Sunday, 31 May 2020

Wildflower of the Month: May: Meadow Saxifrage

Painting of meadow saxifrage
by Deborah Lambkin
In recent months, we’ve heard from BSBI Head of Science Kevin Walker about a few of his favourite wildflowers: in March, he told us about the pilgrimages he had made over the years to see Purple Saxifrage, first as a 26 year-old plant obsessive and then over the years with his young family; in April he told us about Snake’s-head fritillary and how botanists have long argued over whether it’s native or not.

Now a locked-down Kevin tells us about a favourite plant he managed to find recently while following BSBI guidance about social distancing and permitted exercise

Over to Kevin:

“One of my botanical highlights of lockdown was the discovery of a small population of Meadow Saxifrage Saxifraga granulata on a riverbank close to my home in Harrogate. This lowland saxifrage is nowhere common; in my part of North Yorkshire there are probably about a dozen colonies, scattered on riverbanks, road verges and in the occasional churchyard. 

Meadow saxifrage site near Harrogate
Image: K. Walker
"In other parts of Britain and Ireland, you’re more likely to see it in damp meadows or at the bottom of dry chalk downland slopes where the soils are a little deeper. In some areas it even occurs in ‘old lawns’ that have been sympathetically managed for wildflowers.

“It is a glorious plant to look at; quite tall for a saxifrage and with large porcelain-white flowers on long, almost leafless, hairy stems. It has rather attractive leaves the shape of scallop shells and most surprising of all it produces tiny red bulbils at the base of the stem; these are the ‘granulations’ that give the plant its name and form completely new (albeit genetically identical) plants.    
Meadow saxifrage bulbils
Image: K. Walker
“Meadow Saxifrage is well adapted to a life in hay meadows, flowering and fruiting well before the grass is cut in July. Elsewhere its survival is more precarious. On riverbanks it has a different ecology growing where floodwaters scour away the soil transporting its bulbils with it downstream. Indeed, the floods this spring almost entirely obliterated one colony I know growing close to the River Nidd. 

"On road verges it is highly susceptible to mowing, especially during May including one of my local sites on the verge of a quiet lane leading to a farm. Only once have I seen it produce flowers when the farmer missed a small section near to the base of a tree. The same is true of many churchyards where the grass amongst the graves is kept uniformly short. So it is heartening to hear that one of our local churchyard colonies, in St John’s in Sharow near to Ripon, is thriving under a sympathetic mowing regime.

Meadow saxifrage in St. John's churchyard, Sharow
Image: S. Warwick
"In recent years Plantlife have been promoting #NoMowMay so that wildflowers like Meadow Saxifrage get the chance to flower and set seed in our lawns, churchyards and public spaces. This is part of their Every Flower Counts scheme which encourages us to leave our lawns uncut and then to record what is in flower at the end of May. Last year participants recorded half a million flowers of over 200 species, including orchids and Meadow Saxifrage, which equates to around 12 grammes of nectar sugar produced by every garden each day. 

"Such schemes are highlighting the huge benefits of letting the grass grow, not only for wildflowers, but also for other wildlife. This year #NoMowMay, whether by design or accident, has meant that our urban environments are much more flower-rich which has benefitted us all during these dark days of lockdown.

Meadow saxifrage flowers
Image: J. Warwick
"So why had this population of Meadow Saxifrage eluded me for so long? I had walked that way many times before and, I’m embarrassed to say, I had even spent a day recording the wildflowers in the same 1 kilometre square. Maybe it was because you needed to make a special effort to find it. The plants are tucked away between the stream and a patch of gorse and were only discovered when we descended to the stream to look for otter prints and to paddle. It’s also one of our earliest wildflowers to flower, usually in mid-May, and so is easily overlooked later in the year when most botanical activity takes place.

"But probably the main reason for its discovery is that lockdown has given us a reason to explore the hidden corners that we ordinarily ignore. In doing so it has opened our eyes to the beauty and attraction of the commonplace all around us. And what better way to celebrate this than through the discovery of wildflowers. As Charles Raven noted during the dark wartime days of the 1940s, “But for an interest that is always available, which takes you out into the loveliest scenery and yet can be satisfied in your own backyard, and that continually offers fresh insight into the beauty and worth of nature, the study of wild plants stands high.” For many of us, wildflowers have brought some much-needed happiness during our own dark days and will continue to do so, as we emerge, blinking into the bright June sunlight".

