Seeds of a wildflower so rare it is only found in a handful of sites are being “baked” in the sun after last year’s heatwave boosted its survival.
Experts at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, have found the key to helping bring once-common pheasant’s-eye back from the brink of extinction is to expose seeds to the summer sun to encourage them to germinate.
The finding is backed up by the appearance of the flower this summer in new sites and places it has not been seen for decades as a result of the “perfect bake” they received in last year’s hot weather, wildlife charity Plantlife said.
Tens of thousands of pheasant’s-eye seeds grown in Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank are being sown on farmland where they were once found to expose them to the summer heat on top of the soil to encourage them to grow.
Pheasant’s-eye is a striking scarlet flower with a black inner “eye” which was first brought to Britain from warmer, drier parts of the Continent as far back as 2,500 years ago.
It was once so common in cornfields that it was collected in bunches and sold in London’s flower markets.
But the wild flower, like many cornfield blooms, has declined due to more intensive farming, as well as the particular conditions it needs to germinate and grow.
It is now found only in a small number of sites, mostly in southern England, experts say.
Plantlife’s arable adviser, Cath Shellswell, said: “Pheasant’s-eye seed lies in the soil for years and plants only appear when the conditions are right, so they’re a real challenge to find.
“Last year we struggled to see any, but this summer Pheasant’s-eye is appearing before our eyes where it’s not been seen for decades, and in new sites too.
“We thought dwindling numbers had more to do with a decline in suitable habitat, so it was a revelation to find this link to climate and their need for the perfect bake.”
She said the conservationists had thousands of seeds to bake on top of the arable fields, spreading 20,000 seeds ready for baking in one field alone.
She added: “Just like a Mary Berry recipe, we are following Kew’s instructions precisely to get the seeds to germinate later this summer, which is the optimum time for the warm, dry conditions they require.”
The sites where the seeds are being sown are areas where farmers are managing the land in a nature-friendly way.
Pheasant’s-eye is one of the rarest of 13 farmland species which are being helped with the “colour in the margins” project as part of the Back from the Brink scheme to conserve threatened wildlife.
Seeds from Kew Millennium Seed Bank are also being used to help other key plants as part of the colour in the margins project, including red hemp nettle, small-flowered catchfly, corn buttercup and spreading hedge-parsley.
Cornfield flowers have seen some of the greatest losses of any wildflowers, suffering a 96% decline in the last 200 years, with seven species already extinct and others on the verge of disappearing, Plantlife said.
John Glen, MP for Salisbury and species champion for pheasant’s–eye, said it was “fantastic” to see farmers, scientists and Plantlife working together to bring this beautiful species back from the brink of extinction.
“Arable wildflowers are the fastest declining group of plants and their future depends on a shift towards nature-friendly farming across our countryside,” he urged.