Sunday, 17 February 2019

Botanical University Challenge: another starter for ten

John teaching at Aberystwyth University
Image courtesy of J. Warren
The second Botanical University Challenge (BUC) is taking place at the University of Reading on 20th February and I caught up with its founder, John Warren, to find out more. News & Views readers will recognise John’s name as one of the authors of this article in Times Higher Education about the decline in the teaching of field biology skills.

LM: So John, I gather BUC was originally your idea! Before you tell us the story behind it, could you just remind us what exactly it is?

JW: A nice easy starter for ten question. It’s a botanical quiz competition for university and college students, based on the long-established BBC TV University Challenge format. Except all the questions are botanical in nature.

LM: So now take us right back to the beginning – how did you come up with the BUC idea and why?

The Edge Hill team from BUC 2016
featuring ace botanist Josh Styles!
JW: The idea originated when I was Director of Education in the Biology Department of Aberystwyth University. I was lucky enough to be able to abuse my authority and enjoy the privilege of tutoring all the plant scientists. Every week the botanists met in a pub, where we could talk plants. My first experience of doing this radically changed by thinking and eventually led to BUC...

My new first year botanists were sat together in the pub for the first time. I took a back seat and let them get to know each other. One said, they had never before felt comfortable telling anyone else that they were a botanist and interested in plants. It was like being at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting (I imagine). Sadly, all of them had been ridiculed at school for being interested in plants, even by their teachers.

Lush vegetation on PNG
Image: J. Warren
BUC was then established not just to promote botanical knowledge but also to allow young botanists the opportunity to meet other like-minded individuals. 

LM: So the first BUC took place at RBG Kew in 2016; News & Views readers may remember seeing this report asking for questions to be submitted for a second BUC but that never took place. This was around the time you headed over to Papua New Guinea so I’m wondering if these two things were related? Want to tell us more?

JW: The two things were unconnected. Except working and living in PNG was another great botanical opportunity that came along, so I was quick to grab it. I have visited rainforests in Amazonia, West Africa, the Borneo and the Caribbean, but nothing had prepared me for the botanical diversity of East New Britain Province in PNG. The diversity of orchids and ferns in particular is simply staggering. It’s a small island south of the Wallace line that has never been connected to the rest of PNG or Australia. 

Botanical diversity on PNG
Image: J. Warren
LM: So then you moved back from PNG to UK in August 2018 and now we have another BUC to look forward to! Who is taking part this time?

JW: From the start my old friend Jonathan Mitchley at Reading University has been involved in organising BUC, that’s why he is hosting it this year. He has pulled together a strong local team, including BSBI member GeorgeGarnett. We also have teams from Edge Hill University, Southampton, RBG Kew, Liverpool and Manchester Metropolitan, with all of them in with a shout of lifting the trophy.

LM: So apart from BUC, what are your plans now you’re back in the UK? You’ve just become Chair of BSBI’s Training &Education Committee so I guess you’ll be picking up on some of the ideas you set out in the THE article?

John (centre) chairing the recent T&E meeting,
flanked by botanical trainer Mark Duffell (left)
and T&E Secretary Alex Prendergast (right)
Image: L. Marsh
JW: I am in the fortunate position that I don’t need to look for paid employment, so I can spend more time growing plants. More importantly I am keen on inspiring future generations of botanists. That’s why I was delighted to take on the task of chairing the BSBI’s Training & Education Committee (T&E). I have always felt immensely lucky for the education I received at Newcastle with Prof John Richards [LM: Prof Richards is another eminent BSBI member!]. Unfortunately, opportunities for young botanists are not as easily accessed as they once were, and I feel that we as a society need to be doing more to support young botanists. 
LM: So how can BSBI help support the next generation of botanists?

JW: That’s a good question, and something the T&E are actively working on. We want to be developing training resources across all levels of the skills pyramid. However, we do think there is an urgent need to focus on entry level skills for the very young, and smart phone generation. We are thinking about plant-based activity packs for Watch Group leaders and for those in the Scouting Movement.

LM: Food for thought there! Now you’re back in UK and flying the flag for botanical training, I hope you’ll be a regular contributor to these pages John. Good luck for Wednesday and do report back on the second BUC!

Monday, 11 February 2019

British & Irish Botany: first issue published

Ian Denholm, B&IB Editor-in-Chief
Image: L. Marsh
We are delighted to announce that the first issue of British & Irish Botany (B&IB), our replacement for New Journal of Botany, has now been published.

