and suggests it owes its presence here to agricultural disturbance of sandy soils thereabouts.

Such factors seem to be key to its survival at Barnhamcross Common. There is evidence that someone has deliberately broken the soil surface in places, presumably for bioconservation reasons - so preserving a suitable habitat. Instead of a blanket of over-shading sedge, gorse and trees, we have patches of open, disturbed ground that fosters greater floral diversity. In this way a delicate, late glacial species, with a local history of over 12,000 years, still flourishes in Breckland. Its flowers have the same blue that once reflected in the eyes of a Saxon farmer, a woolly rhinoceros or a tundra vole.

*  Beckett, G & Bull, B: A Flora of Norfolk; Beckett, 1999.
* Godwin, H: History of the British Flora - A factual basis for phytogeography; Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition, 1975.
* West, RG: Plant Life of the Quaternary Cold Stages - Evidence from the British Isles; Cambridge University Press, 2000.