A very special plant at a very special pond

Lesser Water Plantain: endangered in the UK but doing well in a new pond in Oxfordshire - its only site in the county

I’m a very strong believer in the benefits of making new ponds: in fact, making new ponds is probably one of the quickest, cheapest and most-likely-to-be-successful techniques for protecting freshwater wildlife.

So it was both a wonderful surprise, and yet not surprising at all, to find that a pond we had created a few years ago with the Environment Agency – the New Pill on Otmoor – has become a haven for one of the rarest water plants in Oxfordshire: Lesser Water Plantain. This pond is a classic example of the principles now enshrined in the Million Ponds Project: clean water, a good shape (in this case, very big drawdown zones) and natural colonisation.

Lesser Water Plantain is listed in the UK Red Data Book plant list – plants which are specially threatened with extinction in the UK – and has undergone a huge decline in England over the last 50 years.

It’s a plant which needs two things: clean water and gentle grazing. Clean water is largely extinct in the English lowlands, and the places where it also coincides with the gentle grazing are now few and far between.

It seems likely that this pond must support one of the biggest populations anywhere in the country.

Interestingly the plant is holding on a bit better in the west (south-west England, west Wales) – places where, although pollution is widespread, there may still be more clean water than in most of England. It also likes the fenny country of the east of England.

Red spots: the current range of Lesser Water Plantain; yellow and orange spots are where it was found before 1987 (click to enlarge map)

Lesser Water Plantain has a distinctive star-burst shaped seed-head, plantain-like leaves and a coriander-like aroma. It grows in one of the richest parts of the pond – the part that dries out in the summer: the drawdown zone. To my knowledge, no-one knows what this plant does – whether it’s important for useful insects, has special medicinal properties or might be the source of the next cancer-curing wonder-drug. But it should be there, a pretty regular part of a healthy freshwater environment.

That it has become rare is a worrying sign.

This year in the New Pill there are probably hundreds of plants setting seed.

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