Although the name Melampyrum sylvaticum L. is uncontroversial (Stace 1997), in the past its identification in Britain has been much confused with that of M. pratense (Rumsey in Stewart et al. 1994; Rich et al. 1998). A key feature is the downturned end to the lower lip of the corolla (flower), as seen in the photograph here. The size of the plant and the flower colour are not reliable diagnostic features (Rich & Jermy 1998).
Chromosome No.: 2n = 18 (Stace 2010).
Small Cow-wheat is endemic to Europe, occurring in the Alps and mountainous regions in southern Europe, but mainly in Scandinavia and the Baltic States eastwards into Russia (Rich et al. 1998).
In the British Isles it is found in the mountains of Scotland and Northern Ireland and was formerly present in Yorkshire, Co. Durham and North Wales, but is believed to be extinct there now.
- Origin: native.
- Rarity: Nationally Scarce in Britain, but all known populations are in Scotland. It is extinct in England and Wales, and rare in Ireland.
- Threat: in 1994 (in Stewart et al.) Rumsey described M. sylvaticum as over-recorded. Rich & Sydes (2000) resurveyed known sites and also concluded that there was a severe decline and considerable over-recording. However, Rumsey (in Preston et al. 2002) now describes it as almost certainly under-recorded, a view that is echoed by Cheffings & Farrell (2005), who classified it as Endangered. Dalrymple (2007) argues that it should be listed as Vulnerable.
- Conservation: it is a Priority species under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan and much work has been undertaken to further its conservation, including introductions to new sites, mixing of seeds from disparate populations (Dalrymple 2007); and apparently there are even proposals to translocate ants to assist in the dispersal of seeds (S. Dalrymple, pers. comm.)
Despite all of the study of this species, surprisingly little is known about its reproductive ecology. It was believed to be pollinated by bees (e.g. Rumsey in Stewart et al. 1994) and for the seeds to be dispersed by ants (e.g. Rich & Sydes 2000) but Dalrymple (2007) asserts that neither of these have been observed in Britain. It can be self-fertile.
Melampyrum sylvaticum is considered a woodland plant that occurs in light shade (up to 50%) and high humidity, always close to water (ibid.). It is often found on rock ledges in mountain valleys, but some of the largest populations occur in woodland by lakes (e.g. at Loch Ossian). Rich et al. (2000) state that it occurs in herb-rich places in W11 woodland, and Dalrymple (op. cit.) adds H17, H18, W17 and U16 communities.
The assertion that it is under-recorded is based on a few recent discoveries of new sites. Speculative surveys of potentially promising areas, especially in the mountains of western Scotland, might help to confirm that. Sites might typically be rock ledges in high valleys. All new records need to be properly documented - a good photograph is sufficient to confirm the identification, but it is not a protected species (except in Northern Ireland) and specimens may be taken if the population is sufficiently large. There is no obvious need for secrecy.
When introductions and other conservation work is carried out, it should be fully documented even if it is unsuccessful. A practical mechanism for this is www.conservationevidence.com.
- Dalrymple, S.E. 2007. Biological Flora of the British Isles: Melampyrum sylvaticum L. Journal of Ecology 95, 583-597.
- Rich, T.C.G., Fitzgerald, R. & Sydes, C. 1998. Distribution and ecology of Small Cow-wheat (Melampyrum sylvaticum L.; Scrophulariaceae) in the British Isles. Botanical Journal of Scotland 50, 29-46.
- Rich, T.C.G. & Sydes, C. 2000. Recording and the declines of the Nationally Scarce plants Ajuga pyramidalis L. and Melampyrum sylvaticum L. Watsonia 23, 293-197.