Third in a series on nitrogen fixing legume plants.
The crimson clover Trifolium incarnatum ssp incarnatum was once grown widely in the south of Britain and trialled in the north, where it never found favour as a forage ley compared to the white and red clovers. So a small field of mixed legumes in Tarbat, a few miles south of Portmahomack, was unusual.
Crimson clover was the most visible of the plants, in full flower late September, but the patch also contained red clover, two white- flowered clovers and a few other plants. On its margins a stray sainfoin appeared, probably a relic from a previous sowing.
Crimson clover was noted in Lawson & Son’s Vegetable Products of Scotland (1852). They report that, if sown in autumn, it can be cut in June the next year ‘…. and the land fallowed for wheat or spring corn’. They report that is makes a valuable green food for cattle and when cut in full flower ‘it makes a more abundant crop, and a superior hay to that of common clovers, at least it is more readily eaten by horses’.
They also report a comparison of ‘common crimson clover’, a variety of it named ‘late-flowering crimson clover’ sourced from Toulouse in France, and Moliner’s clover which was said to be grown in France and Switzerland. The late flowering variety came out top.
In modern taxonomy, the only one of these native to Britain is now called long-headed clover Trifolium incarnatum ssp molinerii, white-flowered, but that is found at only a few coastal sites in the south of Britain. This is likely to be the same as the Moliner’s clover mentioned by the Lawsons, but their seed was most likely sourced from European seedsmen rather than from the wild in Britain. Crimson clover is now Trifolium incarnatum ssp incarnatum. Moliner’s and crimson are therefore considered sub-species (ssp) of the same species.
So what was it doing here? It was probably sown in a clover mix as a legume contribution to CAP Greening measures (see Sources). As can be seen the mix was luxuriant in foliage and flower well into autumn, when many other wild plants were dying or seeding.
Tarbat is a rich agricultural region, and you can see why the Picts farmed and established their monastery and unique monuments here over 1000 years ago. Today, small fields and patches like the one shown offer refuge and food for insects and birds in a landscape dominated by grazing land, and harvested or ploughed fields.
Peter Lawson and Son. 1852. Synopsis of the vegetable products of Scotland. Edinburgh: Private Press of Peter Lawson and Son
The restharrow Ononis repens is a tough plant, growing as it does at the very limits of dry, salty land around the coast. There it will fix nitrogen from the air, which finds its way through decomposition of roots and leaves into the sand and then perhaps to other plants and to soil microbes. It was also once a serious weed of cropland, as its name suggests, but a weed no longer, tamed by heavy ploughs and pesticide.
It grows well around the coasts of Angus and Moray. In Montrose bay, it grows in abundance, the main legume of the dunes. It is prolific near the south end, particularly around the car parks, binding the sand as it once slowed the harrow. To the north over the several miles of beach, it lives at the base of the collapsed dunes (images above), leaf and flower blasted by salt and sand grains.
In the images above, the line of stakes leading seaward from the dunes reaches out into the North Sea at its widest and after 650 km of rough water, meets the coast of Denmark. The restharrow is the first line of defence.
Restharrow as a weed
Grigson gives the mediaeval names of the plant, one of which resta bovis translates as ox-stop, and cites a treatise of 1578: ‘the roote is long and limmer, spreading his branches both large and long under the earth, and doth ofttimes let, hinder and staye, both the plough and oxen in toyling the ground’.
In her 1920 book, Winifred Brenchley classed restharrow Ononis repens among ‘coarse growing plants that deteriorate the quality of pasture or meadow’. And in the last century it seems to have been a problem in grass rather than in land that was repeatedly tilled.
Its decline from the community of common weeds is now so great that it is hardly found in farmland. Yet as recently as 1938, H. L. Long wrote “If this weed is plentiful it must be attacked by thorough and regular cutting, liming, complete manuring, and close depasturing with stock. In rare instances it may be desirable to plough up the pasture, give a thorough cleaning and manuring, and again lay down to grass.”
