Kent Botanical Recording Group Field Trip - Stelling Minnis to Park Gate Down 30/05/24

 My holiday in Kent should have carried on to the 1st June, however, the beds in our accomodation were so bad that we couldn't endure another night. So this field trip was my last day in Kent before returning to Cornwall. I hadn't planned to go on it as the family would take a dim view of me going off the day leaving them stranded in a remote farmhouse, however, the day was cool, overcast and rain was forecast, so I was granted leave of absence and went along.

We met at Stelling Minnis and then walked south east towards Elhampark Wood. It was great to see KBRG members again, though it was a shame that the trip leader, Sue, had to cancel as she had suffered a knee injury. So the trip was led by Alfie who knew the area very well and is very knowledgable too.

The woodland here is mildly acidic as the higher ground in Kent often is even though the bedrock is chalk. The chalk is covered with clay and flints which usually has eroded from the sides, but remains on the higher hilltops and plateaux.

The first notable plant we found were swathes of Cow-wheat. This is hemiparasitic and its roots attach to woody plants (Holly, Oak, etc) to steal nutrients from them. Given the acidic soil and associated flora we could name this to sub species level too as subsp pratense. On chalk the subsp found is subsp commutatum. Both are subtly different in form. I have copied below from the Kent Rare Plant Register at Kent RPR Species Accounts ably authored by Geoffrey Kitchener, VCR for West Kent.

"The two subspecies are distinguished (apart
from habitat preferences) mainly by leaf shape.
The uppermost leaves of subsp. commutatum
(i.e. below the bracts) are wider – appearing as
ovate-lanceolate, mostly 3-8 times longer than
wide (cf. subsp. pratense, lanceolate to linear-
lanceolate, mostly 7-15 times as long as wide).
Its corolla tube is often longer, at 13-15.5mm
(cf. subsp. pratense at mostly 12-14mm), but
there is overlap between the taxa."

Use the search box (or type Ctrl+F) to find particular species as the document is very long.

Melampyrum pratense subsp pratense

Also on the acidic soils were a few Bitter Vetch in flower. This is an attractive small pea flower with a blue calyx; with pink flowers turning blue once pollinated. It's occasional along rural road verges here.

Lathyrus linifolius

 I thought it might be useful for some, to compare the leaves of Bitter Vetch and Bush Vetch. Both species often grow close to one another, although in reality they are only loosely related (both in the Fabaceae family). Bitter Vetch is a Lathyrus (a Pea) and Bush Vetch is a Vicia (Vetch), however, the flower structure is very similar between them, so always look at the leaves if unsure.

On a rural road verge near the woodland we found some Hard Shield Ferns in very fine form. I had only seen this fern once in Kent before and that was some years ago now. This lovely fern is absent from most of Cornwall and is replaced by the Soft Shield Fern - ironically that is absent from much of Kent!

Polystichum aculeatum

As we left the woodland and started downhill towards chalk meadows, there was a transition in the flora from plants like the above and Heather to chalk loving species. In this transition area was a small pond where we found some interesting plants such as Water Starworts, but the highlight was Pond Water Crowfoot. I'd seen this before near the Royal Military Canal at Ruckinge, so it was good to see it again. The flowers are larger than many Water Crowfoots; the nectary gland is pear shaped and the leaves are of two types, as shown below.

Ranunculus peltatus

As we descended the hill into a meadow, we came across the many chalk loving species found here, such as Quaking Grass (Briza media), Common Milkwort (Polygala vulgaris), Horseshoe Vetch (Hippocrepis comosa) and these Common Rockrose below. I had seen these during the week at other places, but they were all bedraggled and half closed up due to rain. However, the forecast rain for today held off and the sun blazed down on us.

Helianthemum nummularium

The only Plantain with what could be considered attractive flowers is Hoary Plantain, so named as the basal rosette leaves are usually quite hairy. Plenty were flowering here and I managed to find a trio of flower spikes showing three different stages of corolla development.

Plantago media

In the meadows of Park Gate Down were hundreds of different orchids of several species. People come from far and wide to see them here. The place is called the Hector Wilkes Reserve and is managed by Kent Wildlife Trust. Here's a selection of some of the orchids we recorded here this day.

Neottia ovata - Common Twayblade, perhaps the dullest of the orchids here, but still looks the part I think.

Early Purple Orchids were still going, but the majority were in seed, I didn't photograph these as I've taken so many recently in Cornwall, I didn't feel the need to do so. The next lovely orchid was the Chalk Fragrant. There were lots of these dotted around and they have a lovely scent too. I think this type of Fragrant Orchid is much denser flowered than the Marsh Fragrant Orchid called Gymnadenia densiflora. I've seen the latter in Cornwall and their inflorescences are much looser than these here.

Gymnadenia conopsea

Of course, the star of the trip was the Monkey Orchid, of which there were more than a dozen still in flower. They were introduced here over 50 years ago using seed from the only native Kent site left and have flourished here since.

Orchis simia

This reserve had had a Lady Orchid for some years, just the one. It died off a couple of years ago, but another one has arisen a few yards from the original. It's odd that larger numbers haven't successfully taken here, but the meadow is very open and exposed and these orchids like being in dappled woodland shade, so perhaps that is the reason. It was past its best with the lower flowers gone over, but still a lovely sight to see. The flattened grass around it is from assorted photographers over the last few weeks, however, I saw no damaged orchids and the ground wasn't compacted either, so seed could easily germinate if produced.

Orchis purpurea

Nearby were a trio of Greater Butterfly Orchids, again past their best. On the Cornwall moors, I doubt they are anywhere near flowering yet. The colder harsher climate of the Bodmin Moor holds them back a few weeks compared to Kent.

Platanthera chlorantha

Finally, there were some lovely, but small, Fly Orchids along the upper slopes of the last meadow. I've stayed and watched these little beauties for up to an hour in the past in the hope that a male digger wasp might come along and pollinate it, but sadly that hasn't happened for me. The poor male wasp is tricked by the Fly Orchid, the latter releasing a chemical smell that imitates the scent of a female digger wasp. The male then goes from one Fly Orchid flower to another trying to copulate with it and inadvertantly takes pollinia from one plant to another thus fertilising the orchids.

Ophrys insectifera


 So ended the field trip. As we got back to the cars it started raining hard, but Owen still distributed some hot tea and coffee and Welsh cakes, thank you Owen, and thanks to Alfie for leading the trip at short notice. During the trip I gave an impromptu lesson on identifying Dandelions to some of the group and I tentatively identified some Polypodium interjectum ferns for Alfie. He took a sample home to look at under the microscope to confirm or otherwise. I look forward to seeing the result.

For all the wild floral news from Kent, its Rare Plant Register, Species Accounts, ID tips and videos and of course Kent Botany and News Bulletins, please visit Kent Botany You can lso join the KBRG for free, just fill in the form on that web page and you can then attend all the wonderful field trips held throughout the season. There are similar pages for many counties, check out BSBI for your area here.

I then left, picked up the family and the next day returned to Cornwall. A day later, I was at The Lizard surrounded by an amazing and diverse flora, from Thyme Broomrape and Spring Sandwort, to Yellow Centaury and Twin-headed Clovers. I haven't written up my Cornwall blog for May yet, but please keep a look out for my Cornwall Blog .Click the blue link and it will take you there.

All the best



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