We hope that with this new online journal we are keeping all the advantages of its predecessor - great papers from some of Britain and Ireland's finest botanists and a helpful team to support prospective authors - while making the new journal even more accessible and user-friendly, for authors, readers and researchers. 

We think we've achieved that and at a much lower cost than with New Journal of Botany, freeing up funds that can be re-directed towards BSBI's core activities, ie our training, research and outreach programmes. 

Check out this presentation by Editor-in-Chief Ian Denholm to see just how much of a financial saving we are making! 

Detail of rare plant found only in Cheddar Gorge
Want to know what it is?
You'll have to read British & Irish Botany!
Image: T. Rich
Ian said "Our ambition behind setting up B&IB was to produce an online journal that would be  entirely free to publish in, entirely free to anyone who wants to read or download articles, and as accessible and user-friendly as possible to all potential authors. It has been a steep learning curve to adapt proprietary software to meet our needs, but now that we are underway please do consider submitting a full research paper, a short report or a topical review article. If in doubt about its suitability, we are here to advise and help." 

So, what's in this first issue? 69 pages covering five papers on subjects ranging from mistletoe growing on oaks to Clive Stace and fellow taxonomists talking about dog-roses; from one rare arctic-alpine plant growing on Ben Lawers to another rare plant growing in Cheddar gorge; and we look at responses of moorland vegetation to 20 years of conservation management in two Cairngorm glens. 

But here's the best thing of all...

Mistletoe growing on oak
Image: J. Box
In the past, whenever I told you about the great papers in a new issue of New Journal of Botany, this was the point at which I'd have to say 'sorry, but you can only see these papers if you are a BSBI member' - no more! British & Irish Botany is open access, free to all - member or non-member, everybody can read or publish in this new journal completely free of charge. 

So please head over to the new British & Irish Botany website, read all About the journal, find out who is on the Editorial Team, and who to contact if you want to discuss a submission, find out how to register as a reader or as an author and check our Privacy Policy to be reassured that we won't be passing on your email address to any third parties... and then head over here to find out about the first issue and start downloading papers. 

Let us know here what you think about our new journal. We hope you will enjoy reading our first issue and will register to receive alerts about subsequent issues.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

BSBI prize-winner #1

One BSBI member had a pleasant surprise earlier this month! 

BSBI's Finance Manager Julie has been encouraging members to pay their annual BSBI subscription via Direct Debit mandate - you may have seen a notice in the September issue of BSBI News? Direct Debit is a great way to pay your sub - quicker and easier for you and more cost-effective for BSBI. Julie set up a prize draw, whereby everyone who completed a mandate would be automatically entered into a competition and two names selected at random to win a prize.

Our first prize-winner has just received a £100 book token from Summerfield Books and has authorised us to say a few words about him:

Terry has been a plant hunter since he was first armed with an 'I-spy wild flowers' book in the 60s. He was a BSBI member in the '80s and '90s, ticking off the species in 'Clapham Tutin & Warburg' and travelling the world in search of interesting mountain plants. He recently rejoined the BSBI with the intention of getting more involved in recording when he eventually retires from his job as a patent attorney. He’s already been out on recording days in Cheshire and Denbighshire and plans to spend part of his prize on the the new BSBI eyebrights Handbook

The image shows Terry photographing an orchid Gymnadenia sp. in the Bernese Oberland. We wish Terry all the best in his future plant-hunting and hope he enjoys his prize. We also encourage you all to consider paying your BSBI membership subscription by Direct Debit! 

Want to sharpen your plant ID skills? We're giving away free money!

Applications are flooding in for BSBI Training Grants, designed to help aspiring botanists at all skill levels sharpen their ID skills. They are ideal if you are thinking of signing up for one of the short plant ID courses listed on our new training courses webpage, or if you have been accepted onto this year's Identiplant intake. 

You can apply for up to £250 but you'll need to get your skates on - we've already heard from lots of you since we opened for applications on 1st January, so don't delay, apply today! 

Our new grants webpage also gives details of all the grants for botanists of which we are aware, whether from BSBI or other organisations. These range:
There really are grants for everyone, whatever your current level of botanical skill or expertise! And if you know of a source of funding which we have missed, please let us know and we'll add it to our grants page. 

