the Plants

This part of the 5000 years web site - the Plants - looks at the crops, weeds and other plants of farmland.

Nearly all the crops and many of the weeds come from outside Britain. The cereals - wheat and barley - first arrived from southern and eastern Europe in the neolithic, over 5000 years ago. Some of the existing plants of seashore and hill moved in with these crops to become weeds and have remained in fields to this day. Seeds for many medicinals, dyes, oils and fibres were also mostly imported, as more recently were potato and rapeseed. Other weeds arrived, along with seed and animals from Europe, Asia and North America. As croplands spread, many of the native plants disappeared or retreated to the fringes of managed fields, or found refuge in the margins of woods and wetlands.

The panel, above right, shows examples of the plants: from top left down - emmer wheat ear and grain, bee on tansy, dried weld, dyer's coreopsis; and right, rose hips and jam, volunteer barley in wheat, nitrogen-fixing legumes in meadow, oilseed rape fields.

[Last updated: 8 December 2011]

Plants arranged by use and ecological function

The early settlers, arriving in the neolithic (the late stone age) over 5000 years ago, grew similar crops to those in the present lowland farmed landscape. They, and all farmers since,  have relied on cereals such as wheat and barley, together with grass pastures or unmanaged rough grazing for their animals. As land was cultivated, weeds moved in, some being eaten, others poisonous and still others taking the light and nutrients from the crops. Other plants were grown, or gathered, for medicinals, vegetables, dyes, oils and other purposes.  

The plants are here described by use and ecological function - what they provide and what they do and might yet do in the lowland ecosystem. 

Perennial plants of woodland and hedge will be added later.

Note on vegetation in the maritime croplands

The rural landscapes that produce barley, wheat and other crops, together with grassland for stock rearing - what we here call the maritime croplands because their climates are influenced by the surrounding seas - evolved out of the post-glacial landscapes of scrub and forest. Despite great increases in the fraction of the land under cultivation and in the intensity of land management, the croplands have retained a diversity in crop species and cultivation methods to the present day. This is not so everywhere - many croplands in other parts of the world are dominated by one or two species of plant.  But if monoculture is not the norm here, it does not mean these croplands are sustainable or immune to degradation. Much plant and insect life has been severely depleted; soils in some areas are losing function. What can be done about this will be discussed in the Risks.

While much of the original vegetation has disappeared, the croplands have become home to many wild plant species. The fields of crops and grass that dominate the region sit among plantations, copses, hedges and various areas of uncultivated land. Some of the wild plants in the region live within the cultivated fields where they are usually called weeds, while others live in the less disturbed fragments around the fields. The plants of hedges and field margins, for example, add immensely to the diversity of plant and animal life. 

The areas occupied by the different crops are reported in an annual agricultural census, for both Scotland and the UK as a whole, taken in June and summarised on-line by region (see 'sources'). The cereals - wheat, barley and oat - occupy the largest area, about half the maritime croplands. Various forms of managed grass occupy a further quarter and the rest is covered by the remaining crops, and roads, copses, etc.

The proportion of the crops changes between regions, partly due to soil and local climate, and partly to nearness to markets. Several crop species have different forms, e.g. winter and spring cultivars. Tillage ranges from from deep ploughing to surface scarification depending on soil and preference. Intensity of management, measured by frequency of disturbance, fertiliser and pesticide-use, varies greatly, even between neighbouring farms.

Sources and references

Much of the information in the Plants has been collected in the past few years by SCRI and collaborators through surveys and experiments on farms and in the wider landscape. The following gives links to additional sources of information on-line and general references to books and web sites on plants and croplands. More specialised sources will be given in each section of the Plants.

Books and articles on plants and their uses


Ashmore PJ. 1996. Neolithic and Bronze Age Scotland. BT Batsford / Historic Scotland. 128 pages.  ISBN 0 7134 7530 7.

Dickson C, Dickson J. 2000. Plants and people in ancient Scotland. Tempus Publishing, Stroud, Gloucestershire. 320 pages. ISBN 0 7524 1905 6.

General / identification / uses

Clapham AR, Tutin TG, Warburg EF. 1952. Flora of the British Isles. Second edition 1962 and subsequent editions. Cambridge University Press, UK. (No longer the up to date UK flora, but useful details on life history, pollination and mating system for most species.)

Keble Martin W. 1965. The concise British flora in colour. Published by George Rainbird, UK. Still among the best drawings and paintings; not complete, but attention to detail allows first identification of species; still available on auction.

Mabey R. 1972. Food for free. Published by Collins, UK. Check for recent paperback editions.

Mabey R. 1996. Flora Britannica.  Published by Sinclair-Stevenson, UK. 480 pages. ISBN 1 85619 377 2

Rackham O. 1986. The history of the countryside. Dent / paperback edition published in 2000 by Phoenix Press, London. 445 pages. ISBN 1 84212 440 4.

Plant societies

Botanical Society of the British Isles. Web site gives general botanical information, help with identification, guides and other publications on plants in the UK.

Plantlife (wild plant charity). Web site - information, conservation, reserves, local events, campaigns.

Agricultural census, land use and management

June Agricultural Census for Scotland. Final results of the June 2009 Agricultural Survey. Links to other data and years.

Web-accessible data on plants

The Organicweeds web site has database of weed species that can be reached from their Weed Information page.  There is a link to a detailed article at the bottom of each species-page, e.g. the article on corn spurry Spergula arvensis.

The Plants For  A Future web site has a searchable database giving information on many plants and their uses - food, medicine, oil, fibre, dye, etc.

Contact for this page: Geoff Squire

[Page began March 2010. Last updated 19 July 2011]