Long placed it in the top 30+ weeds of pasture, but did not always distinguish the spiny Ononis spinosa, which has a more southerly distribution in Britain, from Ononis repens which is the one shown here in the photographs and which was described by Long as having runners, usually spineless and with a strong disagreeable scent.
Grigson relates its presence in pasture as tainting milk, butter and cheese and children chewing its root, which gives it the name wild liquorice.
Restharrow in the Living Field garden
A few patches of restharrow remain in a remote corner of one of the Institute’s farms near Dundee.
To see what it looks like and how it grows, the Living Field garden keeps a small patch of it, originating from seed. Its luxuriant foliage and flowers grow to well over 0.5 m in height and attract a range of insect feeders. It is cut back to 10-20 cm above soil level in autumn, but is otherwise left to itself.
Its leaves and stems are softer in the garden, less wiry than at the edge of the North Sea (comparison above). There are also small variations in geometry of the leaves and sepals.
References and links
Brenchley WE. 1920. Weeds of farm land. Longmans, Green and Co, London. Grigson G. 1958. The Englishman’s flora. (Paladin, 1975). Long HC. 1938. Weeds of grass land. HMSO.
Note: on sampling the coastal plants, Euan James reports nodulation, indicating they are fixing nitrogen.
Lawson and Son’s bere and barley varieties, 1836 and 1852. Bere and two-row barley clearly distinguished. Several extant bere landraces, attempts at improvement. Types like bere grown across northern Europe.
In their Synopsis of the Vegetable Products of Scotland (1852), Lawson and Son list the names and characteristics of all varieties of crops and other useful plants known to have been grown or tried by them or their correspondents in Scotland. The 1852 Synopsis built on their earlier Agriculturist’s Manual (1836). They must have been growing all these different types of plant in their experimental gardens and plots near Edinburgh throughout the 1830s and 1840s if not earlier. Their Synopsis was a major achievement. It has not been surpassed.
Was bere listed?
Under barley, ‘Common Bere’ is listed among the four-rowed barleys (see note below on four- and six-rowed barley), but of particular interest are several other types that appeared very close to bere. Since most of these types were kept and grown from saved seed, they made a set of landraces, certainly not pure and probably overlapping in many characteristics.
So was common bere a distinct type? Lawson and Son frequently used it as a standard, comparing others to it in terms of structure and timing. For example, there were types that looked the same as bere growing on mainland Europe, one of which was ‘probably the same variety’. Then there was the higher yielding ‘Victoria bere’, and several naked forms (the ‘husk separating from the grain in thrashing, as in common wheats’), including ones said to be superior to the ‘Old Scottish four-rowed naked’. There were also several four-rowed types originating from other parts of the world, outside Europe.
Was there more than one bere landrace?
Their account, while not mentioning separate landraces within the bere grown in Scotland, suggests a situation more complicated than a single class of northern barley landrace that was generally called bere. The name ‘Victoria bere’ suggests bere could be of different forms. The Living Field has not yet found evidence from subsequent records of what happened to the various bere-like barleys. Did any become more widely grown? Were they all classed as bere in some future time?
In the Lawson’s time, and for another century, oat was the main cereal here, but as barley increased in area and overtook oat to become the most widely grown crop today, it was mainly the two-rowed barley that came through. Certainly, most of the four-rowed recorded by Lawson and Son seem to have disappeared.
So – from the Lawsons’ books and records – bere in Scotland in the 1800s was structurally distinct from two-rowed barleys, but was not that distinct from a range of bere-like forms grown on mainland Europe and beyond.
The Lawsons’ books also give evidence of the wealth of international connexions in the seed trade and in the desire of farming to seek improved crop varieties wherever they could be found, whether from a few unusual ears in a field in Scotland or from occasional samples from Nepal, Morocco or … the list is endless.
Further details of bere and other four-rowed barleys
Lawson and Son distinguished four-rowed, six-rowed, two-rowed and an usual type named ‘fan’ or ‘sprat’ barley.
