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.