Spelt (Triticum spelta), also known as dinkel wheat, or hulled wheat, is a species of wheat cultivated since 5000 BC. Last autumn Home Farm planted some spelt wheat, it did well and was harvested in August but some was left for the birds. Interestingly Spelt was an important staple in parts of Europe from the Bronze Age to medieval times; it now survives as a relictcrop in Central Europe and northern Spain but has now found a new market as a health food. Spelt is sometimes considered a subspecies of the closely related species common wheat (Triticum aestivum) our modern bread wheat, in which case its botanical name is considered to be Triticum aestivum subsp. spelta. It is a hexaploid wheat, which means it has six sets of chromosomes.
Spelt has a complex history. It is a wheat species known from genetic evidence to have originated as a naturally occurring hybrid of a domesticated tetraploid wheat such as emmer wheat and the wild goat-grass Aegilops tauschii. This hybridisation probably occurred in the Near East because this is where A. tauschii grows, and it is generally accepted to have taken place before the appearance of our bread wheat about 8,000 years ago. (Bread wheat Triticum aestivum, is a hexaploid free-threshing derivative of spelt which meant that the husk that covers the wheat grain comes off when thrashed unlike spelt which needs quite a lot of effort to separate the husk and grain) The other crops on the on the farms are all modern varieties and include oats and barley as well as bread wheat all of which were sown in the spring.
“They seek him here, they seek him there, those Frenchies seek him everywhere. Is he in heaven or is he in hell? That damned elusive Pimpernel”
Scarlet pimpernel is a very common arable weed and a very pretty one at that, it also has quite a few other names based around the fact that the flowers close up in dull weather- poor man’s weather glass. There is a much rarer form that’s blue and it is much more common in Spain. It turns out that the usual name for A. arvensis in Spain is jabonera (“soap herb”), referring to its toxic saponin content. I have never seen it at Wimpole but those scarlet red flowers when you look up close are beautiful.
Persian speedwell aka common field speedwell, Veronica persica is species native to south-west Asia first appearing in Europe around the 1800s. There is another species of speedwell that can sometimes be found in arable fields called ivy leafed speedwell, V. hederifolia. In comparison to the Persian speedwell the flowers are small, not that noticeable. If you see V. hederifolia growing alongside V. persica the ivy leaved version is darker green and the common field speedwell is a lighter green in colour.
Both dwarf spurge, euphorbia and broad-leaved spurge, E. platyphyllos are annual plants of cultivated and waste ground, usually growing on calcareous clays but sometimes on lighter chalk or limestone soils. They are found all over the arable found on the estate’s farms. When damaged, the plant exudes a milky sap that can be a severe irritant on contact with the skin and the oil contained in the seeds is a drastic purgative. The active principles in the seeds and foliage are not affected by drying. Both spurges flower from June to November and are easily seen after the harvest.
In a limited study of seed dynamics, seedlings emerged chiefly in winter but other evidence suggests that spring is the main period of germination. Seed longevity in soil is 6 to 7 years. Dwarf spurge seed sown in the field and followed over a 5-year period in winter wheat or spring barley showed an annual decline of around 40%. Emerged seedlings represented 8% of the seed bank.
Red dead-nettle can be found on the arable land and elsewhere along with the white dead nettle which prefer waysides and hedge banks. Despite the similarities to stinging nettles they are not in the same family of plants. Dead-Nettles are in the family Lamiaceae, which also contains familiar herbs such as mint, basil, thyme and marjoram. White dead-nettles grow to a height of 20-60cm and have distinctive white flowers that cluster around the plant’s stem. Even though the dead-nettles are not aromatic herbs like some of its other family members, they are edible. Before the plants flower, the young leaves and shoots are tender enough to eat raw. Later, when the leaves become tougher and possibly bitter, you can steam or lightly cook the leaves and eat as a green. Or you can add the leaves to soups as you would the leaves of stinging nettle.
