Flowers from Woodingdean have helped a Brighton climate change researcher and his colleagues to find new clues about effects of rising temperatures.
Professor Michael Hutchings, from Sussex University, conducted a study of rare orchids at the Castle Hill National Nature Reserve near Woodingdean over 30 years.
It shows that plants pressed up to 150 years ago tell the same story about warmer springs resulting in earlier flowering as more recent field-based observations.
The team examined 77 specimens of the early spider orchid (Ophrys sphegodes) collected between 1848 and 1958 and held at Kew and at the Natural History Museum in London.
Because each specimen contains details of when and where it was picked, researchers were able to match this with Meteorological Office records to examine how mean spring temperatures affected the orchids’ flowering.
They then compared the information with field observations of peak flowering of the same orchid species at Castle Hill from 1975 to 2006.
They found that, in both the pressed plants and the field observations, the orchid flowered six days earlier for every rise in mean spring temperature of 1C.
Professor Hutchings said: “Scientists have long suspected that these archives might help us understand the effect of climate change on plants, but this is the first study to prove the validity of this idea.
“There are about 2.5 billion specimens of plants and animals stored worldwide in herbariums and museums.
“This result demonstrates that this material can be used to predict accurately how flowering times will respond to changing climate.”
He said that this was important for many purposes.
It could help scientists to predict how climate change might affect plant pollination rates and the availability of pollen and nectar to feeding insects.