Common Cow-wheat, Melampyrum pratense

Cow-wheat does not sound the most exciting name for a wildflower but in fact it is quite an attractive little plant. It has yellow flowers which flower for quite a long period over the summer….May through to September,  especially for a woodland plant, most of which are over by June.Common Cow-wheat

These particular ones I photographed in woodland, but well into the Brecon Beacons, I was doing the waterfall trail when I spotted these and it was the first week in August.

It will also grow in scrubland, heaths and moors. On moorland you sometimes find them with pink flowers, also occasionally the normal yellow flowers will have pink or purple markings on them.

Common Cow-wheat is an annual herb and a Hemi-parasitic plant, meaning that it relies on obtaining some of it’s’ nutrients from the roots of nearby plants, similar to Bartsia and Yellow Rattle.. This is quite unusual for a woodland plant. Most woodland wild flowers are perrenials because the restricted amount of light available in one season in a woodland is not enough for the plant to efficiently germinate, grow, flower and produce sufficient seed all in one season.  So well done the Cow-wheat, it has obviously managed to accomplish this and every year, otherwise it would have become extinct long ago. Having said that it is usually found on the edge of a woodland where there will be a bit more light.

There are several Cow wheat species growing in the UK but only this species is associated with woodlands and also found in the Wye valley area. It is found throughout most of the UK whereas the other species like Small Cow Wheat, Crested Cow wheat and Field Cow wheat are quite rare and have a very restricted range.

This plant is a real indicator of ancient woodland. In Oliver Rackham’s list of species which occur most often in ancient woodland this species comes 6th in the list and was recorded in 14 out of the 18 areas that he investigated. Check out the list Ancient woodland indicators 

The reason this plant is restricted to ancient woodland is that its seed dispersal is dependant on wood ants and ants will not carry seed very far, certainly not hundreds of yards so that it can pass from one woodland to another. They somewhat resemble wheat seeds thus the name but also look a bit like ants pupae and this is part of the reason why ants pick them up. Also the seed has an elaiosome, which is a special little part that the ants like to eat…. it is a bit like flowers producing nectar.

The photo of the seeds I got off the internet and many thanks to http://www.badvoeslau.at/de/lebenswert/umwelt/kalenderblaetter/august-2010.html   Who ever they are.

Now here is another of my photos. The Cow wheat leaves are the long pointed leaves, the others are from an Oak tree

Cow-wheat is also the food plant for the caterpillars of the Heath Fritillary butterfly.

Click to see other flowers from the Wye valley woodlands

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