Thursday, 10 June 2021

Online course to learn plant family ID

On 22nd May, we tried out a completely new kind of plant ID session - an online workshop aimed at helping beginner botanists get started with identifying some of the more common plant families. 

Around 50 participants signed up for the course. The £15 full fee (a discount was available to students) covered the cost of sending each participant a copy of Faith Anstey's excellent book, a Pocket Guide to Wildflower Families. The course was based on Faith's user-friendly approach to teaching plant families and how to use the kinds of keys found in many plant ID guides. 

One of Faith's pre-Covid workshops

BSBI's new Chief Executive, Julia Hanmer, decided to sign up for the course, to see how it worked and to refresh her plant ID skills. Since the Covid lockdown, we are hearing from more and more people who studied botany years ago and are now looking to brush up those ID skills and reconnect with the plant world and nature conservation, so online refresher courses are likely to become increasingly important – but do they really work?

Julia received her copy of Faith's book through the post a few days before the course so at 10a.m. on the day, she was all set for two hours of botanical training. Julia told me "I really enjoyed the course. It was well structured and presented and great fun to do. There were three short interactive sessions led by Aileen, punctuated by breaks, where we were given tasks to do on our own, IDing plants using Faith's book and then coming back together to look at how we had done. It all worked well online, with Aileen teaching and Jim McIntosh, BSBI Scottish Officer, facilitating and answering the many brilliant questions posed by participants, through Zoom’s Q&A facility.”

Great to hear that the format worked so well! What about Faith's book? Julia said "Yes I love the diagrams that feature on almost every page of the book, showing for example the different kinds of flower structures (image on right), or what 'whorled leaves' look like. I also liked the way Faith’s pocket guide has a glossary of plant terms and uses straightforward language wherever possible, e.g. she talks about flowers having either radial symmetry (slice them in half anywhere you like and the two halves would be identical) or else mirror symmetry (where there's only one place to slice them if you want two identical halves). Many beginner botanists will find that easier to understand and remember than 'zygomorphic vs actinomorphic' as used in Stace's ID keys."

Faith has certainly been building a reputation in recent years for helpful workshops and user-friendly booklets that help demystify how we identify plants including grasses, sedges and rushes, and those tricky yellow composites aka dandelion lookalikes. If you missed out on this online workshop, you can order all Faith's booklets from her website.

Jim McIntosh said “Faith’s Pocket Guide to Wildflower Families is a great way into the sometimes confusing world of wildflower ID! A total of 46 people participated on the day, and Aileen, our tutor, guided students clearly and concisely through naming plant parts, how to use the booklet to identify common plant families (e.g. the Rose family, image on left)  and how to use books like Collins Wild Flower Guide to pinpoint the species. We used the breaks to give students short exercises and asked them to photograph five flowering plants and identify their families, and the species, as (optional) homework. Participants were able to ask questions at any time during the session and we had a bit of fun with an interactive online poll. The session was recorded and you can watch the video here on the Training playlist on our BSBI YouTube channel”.

Another of Faith's pre-Covid workshops

Julia said that "Getting out and practising after an online course certainly helped consolidate our learning. The whole workshop really made me think about the different ways we ID plants - it's so easy to play 'plant snap' and try to match our plant to a picture in a book, rather than keying it out properly, but picture-matching is not always reliable - much better to learn how to do the job properly, and this online workshop was a huge step in the right direction" 

So, a vote of confidence from Julia but how does an online workshop compare against a more conventional beginner ID session in the field? We'll soon have a chance to find out because on the same day that Julia was attending the online workshop, BSBI's new Fundraising Manager Sarah Woods was attending a field meeting for beginners in Cambridgeshire with County Recorder Jonathan Shanklin. She has promised to send a short report so watch this space!

Wednesday, 19 May 2021

Free wildlife ID sheets connecting the next generation to nature this summer

Our friends at the Field Studies Council have come up with another brilliant way of helping young people connect to nature this summer - and BSBI is right beside them, cheering them on!

Their plan is to post thousands of free field wildlife ID guides this July.  They're looking for people in England aged 16-25, and those working with this age group,  to register by 10th June 2021 to receive their two free ID guides. 