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Spittlebug survey under lockdown

Cuckoo-spit on a Galium sp.
Image: A.J. Stewart
Last year we passed on info from colleagues at Forest Research, the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Royal Horticultural Society and the John Innes Centre who were working together to raise awareness about a potential threat to our trees and how you could help researchers understand more about this threat. The BRIGIT project aimed to find out more about the  Xylella fastidiosa bacterium and botanists were asked to record spittle or frog-hoppers on plants while out recording for Atlas 2020

Things are quite different this year: recording for Atlas 2020 has finished and we're all under lockdown so we are definitely not roaming around the countryside looking at plants! But, although fortunately there have not been any occurrences of Xylella recorded in Britain or Ireland yet, that doesn't mean that this potential threat has gone away. 

Over to Dr Alan Stewart from the University of Sussex to tell us more:

"Did you know that the ‘cuckoo-spit’ that you see in spring is produced by the immature stage (nymph) of a spittlebug or froghopper? It is thought that the spittle is produced to protect the nymphs from drying out and from their predators. Once the nymphs emerge as adults, usually in late June, they leave their spittle ‘nest’ behind and become free flying. The name froghopper reflects the fact that their face is rather bulbous and therefore froglike, and that they are one of the most powerful jumpers in the animal kingdom. 

Meadow Spittlebug Philaenus spumarius
Image: C. Harkin
"There are ten species of froghopper in Britain. The so-called Meadow Spittlebug, Philaenus spumarius, is one of our commonest insects and has possibly the broadest diet of any insect, being known to feed on more than 400 species of plant.

"Interest in these insects has recently been heightened by the fact that they all feed on the liquid contents of the plant xylem tissue and are therefore capable of transmitting various plant diseases that reside there. One of these, the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa, has recently been responsible for the death of millions of olive trees in southern Italy. 

"Fortunately, the Xylella bacterium has NOT been found in the UK, but there is a danger that it could be accidentally introduced in imported plants (especially lavender, rosemary and olive trees).

"We need to collect good data on two aspects of these insects to understand better how the Xylella bacterium would spread if it were ever introduced into Britain: the geographical distribution of the different species of spittlebug and what plant species they feed on. Last year, we started to collect some of this information through a national survey, funded by the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and coordinated through the RHS, focused on gardeners recording spittle on their garden plants. 

Another reminder of what to
look out for in your garden
or during permitted daily exercise
Image: A. J. Stewart
"This year, the restrictions on movement due to Covid19 mean that we have to be careful about extending the survey into the wider countryside. Nevertheless, we hope that people will enjoy recording spittle in places that they visit as part of their daily permitted exercise. Of course, those people lucky enough to have a garden will still be able to record the presence of cuckoo-spit on the plants in their garden.

"Can you help? It would mean recording cuckoo-spit when you find it in your garden or elsewhere and especially the plant species on which you find it. Your plant identification skills will help us collect vital information. Please consider contributing to this important survey. Much more information and an online form for submitting your sightings can be found on our website at:

"We have developed an ‘exercise sheet’ for families to follow when confined to their gardens, that should appeal particularly to young children:

"We have also recently released a short video on how to find spittlebugs:

"Please be sure to follow the government’s instructions at the time about social distancing when walking in the countryside." 

So if you are in your garden recording as part of the BSBI Garden Wildflower Hunt, or if you're taking permitted exercise near your home, while of course following carefully the latest guidance for your country around social distancing, why not keep a look-out for cuckoo-spit and use the links above to record your finds? 

Monday, 25 May 2020

Looking at Fingered sedge during lockdown

Fingered sedge near Lynne's home
Image: L. Farrell
As the recently-updated BSBI response to Covid-19 makes clear, it is possible for botanists in some parts of the UK and Ireland to take permitted exercise close to home. Of course, government guidance for their country must be followed to the letter, including adhering to social distancing rules and avoiding popular/ busy beauty spots etc. 

