Buttercups. Photo (cc) Marilyn Peddle.

How old is my meadow?

I was a bit fed up after hearing the UK government announce further cutbacks to the science budget today, so I thought I’d delve into the recent Free Access issue of Annals of Botany from Sept 2009 to see what’s been released. Obviously the rest of this post will be a shameless plug for a paper I found – but it’s a shameless plug for a really clever paper.

Buttercups. Photo (cc) Marilyn Peddle.
Buttercups, for people who like conserving meadows as well as those who like butter. Photo (cc) Marilyn Peddle.

Extra petals in the buttercup (Ranunculus repens) provide a quick method to estimate the age of meadows by John Warren isn’t just clever, it’s also simple and useful. Dating hedgerows for conservation is well-known and the methods of counting the species in the hedge seems nice and obvious. In contrast it’s easy to mistake meadows as bug gaps of emptiness between the hedges. As Marilyn Peddle’s photo shows above that’s not the case.

Warren’s work takes a closer look at the buttercups in a meadow. The method is amazingly simple. You examine a hundred buttercups. For each buttercup with more than the usual five petals, the meadow is seven years old. Variability being what it is, you’d need to count more than one sample to a reasonably reliable estimate, but as a rough rule its good for a couple of centuries. Warren sees a use for this in conservation surveys. I think it could also be a very useful tool for archaeology too.

There is a branch of archaeology called Garden Archaeology. It’s specialised but it can also be really interesting because the intentional reshaping of nature can reveal all sorts of ideas about power relations on an estate. A lot of this kind of work is on sites dating within the last few hundred years, so it fits the range covered by the method. The dating isn’t exact, but it may be enough to usefully distinguish between phases on landscaping. Most importantly it’s very cheap, and very simple. It’s also very replicable, which is unusual for archaeology where your typical excavation examines a site by systematically destroying it.

I tend to like any paper where I can think “I could do that.” For this paper I’m not the only person who could. There was a public appeal for people to visit meadows of known age and sample the buttercups there. It’s a neat example of citizen science.

Alun Salt

Alun (he/him) is the Producer for Botany One. It's his job to keep the server running. He's not a botanist, but started running into them on a regular basis while working on writing modules for an Interdisciplinary Science course and, later, helping teach mathematics to Biologists. His degrees are in archaeology and ancient history.


  • When John Warren was finishing this work, it was reported in The Times – http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/environment/article3913793.ece

    John is quoted as saying “β€œIn this day and age we worry about biodiversity … if it takes 500 years to get a fully mature meadow we should be a lot more careful about keeping them.”

    One of the places where old grasslands still exist is in churchyards. In the Great Plains of the USA, they are some of the only areas where the original prairies have not been ploughed, while in England, many have rarely been fertilized, reseeded or weeded, so maintain some islands of ancient genotypes. But management and machinery can destroy this history when people don’t thing about what is there. My mother is heavily involved with the Charity Caring for God’s Acre – http://www.caringforgodsacre.org.uk/ – which provides advice about sensitive management of churchyards, particularly in rural areas.

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