There's a choice of six pairs of guides to choose from and of course we are particularly pleased at the plant pair which contains a guide to trees and one to wildflowers. 

Each wildlife ID guide is a colourful and water-resistant fold out chart filled with drawings or photos created by enthusiasts and experts. 

Follow this link to find out more and here's the link to register for the two free guides.

If you know of anyone aged 16-25 who would appreciate these guides, why not send them a link to this blogpost? Be sure to do it before the deadline, 5pm on 10th June! 

And if those first two guides whet their appetite, they will find lots more here

Huge thanks to our friends at the Field Studies Council for all the great work they do to connect the next generation to nature. 

Tuesday, 18 May 2021

NBN Awards 2021

Nominations have opened for the NBN Awards for Wildlife Recording 2021.

These annual NBN Awards celebrate the individuals, the newcomers and the groups of people or whole organisations that are making outstanding contributions to wildlife recording and improving our understanding of the natural world in the UK. They were developed in 2015 by the National Biodiversity Network Trust, in partnership with the National Forum for Biological Recording and the Biological Records Centre.  

There are five categories of awards: 

The five short-listed nominees from each award category will be announced on 5th October and the winners will be announced at a ceremony in November, as part of the National Biodiversity Network's annual conference.

All too often the painstaking work that individual and groups of Wildlife recorders undertake is not publicly recognised. So let's put that right - nominate your unsung heroes!

Nominating someone couldn’t be simpler, just complete our short form explaining how your nominee is making an exceptional contribution in the world of UK wildlife recording. You can even nominate yourself! 

Nominations close on 18th July, so please don’t leave it too late….

Friday, 14 May 2021

Mental Health Awareness Week 2021

This past week, BSBI staff and volunteers on our Comms Team have been contributing to Mental Health Awareness Week, which this year has a focus on nature. They've been taking to social media to share their experience of how connecting with nature can help us all improve our mental health. 

Orchid hunter Leif Bersweden (image on right), who runs the BSBI Instagram account, said: "For me, being surrounded by nature is a restorative, calming experience: paying attention to a daisy in the pavement or the song of a blackbird simply slows me down, keeps me in the moment and acts as a reminder of what's really important in life".

April Webb (image below left) from Plant Alert said: "Nature feeds my curiosity, creativity and soul. It's the slap in the face I need some times to stop and just 'be'. There is always something new to see, to learn, to experience if you stop & just go with nature's pace for a while".

The Mental Health Foundation launched Mental Health Awareness Week 21 years ago and they say they chose nature as the theme for this year's Week because "being in nature is known to be an effective way of tacking mental health problems and of protecting our well-being. This seemed particularly important this year - in the year of a pandemic. 

"Our research has shown that being in nature has been one of the most popular ways the public have tried to sustain good mental health at a challenging time". 

Ciara Dwyer (image below right) from BSBI Events & Comms committee said “Spending time outdoors in nature is a place for me to escape. I can distract myself with wildlife: listening to bird songs, looking at plants on a walk with friends, or going for a run in the local woodland.”

BSBI Fundraising Manager Sarah Woods (image below left) said: "I’ve been lucky to know for a long time that my little soul is happiest in green space – I tend to embarrass my friends with contented sighs as soon as we head out on a walk. The best part for me is that it is accessible in so many forms – from single plants to big adventures, so you can access the dose you need to deal with whatever else life is throwing your way".

Many botanists, plant-lovers and BSBI members who regularly read this blog can vouch for the restorative power of the natural world. 

Being in nature and enjoying our wonderful wild flowers has been a lifelong passion and a source of well-being for lots of us, especially during the past year. 

There is also a growing body of evidence to back up this claim - check out these links: 

  • 2003 paper comparing the restorative effects of walking in a nature reserve compared to an urban environment;
  • 2019 report commissioned by the Wildlife Trusts concludes that 'prescribing nature works - and is excellent value for money' 
  • this US study from 2008 indicates that workers in offices with live plants, and window views of exterior green spaces, felt better about their jobs and the work they performed; 
  • and this paper describes how researchers used fMRI scans to look at the effects on brain activity of viewing a flower - their conclusion was that it "downregulated negative emotions and decreased both elevated blood pressure and cortisol levels".


