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Will the meadow maker work its magic?

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Blog picture: Will the meadow maker work its magic?
"It's been a pleasure looking at the young yellow rattle and enjoying the simple pleasure of having an unusual plant in the garden. To think about what this little plant is up to is a wee meditative act and a reminder of the amazing things plants can do."

I’ve often wondered why I’m interested in plants. Sometimes, I can’t stop myself from getting excited about what they can do. The lure of animals I think is more obvious. Lions are cool, meerkats are fun, and who doesn’t like a bumblebee? I’ve heard seabird researchers bemoaning the puffin effect, where any studentship focussed on these jolly little critters gets a flood of applicants that have never wanted anything so much as to work on puffins. The lure of plants, though, is something more mysterious. Some plants are obviously gorgeous; showy orchids, majestic Scots pines, hill-cladding heaths. Some plants, though, fly a bit below the radar, but at the same time are doing some amazing things. No fuss, no nervous system, just busy doing cool stuff.

As an undergraduate I struggled sometimes with insomnia, and to help cope I read up on meditation techniques. Of particular use was a collection of approaches called spot meditations; quick de-stressing exercises that could be done anytime, anywhere. One of these was based around simply stopping and looking closely at something, the idea being that studying something in detail takes you out of yourself, giving you the chance to unwind a little. It’s a trick I still use now before stressful activities such as giving a talk or opening a letter from HMRC.

Returning to my back garden, as I’m now forced to do, I’ve had more time to study the small things. The gradual encroachment of spring brings daily landmarks. About a week or so back my pond skaters returned. I don’t know where they’ve been (hibernating, but apparently away from the pond), but it seemed that we’d hit a critical temperature threshold and they re-merged. This week it has been the butterflies: tortoiseshells and peacocks are on the plum tree, enjoying the nectar while trying to avoid the cats. More exciting still, though, has been some activity in my lawn.

I am not a major fan of mowing, so decided last year to try leaving some of our lawn to go a bit wild, inspired to be honest by the display of wildflowers at the James Hutton Institute's Invergowrie site. I’d like a bit of that, I thought, but being short on arable fields I decided to try meadow making. To this end, I marked out a triangle of grass in the back lawn and started beating it about with a rake to make some bare patches amongst the competitive grasses. Into this, I sowed some yellow rattle Rhinanthus minor. For those of you that don’t know, this plant is what’s known as a hemiparasite, which means that although green – and so having some photosynthetic activity of its own – it also produces haustoria. These are root-like structures which attach and tap into the roots of other plants (particularly grasses), enabling the yellow rattle to pull nutrients from the unfortunate host. In turn, this is a boon for other species in meadow communities. Working on the principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” (apparently a quote from the 6th Century Chinese general Sun Tzu), the reduction in vigour of the dominant grasses then helps other species to establish in grassland systems.

This is why sowing yellow rattle is often seen as a key part of recreating species-rich meadow communities. Whether this works in my lawn has yet to be seen. I hope so – if it looks like the yellow rattle crop will be good, I’ll then try sowing some other meadow species later in the year. But irrespective, for me it's been a pleasure stopping to look at the young yellow rattle and to enjoy the simple pleasure of having a new and unusual plant in the garden. Taking a moment like this to look more closely, and to think about what this little plant is up to, is both a little meditative act and reminds me of the amazing things that plants can do. Who needs a puffin when you’ve got a meadow maker in your lawn? 

For more information on yellow rattle’s magic, visit the PlantLife website.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author, and not an official position of the institute or funder.

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Printed from /blogs/will-meadow-maker-works-its-magic on 07/07/20 02:02:40 PM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.