Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Twixt Prims and Peggles.....

As roadside verges across the county become primrose coloured I have been thinking and looking out for Primulas and their hybrids.

I had an early introduction to these as I attended Great Bardfield primary school and my uniform sweatshirt was emblazoned with one.

Great Bardfield drew Henry Doubleday's attention in 1842 when he described the 2 acre meadow of Bardfield Hall "as a mass of yellow blooms" with Oxslips  (Primula elatior) growing by the thousand. On careful observation he felt they were probably a separate species from the False Oxslip ( now known to be Primula vulgaris x primula veris = P. x polyantha ) which was widespread in England at the time. He carried out cross pollination experiments, and the plants always bred true, so as a further check he sent plants to Charles Darwin who did the same and also crossed Primroses and Cowslips. Darwin's results were set out in a paper published in 1868 and left him in no doubt that the plants from Bardfield represented a separate true species which he referred to as the Bardfield Oxslip -  now Primula elatior

Bardfield Oxslips - now more often known as just Oxslips, have a fairly limited distribution in the UK and are mostly confined to the boulder clay of the Suffolk/Essex border. They are commoner on the continent, where they are also often found in woodland glades.

Oxslip or Primula elatior - here growing on the woodland edge in the Pyrenees

Owing to a decline in Oxslip numbers in and around Bardfield, the primary school became involved in a replanting project in 2002. Unfortunately they are savoured by Roe Deer and so woodland populations are often heavily grazed.

Here in Wales the only Oxslips you are likely to see outside gardens are the hybrids or False Oxslips. As described by Darwin in his experiments these are the result of crosses between Primroses P. vulgaris and Cowslips P. veris. They do vary slightly in form but generally have flowers which fall anywhere around the stem, unlike the Oxslip  P.elatior  which usually has blooms falling on one side only. They also often have an orange centre to each bloom.

Primroses often hybridize with a horticultural primulas leading to a variety of strange colours and forms - a few of which I observed in St Mary's Churchyard Abbeycwmhir last week and are pictured below.

Primrose or Primula vulgaris. 

False Oxslips - the hybrid between Cowslip ( P.veris) and Primrose (P.vulgaris) P. x polyantha. The flowers are falling anywhere round the stem and they have orange centres, as shown below.

The other parent, the Cowslip - also known as Peggles in Essex. ( P. veris)

And a couple of other Primrose hybrids also found at Abbeycwmhir.

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

In search of the Purple Saxifrage... Saxifraga oppositifolia on Cadair Idris.

Visitors to the Purple Saxifrage or Tormaen porffor (cym)

Last Saturday I followed the footsteps of many botanists to seek out the Purple Saxifrage growing on Cadair Idris.
I have walked up Cadair many times, mostly from the popular and scenic Minfordd path with its view of Llyn Cau and the Mountain’s cirque of surrounding cliffs.
The hunt for the Purple Saxifrage required a different approach however, over the wide northerly moor, leaping rain swollen streams, pushing up a steep grassy slope, edging my boots for grip and finally arriving at the band of basic igneous rock which hosts the plant.
Purple Saxifrage is one of our earliest flowering mountain plants and Bill Condry (contributor to The Guardian’s Country diary) Dr Dewi Jones and other botanists used to compete in a friendly rivalry to find its earliest flowers.  This link describes a search on the 26th January 1992 .

A cushion of Purple Saxifrage on Cadair Idris in early March

Once seen, you understand the draw this plant exerted. It is a real showman, trailing over bare rocks with barely noticeable leaves threaded crosswise down a thread like stem. But the flowers are vividly purple, open mouthed and almost obscuring the rest of the plant. It belongs in the Mountains but looks to be transplanted out of a Chelsea show garden rockery.
Its lovely flowers are by no means its most remarkable aspect however. It holds the record for the highest flowering plant in France (and perhaps Western Europe) having recently been found growing and flowering at 4070m on the Bare des Ecrin in the Alps.
At such altitudes oxygen is thin, frost a daily occurrence and moisture negligible. When the sun shines, the ultra violet light will give you a serious burn in half an hour. Amongst the plant’s many adaptations to this are an ability to plug it’s own stomata or breathing pores to restrict moisture loss under the Sun’s glare. It excretes liquid rich in calcium carbonate which crystallises blocking the openings. I was lucky enough to observe this on Saturday on the Cadair plants, probably owing to the warm weather at the end of February.
Limestone crystals on the tips of the Purple Saxifrage leaves.