Ellen Goddard (image on right), who analysed this year's New Year Plant Hunt results, said: "Nature has always been my form of escapism. Whether it be retreating to the countryside or a local woodland, the peace I feel when surrounded by the vibrant colours and sounds of nature always help to clear my mind. Even the smallest plant found in the middle of a city can bring a smile to my face as I think of how something so small is surviving in the most surprising places". 

My own experience (Louise, BSBI Comms Officer) is that the natural world was never as important to me as when my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. We spent a lot of time together in those final years walking in our local woods and meadows. His enjoyment of wildflowers, trees and wildlife was as keen as it had been throughout his life and I found that revisiting those woods and meadows helped me get through the painful early months of bereavement. Nature helps us through the difficult times as well as making the good days even better!"

The final word goes to Jodey Peyton (image on left), Chair of BSBI Events & Comms committee, Vice Chair of the National Federation of Biological Recording and, in her day job, an ecologist at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology: "Being able to spend time outside in the natural world is incredibly important to me and helps me turn off my internal fret system (especially if it is combined with a nice picnic!). Every walk with flowers, insects (even the nuisance bitey ones!) and birds tweeting is a reminder to me why I work in Ecology and is why I am so proud to be a part of the BSBI! Everyone should have access to and be able spend time in nature. I am incredibly passionate that we all work together to empower ourselves and our neighbours to be able to enjoy and support nature and each other!

Well said Jodey, especially the bit about the picnic - not so sure about the bitey insects though!

Thursday, 13 May 2021

Springing forth: May report from BSBI President Lynne Farrell

Last time we heard from BSBI President Lynne Farrell, she was dodging snow flurries to look at violets and blue moor-grass near her Cumbria home. 

So, has spring finally sprung?

"There has been some rain and slightly warmer temperatures since my last blogpost and spring is on its way, even though we have had snow on the hills and hailstorms also recently.

Blossoms are opening including Bird Cherry Prunus padus (image on right), Dandelion fields and verges are bright yellow, and woodland species such as Wood Anemone Anemone nemorosa, Wild Garlic Allium ursinum and Goldilocks Buttercup Ranunculus auricomus are visible. 

Both Alan Leslie, one of our BSBI members and the author of the recent Flora of Cambridgeshire, and Brian Eversham, Chair of Beds., Cambs. & Northants Wildlife Trust (and, of course, a BSBI member) have made detailed studies of Goldilocks Buttercup. 

A native, widespread species that has suddenly appeared following heavy rain is Toothwort Lathraea squamaria (image on left). 

This is parasitic on a range of woody plants, especially Hazel, Ash and Elm but it is not easy to spot due to its pale pink or white colouring and it is often hidden beneath the trees. 

Purple Toothwort Lathraea clandestina is a neophyte, scattered throughout Britain but less common, and mainly found on the roots of Alder, Willow and Poplar in wetter areas. 

Both of these plants are in the family Orobancheae and feature in the new BSBI Handbook on Broomrapes

My copy arrived recently and I'm enjoying reading this new addition to the series of BSBI Handbooks for difficult plants - the illustrations by Chris Thorogood are very colourful. A friend captured the image on the right of me engrossed in the book! 

I also appreciated the members' discount on the cost of this book: a reminder that if you want to benefit from the discount you need to be a BSBI member and you will  need to order your copy before the end of June. 

The contrast of the shining yellow of Cowslip Primula veris and the bright purple of Early Purple Orchid Orchis mascula (image below) stands out well in the meadows. 

The annual count of Green-winged Orchid Anacamptis morio took place on a National Trust site near here, and even though the numbers were down overall, they had spread to new areas of the fields, which is encouraging news for the site managers".

Thursday, 6 May 2021

RIP Philip Oswald 1933-2021

Philip (centre) and Chris (on left) receiving
the Thackray Medal 
Very sad news that Philip Oswald has just died; he was an active BSBI member for many years, joining the society in 1952, serving as a member of BSBI Publications Committee from 1986 to 2018 and on Council from 2000-2003. He was elected an Honorary Member of the Society in 1999 in recognition of his decades of service.