Presumably reflecting the usage at that time, they classed bere and several other barley types as four-rowed. In their earlier Agriculturist’s Manual (1836) they write of Common Bere and types similar to it – ‘middle grains on each side forming a distinct straight row; lateral ones forming a kind of double row towards the base, but uniting so as to form one row towards the extremity of the spike; so that instead of being named four or six-rowed, they might with more propriety be named four and six-rowed barleys.”
Common bere is described as ‘ear about two and a half inches long, containing about 60 grains … and ‘awns or beard about three and a half inches long, adhering to the grain’. In their Agriculturist’s Manual, they state the bere grown in 1835 in trial plots in Edinburgh was sown 7 April, in ear 27 June (81 days) and ripe 12 August (127 days).
The description of the type referred to as Victoria bere suggest attempts to improve the existing landrace. This type ‘produces longer straw, is longer eared, often containing 70 to 100 grains”. Where did it come from? A Mr Fulton, in Ayrshire, is credited with ‘bringing the Victoria bere under the notice of cultivators in this country’. He obtained a few ears of it from the Belfast Botanic Gardens in 1836 and he must have bulked seed for extensive trialling from those ears.
Several others are compared with common bere. Winter white has ears thicker and longer than bere, and its grain sample is coarser. Sown in the autumn it acts like a modern winter variety, ripening earlier than the spring types, but it can also be sown in spring, ripening later. Winter black also had ears larger than bere, but of a ‘black or dark bluish colour’ best sown autumn because if sown late in spring it will not mature the same year.
The variety Square is evidence of similar varieties to bere grown on mainland Europe, being cultivated in France and Germany. It differed from the common bere by being ‘three or four days sooner ripe, and having a thinner skin’. There authors suggest it is probably the same variety (as common bere).
Also, the variety Naked (also known as Siberian barley), which superseded the ‘Old Scottish Four-Rowed Naked‘, which is ‘still a favourite in many districts of Scotland’. Naked’s ears are similar in shape to the common bere but rather more distinctly six-rowed, containing a much greater number of grains. It was grown extensively in the north of Europe, and even in parts of France, and despite ‘its cultivation now almost abandoned … it certainly deserves a fair trial in this country, particularly in the north of Scotland, where it might form a valuable acquisition on account of its earliness, being ripe about a week before the Common Bere’.
Of the 11 other four-rowed barleys listed, some are from overseas, for example African also known as Tangier or Morocco barley (stated as no longer cultivated), Bengal, Nepaul or Himalayan introduced 1817 and Peruvian (described as a superior six-rowed).
Note on Six rowed barley
Entries on six-rowed barley include only two types, one of which is imported from China, but appears the same as the other listed, True Six-Rowed Barley. They describe the awns of this adhering to the grains ‘with great tenacity’ and ‘the coarsest in sample of any of the barleys, but hardy and prolific’, sown as a winter or a spring type, and nearly a fortnight longer to maturity than bere.
Peter Lawson and Son. 1852. Synopsis of the vegetable products of Scotland. Edinburgh: Private Press of Peter Lawson and Son
Title page: Prepared for the Great Exhibition and dedicated to William Jackson Hooker, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew. Peter Lawson and Son describe themselves as ‘Seedsmen and Nurserymen to the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland’. [The notes above are from a copy of the original book. The text is also available as a scanned version – search for its title at Google Books].
Peter Lawson and Son 1836. The Agriculturist’s Manual. Edinburgh, London and Dublin.
Full title: The Agriculturists’s Manual ; being a familiar description of the Agricultural Plants Cultivated in Europe including practical observations respecting those suited to the Climate of Great Britain ; and forming A Report of Lawson’s Agricultural Museum in Edinburgh by Peter Lawson and Son, Seedsmen and Nurserymen to the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland. Available online at biodiversitylibrary and at books.google.co.uk
Before modern genetics and breeding, before the world’s great stores of genetic resources were built and before the purity of crop varieties could be certified using DNA tests, most crops were kept as landraces.
