Extinct in Ireland, September 17th, Pheasant’s Eye (Adonis annua)


Another pretty flower with a pretty name – pretty names, indeed, as Adonis annua has a pleasingly alliterative ring. And extinct in Ireland.

I came across this elegy for Adonis annua (which is endangered in the UK) by Pete Flood:

There was once a plant. Not showy like many of our garden flowers, but nevertheless pretty enough that, back in the day when it grew abundantly through the wheat fields on our local downland, bunches of it used to be gathered and taken to Covent Garden Market, where flower vendors would sell it under the name ‘Red Morocco’. Native to Southern Europe, it was introduced to our shores in the Iron Age as a seed contaminant of grain. And although, like many in the Ranunculaceae (the buttercup family), it was mildly poisonous to humans and livestock, it seldom set enough seed or produced enough vegetation to cause any harm.

The plant, whose common name was Pheasant’s Eye, was one of a suite of species which had evolved in tandem with human beings, and specifically our ever-growing skill in food cultivation. Like the grains with which it grew, it had adapted to survive in disturbed environments, giving it a competitive advantage as the agricultural era ushered in an age of land clearance. Arable weeds of this sort, like shepherd’s needle, corncockle, cornflower and many more, did well up until the twentieth century when their luck ran out in spectacular fashion. Seed-sorting techniques foiled their means of distribution, limiting them to isolated populations, while a new generation of selective herbicides further decimated their numbers. Pheasant’s eye disappeared from our fields, a catastrophic decline of at least 92%, persisting on only in a handful of field margins in Southern England.

One of those locations was local, a lovely arable margin bordered by hedge and woodland, near where the Wayfarer’s Walk leaves the Itchen Valley on its way north. On the marginal land by the hedge grew a number of declining species of sunny field margins, including dwarf spurge, rye brome, and the longest-standing population of Pheasant’s eye in Hampshire (plants rarely grow in isolation – they have associates, parasites, consumers, symbiotes – most of the time the presence of a rarity is an indicator of an unusual ecosystem). That was until early October this year when the hedge was grubbed up and the margin put under the plough, part of an amalgamation of two fields. pheasant’s eye seeds persist in the seed bank for many a year, so we may not have seen the last of it, but unless the landowner has a massive change of heart and works actively to bring it back from the brink, we have just lived through an extinction on our doorstep.

Indeed, the time is coming soon when the only way you’ll be able to experience this once-abundant plant is by visiting an arable reserve like Plantlife’s Ranscombe Farm, in which it and other rarities are actively conserved in a semi-wild floral theme park.

The extinction of a large mammal is news-worthy, but real extinction is more often a tortuously slow thinning and fading from the world. The downland stone curlews, ring ouzels and golden plovers beloved of Gilbert White have been largely replaced locally by a monoculture of pheasants. The Pheasant’s eye by a monoculture of wheat. Each loss is a barely perceptible impoverishment of our natural and cultural heritage, plotted slowly enough that each generation becomes used to a baseline that their forebears would have considered impossibly degraded. “There’s no birdsong anymore” say our elders, while those of us born after the twin scourges of DDT and organophosphates hear plenty.

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