Therfield Heath is just a stone’s throw away from Wimpole and is a protected chalk grassland with some spectacular flowers. Once upon a time, before the land enclosures in the nineteenth century, this type of grassland was far more common as were the great bustards that once roamed Cambridgeshire. I dare say many of the chalkland flowers existed on the Wimpole estate. When I first knew Wimpole almost all had gone and all habitats had suffered from the agricultural improvements of the day most notably through the use of herbicides and inorganic fertilisers but also extensive land drainage.
However, over the last twenty years, I and others who have helped me, plus those who are helping me now, have collected local flora seed sources and encouraged the few remaining remnants on the estate. Looking back I was sort of gobsmacked to see that herbicides and fertilisers were being applied to the Park; it took a long time to change attitudes but eventually the whole of the inhand estate at Wimpole became organic (some six years ago now) and what a change! Now I see the wild local flora slowly edging its way back into the landscape accompanied by the insects, especially the butterflies which are beginning to turn up in larger numbers each year. So why have I written a blog on Therfield Heath? Well it’s a bench mark as to what could be possible at Wimpole given the new direction of ‘Land & Nature’. If you haven’t walked on the heath then it’s time you did so – too late this year to see the lent lilies aka pasqueflower (there is always next year), however the flowering season has only just started and, later in the summer, the heath will be festooned with butterflies especially the chalkhill blue, now wouldn’t it be nice to get these somewhat rare butterflies at Wimpole? First though we need to sow horseshoe vetch which the caterpillars feed on. An interesting plant of chalk downlands, it is very long lived but none have survived on the Wimpole estate.
So, a little bit about the pasqueflower family: The genus Pulsatilla contains about 33 species of herbaceous perennials native to meadows and Europe, Asia, and prairies of North America. Common names include pasque flower (or pasqueflower), wind flower, prairie crocus, Easter flower, and meadow anemone.
Several species are valued ornamentals because of their finely-dissected leaves, solitary bell-shaped flowers, and plumed seed heads. The showy part of the flower consists of sepals, not petals.Pulsatilla vulgaris (pasque flower, pasqueflower, common pasque flower, European pasqueflower, Dane’s blood) is a species of flowering plant belonging to the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), found locally on calcareous grassland in Europe. It was considered part of the Anemone genus, to which it is closely related.
This is an herbaceous perennial plant. It develops upright rhizomes, which function as food-storage organs. Its leaves and stems are long, soft, silver-grey and hairy. It grows to 15–30 cm high and when it is fruit-bearing up to 40 cm. The roots go deep into the soil (to 1 m). The finely-dissected leaves are arranged in a rosette and appear with the bell-shaped flower in early spring. The purple flowers are followed by distinctive silky seed-heads which can persist on the plant for many months.
The flower is ‘cloaked in myth’; one legend has it that Pasque flowers sprang up in places that had been soaked by the blood of Romans or Danes because they often appear on old barrows and boundary banks.
A word of warning, Pulsatilla is highly toxic, and produces cardiogenic toxins and oxytoxins which slow the heart in humans. Excess use can lead to diarrhea, vomiting and convulsions, hypotension and coma. It has been used as a medicine by Native Americans for centuries. Blackfoot Indians used it to induce abortions and childbirth. Pulsatilla should not be taken during pregnancy nor during lactation.