Friday 25 March 2016

BSBI Training Grant helps an eighth botanist

Pondweeds are tricky! This is Potamogeton crispus
Image courtesy of John Crellin
Applications for BSBI Training Grants have now closed for this year and applicants should hear soon if they have been successful. The next round will open in January 2017.

We have already featured seven budding botanists on these pages who have benefited from a BSBI Training Grant in 2015 and now here is number eight. 

Over to Karen to tell us about the course that she was able to attend, thanks to the grant, and how it has helped her progress as a botanist:   

"Last summer I was lucky enough to be awarded a BSBI Training Grant to undertake the Aquatic Plants course run by Sarah Whild and Nick Law at Preston Montford Field Studies Council Centre,

Essential kit for botanists hunting for aquatics:
grapnel, ID key & notes from a great training course!
Image: K. Rogers
I had wanted to do the course as part of my Biological Recording Masters at Manchester Metropolitan University but for one reason or another dates had not worked and I missed the opportunity. I had heard so much good feedback from fellow students at the time that, having successfully finished my MSc and started working in the ecology sector, I was determined to make it my first choice from my long wish list of Field Studies Council courses.

While confident with other groups of plants, I would always dodge anything truly aquatic and felt like I was doing my local ponds a disservice. While it is perfectly acceptable for botanists to want to specialise in terrestrial plants, to me aquatic plants seemed a challenge (and I always like a challenge) and a piece of the botanical jigsaw that I was then missing. 

Although I was working on a short term contract when I applied for the grant, my employment was only secure until March of 2015. The grant money, therefore, enabled me to do this personal development without worrying about having to find the whole amount out of my savings.

Flowers of Alternate Water-milfoil
Image courtesy of John Crellin
The course ran from 10th to 13th July last year. It was fantastic and I would heartily recommend it to anyone who has a work requirement or a personal interest to survey aquatic or bankside vegetation. Sarah and Nick covered a wide range of true aquatics and bankside emergents and helpfully grouped plants by family. This helped me see the common (or not) characteristics between the different genera, and identify the characteristics that can lead to mis-identifications.

All participants on the course received a fantastic array of keys produced by Sarah and Nick which provide surveyors with a quick and easy starting point for all aquatics and emergents. We used them throughout the course, adding our own notes, and then we were able to take them away with us. I have actually photocopied and laminated my set so that they don’t spoil when you have wet and muddy hands.

The other great thing about the course was the focus on self-learning. We keyed out all the specimens we encountered, rather than being told what something was and moving on to the next specimen. This gave me confidence in using the available keys and taught me to trust my botanical instinct.

Karen's home-made grapnel - you throw it into
the water and fish out plants.
Make sure you hold on to the other end!
Image: K. Rogers
Plus (and you can’t talk about Sarah and Nick’s Aquatics Course without mentioning this) the grapnel-making evening was both good fun and very useful. Grapnels are essential aquatic plant survey kit and we were shown how to make our own out of low-cost materials. It is an invaluable skill, as was how to make a voucher specimen when you have a very wet and waterlogged plant. Many sheets of paper is all I am saying……

With hindsight, the course armed me with the materials I need to sample, identify in-situ or gather and preserve plants in and around water. And, more importantly, I have been able to put this into practice in my work. I was the only person at work with a grapnel and all the right materials to survey a series of ponds and assess their wildlife value. It was very satisfying to learn these skills and then put them to good use.

So as 2016 starts I can now say that I am no longer an aquatic plant avoider and all thanks to the BSBI".

Many thanks to Karen for telling us about the Aquatics Course - we're delighted that your BSBI Training Grant was put to such good use!

You can find out more about the range of botanical training opportunities - from short courses for beginners to post-graduate and professional qualifications - on the BSBI Training page here.

Thursday 24 March 2016

BSBI botanists in print and in the news

Large-flowered Evening-primrose
Oenothera glazioviana
Image courtesy of John Crellin
The new BSBI Handbook on Evening-primroses (Oenothera spp.) has now been published. Find out more here on Summerfield Books' website, where you can also benefit from their special offer (£1.25 off, making the cost of this Handbook only £11.25!). 

