Monday, 25 March 2019

Sweet vernal-grass: in meadows and in Byron's Gin

Image courtesy of
John Crellin/ Floral Images

Sweet vernal-grass Anthoxanthum odoratum is one of the earliest-flowering of our grasses (vernal means spring). 

As BSBI Handbook no.13, Grasses of the British Isles by Tom Cope & Alan Gray, makes clear "the appearance of the familiar yellowish-green inflorescences of sweet vernal-grass heralds for many the beginning of summer (and for some the hay-fever season!)" 

The grass contains coumarin which imparts a scent of new-mown hay. In fact one of the ways that many botanists (me included) learned to ID this grass as children was to nibble the stems while on country walks. There is a distinct taste of vanilla. ["Daddy, please may I have an ice-cream?" "We're miles from any shop, just be a good girl and chew that grass over there..."] 

The closely-related bison grass or holy grass Anthoxanthum nitens (formerly known as Hierochloe odorata) also contains coumarins and is used to flavour the delicious bison grass vodka, produced in Poland. Although A. nitens does occur in Britain it is rare and it would not be advisable for anybody with conservation in mind to consider foraging it. 

Image courtesy of
John Crellin/ Floral Images

A. odoratum is, however, much more common and can be sustainably collected for use as a botanical in the Melancholy Thistle expression of Byron's Gin. That's the 'official' gin of the BSBI because for every bottle sold, a contribution is made to BSBI's Training programme which allows us to offer training grants to budding botanists

If you are still learning to ID sweet vernal-grass (and bearing in mind that you should never nibble a plant if you don't know exactly what it is) one good tip is to look at the flag leaf - the highest leaf on the stem. Compared to most other grasses, that flag leaf is very short and wide. It's also very green - check out the photo on the left. 

If there is lots of it and you have the landowner's permission - in other words, if you can meet the criteria laid down in the BSBI Code of Conduct - another way to ID this plant is to pull it out of the ground and sniff the underground part which smell strongly of Germolene. Or you could examine the ligule and you should find a fringe of hairs. Check out this ID sheet to see what that looks like. 

Flora Celtica tells us that on the Hebridean island of Colonsay in the C19th, sweet vernal-grass was a welcome addition to the hay used to feed to sheep, because it gave their mutton a delicious flavour. So, a grass with many uses: as fodder, as a flavouring in Byron's Gin, or to quieten little girls who demand an ice-cream!     

Friday, 22 March 2019

Lots on offer for botanists in Ireland

Tour of the Glasnevin glasshouse
during  Irish BSBI Conference 2018
Image: C. Heardman
Botanists in Ireland are getting ready for their big spring conference on Saturday 30th March. 

It takes place in Dublin at the Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin and there's a fabulous programme, with talks ranging from 'The State of Ireland's Environment' to a study of Festuca ovina agg. to the continuing adventures of the fabulous Rough Crew; there are workshops on IDing water-starworts and dead-nettles; tours of the gardens and glass-houses; and there are seven flash talks but if you want to know more about them, you'll have to head over to the Irish BSBI Conference page and open the programme! 

The deadline for booking a place at the conference is this Monday 25th March so better get your skates on.

And once the conference is over? There's a mouth-watering programme of field meetings across Ireland this year! Irish Officer Maria Long has collated them all into a handy A4 flyer which you can download from the BSBI Ireland webpage. Maria says "Visitors from Britain are particularly welcome to any and all outings this year in Ireland to help with the last push for Atlas 2020. So what are you waiting for?... book that trip!" 

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

County Floras, old and new: tracking them down has never been easier!

A County Flora is a wonderful thing. At its most straightforward, it's a book listing all the plants found in a particular county with some info, or maybe some maps, to help you find out whereabouts the plants can be found. 

But some Floras are so much more than that. They might describe the habitats and geology of a county, and they usually give you a insight into how plant populations and distributions are changing: what's rare and what's common, which species are declining, which are recent arrivals, what (if any) conservation measures are being carried out... 

There's usually a bibliography listing not only current books about the county and its plants  but also any previous Floras. There's often a gazetteer to help you find your way around the county and its best sites for plants. You may find a short history of botanical recording in the county. 

And of course there are often photos of the most interesting plants and habitats the county has to offer.

A Flora is usually the result of decades of work by one or more people - often the County Recorder(s) - and it's their way of downloading everything they know about the plants in their local area into one handy volume that you can dip into, whether you live in the county or you're just visiting, and whether you're an ecologist, researcher, historian, consultant or just somebody who wants to know where the interesting plants occur now, or where they were recorded in the past. 

But with more than 100 counties across Britain and Ireland, some of which have had various Floras published over the years, tracking down exactly what you want can be tricky or at the very least, time-consuming. 