At the time of writing, botanising away from the home, whilst sticking to the rules, is permitted in England. BSBI President Lynne Farrell is fortunate to have some first-rate habitat right on her doorstep and within walking distance, so she did some careful planning and then ventured out. 

Over to Lynne:

“I live in the Arnside and Silverdale AONB, which straddles both West Lancashire (VC60) and Westmorland (VC69), and recently, I’ve walked some of the local footpaths close to my home, keeping my distance from other local people, who have also been exploring these pathways. Once the Government guidance on permitted daily exercise was updated last week, I took the opportunity to look up the local Rare Plant Register and the records on the BSBI Distribution Database for the rare Fingered Sedge Carex digitata, which, I was aware, has one of its main areas right on my doorstep. 

BSBI distribution map for Fingered Sedge
Dark red squares show C21st records
Pale pink squares show C20th records
"Plotting the sites on the local 2.5 inch OS map, it became clear that I could actually walk to many of them from my home, and so during this exceptionally fine spell of weather, I have investigated what was, to me, a relatively unfamiliar species.

“Now I am aware that Carex digitata prefers to be in dappled shade, on well-drained limestone, often rocky banks and even though it has not rained here for more than a month, it has flowered well, although in some of the more open limestone pavements places it is looking rather desiccated. 

"Clearly this is a plant which takes its opportunity to grow, flower and fruit before the leaves are fully expanded on the trees, often Yew Taxus baccata, Ash Fraxinus excelsior and Hazel Corylus avellana. Other grounds flora plants have often not emerged but Dog’s Mercury Mercuralis perennis is a frequent associate.

The woodland where Lynne saw Fingered Sedge:
click on the image and zoom in to see the plants
Image: L. Farrell
“There are only another 286 species listed in the Cumbria Rare Plant Register and Fly Orchid Ophrys insectifera is the next target species I’ll be looking at, as it struggles to come into flower in this dry May, and I am now allowed to walk a little further afield to investigate. I’ll let you all know how I get on”.

Many thanks to Lynne for telling us about the Fingered Sedge which she is lucky enough to have so close to her home.

We’re always keen to hear which plants people are spotting while sticking to those essential guidelines about staying safe. So, whether you are exploring rare plants or common species, whether within walking distance, right on your doorstep or in your garden, why not drop us a line and let us know what you are spotting? But please remember to read the guidelines carefully before planning any journeys outside your home and do take all the necessary precautions - the plants will still be there next year and we want you to be there too so you can enjoy them! 

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Fern ID course with Josh Styles

Do you know what the fern is, featured
on the opening slide of Josh's fern ID course?
If not, consider signing up for the course!
Botanist and ecological consultant Joshua Styles is well-known to readers of this News & Views blog. Back when he was an undergrad at Edge Hill University, studying under Prof Paul Ashton, he exhibited at BSBI's Exhibition Meeting in 2016 and benefited from a BSBI Plant Study Grant

Since then Josh has published in BSBI News (twice!), taken part in Botanical University Challenge (twice!), and written about how he set up the North-West Rare Plants Initiative. He has also managed to notch up a FISC level 6 - there aren't many level 6 botanists in Britain and none as young as Josh (he's still in his 20s!). 

Now he's turned his hand to training, starting last month with a free online ID course to dandelion sections. His latest venture is a fern ID course, this time with a small fee involved (£7 per person).

Cystopteris fragilis
Image: J. Crellin
Josh said "“Ferns are such prehistoric organisms. They came about in the mid-Devonian around 390 million years ago and they’re still around today. As well as being amongst some of the earliest vascular plants, many extant species in Britain also have associated conservation interest today. If you’d like to learn more about this fascinating group, and how to get to grips with identifying some of the 50+ species that grow across GB and Ireland, sign up to my Fern Identification course running this Saturday at 11a.m.!”

Josh tells me that the course is almost full but there is a waiting list so why not register now and he'll let you know if you have secured a place or if you're on the waiting list?  

Thursday, 30 April 2020

Apps for plant identification: interview with Hamlyn Jones

Lyn Jones botanising on Jersey
Image courtesy of H. Jones
Over the past few years, Hamlyn Jones, Emeritus Professor of Plant Ecology at the University of Dundee, has been developing his Visual-flora, a visually-based key to the plants of Britain and Ireland. Recently he has been impressed by the power of Artificial Intelligence as a supplement to, or even a replacement for, conventional keys and approached John Norton, Editor of BSBI News with the offer of a review of this developing new technology. 

