Emergent Grasses and Rushes
In its natural state, the Weald Moors landscape was an expansive peat fenland dominated by tall, aquatic plants that grew in its waters but also pierced the slow-moving surface. The present-day moorlands may have altered a great deal but, in many places, rushes, grasses and sedges continue to provide a link to the area’s wetland past.
Green Grow the Rushes: the term ‘rush’ is regularly assigned to a wide variety of upstanding plants with rigid stems. ‘True rushes’, however, are denoted by the Latin name Juncus and their presence is a good indicator of wet (or at the very least damp!) habitat. As its name might imply, Soft Rush (Juncus effusus) is a rather delicate plant with numerous smooth, bright green stems that contain a soft pith once used to make ‘rushlight’ wicks for household lamps. With a strong preference for the seasonally waterlogged wet, acidic soils of disturbed peatlands it is a classic tussock-forming moorland species that can grow up to three feet high on pasture and along the margins of water bodies.
By contrast, the stems of Hard Rush (Juncus inflexus) are much more rigid and furrowed, and are commonly used in basket making and thatching. It tends to take over from Soft Rush in wet places on clay soils, so look out for it above the peatlands in the south of the moorlands. Toad Rush (Juncus bufonius) is a much smaller, slender species that grows to only ten centimetres. Favouring a high water table, it thrives on wet grasslands but will also grow on bare soils and disturbed ground on roadsides. Another common species of wet, acidic moorland soils is the patch-forming Sharp-flowered Rush (Juncus acutiflorus), which grows to a similar height to Soft Rush. It has straight stems that distinguish it from the more curved Jointed Rush (Juncus articulatus), although the two species, which regularly inhabit the same damp fields and flushes, often hybridise.
Cattails and Horsetails: Cattails are tall, aquatic herbs of marshy areas and ditches, through which they often spread vigorously on rhizomes (continuously growing underground stems that produce the roots and shoots of new plants). On the Weald Moors, one of the most common and easily recognisable members of this wetland plant family is the Bulrush (Typha latifolia), which is also known as Reedmace. Like all cattails, it has a distinctive flowering spike, or spadix, that contains both the male and female flowers (the former situated in a smaller spike, atop the main body of the spadix). Its distinctive, fluffy seed heads break-up on autumn winds, allowing the plant to colonise new areas, such as roadside ditches — where it can be found in several Weald Moors locations.
Horsetails, which reproduce by spores rather than seeds, are a family of plants with a heritage that extends deep into pre-history. While their origins lie in enormous tree-like plants that existed over 400 million years ago, the modern day equivalents, which are non-flowering, grow to heights closer to one metre and would be unlikely to trouble a browsing Brontosaurus! On the wet soils of the moorlands, one of the most common species is Field Horsetail (Equisetum arvense), which also inhabits drier roadside banks and waste ground. Those of you with a grounding in Latin may have noted the plant’s botanical name (which is derived from equus, meaning ‘horse’, and seta, which translates as ‘bristle’), and it provides something of a clue to identification. The key here is to wait until the plant has dispersed the spores contained in its cones and begins to die back. As it dries out, silica crystals in the stems and branches give a feathery appearance that gives rise to one of its alternative names, Mare’s Tale (which is not to be confused with Hippuris vulgaris, a much rarer aquatic plant that was once found on the Weald Moors but now grows in just one Shropshire location).
Grasses and Sedges: of all the plants growing on the Weald Moors, one species in particular is perhaps more synonymous with the area’s wetland past than any other. Until at least Roman times, Common Reed (Phragmites australis) was the dominant feature of these peat fenlands. This tall, aquatic herb, which can grow two metres high, forms dense stands in shallow waters but will also frequent seasonally damp ground — and remain there long after it dries out. Its distinctive purple flowers (which are grouped together in long spikelets) remain an unmistakeable feature of late summer and autumn but reed beds are much rarer than they once were. Without regular cutting, they are invariably overtaken by willow scrub and, eventually, damp woodland. Improved land drainage, of the type that occurred on the Weald Moors in the Nineteenth Century, is also thought to be a widespread factor behind their long-term decline.
Sedges are plants of the Cyperaceae family, which differ from grasses in several ways, the most notable being their solid, triangular stems (although not all sedges have them) and leaves arranged in groups of three (grasses have alternate leaves, in two ranks). Several species have been recorded on the Weald Moors but one of the easiest to recognise is False Fox-sedge (Carex otrubae). It forms dense tufts up to a meter high on many types of wet habitat but, unlike Common Reed, avoids standing water. Its spiky orange-brown flowers and yellow-green leaves are a highly distinctive feature of late summer around stream banks, ponds and pastures, while its three-sided stems are alternately smooth at the base and rough above.
A Pinsticker’s Guide! If this short introduction to the grasses and rushes of the Weald Moors has whet your appetite for discovery, here is a more detailed (but not comprehensive) list of wetland plants recorded on the Moorlands: