In late summer volunteers from the Breckland Flora group (BFG), a locally active survey group that maintains records of rare plants, were invited by Norfolk Wildlife Trust to survey Breckland plants. The survey group concentrated on a site that still contains much of the original Brecks habitats, although it is currently out of bounds to the general public. It is well known to naturalists and contains a large number of unusual and rare wildlife, notably scarce flowers.  

One such flower is the proliferous pink Petrorhagia prolifera, known only from two locations in the UK. It has never been common, being first recorded as a native plant in 1835. Preferring well drained sandy soil, the plant grows to about 20 centimetres tall with pink sometimes purplish petals, a delicate stem and thin pointed leaves. The odd thing about the flower is that it has ‘gone missing’ from botanical records for long periods of time. By 1926 the plant was effectively extinct, despite attempts to find it not a single plant was recorded for nearly 25 years.

Then in 1950 it reappeared at the survey site but completely disappeared again by the tail-end of the 1960s, not being found again until 1985. The site had been through several different uses from labour camp, military store and at the end of the Second World War a prison for captured Italian soldiers. As the plant’s main distribution is through the Mediterranean and North Africa, speculation has it that seeds may have been in the turn-ups of the prisoner’s trousers or on British Army equipment returning from the North African campaign. 

It again mysteriously disappeared from the site, but plants were found in areas outside the old campsite and although remaining rare the number of flowers increased. This biological rich spot is now managed by Norfolk Wildlife Trust in partnership with Forestry England and Natural England. During this summer’s survey, more than 400 proliferous pink plants were found there.

Flora survey by the Breckland Flora GroupJonathan Preston, NWT Nature Conservation Manager, is delighted: “thanks to the management efforts of the staff it has now spread and found its way, once again, onto this unique reserve.”       

Jo Jones of Plantlife and co-ordinator of the BFG stated  "working so closely with NWT we are able to share our knowledge of these plants and it is great knowing that the information we gather is immediately used by NWT staff as part of the management for these special Brecks species.”  

Formerly the wide Brecklands landscape would have been continually grazed by semi-feral sheep and thousands of warrener controlled rabbits. Now much reduced in size, pockets of this exceptional and distinctive habitat does still remain. NWT staff work hard to conserve these distinctive Breckland habitats by maintaining very low sward height through livestock grazing, creating bare ground by mechanical intervention and controlling invasive scrub. So hopefully the proliferous pink flower, and the many other Brecklands specialities, will remain with us and not fade from our countryside again.

Image credits: Header and bottom image – Flora survey by the Breckland Flora Group; Proliferous pink by Rob Dyke.
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