Monday, 28 January 2019

BSBI News: latest issue is published

The latest issue of BSBI News, our membership newsletter, has been published and is being mailed out to BSBI members this week. Editor Andrew Branson allowed me a sneak peek at the January issue and here are just a few of the many highlights:
  • Kevin Walker, Robert Northridge & Pete Stroh report on 'Life After Atlas 2020' - what our members told us they'd like to do next!
  • Richard Bateman & Ian Denholm tell us about mapping the near-cryptic fragrant orchids of Britain and Ireland.
  • Fred Rumsey considers hairy vetchling Lathyrus hirsutus - is it native or not, and does/ should that matter?
  • There's an article about using smartphones to enter plant records online.
  • An account of the rediscovery of moss campion Silene acaulis at a site in Donegal by County Recorders Oisin and Mairead with John Conaghan, County Recorder for Co. Galway.
  • Fiona Devery introduces her home county, Offaly.
  • In Beginner's Corner, Hazel Metherell talks about using herbaria.
Fragrant orchid
Image: P. Stroh
There are also articles about photographing wild flowers, reports on newly found alien plants, country round-ups, flyers so you can book on forthcoming BSBI meetings... 

The January issue has 84 pages to delight and inform botanists at all skill levels!

If you are not a BSBI member - or if you are a member but have neglected to renew your membership - you won't have the pleasure of hearing your copy of BSBI News coming through your letterbox later this week. 

Included in this week's mailing will be the BSBI Yearbook which gives full contact details for all BSBI's 100+ expert plant referees, along with various other inserts such as Summerfield Books' latest catalogue of botany books and any special offers exclusive to BSBI members. 

So don't delay: head over to our membership page now!  

Sunday, 27 January 2019

New Year Plant Hunt: analysed and in the media

Plant-hunters at Glengarriff NR in West Cork,
and some of the wildflowers they spotted
in bloom on New Year's Day 2019
Image: C. Heardman
The analysis of BSBI's eighth New Year Plant Hunt has now been published and is available to download here

The 627 species you spotted across Britain and Ireland were analysed by Kevin Walker, BSBI's Head of Science, and here are some of his key findings:
  • 52% of the plants you spotted were natives and 48% were aliens.
  • 58% were 'autumn stragglers', 24% were early spring flowers and 19% were either typical mid-winter flowering plants, all-year-rounders or species which cannot easily be classified as either early or late.
  • The 'Top Five' were daisy, groundsel, dandelion, annual meadow-grass and chickweed.
  • 1,471 of you went out recording, an increase of c50% on last year.
Gorse blooming in Edinburgh during the 2019 Hunt
Image: G. Routledge
You can view all the records here and click on a list to see what was recorded in your local area.

Media coverage so far of the New Year Plant Hunt includes an interview on BBC Radio 4 Today's programme, which you can catch up with here (starts 1 hour 43 minutes in); two interviews on regional TV  which are no longer available on catch-up; and an interview on local radio which you can catch up with here (starts 26 minutes in).

We're still talking to print journalists about how they are covering the Hunt, so watch this space! 

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Blaeberry: in pies, jams, desserts and Byron's Gin

Blaeberry: the fruit
Image courtesy of John Crellin/ Floral Images

Blaeberries - also known as blueberries - are one of the botanicals used in the Bird Cherry expression of Byron's Gin. This may be less surprising to you than some of the other botanicals used in Byron's Gin, such as aspen, lady's-bedstraw and Scots' pine. Blaeberries are, after all, well known as an edible berry and can even be found for sale in supermarkets. In recent years they have become known as a "superfood" as they have a high level of anti-oxidants. 

They are certainly delicious - anyone who grew up in a part of Britain or Ireland with access to moorland is likely to have memories of childhood collecting trips, when for every berry that went into the collecting basket, another one was eaten, resulting in blue-purple lips and tongue - impossible to hide the evidence of greedy guzzling from Mummy! 

Blaeberry: the flowers
Image courtesy of John Crellin/ Floral Images
Blaeberries have also been used as a dye plant and as a traditional herbal remedy. Flora Celtica tells us that they were "taken to treat diarrhoea and dysentery on Arran and in the Western Isles" - hmmm, anyone who has over-indulged in guzzling blaeberries, and suffered the consequences, might raise an eyebrow at that suggestion! They also have a reputation for "improving eyesight and treating ophthalmological problems... during the Second World War. According to popular belief, [they] became the secret weapon of the RAF, sharpening night vision and helping to secure victory". 

Others might think that was a cunning plan devised by airmen to make sure that, despite rationing, they managed to get some blaeberry jam on their toast! Fortunately you won't need to resort to any such subterfuge if you want to try a drop of gin containing blaeberries - just buy a bottle of Byron's Gin 'Bird Cherry' expression - and don't forget to let us know if it makes your eyesight sharper next time you go out botanising!