Friday 29 June 2018

Lady's Bedstraw: in meadows and in Byron's Gin

Flowers of Lady's Bedstraw
Image courtesy of John Crellin/ Floral Images
In meadows across Britain and Ireland, Lady's Bedstraw Galium verum is coming into bloom. 

It's also one of the botanicals used in the 'Bird Cherry' expression of Byron's Gin, the official gin of the BSBI

It certainly adds its unique honeyed taste and perfume to the gin but in centuries past, the flower was famous for three very different reasons!

Although the flowers are yellow, the tiny roots of Lady's Bedstraw were collected in bulk hundreds of years ago and were used to produce an orangey-red dye. 

This was particularly prized in olden times when the only other source of a red dye was from lichen. Flora Celtica tells us that so much Lady's Bedstraw was collected from Hebridean machair in the 17th and 18th centuries that it  exacerbated coastal erosion. 

Lady's Bedstraw: leaves in a whorl
Image courtesy of
John Crellin/ Floral Images
You'll be glad to hear that any Lady's Bedstraw collected for use in Byron's Gin is collected sustainably, with conservation in mind, so you can drink it with a clear conscience!

It also used to be used in cheese-making, as a kind of herbal rennet. The 16th century herbalist John Gerard tells us that cheeses made in Cheshire and Gloucestershire were prized for the rich colour and pleasant taste imparted by Lady's Bedstraw. 

And in case you wondered about the name 'bedstraw' - in medieval times, Lady's Bedstraw was used to stuff mattresses, because it was reputed to deter fleas and also because of the pleasant smell. There are also legends in Norse and Christian mythology about women giving birth on mattresses of Lady's bedstraw. 

You can recognise this plant quite easily: like all its relatives in the Bedstraw family (Rubiaceae) found in the UK and Ireland, the leaves are arranged in a whorl around the stem. 

There are only two members of the Bedstraw family in these islands which have yellow flowers: Crosswort, which has four bright green broad leaves in a whorl, and Lady's Bedstraw which has six or more narrow dark green leaves in a whorl. This combination of characters makes the plant easy to identify, even if you're just getting started with plant ID.

A stand of Lady's Bedstraw
Image courtesy of John Crellin/ Floral Images
You might be surprised to learn that coffee and gardenia are also in the Bedstraw family, although they look nothing like our British and Irish bedstraws! 

But if you've been following these monthly blogposts about Byron's Gin, you won't be surprised to hear once again that for every bottle sold of Byron's Gin, a donation is made to BSBI's Training programme which supports botanists studying wildflowers in Britain and Ireland. 

Next week we feature a report from one of those botanists about the course she was able to take thanks to a BSBI Training Grant - watch this space! 

Thursday 28 June 2018

Watch out for hybrid Mallows!

Malva moschata
Image courtesy of John Crellin/ Floral Images
This summer, botanist Mike Wilcox is asking us to look out for hybrid Mallows.

Mike says: "Malva moschata (Musk Mallow) is a frequent plant. 

"In Clive Stace's New Flora of the British Isles (2010), he mentions that there are possible hybrids with M. alcea (Hollyhock mallow) that arise in gardens. 

"Anyone seeing M. moschata: please could you send a flowering specimen with the relevant details. 

"If you do see the introduced M. alcea, a specimen would be useful. 

Malva alcea
Image courtesy of John Crellin/ Floral Images
"Preferably fresh/flowering or fruiting if later."

A reminder of how Clive Stace separates these two species: 

M. moschata has epicalyx segments more than three times as long as wide, compared to M. alcea which has epicalyx-segments less than three times as long as wide. 

Also, M. moschata has simple hairs on the calyx, epicalyx and flower-stalk, whereas M. alcea has many stellate (star-shaped) hairs. 

Please send specimens to: 

Michael Wilcox – 43 Roundwood Glen, Greengates, Bradford BD10 0HW, W Yorkshire. 

Or email him:

Wednesday 27 June 2018

Oliver Sacks: neurologist and pteridologist

Oliver at the New York Botanical Garden
Image courtesy of New York
Botanical Garden/ Robin Moran
Many people around the world will recognise the name of the late Dr Oliver Sacks CBE, the British-born neurologist who moved to the United States in his 20s and whose books about the human brain became best-sellers - some were also made into Academy Award-winning films and operas.  

Fewer people will be aware that he was also a passionate botanist with a particular love of ferns. 

A new documentary film about Dr Oliver Sacks is currently in production and the team behind it contacted BSBI with this message:

'Ferns, for Dr Oliver Sacks, were a living embodiment of deep time. 

'He was a long-time member of the American Fern Society, the British Pteridological Society and the New York Botanical Garden, where he had close relationships with the fern and cycad curators.  

Oliver at a meeting of the New York Fern Society
Image courtesy of New York
Botanical Garden/ Robin Moran
“Ferns delighted me with their curlicues, their croziers, their Victorian quality (not unlike the frilled antimacassars and lacy curtains in our house.) But at a deeper level, they filled me with wonder because they were of such ancient origin… 

"Ferns had survived, with little change, for a third of a billion years. Other creatures, like dinosaurs, had come and gone, but ferns, seemingly so frail and vulnerable, had survived all of the vicissitudes, all the extinctions the earth had known". -- Oliver Sacks, Oaxaca Journal

Oliver visiting a Titan Arum in 2004
Image courtesy of New York
Botanical Garden/ Robin Moran
'Botany was just one of Dr Sacks’ many passions. As a neurologist, he pioneered the idea of “compassionate care” in medicine.  

'And as a best-selling author, he broadened the audience for medical case history by writing about patients as whole people and sharing their stories. 