As a classicist - his first degree, from Cambridge, was in Latin and Ancient Greek - Philip was responsible for writing the Latin descriptions of many new taxa for Watsonia and then New Journal of Botany

The list of books, articles and papers he authored or edited is long and impressive; it includes no fewer than five BSBI Handbooks; John Ray's Cambridge Catalogue (1660), for which he and co-author Chris Preston were awarded the 2012 Thackray Medal by the Society for the History of Natural History; and Philip and Chris, along with Arthur Chater and Gwynn Ellis, worked together to bring the two final volumes of Sell & Murrell's Flora of Great Britain and Ireland to press after Philip's old friend Peter Sell died in 2013. The image below left shows the 'friends' at the publication launch for the final volume (Philip second right).  

A full obituary will be published in due course by Chris Preston, who collaborated with and served alongside Philip for many years, and will be ideally placed to provide an overview of his friend's long and varied career. For now, I'd just like to share a few memories of him from the last decade, when I had the privilege of serving alongside him on BSBI Publications Committee, known to its friends as 'Pubs'. 

Philip was extremely knowledgeable on all things botanical, classical and grammatical and seemed to know everyone in the botanical world. I will admit to being a little over-awed by him and other renowned botanists on encountering them at my first-ever 'Pubs' meeting in 2011 but he sensed my nervousness and quickly put me at ease. 

He had a wealth of stories about his botanical expeditions, in fact he and I once 'got lost' en route between the Linnean Society, where Pubs used to meet, and the nearby pub which we used to visit afterwards - Philip was telling me about one of his visits to Mount Athos and the story was so engrossing, we both completely lost track of where we were going! 

For a member of the 'old guard', Philip was always very open-minded and encouraging of new ideas around outreach: he often featured in and contributed to this blog, of which he was also a regular reader. He participated in activities such as the New Year Plant Hunt and his review of wildflower ID keys, aimed at beginner botanists, is one of the most popular downloads from the BSBI website (you can find it on our Get Involved page). The image on the right shows him chatting to an early career botanist at the 2015 BSBI Exhibition Meeting.

Final (slightly blurry) photo below of Philip (centre) as many of us will remember him: arriving at the opening of the BSBI Exhibition Meeting 2016, held at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology - smiling, keen to enjoy the talks and exhibits and looking forward to catching up with old friends and finding out what plants they had seen and what they thought about the botanical issues of the day. He will be greatly missed by his many friends in the BSBI and our deepest condolences go to his family. 

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

BSBI Handbook #22: Broomrapes of Britain & Ireland: interview with Chris Thorogood (joint author)

There’s a new addition to the series of BSBI Handbooks. Broomrapes of Britain & Ireland is due to be published on 1st May and BSBI members will be able to benefit from an exclusive introductory offer of £12.50 (plus P&P) which will save them £5 compared the RRP of £17.50.

There are two authors behind this new book: Prof Chris Thorogood – Deputy Director and Head of Science at University of Oxford Botanic Garden & Arboretum, author, artist, media star… - and Dr Fred Rumsey, Senior Curator in Charge of Historical Collections, Algae, Fungi and Plants Division, Life Sciences Department at the Natural History Museum, London. Fred is already well-known to readers of this News blog, but Chris maybe isn’t, so I approached him first and asked him to tell us a bit more about himself and about Broomrapes of Britain & Ireland

LM: Chris, before we start talking about the new Handbook, could you tell us a bit more about yourself please, how you got started as a botanist, some of the many strings to your bow and your particular area of botanical interest?

Chris in his element, hanging
out with water-lilies

CT: Sure Louise! Well I have been fascinated by plants for as long as I can remember. As a kid my bedroom windowsill was a bit of a jungle. And I was growing broomrapes at the age of 12 – I guess it was inevitable that I was to become a botanist really! Today, I am the Deputy Director and Head of Science at the University of Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum. The research I do here centres on processes that shape the evolution of parasitic plants and also carnivorous plants – those that can obtain food in ways other than photosynthesis.

 I also work on the floras that grow in Biodiversity Hotspots (priority areas for conservation) around the world, for example Japan and the Mediterranean, and in the Middle East. Working with scientists from other disciplines, such as physics, another aspect of my research examines how plants can inform design in technology. My work has taken me around the world where I have been lucky enough to see some beautiful plants in breath-taking places. My passion in life is painting. When I’ve seen something beautiful in nature (which luckily for me happens quite a lot), well I just have an irrepressible urge to capture it on canvas… And when I’m not scribbling or messing about with plants, you might find me tweeting, posting things on Instagram or chatting away on BBC Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time.