Seed of wheat, oat, barley, beans and all the other crops was usually highly variable, the individuals genetically different. When sown in a field in a year, those individuals that survived and yielded the most were those best fitted to the conditions. These fitter plants contributed more to the harvested seed than their less fit neighbours. Samples of seed were kept and then sown the next season. Again, plants that were most fitted survived and reproduced.
Gradually the nature of the seed changed by this repeated selection to track the local environment and growing conditions. This would have happened as the early cereals, legumes, fibres and oils were carried westwards and northwards from their Asian centres of origin to the margins of the Atlantic. Landraces evolved to cope with low soil fertility, a cold wet winter and the local pests, and would have split into recognisable types, known to belong to an area of land or method of farming.
But with little warning, a crop could be wiped out by extreme events, the farmers left with just a fragment, or none, of the seed they had nurtured for years, decades even. Maintaining a landrace was no easy matter. Many would have disappeared, others changed to adapt to new conditions.
Landraces are not a thing of the past. They are common in Africa and large parts of Asia today. Under-used and under-researched crops such as bambara Vigna subterranea exist mostly as landraces, each typical of a region and maintained by seed saved from one year to the next.
Not so long ago in our Islands, crops were maintained as landraces, and the practice persists (see below), though most crops are now sown from bags of named varieties, each bought from a seed supplier, certified and uniform and generally high yielding.
The Synopsis of Vegetable Products of Scotland, prepared by the Edinburgh seedsmen Peter Lawson and Son in 1852 consists largely of named ‘types’ of cereals, legumes, fibres, fruit and all the other crops, but the types are not what would be considered true varieties today. Among the wheats, there were 142 types recorded, the barleys 42 and the oats 53 – each named with usually some note on their origin.
Some of the types on the list were recently imported, for instance, from the Baltic, from France, from the low countries, from England. But many of the notes suggest types were found and maintained by individual farmers in specific regions.
So there is the Hopetoun wheat “the produce of single ear of an unusual size … discovered in 1832, on Mr Reid’s farm of Drem, East Lothian … [which was passed through several farming hands and] … is now pretty widely distributed amongst growers ….”.
Or the St Madoes barley “discovered, in 1838, by the Rev. Mr. Noble of St Madoes, in a field of the Dunlop [another type of barley]; and is evidently of a very different kind … a recommendation in damp climates …” .
And then Dyock’s Early oat ” originally raised by a Mr Dyock, near Aberdeen, and has been grown in the vicinity of Brechin …. it is hardy, early, very prolific, and exceedingly well adapted for the higher corn lands”.
Most of those old cereal types are no longer with us, lost in the march towards modern varietal uniformity, but what the Lawson list shows clearly is the vigour and intent of farmers working 100-200 years ago in their search for better crop seed, better for their region and purposes, better adapted to their conditions; and then the bulking and trialling of a new type over a few seasons, and the passing on of the good material to others.
Are there landraces still?
A few farmers save seed – it avoids buying it every year. (Possibly many more save it than would admit!) Yet not many landraces remain here – the traditional barley, bere, was recorded in the Lawson list as a four-row type, “chiefly grown in the Highlands of Scotland and in the lowlands on exposed inferior light soils”. Bere remains with us in a few places, notably Orkney.
There are also landraces of wheat and rye in certain collections and black oat must still persist mainly as a landrace.
The Living Field grows bere, and landraces of wheat, rye and black oat every year to compare them with modern varieties. We save seed at the end of the year, keep it safe over the winter and sow it as a new crop next spring. All four types germinate well and grow fast. They are different from their modern relatives, often taller, rangier, weedier.
Articles on the cereal landraces will appear on the Living Field web site in the coming weeks.
Lawson P and Son. 1982. Synopsis of the Vegetable Products of Scotland. Edinburgh: private press of Peter Lawson and Son.