August’s Object of the Month is a dried specimen of a plant called crested cow-wheat, Melampyrum cristatum. Specimens of this plant are preserved in Saffron Walden Museum’s herbarium collection of dried plants. Crested cow-wheat was illustrated and recorded in the first ‘Flora’ of Essex of 1862.
The plant was chosen as Object of the Month by Sarah Kenyon, Natural Sciences Officer, because this once abundant plant is now very rare. The Special Roadside Verges Project and the Wildlife Sites Project try to preserve the sites where it still grows. The plant flowers from July to September and can be found at Special Roadside Verges in Langley, Duddenhoe End and Saffron Walden. It also grows at one place in Chrishall, in a woodland at Langley and in Shadwell Wood and Little Hales Wood at Ashdon.
This is a herbarium sheet of crested cow-wheat plants collected in Saffron Walden by George Stacey Gibson in 1840. He published the first ‘Flora’ of Essex in 1862. His plant specimens and those of other Essex botanists are preserved in the herbarium of Saffron Walden Museum. This dried plant collection is now more accessible at the new museum store.
To preserve them, the plants were pressed, dried and mounted on a paper herbarium sheet. The plant name, the location where it was found, the name of the collector and the date were written on the sheet. Each herbarium sheet represents a biological record of where a plant species was found at a particular time.
‘Flora’ of Essex
The herbarium collection is an invaluable record of the plants found in this region. It has been used to produce ‘Floras’ for Essex and Cambridgeshire. George Stacey Gibson of Saffron Walden published the first ‘Flora’ of Essex in 1862.
A ‘Flora’ is a book that describes the plants that grow in a geographical area and records where they are found at a certain time. Research has plotted how the number of plant species and the distribution of plants have changed over time because of habitat loss, changes in management of the countryside and pollution.
You can see the dried crested cow-wheat plants and a volume of the ‘Flora’ of Essex on display in the museum until 31 August 2016.