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Spring Botany at Allen Banks

With my Natural History Society of Northumbria hat on, yesterday I had the pleasure of leading a small group of students from Newcastle University to one of my favourite local haunts: the glorious National Trust reserve at Allen Banks. The wooded areas here making for a superb location at which to enjoy a range of seldom seem woodland wildflowers and of course, to try our hand at a spot of orchid hunting too.

Starting out from the public car park and heading South on the West side of the river, things started out well with a range of interesting ferns spotted along the way. Among these, Broad Buckler-fern (Dryopteris dilatata), Hard Fern (Blechnum spicant), Male Fern (Dryopteris filix-mas) and both Soft Shield-fern (Polystichum setiferum) and its cousin, the Hard Shield-fern (Polystichum aculeatum). If you had told me a year back that I’d be getting exciting over ferns, I’m not sure I would have believed you…

In flower here was Yellow Pimpernel (Lysimachia nemorum) and Opposite-leaved Golden-saxifrage (Chrysosplenium oppositifolium), while a little further in, we were treated to remains of Toothwort (Lathraea squamaria) and an Alchemilla later [tentatively] ID’d as Intermediate Lady’s-mantle (Alchemilla xanthochlora).

Making plenty of pitstops along the way to our chosen destination, it was interesting to stumble across a mature variegated Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) which made for an impressive sight with its marbled, yellow leaves. Whether this was a naturally occurring mutation or something planted by the Victorians, I am not sure…

Also nearby were a number of white form English Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), as well as Bitter-vetch (Lathyrus linifolius), Wood Sedge (Carex sylvatica) and plenty of woodland indicator species. Bugle (Ajuga reptans) and blooming Woodruff (Galium odoratum) certainly made for a pleasing sight.

Further into the wood, after quite a bit of searching, we stumbled across the first of the day’s intended targets – a glorious clump of Bird’s-nest Orchids (Neottia nidus-avis). Growing under Hazel, as opposed to Beech on this occasion, these were not quite in flower yet but still gave plenty of cause for celebration. Nearby a separate, individual flower spike was found soon after.

Next came a pause and lunch break at a small area of calaminarian grassland strewn with countless Mountain Pansies (Viola lutea). The fantastic array of colour forms on show here certainly made for an enjoyable break with the countless blooms ranging from deep purple to lilac and of course, yellow.

Reaching Planky Mill, it didn’t take us long to find our first Early Purple Orchids (Orchis mascula) of the day. While less numerous than on my last visit in 2020, we still managed to count seven flower spikes during our short stay. A few non-blooming rosettes were observed nearby also.

More run of the mill wildflowers were abundant here too with Wood Speedwell (Veronica montana), Common Dog-violet (Viola riviniana) and Sanicle (Sanicula europaea) spotted, among others. A brief foray into a square known for Herb Paris (Paris quadrifolia) yielded no results but alas, it hasn’t been seen here in a good few decades…

As ever, it wasn’t long before time got the better of us and we were forced to head back. It always amazes me how little ground you cover when looking for plants…

Dashing back, a few interesting species were noted along the upper reaches of the gorge, not least Wood Crane’s-bill (Geranium sylvaticum) and Goldilocks Buttercup (Ranunculus auricomus) – the latter a great find by a member of the group. In addition to these, we were pleased to find yet more Bird’s-nest Orchids in a new square. This particular group looking particularly striking against the dull, grey woodland floor.

All in all, a great day in great company. Our orchid sightings will be added to NHSN’s ongoing Discovering Orchids project seeking to map the distribution of these fascinating plants across the North East. If you’re out and about locally, please do consider sharing a sighting.

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