Wednesday 25 March 2020

Family Herbariums

During this strange time I thought I'd write about a family herbarium project I've come across which might give you inspiration for an on-going project. You could start it this spring even within our currently restricted horizons.

Whilst researching a talk for a local history society I remembered a pressed flower collection a Radnorshire Wildlife Trust volunteer had made with her mother when she was a girl.  Sue Arthur kindly agreed to meet with me and tell me more about this collection.

Her family had a small farm just outside Llanyre in Radnorshire and during the 1960s she and her Mum had pressed and preserved some 120 species of flowers which were found on their land. They even feature some rarer species such as a small twig of Genista anglica (En) Petty Whin (Cym) Cracheithin which, though commoner then, is now considered near threatened nationally, probably owing to loss of habitat. The collection mostly includes widespread and familiar species though.

Petty Whin or Genista anglica collected in the 1960s by Sue & still well preserved some 60 years later

What is particularly lovely about this collection is that Sue has carried on the tradition with both own daughter and helped her daughter and grandchild with a further edition, making 3 generations of volumes. Sue also admits that it is probably because of this collection that she has become a long-term volunteer on local nature reserves.

This accords with the research of Wandersee & Schussler (2001) whose research showed that having a plant mentor in one's life makes a pivotal difference on whether one notices, appreciates or seeks to understand plants. So starting a similar collection in the coming weeks could forge a lifetime's connection with plants.

Pressing plants is easy to do - a carefully constructed sandwich of kitchen roll, paper and heavy books will work well enough. Alternatively, you can easily make a flower press if you have two squares of solid ply and four long bolts with wing nuts. You will also need several cardboard inserts and kitchen towel to sandwich the species in. The only slightly tricky part is making sure the four holes in the bottom piece of ply align with those on the top piece. Drill the bottom holes first, slot the bolts in, and mark the point where they touch the top piece of ply. You should drill the second set of holes on the marks. Children can be co-opted into making the cardboard inserts squares, and decorating the top of the press.

Bear in mind the BSBI code of conduct when collecting wildflowers, which you can download here. Do not collect specimens on nature reserves and only collect1 specimen if you can see at least 20 others nearby. It is probably best to avoid collecting any kind of orchid, both due to their relative rarity and the disappointingly dark and shrivelled specimen that usually results.

However that should still give leave you plenty of scope to start a family tradition, which can be preserved for a surprisingly long time as these photos show.

The yellow page from Sue's collection with the colours still remarkably fresh after 60 years 

Musk Mallow from Sue's collection

To end I'll note that this is my last post as Wales Officer though I may continue to contribute to this blog from time to time in the funding interim. I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has encouraged and supported me in the role. 

Barbara Brown March 2020

Monday 13 January 2020

Green and buzzing!

Some of our earliest Spring flowers don't have colourful blooms to attract clouds of pollinators but perhaps their exceptionally early opening is enough of a draw in itself.

Stinking Hellebore with its cup shape flowers typically with a slight red tinge on the edge. This helps to distinguish it from Green Hellebore which also has much more open flowers. 

This seems to be the case with the Stinking Hellebore Helleborus foetidus which grows in woodlands on lime-rich rocks. Its discreetly nodding green cup-flowers smell slightly unpleasant to humans. However the odour clearly pulls in the bees as shown by the photos I snapped during a few minutes of observation.
Queen Bumble bee visiting the Stinking Hellebore flowers

A very early Solitary bee species looking for nectar on the Hellebores

Over the centuries, gardeners have selected strains of Stinking Hellebore with slightly more red-tinged petals for planting in gardens but the well known Christmas rose is actually a garden cultivar of Helleborus niger - a species of central Europe. It is quite likely that Stinking Hellebore was originally cultivated in gardens for its wide range of uses in herbal medicines. Even as far back as the first century AD, Pliny the Elder's Natural History records that it was used as a ''purgative for mania'' whilst Robert Burton's "Anatomy of Melancholy" (1621) cites

" borage and hellebore fill two scenes,
Sovereign plants to purge the veins
of melancholy and cheer the heart
of those black fumes which make it smart"

The plant is poisonous so it is definitely not recommended to try this in the era of modern medicine! However merely looking at the Queen bumble bees feasting on them after their long hibernation is a cheery sight and might help with the winter blues!