This was readily taken up and Lyn's review has just been published in the April issue of BSBI News. You may have read it, if you are a BSBI member and have received your copy of BSBI News. Or, if you are not yet a member, you may have spotted the review in the sampler issue of BSBI News which we issued yesterday. 

The homepage of Lyn's Visual-flora app
We are always being asked on the BSBI’s social media accounts if there are any plant ID apps that we recommend, or if they are a good idea in the first place, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to pick Lyn’s brains on this tricky subject. And at the end of the interview, there’s a nice surprise for you all!

LM: Hi Lyn, before we start on apps, could you tell us a bit more about yourself please: when did you first become involved in botany and how?

HJ: I have been interested in plants from at least my early teens, and recently came across a hard-back notebook where I (neatly!) recorded every plant that I saw over most of a year. At one stage we even had two geese named after a plant (Psophocarpus and Tetragonolobus)! Then, at A level I was inspired by my Botany teacher, Mr Pickering, to the extent that I ended up studying Botany at University. This ultimately led to a career as a physiological ecologist studying how plants work and how they tolerate environmental stresses. It is only since I officially retired that I started to use my extensive collection of plant photographs to develop a visual key suitable for the newly-developing smartphones.

LM: So how did you come to launch the Visual Flora and could you tell us a bit more about it please?

Lyn on Jersey with fellow botanists
including County Recorder Anne Haden (on left)
Image courtesy of H. Jones 
HJ: The origins of my Visual-flora lay in my early recognition that an important way in which I and many others get to an initial plant identification is by scanning the pictures in Floras, rather than following the often frustrating dichotomy of traditional keys. We all know the adage "a picture is worth a thousand words". The initial iteration of the key used the power of hyperlinks in Powerpoint to develop a simple key to the flora of Jersey, but as I extended this to cover the UK flora and especially that of the Scottish mountains, it became clear that the language of the internet (html) provided a much more powerful basis for the key. This allowed the key to be operated as a website or downloaded to a smartphone/tablet.

LM: So the Visual Flora still requires the user to work through a key of some kind. What about other apps that work in a similar way? Did you review any of those for the review in the latest issue of BSBI News? And what method did you use in order to test them?

Screenshot of the
front page of the
Flora Incognita app
HJ: Early on I had been making much use of use of image sets such as British Wild Flowers to help with identification but could not find any really good plant identification apps that could be downloaded to one's phone. Most that I could find were too limited with only a few species covered, or else they required a subscription. The best was the ETI Flora of the British Isles (sadly no longer available), though the pictures were often at too low a resolution to be much practical use. I have not reviewed any of these apps at this stage, though I might in the future. For the review in BSBI News, I just concentrated on Artificial-Intelligence based apps.

LM: Ok, so you just looked at the apps that claim to be able to identify plants via Artificial Intelligence and Automated Image Recognition? What did you think of their performance?

HJ: Although I had been involved over ten years ago in a proposal to develop a plant ID app based on automated image analysis (together with a colleague from the Computing Department at the University of Dundee), it was only last year that I was introduced to the current automatic AI-based apps by my 10-year old grandson, who was staying in Switzerland. He was able to demonstrate very convincingly the power of Seek. I was so impressed that I started to investigate the wider range of readily available AI apps, eventually finding ten different apps to test. These were the ones that I reviewed in the article in BSBI News.

LM: So, what’s your verdict on plant ID apps: when, and to whom, might they be useful? And are there any apps available yet that can replace a trained botanist?

Screenshot of
pot marigold seen on the
Seek app. 
HJ: The various Artificial Intelligence-based plant ID apps are an increasingly powerful tool that are particularly valuable for beginners and less experienced botanists. The best ones can frequently provide very good clues as to the identity of an unknown plant, though the IDs still usually need checking against a traditional ID book, or a good dichotomous or multi-access ID app. Examples of the latter include MAKAQueS, Quentin Groom’s BotanicalKeys and, of course, my Visual-flora. I do, however, believe that AI apps still have some way to go before they can fully, if ever, replace traditional botanical skills. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that their ready availability might benefit botany and actually widen interest in plant identification and lead beginners into further use of more conventional floras and ID apps (including my own!).

