Flass Vale, Durham: striking inner city flora

DWT Botany Group DWT Botany Group, News


Krys Stenhouse, enthusiastic and knowledgeable member of the botany group, shares her thoughts on a nature reserve just down the road from where she lives.

On Tuesday 11th April the Botany Group had a fascinating tour around Flass Vale, very kindly and knowledgeably led by Val and Malcolm, Friends of Flass Vale. Its history is extremely varied, with previous uses including a farm, cottage and a piggery, allotments, private gardens, orchard, dumping ground for iron slag, a gallows, and most  unusual of all a curling pond, remains of which are still visible.

Flass Vale Nature Reserve, Durham

In addition to its history, Flass Vale offers an equally interesting range of natural and semi-natural environments, ranging from boggy marshland in the valley bottom to remains of an orchard, patches of grassland and a variety of woodland, both old and new. The soil itself is sandy and largely acidic, which again affects the range of plants. Learning about the history of this area, now a Local Nature Reserve, was very interesting and as we walked around the reserve, it became clear, both the scale of what the Friends have already achieved, and what remains to be done on an ongoing basis. They always welcome support – click here for a very helpful brochure about the group.

Cotoneaster frigidus, cotoneaster tree

Entering the Vale from behind the Kings Lodge, you see the broader end of the valley with steep wooded hills on either side. Almost immediately we were set a puzzle as to which/wych elm in lovely pale green emerging foliage we were seeing – Ulmus procera or U.glabra (common or wych), or possibly a hybrid? There seemed to be no definitive decision. Much of the hillsides were dominated by relatively young beech, poplars, Norway maple and sycamore, with a variety of willows in the valley bottom. However, there were some lovely older specimens, such as the sessile oak, Quercus petraea, at the top of Hangman’s Hill, and some large sycamores and a sweet chestnut, Castanea sativa.

Sycamore (left circle) and Norway maple seedling – similar leaves but easy to differentiate when next to each other. Plenty of Ramsons leaves too – elsewhere these wild garlic plants were in flower.

The Vale is a delight for those interested in the fern and the polypody families, with examples of hard fern, Blechnum spicant, harts-tongue fern, Asplenium scolopendrium, and buckler fern, Dryopteris dilatata easily found. In addition we were shown some intermediate polypody as well as a large royal fern, Osmunda regalis, just beginning to emerge. See the species list for others.

Possible Polystrichum x bichnellii (P.aculeatum x setiferum)

Mixed in with obvious garden escapes, pulmonaria, white bluebells and daffodils, was a wide variety of woodland flowers – several speedwells including ivy-leaved, Veronica hederifolia and slender (V. filiformis), wood forget-me-not, Myosotis sylvatica, including a white version, green alkanet, Pentaglossis sempervirens, common dog violet Viola riviniana, ransoms, Allium ursinium, (just coming into flower) primrose, Primula vulgaris, native bluebell, Hyacynthoides non-scripta, greater stitchwort, Stellaria holostea, wavy bittercress, Cardamine flexuosa, hairy bittercress, Cardamine hirsuita, lesser celandine, Ficaria verna, wood anemone, Anemone nemorosa, wood sorrel, Oxalis acetosella and dog’s mercury, Mercuralis perennis.

Alchemilla xanthochiora, intermediate Lady’s-mantle, not yet in flower

The marshy area in the valley bottom also proved interesting with the remains of last year’s Northern Marsh orchid (Dactyorhyza purpurella) still showing and some very small shoots just beginning to emerge, the royal fern, polypodys, and many fascinating willow brackets growing on the fallen willow. As Malcolm found out, whilst looking for plants, you also have to watch your feet as he sank in a particularly boggy area and had to be pulled out!

Equisetum arvense, field horsetail, growing well in the wetter parts

All in all, a very enjoyable visit with many thanks to both Val and Malcolm, and I definitely plan to revisit the Vale later this spring and early summer to see what else is out. Click here for a species list.

Krys Stenhouse

Thanks to Krys for her excellent report and to Keith Robson for recording and photography. The day after our visit, the Heart of Durham project built a bug hotel with the Friends of Flass Vale, click here to read more.

If you are interested in wildflowers and plants why not come along to one of the many events being run by the DWT botany group this spring and summer? You will be made most welcome, whatever your experience or expertise – we aim to enjoy our botanising as a friendly and inclusive group.

Look for details on the Events page, DWT botany group page or email botany@durhamwt.co.uk.

DWT Botany Group

Established in 2015, the DWT Botany Group aims to ignite and encourage an interest in the world of plants. The group is based at Rainton Meadows Nature Reserve and organises talks, botanical walks and field trips throughout the Durham Wildlife Trust area. Please click here for information on our upcoming events.

For more information or to register your interest in getting involved then please email Steve Gater on botany@durhamwt.co.uk or telephone 0191 584 3112