My effort to reach the plants pale somewhat when compared with the French Alpinists, Paul Guilleman, Andre Salvader and Pierre Gaspard in 1878 though. They were making a third ascent of the Meije in the Alps when they found Purple Saxifrage at 3700m. Realising they would scarcely be believed, as the find overturned the botanical knowledge of the period, they endeavoured to take a sample. This involved Paul standing on Gaspard’s shoulders on the edge of a drop of hundreds of meters. A demonstration of extreme botany for an extremely alpine plant – but perhaps not suitable for everyone!
In Wales, Purple Saxifrage can be found in the Brecon Beacons and in Snowdonia with Cwm Idwal and Cadair probably being the most accessible sites. Ben Lawers is a great place to see it in Scotland. 

Mining Cottages on the North side of Cadair Idris

Thursday, 14 February 2019

An early gleam of Spring.

An early gleam of Spring; The Radnor Lily or Early Star of Bethlehem; Gagea bohemica.

Seren gynnar Bethlehem (Cym)  

It seems appropriate to start my term on the Welsh Officer blog with a post about a local herald of spring; the Radnor Lily (Early Star of Bethlehem) or Gagea bohemica.

Gagea bohemica as photographed by the author on Febraury 6th this year. 

John Crellin (VCR for Brecknockshire) organised a visit to Stanner Rocks on the 6th of February  especially to see this flower . We were guided by Andy Shaw, a local botanist who has surveyed the plants there regularly.

Andy gave us an enthusiastic introduction to the history of botany in the area, mentioning the groups of Victorian botanists that used to alight from an old train station less than 100m away, spending their days collecting and botanising in the vicinity. Their attention was drawn by the unusual summer flora  which included Spiked Speedwell (Veronica spicata), Sticky Catchfly (Lychnis viscaria). This had prospered on the rock owing to the thin well drained soils which were somewhat alkaline owing to the underlying igneous rock mass. In consequence, several of the species which flourished on the warmer south facing slope were usually associated with the Mediterranean.

Yet despite all this activity the Radnor Lily remained unnoticed. Its thin, wiry crocus like leaves were hard to pick out amongst the grasses and the botanists were Summer migrants. 

The leaves of Gagea bohemicus are not too difficult to find in February but die back quickly as spring advances.

The years rolled by, the small train station closed, and Stanner rocks became a Site of Special Scientific interest in 1954 owing to those summer flowers. Later the designation was changed to make part of the area a National Nature reserve.

Due to the designation, surveys were commissioned to study the mosses and liverworts of the site. R Kemp, a moss specialist, carried these out during the winter of 1965. On returning to the lab, he noticed amongst his samples some curious wiry crocus like leaves, which he thought might belong to the closely related Snowdon Lily Gagea seratina . In April 1974 Ray Woods went to search the area to find a better specimen and noticed that the leaves of the plant were not hairy like those of the Snowdon Lily. Suspecting Gagea bohemica he went back the following January and found a flower.. and so the identity of the mystery plant was finally confirmed. It has never been found anywhere else in the British Isles. 

Subsequent counts have found as many as 1,000 plants on Stanner rocks, but only a very few of these plants flower at all. This may be because conditions on the rock are not quite right for this Mediterranean plant, and it may also explain why Stanner rocks is its only UK site.

The area where the Lily grows is fenced off and visits can be made through Natural Resources Wales (NRW). If you do arrange a visit, be prepared for a steep climb and to peer over rock ledges. 

If you wish to see the summer flowers, Andy Shaw will be leading another BSBI visit on Saturday 1st of June. See for more information. Please book a place with Andrew Jones on

Monday, 26 March 2018

BSBI Meeting at Freshwater West, Pembrokeshire

BSBI meeting at Freshwater West on Sunday 25 March. Six attended the walk. It was a superb sunny warm day to be out. 79 species were recorded including Erodium cicutarium (Common Stork's-bill) above.
 Below is the rosette of Arabis hirsuta (Hairy Rock-cress) on the dunes.
 Below in the view we had while having lunch.
 Below are the only leaves of Eryngium maritimum (Sea-holly) we saw.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Polycarpon tetraphyllum (Four-leaved Allseed) at Pembroke Dock

As Polly said in the last blog I would be taking over as BSBI Welsh Officer. I would like to thank Polly for the wonderful job she did.

Haven't really had any chance to do much botany yet since I started back as Welsh Officer. It is nearly two and a half years since I posted here. 

Polycarpon tetraphyllum (Four-leaved Allseed) grows around the car park on the sea front by ASDA filling station, Pembroke Dock. Known here since Jon Hudson found it in 2009. This is the only extant site in Wales. Last recorded from Barry Docks, Glamorgan in 1927 by J.H. Salter and R.L. Smith. 