Pages from the new Handbook...

LM: Blimey, you’re a busy man and a bit of a botanical superstar! So how did you become involved in working on this BSBI Handbook?

CT: Years ago, my PhD research examined broomrapes Orobanche. I used molecular tools to answer evolutionary questions. In other words, in the lab, I examined broomrapes’ DNA to find out how they were forming new species. The results were surprising and quite exciting: populations of common broomrape O. minor that looked the same, were behaving very differently. In short, our work showed that they were adapted to specific hosts (clovers for example); and because different hosts have different preferences (sea cliffs, fields, car parks etc.), populations of broomrape can become genetically isolated from one another. And this paves the way for new species to evolve – a process we call incipient speciation.

You can find out more about one of the forms we described last year here.

Orobanche minor - this one is
subspecies maritima
Image: C. Thorogood 

LM: Ooh that’s based on this paper that you and Fred submitted to British & Irish Botany, BSBI’s Open Access, in-house scientific journal! Any News & Views readers who missed out on the paper last year (we flagged it here) can read it now – it’s a corker and beautifully illustrated by Chris and Fred!

CT: The handbook includes observations we made during the course of that research, and the many years that my co-author Fred and I have spent in the field, peering at broomrapes

LM: That’s ok Chris, you’re among your people here – BSBI has thousands of members who spend their time in the field peering at plants! So, the new book is 152 pages long, covers 16 species and 7 infra-specific taxa in the family Orobanchaceae. When did you and Fred start working on the book?

CT: You could say that the idea for the handbook has been knocking about for years. But in fact we only started working on it in earnest last summer (July 2020). Fred and I got so carried away that we spent many long nights and weekends working on it (obsessively some might say), so we finished it in a much shorter time than expected.

LM: Well we’re very glad that you did! Can you give us an example please of one of the species you cover and what we can expect to find out from the new Handbook about its identification, distribution and current conservation status?

Orobanche picridis
Image: C. Thorogood
CT: Sure. Picris broomrape Orobanche picridis is an exceptionally rare species with only two thriving colonies in the UK (and absent entirely from Ireland). Well-developed specimens are pretty easy to identify; the trouble is, smaller ones look a lot like their cousin, the common broomrape (O. minor), which as its name suggests, is a lot more frequent. In the book we grasp the nettle on this parasitic plant puzzle, giving a lot more detail on how to tell apart this taxonomically troublesome pair than other guide books would have the inclination to do. I hope that the reader would be left in little doubt about what was in front of them!  

LM: Sounds like you and Fred visited a lot of locations across Britain and Ireland in the course of your research. Are there any that particularly stand out in your memory?

CT: Well Louise our broomrape safaris have taken us to some glamorous places, from supermarket carparks, to death-defying cliffs! When we weren’t ducking golf balls on Sandwich Bay golf course or taking the occasional abseil down a sea cliff, I guess I would have to say my favourite stomping ground for the plants is around Essex and Kent. Fred and I both grew up in this area, and in some respects, this region is the broomrape capital of Britain and Ireland. That said, beautiful broomrapes grow up and down the region, often in some very beautiful places indeed.

LM: Ooh so lots of opportunities to visit lovely places and peer at plants – that sounds like great fun! How about herbaria – did you two visit many herbaria to look at specimens? On which subject – how exactly do you press a broomrape? They are quite chunky! Do they have to be pickled rather than pressed?

Pages from the new Handbook...
these show the life-cycle of 
an Orobanche

CT: (Face-palm emoji) ahem broomrapes and herbaria…. well the thing is, they preserve terribly, Louise. This is a real headache for the broomrape connoisseur. They have no leaves to speak of, and their colours (lovely in life) turn a rather hideous shade of yellow or brown. In short, we’re left with a squashed asparagus. I exaggerate: in fact, there is a lot you can tell from a herbarium specimen if you look closely, for example the calyx shape, the amount of hairiness of the floral parts, and multifarious other bits and pieces. But is isn’t easy. Pressed specimens are best if they include notes on colours seen at flowering time, possible host plant species, and, best of all, a floral dissection or two.

