Pull in to a layby on the A412 between Ely and Newmarket and you can meet one of our rarest plants. But unlike the fabled lady's-slipper orchid, which is similarly restricted to a single native site, fen ragwort doesn't receive round-the-clock surveillance when in flower. Neither does it attract many visitors. In fact, millions of drivers hurtle past the spot blissfully unaware of its existence.
Yet this verge-side ditch is the last place in Britain you can find native fen ragwort. It's just that you might have to move a few traffic cones and coffee cups discarded from the nearby burger van to see it.
Fen Ragwort was once more widespread, growing in Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Suffolk. A plant of wet fens - places of reeds and water where its roots can get down into the thick peat - the places where it grew were drained and tamed for agriculture and the plant gradually disappeared. It was thought to be extinct but a single plant was found in this roadside ditch in 1972. Seed from here has since been used to reintroduce it to several former sites where it is doing well but, despite designation of the verge ditch as a Roadside Nature Reserve it's not exactly thriving. In its time it's been hit by a burning car and suffered a dose of herbicide, so it's amazing it's alive at all.
It's not just fen ragwort. A new Plantlife study released today reveals the top ten threatened plants growing on Britain's road verges and shows that these roadside sites are the last remaining home to some incredibly rare species.
These include sulphur clover, crested cow-wheat and wood bitter-vetch, which were once more commonplace, growing in meadows, pastures and woodlands. As the management of these habitats has changed over the last 60 years they've been lost from these sites and now appear most frequently on roadside verges. Better management of verges is therefore critical if these species are to avoid extinction.
In total, Britain's verges play home to over 700 species of wild plants, more than in any other part of the landscape, and 12% (87) of those species are either threatened with extinction or headed in that direction. The tragic destruction of over 97% of our ancient wild flower meadows since the 1930s and the fact that almost 90% of the wild plants found on Britain's road verges provide nectar and pollen mean road verges now also present a refuge for many dwindling bee, butterfly, bird, bat and bug species. Bird's-foot-trefoil, which appears on many verges, is, alone, a food plant for a staggering 160 species of insects.
For many of us, road verges are dull, inconsequential places that flash by in the wing mirror. But these findings underline just how fundamental verges are to the health of wildflowers and the wildlife they support.
Sadly, road verges have been woefully disregarded for decades and are increasingly poorly managed for nature. Some exceptionally rare plants including velvet lady's-mantle and tower mustard are only hanging on thanks to the existence of some remaining well-managed verges. But we must not get complacent - only genuine management of much more of our road network for nature will safeguard these and other plants from extinction.
Many local councils are now cutting earlier and earlier in spring. This means only plants that flower early, like cuckooflower and cowslips, have a chance to set seed before the mower strikes. Others struggle to survive under the thick thatch of mowings left behind. Biodiversity is declining rapidly as many summer-flowering plants disappear from our verges.
Plantlife's vision for Britain's road verges is one where all verges remain safe for motorists but are also are managed for wildlife as a matter of course, restoring and expanding flower-rich habitats along our road network. Some strikingly simple changes to management - like cutting later in the year and harnessing the power of semi-parasitic yellow rattle to act as nature's own lawnmower - can significantly improve the biodiversity on our verges, bringing benefits for wildlife, for us and for future generations. Almost 20,000 people have signed Plantlife's petition calling for councils' management to better benefit wild flowers.
Vibrant verges are an oasis of colour in an increasingly grey landscape and they can contribute to our health and wellbeing. For many of the 23 million people who commute to work by road the verge is their only daily contact with nature. The procession of colour from bluebells to betony through the year brightens our days, keep us in touch with the changing seasons and provide us with a real sense of place.