Polycarpon tetraphyllum (Four-leaved Allseed) is not the most stunning plant, the whole plant is green, very small, not always easy to tell if in flower or fruit as the heads are very small. 

Friday, 13 October 2017

Welsh Officer change

Today is my last day as Welsh Officer for the BSBI. I am relocating to Scotland with my family, and it just isn't practical to work in Wales! I am very glad that Wales will be welcoming back Paul Green, who has been Welsh Officer before and knows the ropes. 

Hymenophyllum wilsonii, Wilson's Filmy-fern
It has been a privilege and a pleasure to be employed by the BSBI for six years - I have learnt so much about Wales and Welsh botany. I will miss Wales, and the botanists, many of whom I now count amongst my friends. 
So that's it really - goodbye Wales and best wishes for the future. This from a recent visit to Merionethshire - near Abergynolwyn where we found a new record of Hymenophyllum wilsonii. 
Me on a hillside above Abergynolwyn with the Merioneth Nats

Friday, 28 July 2017

Caerdeon (Merionethshire) 2017

Setting off to Caerdeon last week I received an email which mentioned the "dire" weather forecast for the weekend. I was meant to be meeting a few others at lunch-time and heading up the slopes of Cadair Idris, and my heart sunk at the thought of a weekend botanising in pouring rain.

True enough, as I arrived in Dolgellau I met Andy, who had just purchased a new umbrella, and along with Flora and Phill we headed up. It was indeed a wet afternoon and by tea-time I was soaked more or less to the skin, but we had collected nearly 100 records, in a new monad, although we hadn't reached the "interesting" part of the tetrad! We headed back to Caerdeon to meet the rest of the group, find a hot shower, dry clothes and a hot dinner, followed by an evening of botany with microscopes, ID books and computers.
The workroom at Caerdeon
However, for the remaining three days I remained dry (apart from dampness in the feet, from bogs) and explored several upland areas of Merionethshire. On the second day we were lucky enough to be offered a lift a mile up a track in a 4x4, saving us a walk in. Exploring the shores of Creiglyn Dyfi, we found mostly species-poor upland sheep-grazed vegetation. However, in the lake we found Isoetes lacustris, with its diagnostic non-spiky megaspores (viewed later under a microscope).
Aran Fawddwy and Creiglyn Dyfi
Ascending below the crags of Aran Fawddwy, we found a range of "nice" plants including Succisa pratensis (Devil's-bit Scabious), Campanula rotundifolia (Harebell), two carnivorous plants - Drosera rotundifolia (Round-leaved Sundew) and Pinguicula vulgaris (Common Butterwort) and three species of clubmoss - Huperzia selago, Selaginella selaginoides and Diphasiastrum alpinum (Fir, Lesser and Alpine Clubmosses).
Drosera rotundifolia (Round-leaved Sundew)
Pinguicula vulgaris (Common Butterwort)

Diphasiastrum alpinum (Alpine Clubmoss)

Campanula rotundifolia (Harebell)
The next day we headed onto the slopes of Y Garn, through the western fringes of Coed y Brenin, and had a very fruitful day where we stayed entirely within one monad. However, after beginning in relatively "nice" forestry (mature, well-thinned trees with an understorey and diverse flora along the roads) we emerged into a beautiful bog [see blog background - from July 2017], full of Rhynchospora alba (White Beak-sedge) with a small colony of Wahlenbergia hederacea (Ivy-leaved Bellflower) and many other species. We then explored the ruin of a disused gold mine, which provided some wall ferns including Asplenium ceterach (Rustyback) as well as closely grazed nutrient-enriched turf for some common weeds including Bellis perennis (Daisy) which my group did not record on any other day! Climbing up through a Pteridium aqulilinum (Bracken)-covered boulderfield to reach the small crags, we discovered Hymenophyllum wilsonii (Wilson's Filmy-fern) under boulders and in cracks.
Examining a specimen - with lots of bracken.
For the final day, a small group of us headed a long way up a forestry road by car (thanks to Sarah's preparation in obtaining permission) to explore the area around Rhobell Ganol. As we were at nearly 500m altitude before starting we did not record such a diversity of species, but we did find the fourth clubmoss of the week - Lycopodium clavatum (Stag's-horn Clubmoss) in profusion as well as a really good range of sedges. The forestry in this area was a monoculture of Picea sitchensis (Sitka Spruce) which did not make for easy walking on our way back (working hard to create a circular route and cover as much of the tetrad as possible)! But it was another enjoyable day in good botanical company.
Lycopodium clavatum (Stag's-horn Clubmoss)