It's well worth signing up to the Summerfield Books newsletter so you receive advance warning of the latest botanical publications, and don't forget that if you are a BSBI member you are eligible for extra discounts - check out the members-only pages. You can email me at if you can't remember the password for this.

Common Evening-primrose
  Oenothera biennis
Image courtesy of John Crellin
Kevin Walker, BSBI's Head of Science and Pete Stroh, BSBI's Scientific Officer, have also been busy - not writing a handbook, but co-authoring an important new paper exploring the pressures which led to the loss of biodiversity flagged up in the 2013 State of Nature report.

'Agricultural management and climatic change are the major drivers of biodiversity change in the UK' was published yesterday and you can read it here. The paper is published in the journal PLOS ONE so it's Open Access - you can view it in its entirety free of charge. 

Another BSBI botanist to appear in the media is Quentin Groom, who is featured in this article in yesterday's Guardian about brownfield sites and the interesting plants they may support.

Some Easter reading material for you if the weather prevents you from getting outdoors this weekend: hope you enjoy the holidays :-)

Sunday 20 March 2016

BSBI members in Ireland get together for annual conference

Matthew Jebb introduces BSBI botanists to
Irish Yew Taxus baccata 'Fastigiata'
 at Glasnevin Botanic Gardens
Irish Members' Conference 2016
Image: C. Heardman 
The BSBI Irish Members Conference took place last weekend, organised by the excellent Maria Long, BSBI's Irish Officer

Maria was due to fly out to Honduras after the conference (not for a holiday but for a month of unpaid survey work!). But first, she made sure that presentations from the conference were uploaded to the BSBI Ireland webpage for you all to view or download.

She also suggested that I ask Oisin Duffy, Mairead Crawford, Rory Hodd and Clare Heardman if they'd like to share their experiences of the weekend. 

Maria Long opens the conference
Image: O. Duffy
Not only did they all say yes by return, but the ever-helpful Oisin agreed to collate everyone's comments and share the whole story with News & Views readers. So sit back and enjoy the craic from a 21st Century botanical shanachie:

Hello News and Views readers, my name is Oisín Duffy, you might remember me as that person who recorded the first plant of the year for the BSBI New Year Plant Hunt a few months ago [LM: and last year!] potentially from some of my blog posts relating to botanical outings [like last year's BSBI Summer Meeting] and there’s even a small amount of you out there who might actually know me from real life. 

Coltsfoot in close-up
Image: O. Duffy
Recently I was made a Vice County Recorder (VCR) for East Donegal (H34) and even more recently started a new job in conjunction with the National Biodiversity Data Centre in developing a plant monitoring scheme for Ireland.

Over the 12th and 13th of March, the Irish section of the BSBI had their annual conference. These are great events and generally have speakers and workshops on a wide range of botanical interests. Last year, myself and Mairéad (who were recently appointed VCRs for East Donegal H34 in January of this year) were speaking about what it’s like to be young aspiring botanists. This year I got to sit back and enjoy two days of botanical fun. 

One of the best aspects of any conference/AGM/outing is that you get to catch up with friends, and there’s a good chance you haven’t seen some since the last field season and of course there are lot of opportunities to meet new people also.

From Pete's talk: Atlas records from Ireland
Image: O. Duffy  
After signing in and settling down, it wasn’t long before the talks began and the first person up was Pete Stroh who is the Atlas 2020 Co-ordinator. Atlas 2020 is an amazing and massive project and I’d imagine is the main focus of most VCRs. Pete gave background information to the Atlas 2020 and also mentioned the previous Atlas project (unfortunately when Atlas 2000 came out I was still in primary school). 

We received facts and figures on the amount of records that have gone into the system already while also seeing beautiful pictures on every slide from the BSBI Photography Competition.  

Slide from Seamus' talk
Image: M. Long
Next on the stage was Seamus O’Brien, who is the Head Gardener at Kilmacurragh Botanic Gardens. The talk was simply fascinating, giving us detail on the history of the families and people who were instrumental in looking after and building the gardens. 

