Vegetative plant ID for grassland surveyors

BUTTERCUP BASAL LEAVES. Meadow has all main lobes emanating from a central point, the other two have upper lobes separated from lower pair by a variable central stalk (arrowed). Bulbous lobes flare (like a trumpet), and the bulb can often be found just beneath the surface by probing with fingers or a pencil; Creeping lobes are more straight-sided without the flare and the base of the petiole is often bright violet.
More basal buttercup leaves
Lesser Trefoil and Black Medick (L and centre) both have THREE leaflets (discount pointed stipules at base of stalk); Lesser Trefoil has the central leaflet dented at the tip (emarginate) but Black Medick has a little tooth there, making this part of the leaflet stick out furthest. Bird’s-foot Trefoils (R) have FIVE leaflets – more in next image.
BIRD’S-FOOT TREFOILS. Both species may grow together in similar grassland in Herefordshire, unlike in many other parts of Britain where their habitat preferences are more clear-cut. The hollow stem of Greater does not develop until later in the season and severing the plant to identify it is unhelpful. Instead always check leaves with a x 20 lens. Leaflets of Greater have main and secondary veins translucent, letting the light through. Those of common are opaque and dark (rarely translucent on the main). Common is the first to flower by a month or more, and the reflexed sepals of Greater give the flower buds a bristly, spiky look.
MOUSE-EARS. Common Mouse-ear is greener with narrower leaves and (as a perennial) has non-flowering shoots. Sticky Mouse-ear is paler and yellowish with broader leaves and all shoots flower. Confirm with a lens: Sticky has glandular hairs (tipped with a blob of secretion, like a sundew), particularly on the flower cluster. Sticky is a weed, indicating past soil disturbance, Common is frequent in all types of old pasture. In seasonally droughted soils (eg thin ones associated with rock or gravel), especially where other unusual plants occur, one or two smaller, rarer mouse-ears are possible.
VETCHES. Bush vetch has egg-shaped (ovate) leaflets widest below the middle, hence the mnemonic ‘eggs on a shelf’. They are not always as large or clear-cut as in this specimen, but remain widest in the lower half. Other vetches have generally narrower leaflets widest in the middle. They include the two shown – Tufted and Common – and the tares (not shown); Tufted has a large number of narrow leaflets with dense, flattened silky hairs on the underside and untoothed stipules without a spot. Common Vetch and the tares are ANNUALS, which mean they are not characteristic of old grassland where there is intense competition for space in the root zone. They tend to occur instead in newly-sown grasslands, or on brownfield land, or around the edge of old grasslands where tall, tussocky grasses yield the same conditions: a proportion of bare soil which these fast-growing annuals can exploit.
PLANTAINS. Leaves of Ribwort are not always long and thin and can approach those of Great Plantain in shape as the picture shows. Ribwort has acute (not obtuse) tipped leaves and a gradual taper into the stalk. Hoary Plantain (not shown) is like Great but is very hairy and lacks a leaf stalk. It is quite a good quality grassland indicator in Herefordshire, commonest on limestone soils but also occasional on the Old Red Sandstone.
STITCHWORTS. Lesser Stitchwort is far and away the commonest stitchwort of half-decent grassland and often confuses beginners. It has simple long (lanceolate) leaves in opposite pairs widely-spaced along a straggling stem, but early growth seen in March and April has shorter leaves with the leaf-pairs much more closely-spaced together. Greater Stitchwort may occur on pasture margins but does not respond well to grazing and is thus absent from the core of old meadows and pastures. Bog Stitchwort is a stubbier-leaved version of rushy areas with often noticeably paler leaves. Chickweed, a close relative, has pronounced change between leaf blade and stalk (petiole).
YELLOW COMPOSITES (Dandelion-lookalikes) OF OLD GRASSLAND. There are 3 common ones which cause confusion. Learn them quickly on a combination of hair-type and leaf shape and you will be good to go all year round. One: check hair type; Rough and Lesser Hawkbits have forked hairs / split ends as shown in the pencil sketch. Two: assess leaf shape; Common Cat’s-ear is a coarser leaf, widest in the upper half, and Autumn hawkbit is a thin leaf which though variable, is widest in the middle. More below.
It is usually not possible to tell Rough (or Greater) Hawkbit from Lesser when there are no flowers, but suspect small plants on drier south-facing banks as the latter. Flowering stems help: Lesser is hairy – forked hairs of course – only below, and more or less hairless above. Clincher is as the plants begin to seed: Lesser has its outer fruits without a pappus.
Rough Hawkbit casts caution and all its seeds (actually fruits) to the wind. Lesser Hawkbit shown here is more risk-averse, retaining the outermost fruits until late in the season when they can drop to the soil close to the parent. It does this by having them adhere more firmly to the receptacle, and by having the involucral bracts neatly cling onto them. These outer fruits have thus done away with their pappus. A remarkable instance of clear-cut strategic evolutionary divergence in two plants which on the face of it, are often almost indistinguishable.
CAT’S EAR. A range of leaves. Lobing varies, but is usually coarse, with rather stubby lobes as long as the central belt of tissue or less. The whole leaf is thick and coarsely hairy (‘wouldn’t put it in a salad’).
Autumn Hawkbit leaves are very variable, but always have a thin texture, with either sparse hairs or none at all (and thus looking like leaves of salad rocket). Older leaves often develop a characteristic lobing with long, thin lobes greater than the width of the undivided part, resembling a cartoon fish-skeleton.

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