How long has Barnack been famous for wild flowers?

Pasque flowerBarnack Hills and Holes National Nature Reserve is recognised today as one of the most important places in Europe for its wild flowers. The hummocky grassland of this abandoned limestone quarry supports over 300 species of plant, including eight species of orchid.

It is especially famous for the Pasque flower, a purple anemone that blooms in large numbers in spring. The site only became a Nature Reserve in 1976, so when did the area first attract notice for its wild flowers?

The answer might be further back than you think ...

Mountain Everlasting flowerIn 1650 a book by William Howe entitled Phytologica Britannica (British Plant Life) was published. Apart from herbals, which described the medicinal and culinary uses of plants, this was probably the first book written in English about plants.

It includes three quotes from a Dr. Bowle (or Bowles), who described finding three interesting wild flower species in or near Barnack.

This botanist found a plant that he called “Gnaphalium odoratum flore albo elegans pusilla planta, Sweet-smelling white flowred Cud weed”:

    "On a goodly heath by Berneck".

This species is now known as Mountain Everlasting (Antennaria dioica). It is usually found on moors and mountains in the north and west of Britain, but a tiny isolated colony still survives on the Hills and Holes.

He also noted Early Spider Orchid (then named Orchis arachnitis) as: 

A brave (colourful) plant, and flowers betimes (early in the year), I was much taken having never seen it before, it grows upon an old stone-pit ground, which is now green, hard by Walcot a mile from Barneck, as fine a place for variety of rare plants as ever I beheld.

This orchid (now called Ophrys sphegodes) has not been recorded in the Barnack area since 1650. It is now very rare in this country, and is found mainly on the south coast.

Dr. Bowle said of the Pasque Flower (which he called Pusatilla rubra, Red Passe-flower, rather than Pulsatilla vulgaris, as it is now known):

On a Heath towards Barneck, three miles from Stamford, where there are tenne thousand of these plants.

Sadly we know nothing of the life of Dr Bowle, but if he were to return to the Hills and Holes today, the wild flowers would be familiar and he would be pleased to find that Pasque flowers were as numerous as ever – in 2011 there were estimated to be 11,600 plants. Surely he would agree with us that it is still a fine place for its variety of rare plants.

Chris Gardiner (Senior Reserve Manager, Barnack Hills and Holes)