Shepherds purse, Capsella bursa-pastoris is quite common but as with all arable plants (weeds) it has declined in the farming environment. Why is it called shepherd’s purse? Well believe it or not the testicle sacks of rams were tanned and used as purses and they are really quite big ( not so sure that the shepherds had much to fill them with though). Here’s a little bit from Wiki: ‘Unlike most flowering plants, it flowers almost all year round. Like many other annual ruderals exploiting disturbed ground, C. bursa-pastoris reproduces entirely from seed, has a long soil seed bank, and short generation time and is capable of producing several generations each year. C. bursa-pastoris is gathered from the wild or grown for food, to supplement animal feed, for cosmetics, and for medicinal purposes. It is commonly used as food in Shanghai and the surrounding Jiangnan region, where they are stir-fried with rice cakes and other ingredients or as part of the filling in wontons. It is one of the ingredients of the symbolic dish consumed in the Japanese spring-time festival, Nanakusa-no-sekku. In Korea it is known as naengi and its roots are one of the ingredients of the characteristic Korean dish, namul (fresh greens and wild vegetables).’
Small toadflax, Chaenarrhinum minus is a spring-germinating annual of open habitats on well-drained, often calcareous soils like the cultivated fields on the estate, tracks, rough waste ground and old walls. C. minus was mapped as `all records` in the 1962 Atlas. It has declined in many areas, particularly in Ireland. It was once a familiar weed of cultivated farmland, but agricultural intensification has now rendered it much rarer in this habitat and it is now more likely to be found along railways and in railway yards. However it has started to become more common on the organic cultivated fields at Wimpole.
Round leaved fluellen (Kickxia spuria) is sometimes known as roundleaf cancerwort and is quite common on the arable fields at Wimpole. This plant produces round, hairy leaves at long intervals along the stem, and is classed as a low, creeping herb as it reaches a maximum height of 25cm. The round leaved fluellen produces snapdragon-like flowers. Each of these flowers can reach up to 1.5cm long with a narrow, spiky spur that extends from the back of the flower.The petals of the flower are often yellow, but can also be white or a deep purple colour. Regardless of colour the flowers have a fuzzy / hairy texture. There is another fluellen called sharp leaved fluellen and, as it suggests, it has sharp leaves that are hairless, this is just as common on the arable fields at Wimpole.
There are a number of indicator species on chalky soils that will let you know that there maybe some other rarities lurking about. These are the Venus’ looking-glass, small toadflax, round and sharp-leaved fluellen and Dwarf Spurge. These species will usually occur along with other common and widespread species such as knotgrass, field pansy and common and long-headed poppy. We have all of these except the long-headed poppy so it wasn’t such a surprise to find the night flowering catchfly in East Claypits on the Cobbs Wood Farm. A management guide to arable plants from Plantlife
The reason why we are getting an increase in numbers of individual species and some new ones is because the farms that are in-hand are all organic so we don’t put herbicides (or insecticides or non organic fertilisers either) on the crops. This means the weeds do grow (though there are some yield losses to the crops ) and therefore the wild, farmland birds have more insects and seeds to eat. However it does mean that you have to have leys which are grass/clover mixes (plus others like sainfoin and lucerne) to put nitrogen back into the soil.
Here are some of, well most of, the arable weeds found on the Estate: small toadflax, scarlet pimpernel, annual meadow grass, annual nettle, black bindweed, black nightshade, broad leaved willowherb, charlock, chickweed, cleavers, coltsfoot, common field & ivy leaved speedwell, common mouse-ear, common poppy, creeping thistle, fat hen, field pansy, fool’s parsley, forget-me-not, fumitory, groundsel, hedge mustard, ivy leaved speedwell, knotgrass, mayweed, orache, perennial sowthistle, prickly sowthistle, redshank, red deadnettle, scentless mayweed, shepherd’s purse, spear thistle, dwarf & broad leaved spurge, swine cress, common cudweed, Venus’ looking-glass, narrow & broad fuellen, annual geranium, night flowering catchfly…