LM: Yes, as we always say about herbarium specimens, the supporting info is as important as the specimen itself. And thanks for confirming my suspicions about the difficulties in preserving broomrape specimens – squashed asparagus indeed! But moving on, I imagine you also got a lot of feedback from BSBI County Recorders and many of our “ordinary members” who go out plant recording?

CT: BSBI County Recorders and enthusiasts up and down the country are incredibly helpful Louise. The maps in the handbook simply wouldn’t exist without them. And many provided their photos too. Our sincere thanks to you all.

Some of Chris's pen & ink drawings
LM: Yes, the BSBI community is amazing – whether recording, taking photos or trying to press plants for herbaria... You mentioned photos so let’s turn to the illustrations: they are always an important part of any BSBI Handbook and Chris, you are famous for your amazing plant illustrations. Could you tell us a bit about how you produce your drawings and your colour illustrations, how long it takes you and what materials you use?

CT: Thank you Louise. Fred and I both illustrate. I often use pen and ink which is quite a precise way to capture a plant, and is the perfect medium for depicting, for example, hairiness (an important diagnostic in broomrapes). I also use watercolours and (less conventionally) oil paints (which were used for the front cover). I find oils capture the soul of a plant in the way watercolours cannot always. If done in a leisurely way, a line drawing can be done in a day; a watercolour in a week; an oil painting in two.

Pages from the new Handbook...

LM: Are there photographs too?

CT: There are (quite a few in fact), but I am not really a photographer. Many people very kindly provided their photos for the book and it wouldn’t be the book it is without them.

LM: Yep, that amazing BSBI community again! I hear there are also BSBI distribution maps for the taxa, and that some of the maps compare the distribution of the various taxa with their primary hosts?

CT: Correct. We were fascinated by the idea of charting host and parasite in parallel to see if there were any insights as to why the broomrapes occur where they do. Interestingly, by way of example, thistle broomrape is exceptionally rare and confined to Yorkshire; yet its most common host – the creeping thistle Cirsium arvense is of course ubiquitous. There is a lot more than meets the eye to these very particular plants, clearly.

LM: Yes, they certainly are intriguing and that’s one reason why BSBI’s Publications committee thought people would be interested in a Handbook all about them. Finally: all BSBI Handbook authors benefit from an editor to help them through the process towards publication. Who was your editor?

Chris admiring an Orobanche
CT: David Pearman was our very patient editor, to whom Fred and I most certainly owe a debt of thanks.

LM: Wow, David is a legend (newcomers to BSBI can read a bit about him here), so well done you for bagging him as your Editor! Well the new Handbook really does look amazing, many thanks to you and Fred for all your hard work that has brought us this fabulous new addition to BSBI’s publications portfolio and thank you also for talking to us today. Before you go, may I issue an invitation to you please? We are not sure at this point if our 2021 Exhibition Meeting in November will be held as a live event at the Natural History Museum in London or as a zoom event – or perhaps some kind of hybrid! But in whatever way it takes place, would you be up for giving us a short talk about broomrapes, maybe a poster too and perhaps we can have some kind of promotion around the Handbook? Fred is always involved in our Exhibition Meetings but it would be great to have both Handbook authors on the day – so, how about it?

CT: I would be delighted to, Louise.

LM: Thanks Chris, it’s a deal! Now, readers will want to know how to get hold of a copy of the new Handbook.

If you are a BSBI member, there is a flyer tucked inside the April issue of BSBI News which is winging its way to you as we speak. It explains how BSBI members can benefit from our exclusive offer and save £5 compared to the RRP. You can either use the flyer to order your copy by post before the end of June or else click here to order your copy via the password-protected members-only area of the BSBI website (you'll need to have your password to hand – email me if you’ve forgotten it and don’t forget to include your membership number).

If you are not a BSBI member, you have two options: you will be able to buy the book from Summerfield Books and other natural history book-sellers in June. Or why not join BSBI today and start enjoying all the benefits of membership, including this special offer? Take a look at our Join Us page  which lists all the benefits of BSBI membership and there's a secure payment option, making it very quick and easy for you to become a BSBI member and start getting involved