You may well find Stinking Hellebore growing near Spurge Laurel (Daphne laureola) which also bears green flowers and can sometimes be scented. Correctly this plant is neither a Spurge nor a Laurel and is most closely related to its more perfumed pink-flowered cousin Daphne merezeon which is often planted in gardens by doorways. Spurge Laurel was usually confined to the shrubbery, or at least this is where Gilbert White records planting it in his famous book ''The Natural History of Selbourne'' (1789) It was also often used as evergreen cover in pheasant shoots.

Spurge Laurel is much more toxic than Helleborus foetidus and in the United States where it is classed as an invasive plant, people are recommended to wear gloves whilst pulling it up.

Spurge laurel in flower

Curiously, a 1978 film featuring Laurence Olivier was named  "Daphne laureola" . The film depicts the joys and pains of young love and borrows from Greek myth where the naiad Daphne was transformed into a laurel to escape from Apollo's attentions!

Paying attention to these understated blooms will almost certainly show how important they are for the early spring pollinators. They may also support precocious insects which might have been lured forth unseasonably early by climate change and so could provide a link to supply continuous food for such insects in woodlands.

Friday 11 October 2019

The State of Nature Report for Wales 2019

The State of Nature Report 2019 was released last Friday and unfortunately it again charts continued wildlife declines across the UK with 13% of declines in average species abundance since 1970. There is also a short summary for Wales which is available to view or download from the BSBI Wales webpage.

The vascular plants of Wales do not escape from the general picture outlined in the UK report. Of the 1,467 Wales Red book plant species assessed in the State of Nature report, 38 have been classed as extinct and a further 18% are threatened with extinction within the country.

As nearly nine tenths of Wales is agricultural land, changes in agricultural practice have been a major factor behind the increasing rarity of plant species. If we take just a single important habitat, more than 90% of semi-natural grasslands have been lost in Wales since the 1930s.

However, it is important to remember that many farmers are shouldering the extra burden of conserving the wildlife on their farms and they are carrying out this task on top of a harder working day than most of us could cope with.

As an example, tenant farmers in the Elan Valley have been working with Natural Resources Wales to restore grasslands to wildflower richness. After just 10 years of suitable management (light manure applications and liming) these grasslands were almost as wildflower rich as adjacent SSSI meadows. You can read more about this in a report from Natural Resources Wales

Again, the National Botanic Gardens of Wales has successfully been restoring hay meadows in Waun Las. In June I saw how lovely these meadows have become, with plentiful Greater Butterfly-orchids (Platanthera chlorantha), Eyebright (Euphraisa spp) and Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor). You can read more about this here. An important part of this transformation was the spreading of green hay from nearby meadows by a local farmer.

A Greater Butterfly-orchid from the restored hay meadows at the National Botanic Gardens of Wales
The conclusions for Wales in the report are tempered by fewer robust trends in species abundance than for other countries in the UK. This is because Wales has a smaller human population and fewer people recording wildlife.

This makes the efforts of the volunteers in Wales who record and survey wildlife all the more valuable - including the BSBI's County recorders and their helpers. We would love to get even more people involved next spring. As BSBI's Head of Science Dr Kevin Walker explains here, it's thanks to the "national army of volunteer recorders" that we've been able to provide the "most complete picture ever assembled of the state of Britain's wildlife". So why not join us? Just take a look at our Local Botany page where you can find out what recording activities they have planned. You would be very welcome to attend and we can offer lots of help for anyone wishing to get started in recording our wonderful Welsh wild flowers.

Tuesday 1 October 2019

The National Plant Monitoring Scheme ... time to think about next year!

As the botanical field season draws to a close this is a good time to plan next year's outings. We will still get the odd day of reasonable weather and you could use it to recce a National Plant Monitoring scheme  (NPMS) square for 2020.

The NPMS is a joint citizen science project managed by the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology, including Plantlife and the BSBI as major partners. The new scheme was launched in 2015 and it has been carefully designed by scientists to provide good quality statistically amenable data with subsequently road tested by volunteers. You really don't have to be a botanical expert to take part - you can choose to survey at the "Wildflower level".

To take part register for a square on the NPMS website National Plant Monitoring Scheme choosing one of the randomly selected squares which you like the look of. (This aspect of the scheme is a bit like the Breeding Bird Survey).