We were also treated to a host of wonderful photos of some truly amazing plants and also some of the restoration work that has gone on in the last number of years. Seamus appeared to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of everything associated with the gardens and has certainly made me put it on the list of areas to visit this coming year.

Matthew Jebb and BSBI botanists
Image: M. Long 
After lunch Jim McIntosh, who is the BSBI Scottish Officer gave a great talk on utilising MapMate. I’ve been using MapMate over the last year, so it was great to get a refresher on all aspects of it. Jim gave us tips and advice about being more efficient and time saving with our data entry. 

We heard some other tips from VCRs and members in the crowd also, some of whom have been using MapMate for many years and are also experts.  

Matthew Jebb and Phyllocladus
Image: C. Heardman
After the MapMate talk by Jim, I headed to the Database session. Having only recently been made a VCR for East Donegal I hadn’t really used it before this. I was amazed at the amount of records and information that’s on there and this will certainly help myself and Mairéad to focus our recording to tackle recording gaps in the map. 

Unfortunately I missed out on a walk around the gardens looking at interesting conifers, but fortunately for you readers Clare Heardman (VCR for West Cork H3) was there – “Matthew Jebb (Keeper at the National BotanicGardens) led a fascinating walk focussing on some of the more intriguing stories of conifers in the Botanic Gardens. 

"Who knew there was such a thing as a ‘sheep eating’ bromeliad, that the green ‘leaves’ of Phyllocladus are actually flattened twigs or that the gardens feature ‘the loneliest plant in the world’? The latter is a cycad Encephalartos woodii which is considered extinct because all that remains are clones of a single male plant.” (CH)

Matthew Jebb & BSBI botanists in the glasshouse
Image: M. Long
The next day we made the journey up from Waterford to Dublin again, but before I tell you about some of the activities held on the Sunday, I’ll pass the page to Mairéad to tell you of her highlights from the Saturday:

“Highlights from day one of the conference were Head Gardener Seamus O’Briens talk 'Kilmacurragh – through the seasons' which involved an overview of the estate's history and wonderful photographs of this less-known branch of the Botanic Gardens. I for one need no further encouragement to visit! 

Tom's database workshop.
 Mairead & Oisin in foreground
Image: M. Long
"I also enjoyed the Database workshop led by Tom Humphreys as I had not utilised this resource to its full potential and have now registered as a VCR on the system. I was not able to attend the quiz which was written by David McNeil (VCR Antrim H39) but was treated with a sneak peek and it looked like brilliant fun, I even took one of the sheets home with me!” (MC)

I have to admit, I thoroughly enjoyed having a sneak preview of the quiz also and was disappointed that I wasn’t able to make it, but Clare did – “David McNeill (VCR Antrim H39) provided the evening’s main entertainment with a very clever and enjoyable plant pub quiz that he’d devised. The rounds ranged from straight questions to Pictionary, Dingbats and word puzzles! Great craic!” (CH).

Hedera helix courtesy of John Crellin
First thing on the agenda for the Sunday morning was getting our MapMate sorted, we had been having a few hitches with it and was very relieved to have Jim McIntosh have a look over everything. I wasn’t the only one to get their MapMate woes alleviated as Clare mentions – “A special mention for Jim McIntosh (Scotland’s BSBI Officer) who was the MapMate wizard of the weekend. 

"He patiently sorted out everyone’s MapMate problems including my own which required two Windows updates to be uninstalled. As if by magic, my MapMate now works perfectly. Now all that needs to be done is enter all the records. Does anyone have a magic wand for that element of MapMate?!” (CH)

While we were having our MapMate session, talks on Ivys and Eyebrights were taking place and thankfully, yet again Clare was in attendance – “Before the conference, I had thought that most of the ivy seen in my part of the world (West Cork) was Hedera helix

Hedera hibernica courtesy of John Crellin
"Paul Green gave a very informative talk on the complexities of ivy identification and revealed that he’s recently discovered that the majority of ivy in Co Wexford is Hedera hibernica. Close examination of the samples I’d brought along, revealed the orange-brown hairs of H. hibernica. A lesson in keeping up with recent research and not getting complacent – I’ll be looking more closely at ivy from now on!” (CH)