Google is all very well but if you don't know the exact title, or the author's name, putting the county name plus the word 'Flora' into a search engine may not yield up the info you want. If only there was a way you could search by county, or by VC number, or by year of publication... 

Well, now there is! Check out our lovely new County Floras webpage, put together by BSBI's David Pearman (thank you David!). It lists more than 500 County Floras and it features a handy search facility. We have plans, when time permits, to expand the 'Available on the web' column so it links straight through to any County Floras available online. It would also be nice if you could click on the county name and land on the county webpage, rather than having to look it up on our Local Botany page

So the County Floras webpage is currently a work in progress, but we like it so far and hope that you will too. If you spot any omissions, please let us know at this address: 

Thursday, 14 March 2019

A host of golden daffodils

The commonly-planted Narcissus 'Ice Follies'
- Prof Crawley reckons you'll find this in
"at least one front garden on every street"
- do you agree?
Image: M. Crawley
It's that time of year when daffodils, one of our iconic spring plants, can be seen bursting into glorious bloom. But are those ranks of yellow daffs on road verges and in municipal planting schemes the same kinds of plants that inspired Wordsworth to write his famous poem? To what extent are they "ours", i.e. native British wildflowers? Well, most of them aren't!

Pete Stroh, BSBI's Scientific Officer for England, explains: "There are over 300 Daffodil varieties recorded in the wild across Britain and Ireland, but only one is our native plant - Narcissus pseudonarcissus subsp. pseudonarcissus. And even this native has been planted extensively. But with one of its core areas of distribution in the Lake District, it is fair to say that Wordsworth's 'golden daffodils' were very much the wild and native type".

So, if we're looking at a daffodil, how do we know if it's our native daff or one of the hundreds of other varieties, hybrids and cultivars which have reached us thanks to the horticultural industry and which often become naturalised in woodlands and near gardens?

Any idea which daff this is?
Prof  Crawley's Key should help you ID it!
Image: M.  Crawley
The native daffodil is smaller than the garden varieties and has single (not double) flowers with pale petals and the 'trumpet' in the middle is golden yellow. If your daffodil doesn't look like that and you want to have a go at identifying exactly what it is, check out The Daffodil Website by national expert Prof Mick Crawley. It's also worth looking at his Twitter feed - in recent weeks he's been posting wall-to-wall daff pix with helpful ID tips.

But even if you're sure you do have a native daffodil, how do you know if you're seeing a true wild flower or a native daff that came from a garden centre? I'm afraid the answer is... you probably can't be sure.

Maybe best to just do a Wordsworth - admire these beautiful flowers, write a poem if you feel so moved, and feel glad that spring is coming!

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Are you a speedwell fan? We're sending you on a quest!

Veronica hederifolia subsp. hederifolia
 (on left) and subsp. lucorum (on right)
Image: M. Wilcox
Mike Wilcox has been in touch - he's been thinking about subspecies of Ivy-leaved speedwell Veronica hederifolia. He tells me that separating the two subspecies of this fairly common plant can be really difficult - now there's a challenge for News & Views readers! Mike is keen to find good ways to separate these two subspecies and you can help him.

Over to Mike: "In Britain and Ireland there are two subspecies of Veronica hederifolia (Ivy-leaved Speedwell), subsp. hederifolia and subsp. lucorum. While both are relatively distinct in their flower characters (flower/anther size and colour, and pollen size c.40 & 30 microns resp., see Plant Crib Veronica section; though I have found that some of these are variable), when not in flower they pose problems, as other characters are variable and seem to overlap. It may then require anatomical aspects such as the size of the stomata to be looked at. I would like to investigate known characters and look for possible new ones. 

"As a last push towards Atlas2020, please collect vouchers especially if in flower. Preferably samples should be fresh in a small plastic bag as flowers will drop off easily. I will refund the postage in stamps if required".

Send your specimens to M. Wilcox: 43 Roundwood Glen, Greengates, Bradford, BD10 0HW or email Mike:

To help you in your quest, Michael has sent the photo (above) of both subspecies side by side and I've taken a photo (below) of the relevant section in Clive Stace's New Flora of the British Isles ed. 4. That's for anyone who hasn't yet bought a copy of the Botanists' Bible.

Good luck! 

Monday, 11 March 2019

BSBI prize-winner #2

Mangerton Mt, Killarney
Image courtesy of C. Mhic Daeid
In January we brought you news of Terry, the first winner in a prize draw to thank people who opted to pay their BSBI membership subscription by Direct Debit.  

The prize draw was set up by BSBI's  Finance Manager Julie who 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. Everyone who completed a Direct Debit mandate was automatically entered into a competition and two names were selected at random to win a prize.