LM: Many thanks Lyn for talking to us today, for reviewing these plant ID apps and – here’s the surprise we are delighted to announce today! -  for kindly offering to make your review available to everyone, not just BSBI members reading the latest issue of BSBI News. The review is now available to view or download here - we hope that you find it useful!

For anyone looking to get started with plant identification, the apps Lyn mentions are certainly worth a look but as he has explained, you will still need to check your identifications. To help you do that, we would suggest that you visit this page which has some helpful tips to get you started, including support available via social media, and there is an impartial review of the ID books currently available. You will also find more ID resources on our Plant Identification pages, especially this page aimed at anyone just starting out – it has links to some useful websites and free ID sheets. If you know of any ID resources that don’t appear on our pages, please let us know and we’ll add them! 

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

BSBI News: sampler issue for April 2020

On Monday we told you about the latest issue of BSBI News, our thrice-yearly membership newsletter, and listed some of the articles that members can look forward to. 

We also mentioned that there was some exciting news in the pipeline - so now here's the first bit of exciting news...

I was talking to BSBI News Editor John Norton and it occurred to us that any non-members who only know BSBI News from the back issues available in the BSBI publications archive, where everyone can access any issue from 1972 up to 2014, may not know about some of the changes that have taken place in recent years. Since 2017, BSBI News has been in full colour throughout and looks quite different to that first issue from 1972, although the quality of the articles hasn't declined. 

So John and I have selected a few of the pages and put together a sampler issue for you. It's only five pages long but it gives you a good idea of what BSBI News looks like these days. We think it looks pretty good! 

Marsh willow-herb: photograph illustrating
an article by Bob Leaney on
identifying willow-herbs
Image: J. Norton 
You can view or download the sampler issue here or by following the link on the BSBI News page on the website. If you are already a BSBI member, why not send the pdf to a non-member who might like a glimpse inside the pages?

Huge thanks to John for all his hard work on this latest issue and for producing the sampler! 

John said "It was a lot of work to pull everything together for this 84 page issue and for the five page sampler: I hope members will find the varied mix of articles interesting and stimulating. Do contact me if you would like to submit an article - the next issue is due out in September, but submissions should reach me by 25 July please."

We actually have a second piece of exciting news for you this week, again connected with BSBI News - watch this space and all will be revealed before the weekend!

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Wild Flower of the Month: April: Snake's-head Fritillary

For the Wild Flower of the Month feature in March, Kevin Walker (BSBI Head of Science) told us about Purple Saxifrage and the various treks he's undertaken over the years to see this montane plant. 

This month Kevin tells us about a wild flower growing in a very different habitat: floodplain meadows. 

Over to Kevin to tell us about Snake's-head Fritillary:

"One of my favourite botanical paintings is Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s exquisite watercolour (on right) of Snake’s-head Fritillary Fritillaria meleagris that he completed whilst recuperating from illness in Walberswick, Suffolk in 1915. Due to the war-time restrictions his activities, which included painting in the open-air and frequent evening walks with a forbidden lantern, were treated with great suspicion by the locals and in the end he was accused of spying, placed under house arrest and banished from East Anglia for the duration of the war.

Stand of Snake's-head Fritillary
Image: Pete Stroh
"Along with the Upper Thames basin, Suffolk has long been seen as a stronghold of ‘native’ populations of Snake’s-head Fritillary. Although Mackintosh’s plant is likely to be garden in origin, there are three large Suffolk populations that have long been considered native, including the magnificent Fox Fritillary Meadow near to Framsden, where it puts on a spectacular display each April (Trist, 1981).

"More has probably been written about the status of Snake’s-head Fritillary than any other British plant. Those who believe it to be native see British populations as the western outpost of a ‘Greater Rhineland’ range that was gradually cut-off from mainland Europe by rising sea-levels, isostatic adjustments and possibly finally by tsunamis created by the Storegga submarine landslip around 8,200 years ago (Oswald, 1994). Furthermore, its main British habitat, flood meadow grassland, is very similar to those in parts of Europe where it is accepted unquestionably as a native species. 