You'll get sent a pack with the survey guidelines, a plant identification guide and a OS map of your chosen square. When a weather window opens, go and take a look at the square, keeping to footpaths or other public access areas. If you still feel happy with the square you'll need to think about which parts of it you will need to gain access to in order to survey the 5 required plots.

Think about covering a range of the NPMS habitats within the square, prioritising ponds and flushes. Remember that if you are surveying in a woodland your plot will be 10x10m in size and not the normal 5x5m or 1x25m size.

Finding out landowner information to acquire access permission can be tricky. You could use it as an excuse for a drink in the local pub or just ask at a nearby farm. Obviously you need to be careful not to be too intrusive here and a letter of introduction is provided with the pack.

Once access permission has been gained you might wish to visit your square again before surveying begins in earnest next May. It is worthwhile spending a bit of time locating exactly where your 5 plots should be.

A GPS is handy for this and it will help you find the plots again via the "find" feature. However if you don't have one of these you could download a GPS app onto your smartphone ( most are free).

If you are surveying in an open field and relying on an app it is harder to refind your plot.  In this case sketching a map of the features is essential. In particular you might want to note features which line up near the skyline on the corner of your plot. You could do this for both axes of the plot if the area is very open and featureless. This is usually so effective you could actually find your plot more quickly this way than trying to follow a shifting arrow on a GPS unit!
Lining up features on the skyline for a plot in a open field

Then with much of the ground work done you will be able to focus on the more enjoyable botanical recording next spring. I was lucky enough to find Marsh-marigolds (Caltha palustris) in my wet woodland plot - scatterings of glossy gold gleaming in the filtered green light. I also found some Wood Horsetail (Equisetum sylvaticum) nearby which seems to be only a second record for the hectad. Who knows what you will find?

A few of the Marsh-marigolds in my woodland NPMS plot 

Monday 16 September 2019

Holiday Botany in the Pyrenees

 Holiday Botany is great for gaining new perspectives on our local flora. Plants which seem to have quite restricted niches in the UK often flourish more widely on the continent and rarer plants which you might have to make a special journey to see might even be found on your accommodation's front lawn!

So even though it was in September and billed as a geological outing, I expected the Nature en Occitanie field trip to the summit of Pene Blanque ( 1115m) would also have some botanical interest for me.

We met in Arbas where the large village square was watched over by a donkey sized Pyreneen Mountain dog. From there Delphine Fallour from the Office National de Foret drove us along forest tracks bumping our way upward and saving a good deal of height gain on foot. Once parked in a shade of a turning circle we took smaller tracks through the forest which graded from Fir to Beech and finally to Hazel trees which were festooned with plentiful Lobaria pulmonaria lichen.

The erosion of the limestone had created a cave with a collapsed roof system which we explored carefully. The entrances were bordered with flourishing stands of Touch-me-not Balsam (Impatiens noli tangere) which seems native in parts of North Wales and nooks cradled Pyrenean Saxifrage (Saxifraga umbrosa). This last is established in one locality in Yorkshire.

Descent into the Cave

Touch-me-not Balsam at the Cave entrance
Leaving the cave, we followed the trail further upwards until suddenly we came to a sunlit limestone pavement fringed with softer grasslands which we gratefully relaxed upon for lunch.

Some of the floristic elements here were familiar with Thyme, Common Rock-rose, Yellow-rattle and Squinancywort.
Common Rock Rose

Squinancywort - or Hierba de la esquinancia (ES) Estrangla-can (OC)

Francoise Laigneau's recent book "Decouvrir la Flore des Pyrenees" lists plant names in local languages and cites Squinancywort's Spanish (ES) and Occitan (OC) names as Hierba de la esquinancia and Estrangla-can. The Spanish name seems to be the origin of the English one and means "strangling herb". The Occitan version (Occitan was previously referred to as Languedoc) means "strangle the dog"!

Reinforced by our lunch we then wove our way around the sharp edges of the karstic rock forms, grateful for the shade of the occasional small Ash tree. These reminded me of the Ash trees at the entrance to Craig Benglog where block scree confines them to narrow cracks and gullies.