“Maria Long (Ireland’s BSBI Officer) tackled Eyebrights - the difficult Euphrasia genus. Her talk was based largely on knowledge gleaned from the recent workshop in Ireland given by Chris Metherell, author of an upcoming BSBI Handbook on Euphrasia. Her clear presentation and photographs made Eyebrights seem a lot more approachable!” (CH)

Ficaria verna
Image: O. Duffy
After getting MapMate all patched up (literally and metaphorically) we headed back to listen to the final talks of the day. Lynda Weekes of the National Biodiversity Data Centre gave a great talk on some tricky grass species. 

We got some really useful advice from Lynda and other recorders on difficult Poa and Agrostis species. 

The final talk of the day was with Paul Green on Ficaria verna (Lesser Celandine) subspecies. We were shown images and sample plants with some distinctive features, which should really add another aspect to the recording of such a common spring wildflower.

Botanists on Bull Island after the conference
Image: R. Hodd
On the final day, botanists were able to get out into the field. Rory Hodd said "We had a pleasant afternoon botanising in the dune slacks of Bull Island. It's a lovely place, especially considering it's so close to the city, and is as good for bird-spotting as it is for plant-hunting. Ten botanists attended the fieldtrip." 

Another extremely enjoyable conference over for 2016 and I’m already looking forward to next years and of course the coming field season, really excited about that as we’re holding an outing in East Donegal again this year. I think I’ll leave it to Mairéad and Clare to finish – 

Mairead, Maria and Oisin (from left) talk plants
 while John Faulkner and Donncha Madden
photograph them,
BSBI Summer Meeting 2015
Image: L. Marsh
“One of the best things about attending the BSBI Irish members conference is getting to talk with other Vice County Recorders and members of the society. I never leave without learning something new and as a recently appointed VCR I have a lot to learn about the role and it is great getting advice from seasoned recorders.” (MC)

“Finally, many thanks to Maria for all her hard work in organising such a varied programme and making this such an interesting and worthwhile conference to attend. I definitely came away inspired and ready to crack on with recording for Atlas 2020.” (CH)

Many thanks to Mairead, Clare, Rory and particularly Oisin for telling us all about the Irish Members' Conference. The next thing I want to hear about is this new plant monitoring scheme in Ireland - maybe Oisin could come back and tell us about that soon?  

Friday 18 March 2016

Time to think about mildews!

Neoerysiphe galeopsidis on Red Dead-nettle
Image: O. Ellingham
It's that time of year again! Spring flowers are starting to bloom across the country and Oliver Ellingham is already thinking about powdery mildews. 

For the past two years, BSBI News & Views readers have supported Oli's research by sending him specimens. Here Oli tells us why he wants your mildewed leaves: 

Erysiphe alphitoides on Oak
Image: O. Ellingham

"I'm a Royal Horticultural Society PhD student at the University of Reading and I'm running a citizen science scheme as part of my research into identifying powdery mildew species.

Podosphaera macularis on Heuchera
Image: O. Ellingham
"By receiving mildewed samples from participants around the UK, I aim to increase our understanding of powdery mildew distribution. 

"This harmful plant disease saps nutrients from its hosts, which are often important horticultural and agricultural plants.

Golovinomyces biocellatus
on Bee-balm
Image: O. Ellingham
"Last year the scheme received 353 samples, double that of its first year: 94% were identified to genus level, and 79% to species level. In two years I have seen 90 of the 150 mildews recorded in the UK, 60% of the total species.

"I hope to expand this great database of mildews in 2016 by continuing collection through citizen science. There's an outline of the process here.

"For more information please see the blog:"

Thanks to Oli for telling us about his work, and to all of you who have contributed to his results so far. Please check out Oli's blog and get involved again this year if you can. 

Sunday 13 March 2016

Latest issue of New Journal of Botany now on-line

Small-leaved Lime
Image: John Crellin
Issue 5.3 of New Journal of Botany has just been published and is available on-line.