Snake's-head Fritillaries at Kungsängen
"Those who favour non-native status point to its remarkably late year of discovery in the wild (1736) and the lack of cultural references to it in art, literature, architecture, folklore and place names; to them both are inconceivable for such an attractive plant growing so abundantly close to a major seat of learning such as Oxford (Harvey, 1986). Indeed, one of the largest British populations occurs within the grounds of Oxford University’s Magdalen College.

"One of the key arguments supporting it being native is its association with ancient flood meadows, such as North Meadow in Wiltshire where numbers regularly exceed half a million individuals (Wolstenholme, 2011). However, the history of Snake’s-head Fritillary at Sweden’s most famous Fritillary site provides a salutary tale. Kungsängen (King’s Meadow) is a flood meadow near to Uppsala in Southern Sweden where Snake’s-head Fritillary first appeared in the 1740s having escaped from a nearby Botanic Garden. Since then it has spread prodigiously throughout the meadow and numbers are now approach the hundreds of thousands (Zhang, 1983). This shows that large populations in Britain, such as North Meadow, could have originated from garden escapes since it was first recorded. More recent introductions to ancient flood meadows in both Huntingdonshire (Portholme Meadow SSSI) and Yorkshire (Aubert Ings SSSI) are showing just how quickly the size of populations can increase under a traditional hay-cutting regime.

Snake's-head fritillaries in a
Warrington garden
Image R. Wheeler
"Although a recent genetic study has shown that British populations are most closely related to populations in Fance (Day, 2017) it fails to provide conclusive proof one way or the other. The historical (documentary) evidence seems to provide a more convincing picture, suggesting a seventeenth century introduction to monastic gardens from whence it escaped along watercourses to meadows downstream (Pearman, 2013). As a consequence, British botanists now accept that it is most likely to be a neophyte.

"Away from meadows, Snake’s-head Fritillary is without doubt a neophyte, introduced into a variety of habitats for ornamental reasons. Of the 500 hundred odd occurrences in the BSBI’s Distribution Database around 90% are deliberate introductions, mainly in urban areas (21%), gardens and parkland (15%), churchyards and other religious buildings (14%), and roadsides (7%). In recent years it has also been widely planted in grasslands as part of conservation and restoration schemes.

"Seduced by its beauty, many generations of botanists have wished for Snake’s-head Fritillary to be native (Harvey, 1986). Its relegation to neophyte status has therefore caused consternation in some quarters but has opened-up a lively debate as to whether we should be conserving non-natives of ‘cultural importance’. Either way its delicate chequerboard flowers, captured so beautifully by the Mackintosh’s transparent watercolours and architectural lines, is likely to remain one of our most cherished wildflowers."

Many thanks to Kevin for telling us about one of his favourite plants. I think that in order to appreciate the Snake's-head Fritillary at its best, you really need to see it nodding in the breeze, with birds singing in the background. We can't travel to see them during lock-down but thanks to the wonderful Joshua Ajowele, who is studying for a MSc in Plant Diversity at Univ Reading, we can enjoy a 5 second video clip of on-campus snake's-head fritillaries + breeze + birdsong by clicking here. Thanks Joshua!

Day, P.D. 2017. Studies in the genus Fritillaria L. (Liliaceae). Phd thesis
Harvey, J.H. 1996. Fritillary and martagon – wild or garden? Garden History 24, 30-38.
Oswald, P. 1994. The fritillary in Britain – a historical perspective. British Wildlife 3, 200-210.
Pearman, D.A. 2013. Late-discovered petaloid monocotyledons: separating the native and alien flora. New Journal of Botany 3, 24-32.
Trist, P.J.O. 1981. Fritillaria meleagris L.: its survival and habitats in Suffolk, England. Biological Conservation 20, 5-14.
Wolstenholme, R.S. 2011. The history of North Meadow, Cricklade. Fritillary 5, 35-40.
Zhang, L. 1983. Vegetation ecology and population biology of Fritillaria meleagris L. at the Kungsängen Nature Reserve, Eastern Sweden. Acta Phytogeographica Suecica 73, 1-96.