Almost two in every five wild plants in the UK are of conservation concern, and some face extinction. To highlight the threat to our native flora, Royal Mail has issued a special set of first-class stamps showing examples of endangered plant species. This is the third in Royal Mail’s Action for Species series, on the UK’s endangered flora and fauna. The stamps show 10 endangered plants for which there has been some recent conservation success.
Floating water-plantain (Luronium natans) spread eastwards from its core natural habitats in the lakes of Snowdonia and mid-Wales in the nineteenth century, taking advantage of the canal network. In recent decades, however, pollution and recreational boating have led to its disappearance from many lowland waterways.
Round-headed leek (Allium sphaerocephalon) was first discovered in 1847, in the Avon Gorge near Bristol. It has since been introduced in a few, scattered locations.
Lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium calceolus) is one of Britain’s rarest plants, having been reduced in the wild to a single specimen in West Yorkshire. Over-grazing and centuries of over-collecting by gardeners and botanists are to blame for its virtual extinction in Britain.
Dwarf milkwort (Polygala amarella), long known from the chalk grasslands of the North Downs in Kent and the limestone grasslands of Yorkshire, has declined in recent years, particularly in Kent.
Marsh saxifrage (Saxifraga hirculus), a rare wild flower of wet moorland and mountain bogs, is now found in only a few localities, chiefly in the northern Pennines and north-east Scotland, with recent losses attributed to land drainage, over-grazing or afforestation.
Downy woundwort (Stachys germanica) may once have been more widespread, but declined markedly in the nineteenth century, and is now confined to a small area of Oxfordshire, where it grows mostly along the verges of ancient green lanes and wood borders overlying oolitic limestone.
Upright spurge (Euphorbia serrulata) is found mainly in a few woodlands in Gloucestershire and Monmouthshire. Cessation of tree cutting and coppicing, which traditionally created well-lit clearings, is probably to blame for its decline.
Plymouth pear (Pyrus cordata) is a British wild pear that was discovered in 1865 in hedge-banks outside Plymouth. Today, only a few hundred trees exist, in just seven locations.
Sea knotgrass (Polygonum maritimum) grows just above the high-tide level in a few places along the southern coasts of England and Ireland. A Mediterranean species on the edge of its range in southern Britain, it is vulnerable to exceptional tides.
Deptford pink (Dianthus armeria) was once widespread, but over the past 60 years it has suffered one of the most rapid declines of any species in the British flora, as the dry pastures, field borders and hedgerows it needs have steadily disappeared. It is now restricted to about two-dozen sites in England and Wales.
The special stamps were launched on 19 May 2009, with photocalls at Ness Botanic Gardens for L. natans, and at Bristol Zoo Gardens for A. sphaerocephalon, and at Kew and various other places around the country.
At the launch at Ness Botanic Gardens, Keith Hatton from the School of Biological Sciences, University of Liverpool, said: ‘This set of stamps will help highlight that many UK species are under threat. I hope that the increased public awareness will make a contribution towards the conservation of these species and their habitats. Here at Ness Botanic Gardens we have been cultivating floating water-plantain, a worldwide-protected species which has become extinct in large areas of its former European range. However, there is a healthy population in the northwest of England and North Wales and we are working to protect and expand this’.
The press release issued by Royal Mail mentioned that 18 May was Plant Conservation Day – a global celebration of plants, dedicated to preserving, protecting, and conserving them for people and the planet; and that the United Nations has designated 22 May as International Day for Biological Diversity to increase understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues.
The endangered-plant stamps are accompanied by a special Miniature Sheet of four stamps featuring some of the landmark buildings at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew and the Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place. This set is to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.
Fifteen postcards are available bearing enlarged images of each of the plant stamps and the Kew stamps. In an illustrated presentation pack, Gail Vines, former editor of the Plantlife magazine, takes a look at the UK’s endangered plants and what is being done to help conserve them.