New Year Plant Hunt 2018 in Kerry:
Rory is 3rd from right, Jessica 2nd from right
Our second prize-winner also happens to be one of our County Recorders! Dr Caroline Mhic Daeid is one of two County Recorders for Co. Kerry, a very dynamic and important county in botanical terms.

As well as boasting some fabulous locations, such as the beautiful Killarney National Park, and some amazing plants including representatives of the Lusitanian flora, there are some notable botanists too: Rory Hodd of Rough Crew fame is Caroline's co-Recorder and Jessica Hamilton is at the helm of the hugely successful #BSBIKerry group. It's a tribute to Caroline that she has supported and enabled these next generation botanists.  

Fruits of the Strawberry-tree, a member of the
Lusitanian flora, photographed in Kerry
Image: J. Hamilton
Caroline sent us the image above right and said "This is one of my favourite places - near the summit of Mangerton Mtn. (840m), Killarney. Montane blanket bog on the plateau, with lakes, interesting cliff ledges and several rare plants in the deep corrie on the right. Many happy days spent botanising and scrambling in this area! My childhood home is near the woodland in the middle distance on the right.

"I have been interested in plants since I was a child growing up in Kerry, browsing the roadside banks for specimens, which I learned to press from a Girl Guide book. My first botany book was “The Observer’s Book of British Wild Flowers” - a tenth birthday present from my Dad! 

Botanising in the west of Ireland
Image: C. Heardman
"The Head Gardener at Killarney National Park used to help me with plant names and explained the necessity for scientific nomenclature - my first formal plant name was Bellis perennis - Daisy in English, Noinin in Irish, Mariette in French, but the scientific name the same in all languages...

"I studied botany formally for the first time in college and later earned a doctorate for a study of the peatland vegetation of Killarney. I became a BSBI County Recorder in the mid-70s, when the late Prof. David Webb proposed me as his successor in South Kerry (H1). Much later, I also inherited North Kerry (H2) from Mike and Peter Wyse Jackson. More recently, I proposed Rory Hodd as joint County Recorder, as I knew of his interest (and he has a permanent base in Kerry).

"I hope to continue recording into the foreseeable future, though I no longer climb mountains alone!"

We wish Caroline all the best in all her botanical activities in the beautiful Kingdom of Kerry and hope she enjoys her prize of book tokens from Summerfield Books. We also encourage you all to consider paying your BSBI membership subscription by Direct Debit! 

Thursday, 28 February 2019

Lots on offer for botanists in Wales

Mountains of Meirionnydd
Image: S. Stille
If you're a botanist based in Wales, there are some great events coming up for you this year.

If you're not based in Wales, you'll be delighted to hear that these events (training days, field meetings, residential recording weeks and the Welsh AGM) are open to all botanists from across Britain and Ireland:

The Welsh AGM takes place in Carmarthenshire from 21st to 23rd May and features talks by Pete Stroh on Atlas 2020 progress and by Richard Pryce on recent advances towards the Carmarthenshire Flora; there are excursions out to local sites of botanical interest, from limestone grasslands to brownfield sites to coastal sites in the Burry Port area; there are exhibits, ID help, botany books for sale... it should be a great few days! More info and bookings here.

For the more specialist botanist hoping to improve their ID skills with aquatic plants, there's a chance to learn from the master: Richard Lansdown, author of BSBI Handbook no.11 on Callitriche spp. (water-starworts) and acknowledged national aquatics expert, is running a workshop on 22nd June in Brecknockshire. Info and booking here.

In Carmarthenshire in July there's the Glynhir Recording Week (spaces still available - more info and bookings here) and the Caerdeon weekend in Meirionnydd which - sorry! - is now fully booked, although you can put your name on the reserve list in case of cancellations.  There's also a field meeting in Radnorshire in June so lots of opportunities for botanising in Wales.

The Radnor Lily
Image: B. Brown
Last November BSBI welcomed a new Welsh Officer, Barbara Brown. Since then she's been working hard to support botany in Wales. As well as attending outreach events such as the recent Sewbrec recorders' forum for SE Wales and the BSBI Exhibition Meeting, going to committee meetings such as BSBI's Training & Education meeting and tweeting about plants she's spotted in Wales for #wildflowerhour, she's also been helping County Recorders with webpage updates. 

County pages for Brecknockshire, Meirionnydd, Monmouthshire and Pembrokeshire have all been updated with photos and details of forthcoming events. Barbara will be at other Welsh recorders' events such as the BIS event in Brecon and the WWBIC recorders' forum so if you'll be there too, do go up and say hello to her. Meanwhile, Barbara has also started posting on the BSBI Cymru blog so if you're not already following that, we suggest you head over there now and read about Barbara's visit to see the rare and beautiful Radnor Lily Gagea bohemica.