The issue kicks off with a paper by three members of the Biology Dept at Edge Hill University and looks at Small-leaved Lime Tilia cordata and Large-leaved Lime Tilia platyphyllos. Can they be segregated along environmental gradients? How important are variations in soil and topography? 

This "first comprehensive account" is broadly consistent with what we already know, but the authors' discoveries about the influence of pH and soil moisture challenge received wisdom. 

Rory Hodd and Mackay's Heath
Image courtesy of Micheline Sheehy-Skeffington
Next up is a paper on Mackay's Heath Erica mackayana, one of those plants found only in south-west Ireland and Spain. Two botanists (one from Ireland and one from Peru) consider its distribution and habitats, and offer us new insights into, and ideas on, the origins of Mackay's Heath in Ireland and its hybrid with Cross-leaved Heath Erica tetralix

There are three other papers in the current issue (no more spoilers, I'll let you find out for yourselves what they're about!) along with our much-loved Plant Records section. If a native or alien plant has just been recorded for the first time in a county, or if a plant has just re-re-appeared for the first time since the 1970s, or if it meets the BSBI's criteria to be considered Rare or Scarce, then it will appear in the Plant Records section. This section is collated by the excellent Mike Porter, who is currently in the final stages of writing the new BSBI Handbook on violets, due for publication later this year. 

Five book reviews complete this latest issue, including one of a recent BSBI publication, the Hybrid Flora of the British Isles. Fascinating to read what an eminent Scandinavian botanist makes of the Hybrid Flora, published last summer and hailed on its publication as a "remarkable book... no other book of its kind exists for other parts of the world and consequently this book will surely set the standard for future hybrid Floras."     

If you are a BSBI member, you can read the latest issue right now by going straight to the new webpage for New Journal of Botany. Just use the Quick Link on our homepage and log in to the members-only area. If you have forgotten the username and password required to do this, please email us at - then you will be able to view or download all the content in the latest issue as well as our entire back catalogue. 

Large-leaved Lime
Image: John Crellin
There's also a rather swanky new facility for you to play with, thanks to our new publishers Taylor & Francis - you can now download an interactive pdf that you can annotate yourself, and you can also view papers on similar subjects in related publications. The New Journal of Botany webpages have also been revamped - we'd love to hear what you think of them. A prize to the first person who can spot the typo before we correct it ;-)

If you are not a BSBI member, you will still be able to view abstracts of the paper and can then decide if you'd like to join the society and read the papers in full. Let's be honest here - if you are just starting out in botany, some of the papers may not be your cup of tea. But New Journal of Botany is not the society's only periodical and there are lots of other perks to BSBI membership apart from our many publications (not to mention the substantial pre-publication discounts we offer to our members). Head over here to find out more.   

Friday 11 March 2016

Wildflower of the Month: Sweet Violet

Sweet Violet
Image: Mike Porter
Sweet Violet is already in bloom in London, Home Counties, the West Country & Ireland and it's about to start flowering in the East Midlands. It's already in leaf in Scotland and should start blooming there in the next few weeks.

There are nine species of Violets in the UK and they are considered tricky to ID to species (that's why BSBI is bringing out a new Handbook about them later this year!). The Sweet Violet is, unsurprisingly, the only one with the distinctive violet scent. 

Sweet Violets have been used over centuries as edible flowers – crystallised violets, violet creams, even in posh salads! - and as a traditional herbal remedy for insomnia, headaches and depression. They were also used as a strewing herb - essential for those Elizabethans who famously had a bath once a year "whether they needed it or not"!

Heath Dog-violet
Image: Mike Porter
Fortunately, a simple sniff test, a quick look at the leaves and a check of the kind of habitat where you find your violet will help you to identify which one you are looking at.

The Dog-violets are all unscented:
Heath Dog-violet grows, helpfully, on heathy acid grassland and the leaf-base is not so heart-shaped as the other Dog-violets, while Marsh Violet likes it squelchy underfoot – if you are looking at one you are probably either wearing wellingtons or have wet feet! 

