#WildEssex New Year Plant Hunt 2023

Each year, the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland organises a New Year plant hunt, encouraging botanists and other interested folk out of their midwinter slumber to see what plants are flowering. As has become tradition, we contributed to the national database by arranging a walk around Wivenhoe Waterfront on that day. And we would like to thank the keen, sharp-eyed group who helped us spot things! All data collected in this citizen science project have been fed into the national record of what is flowering on 1st January: for more information see New Year Plant Hunt 2023 – Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland (bsbi.org). It is good to be part of a bigger project to aid learning about how British and Irish wildflowers are responding to climate change. 

On our recce a few days ago it soon became apparent that numbers would not match the 35 species recorded last year. The main reason for this, we assume, is the severe frost we experienced for a number of nights in mid-December – this will no doubt have killed off many flowering specimens. However, in the hour on the day with 20 pairs of eyes searching the same route as last year we managed to find 23 species in flower – see here for the full list: NYPH2023

Most of the ‘missing’ species were stragglers from the sea walls and salt-marshes of summer (such as Sea Aster, Cord-grass, Bristly Ox-tongue and Ox-eye Daisy), a few flowers of which had persisted through the frost-free early winter of last year. But interestingly, to counter some of these omissions, a few different flowering plants were noted this year: these included the highlight of the day, White Ramping Fumitory (above), a local speciality and a so-called ‘weed’ spreading its charms in several pots and planters.

Another species not found last year, indeed one we have rarely seen in Wivenhoe before, is Water Bent: this grass is an increasing colonist of the UK, and joins a number of other new arrivals to the Wivenhoe waterfront. That lover of block-paving, Jersey Cudweed, was found in profusion, and indeed in parts of our area where it has not been seen before, though only one had a surviving flower, the rest shrivelled from frost-bite. And Early Meadow-grass was just starting to produce its diminutive flowers: all the above were unknown here up to a few years ago.

Other new flowers for this survey probably relate to their near-invisibility unless you search hard under the leaves. The tiny greenish flowers of both Pellitory-of-the-wall (above)and Annual Nettle fall into this category.

Aside from these, the ‘usual suspects’ included Gorse, Hazel, Red Dead-nettle, Groundsel, Annual Mercury, Shepherd’s-purse and Common Chickweed, but for all, the flowers were much less profuse than last year. This was especially the case with the Mexican Fleabane (below) that has colonized the riverside brickwork: last year like pink and white confetti, this year just a few daisy-like stars to brighten a dull day.

What can we read into the results of our survey? Well probably not much – the real value will come when all the results from all the walks around our islands are completed, collated and analysed. But last winter was exceptionally mild (indeed 1st Jan 2022 was the warmest New Year’s Day on record), whilst this year the pre-Christmas deep freeze cut short many plants’ productivity. It highlights the oft-forgotten (by the all-too-numerous denialists) difference between weather and climate. ‘Average weather’ is indeed warming/weirding but actual weather this winter for us bucked that trend. All interesting stuff though!

Naturally, although a botanical trip, we didn’t overlook other wildlife. Birdsong from the estuary (Curlews), and treetops (Robins) was a feast for the ears, and we were pleased to find a 7-spot Ladybird plus a number of Rosemary Beetles, those mobile jewels, on a Rosemary bush, mostly paired and in the process of making more beetles. All a very hopeful sign for a wildlife-filled 2023!