On the pavement we found several geranium species - Herb Robert, Round-leaved Crane's-bill           (Geranium rotundifolium) & Shining Crane's-bill (Geranium luridium) . We also found Pyreneen plants such as Clinopodium alpinum, a last flower on Teucrium chamaedrys, Allium ericetorum's delicate white flower heads and bushes of Common Buckthorn Rhamnus cathartica.

Across the karst 

Clinopodium alpinum

Teucrium chaemaedrys

View from the top!

Friday 9 August 2019

Caerdeon Botanical Residential for Meirionnydd (VC48)

Sunday 28th of July

Martyn Stead, Sally Peacock and I headed for the empty quarter of the Arenigs on Sunday. We were looking at two very unrecorded tetrads on the South East side of Arenig Fawr. We traversed across part of Ffridd y Fawnogg noting typical species such as Cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccus), some of which bore nearly ripe fruit - not quite ripe enough for a snack though!

Sally found Shoreweed (Litorella uniforme) in the reservoir but it's wave-lashed shores seemed to discourage the development of more fringing vegetation.

Once we had ascended the SE ridge of Y Castell, the broad ledges I could safely reach were not particularly species rich, although there was plentiful Luzula sylvatica (Great Wood Rush). We entered the new tetrad at around 660m  and as we crested the top of this slope we found windswept areas rich in Vaccinium vitis-idaea (Cowberry) with the odd patch of Melampyrum pratense (Common Cow-wheat). There were also some significant patches of the Lichen Lasallia pustulata

I scoured a small area of rock carpeting sphagnum until I eventually spotted some Drosera rotundifolia  (Round-leaved sundew), however the wet weather had really set in now so we didn't press on to the summit. This could still be an area worth prospecting in the future though. We took the easier route back via the track and road and this enabled Martyn to add to the list of road-verge species for another tetrad . Meanwhile Sally and I took a last look at a different corner of Ffridd y Fawnogg bog in homage to International Peat bog day. 

Caerdeon Botanical Residential for Meirionnydd ( VC48)

July 27th: Visit to Craig y Benglog with Martyn Stead and Phil Brown.

Craig y Benglog lies next to Allt y Benglog National Nature reserve which comprises an Ash woodland. These trees grow over underlying basic rocks which give them an extra mineral boost. Consequently, Phil Martyn and I felt we might be in for an interesting day in this area. On a previous visit I had found an old trackway leading up the valley so this easy access route quickly led us into the recording area. The day developed as a series of deviations upwards or downwards from this track, either taking in the ledges of the crags above or down to the Afon Eiddon which cuts down into some basic lavas.

 The first excursion upwards to the crags yielded little that was unexpected, so we scrambled down to the river. The river cliffs bordering it soon yielded interesting records of Helianthenum nummularium (Common Rock-rose), a new tetrad record and a plant which has only been recorded in 4 tetrads of VC48, and Sedum forsterianum (Rock Stonecrop) another new tetrad record and only recorded in 10 tetrads. These were accompanied with Origanum vulgare (Wild Majoram) and Sedum telephium (Orpine)
Sedum forsterianum (Rock Stonecrop)

Some of these ledges seem to preserve remnant woodland flora too with Orchis mascula (Early-purple Orchid) and Primula vulgaris (Primrose), Luzula sylvatica (Great Wood Rush) and Geum rivale (Water avens)
Further progress from rock to rock brought new discoveries. Arabis hirstua (Hairy rock-cress) (another new tetrad record) and Melica nutans which has only been recorded in 2 other tetrads of VC 48 and a new record for the tetrad.
Melica nutans Mountain Melick

Then Phil explored a meander further up the valley whilst Barbara and Martyn wove a way through the boulder scree to the upper crags, soon to be joined by the ever-energetic Phil. Here we found an isolated Populus tremulus (Aspen) at the base of a crag and then Martyn followed some intuition straight to a hidden Oak fern (Gymnocarpon dyropteris) in a scree niche. Meanwhile Phil searched some more crags to find more Melica nutans, Hyacinthoides non scripta (Bluebell) and Cystopteris fragilis (Brittle Bladder Fern)
Martyn Stead demonstrating the site of the Oak Fern
Gymnocarpium dryopteris - the Oak Fern

Overall 156 records were made but the quality of the finds and the landscape made for some great plant hunting. We also paid a visit to the local farmer on the way back, who shared some of the local mining and farming history of the site and was interested in the special plants.