Photograph of pasque flower at Martin Down, Wiltshire.

A beautiful pasqueflower, photographed at Martin Down, Wiltshire.

Yesterday, I took a recce trip out to Martin Down Nature Reserve looking for the beautiful and rare pasqueflower (Pulsatilla vulgaris). Also known as the ‘anemone of Passiontide’, the pasqueflower blooms around Easter, deriving its name from the word Paschal (“of Easter”).

This striking purple flower, with its furry leaves and petals covered in long, silky hairs, has ‘threatened’ status and is now found growing on only a few chalk and limestone grasslands.

Numerous reports on the Web say that a few pasqueflowers grow at Martin Down, one of the largest areas of chalk grassland in the country.  However, it was like looking for a needle in a haystack, as the area is 350 hectares of vastness.

It appears that the pasqueflower is declining fast, in this location at least. In fact, in 2011 one person said there were only four plants there that year. According to The Wildlife Trusts, the plant only thrives in any great numbers in just five sites, which is where 99% of the UK’s pasqueflowers are found.

According to a 2011 scholarly article by Kevin Walker and Clare Pinches, between 1750 and the 1960s Pulsatilla vulgaris declined from 130 to 33 sites. This was due to agricultural destruction of the chalk and limestone grassland the pasqueflower needs to thrive. [1] Also, sheep need to graze the land in order to keep above-ground competition from other species in check.

Since 1968 the pasqueflower has been lost from 16 sites and gradually declined on four others, although the total population size increased by 258%, due to the reintroduction of winter grazing on three sites. [1]

Finding Martin Down’s pasqueflowers

While I was at Martin Down I luckily got talking to a couple who were looking for snakes to photograph, in fact they were the only people I met the whole time I was there. I mentioned I was looking for a particular flower and the lady asked if it was the pasqueflower. By huge coincidence they’d spotted just one plant, and very kindly showed me where it was. If they’re reading this now, I’d like to thank them again for interrupting their walk to help me – it was much appreciated. Without their help I would never have found my single specimen.

This morning I set the alarm for 4.45am and arrived at Martin Down just before sunrise. After a brisk walk across the downs in the cold, there was the solitary pasqueflower plant still ‘asleep’, its bell-shaped flowers nodding gently in the breeze. Later, the flowers will open to track the path of the sun, before closing again.

I met a farmer who was interested in why I was lying on the ground in the wet at that time in the morning. He said that he hadn’t noticed any pasqueflowers on Martin Down for a couple of years, but admitted that he was more interested in looking after his sheep!

Only one pasqueflower plant left at Martin Down?

According to the ‘snake couple’, in 2018 there were a few more pasqueflower plants in the same location, but this year it seems to be just the one. I fervently hope this specimen will survive, and that others might re-appear another year.

Hopefully there may also be a few pasqueflowers growing elsewhere on Martin Down that I didn’t manage to find.