Common Dog-violet
Image: Mike Porter
Common Dog-violet is common and not so picky about where it grows and Early Dog-violet flowers a little earlier than the other Dog-violets on slightly richer soils than the Common Dog-violet. Separating these two can be tricky but some of the ID tips in the BSBI's Plant Crib for Violas should help. 

Both Sweet and Hairy Violet have hairs on the leaf-stalk (the others don't). You can usually see the hairs on Hairy Violet with the naked eye but you may need a handlens to see them on Sweet Violet. Or wait until it flowers and then sniff!

They both grow in woodland glades and hedgebanks, and Sweet Violet is often naturalised near churchyards and gardens, from which it often escapes into the wild. Hairy Violet also likes a slightly more alkaline soil than Sweet Violet.

Hairy Violet
Image: Mike Porter
Apparently there's a chemical in the scent of Sweet Violets which numbs the olfactory nerve, but our Violet expert Mike Porter (who is writing the new Viola Handbook) has heard about small-scale studies that say some people are unaffected and can smell Sweet Violets repeatedly. 

Fancy doing an experiment? Start sniffing Sweet Violets (once you’ve ID’d them correctly!) and let us know if you can still smell them after a few minutes. Great excuse for a wander in the woods this spring and you can call it scientific research! 

You can tweet your results to us at @BSBIbotany using the hashtag #WildfloweroftheMonth

I'm looking forward to talking about Violets in Scotland to Louise White on BBC Radio Scotland's #outfortheweekend programme later this afternoon. Don't worry if you can't tune in live, you'll be able to hear the broadcast later on iPlayer here. [LM: the interview is here, starts at 01:43:30] 

Wednesday 2 March 2016

Botanical delights on the menu in Wales this summer

Small White orchid
at Vicarage Meadows LNR
Image: J. Crellin
How would you like to see some of Wales' best plants and habitats this summer? Join fellow botanists in the field (and on the hill and up the mountain!) and pick up some plant ID tips from the experts? Maybe catch a glimpse of the celebrated Attenborough's Hawkweed?

If this appeals to you, why not head over here and check out what the Brecknockshire botanists are planning for July, when they host the BSBI Welsh AGM. They've put together a mouth-watering selection of field excursions and talks, starting on Monday 11th July. 

You don't need to be an expert botanist - or even a BSBI member - to come along to this meeting. Old hands are always delighted to show the lovely plants on their local patch to newcomers, and more experienced botanists like nothing more than showing beginners how to identify a plant! 

Wood bitter-vetch. Image: J. Crellin
The booking fee for the week-long meeting is a mere £20 and the Brecknockshire team have come up with a nice selection of affordable options for accommodation and meals, from self-catering to hotel to campsite.

I asked Polly, BSBI's Welsh Officer, to tell us what's so special about this meeting:

Tim and Attenborough's Hawkweed at Cribyn
Image courtesy of Tim Rich
"The Welsh AGM is always a great meeting. We are very welcoming to those from beyond Wales, and we have some special treats lined up this year - Brecon is a fascinating county, with the possibility of visiting some really special sites, including Vicarage Meadows, Stanner Rocks, or a long mountainous walk near to the site of the Attenborough's Hawkweed. 

"There will be evening talks and also the chance to contribute to Atlas 2020 recording in wonderful Wales". 

Spiked Speedwell at Stanner NNR
Image: J. Crellin
Lots more details on the Brecknockshire page, but these are a few of the plants that are tempting me to dig my tent out and book my space on this meeting:
Perennial Knawel at Stanner NNR
Image: J. Crellin

Polly and John Crellin (the County Recorder for Brecknockshire, who is organising this meeting) tell me that bookings are already coming in and there are only a few spaces left at The Barn in Brynich - the self-catering accommodation which will be the base for this meeting and the venue for the evening meals and talks. 

    But there are still lots of other accommodation options nearby, and the Welsh botanists are looking forward to welcoming us from 11th-15th July.

    So please get your diaries out, check out this flyer and see if you can join us for this year's BSBI Welsh AGM!

    Stanner Rocks - well worth the climb to see those scarce plants!
    Image: J. Crellin

    The confluence of the Wye and Elan - we should see
    some interesting water plants around here
    Image: J. Crellin