'Dr Sacks’ powerful stories are being brought to life in an immersive new documentary film called The Animated Mind of Oliver Sacks. 

'Last week, a Kickstarter campaign was launched to raise funds for the film. You can find out more about the campaign, and contribute, here'. 

Thursday 21 June 2018

Leicestershire botanists don hard hats to visit gypsum plant

Callum uses a hand-lens to examine a specimen
Image: L. Marsh
BSBI botanists are visiting all sorts of sites in pursuit of records for Atlas 2020: from sand dunes on the Kent coast to the draw-down zone of a Yorkshire lake; from moors and quarries to road verges, from Welsh woodlands to a suburban nature reserve just outside Dublin

Not to be outdone, eleven Leicestershire botanists donned hard hats, hi-vis jackets, steel toe-capped boots and safety goggles last Saturday to record the plants at British Gypsum's Barrow Works.

The introductory Health & Safety talk - essential when touring an active industrial site - was considerably sweetened by the Kit-Kats handed out by our host, Luke Menzel, the plant's Environmental Co-ordinator. 

Steve (joint County Recorder) points out the
diagnostic characters on a tricky Dandelion lookalike
Image: L Marsh
Luke informed us that Kit-Kats contain food-grade gypsum - we're still not entirely sure if he was pulling our legs! 

Once kitted up, we headed out to start recording and - typical botanists - it took us almost an hour to get more than 100m from the car park! 

The first two verges we came to were very rich, with plants typical of old mesotrophic and calcareous grassland.

These included Lathyrus nissolia (Grass vetchling), Catapodium rigidum (Fern-grass), Leontodon hispidus (Rough Hawkbit), Centaurium erythraea (Common centaury), Bromus secalinus (Rye brome), Hordeum secalinum (Meadow Barley), Centaurea scabiosa (Greater knapweed), Knautia arvensis (Field scabious), Pilosella officinarum (Mouse-ear hawkweed), Plantago media (Hoary plantain), Arenaria serpyllifolia (Thyme-leaved sandwort), Trisetum flavescens (Yellow oat-grass)...

Botanising in the shadow of the plaster plant
Image: R Mabbutt
This was not what we'd expected! 

An adjacent ditch yielded a charophyte (probably Chara vulgata but the specimen is still being checked) and a rose with conspicuous gland-tipped red hairs which keyed out as Rosa micrantha using Roger Maskew's key. 

Luke borrowed a hand-lens to examine those hairs and had to admit that yes, they were pretty impressive! 

Another notable find was Sison amomum (Stone parsley), an unassuming little plant but scarce enough in Leicestershire and Rutland (VC55) to be listed on the county’s Rare Plant Register

Dactylorhiza x grandis
Image: S. Barrell
Our next verge yielded Dactylorhiza praetermissa (Southern Marsh Orchid), D. fuchsii (Common Spotted Orchid) and a magnificent 'swarm' of D. x grandis, the hybrid between them. 

A specimen was taken on the same verge of what appeared to be Crepis biennis (Rough hawk's-beard), another RPR species so this one is also being checked.

Then on to a pond and another ditch where it was time to get the grapnels out for Apium nodiflorum (Fool's water-cress) growing - as though ironically -  next to Nasturtium officinale (genuine Water-cress)! 

Botanists in hard hats admiring the hybrid orchids
Image: S. Barrell
A sandy area at the rear of the Works yielded Linum bienne (Pale Flax), Sherardia arvensis (Field Madder), Vulpia myuros (Rat's-tail fescue), Filago vulgaris (Common cudweed) and Anthyllis vulneraria (Kidney vetch).

All these plants are unusual enough in VC55 to elicit a few squeals of delight whenever you see them!

We also found what we think is Euphorbia stricta (Upright Spurge). It would be the first 21st century record for this plant in Leicestershire so again, it's being checked carefully.

Linum bienne (Pale Flax)
Photographed at the Barrow Works
by Dave Nicholls for NatureSpot
More than 200 species were recorded across the site and there were enough surprises on the list to ensure that the visit to British Gypsum's Barrow Works enters the annals of VC55 field excursions under the heading 'a Grand Day Out'. 

Huge thanks to British Gypsum for hosting us and especially to Luke who looked after us so well all day. 

But back to those Kit-Kats - do they really contain gypsum? 

Answers on a postcard please....  

Monday 18 June 2018

Eyebright Handbook launched at NHM London

Fred (on left) & Chris with copies of the Handbook
Image: Jonathan Mitchley
Today saw the culmination of six years of hard work, as the latest BSBI Handbook Eyebrights of Britain and Ireland was launched at the Natural History Museum, London

Authors Chris Metherell (who wrote the text) and Fred Rumsey (who focused on the illustrations) welcomed their guests at noon on Eyebright Day! 

Those guests included some very well-known and highly respected names in botany, including Prof Mick Crawley, Emeritus Professor of Plant Ecology at Imperial College, London, and a BSBI trustee; John Swindells, President of the Wild Flower Society and a BSBI Council member; Squadron Leader Martin Godfrey, President of the British Bryological Society and another member of BSBI Council; Dr Jonathan Mitchley, Associate Professor in Field Botany at Univ. Reading; and Dr Helena Crouch, joint County Recorder for North Somerset and Secretary to BSBI Council

Botanists at the launch examine herbarium 
sheets & drawings for the Handbook
Image: Jonathan Mitchley
Also present were some of the next generation of top botanists: Alex Twyford, NERC Research Fellow at Univ. Edinburgh and Max Brown, who is currently doing a PhD at Univ. Edinburgh on British Euphrasia

And we were delighted that designer Helen Baker of LTD Design Consultants was able to come along - thanks to Helen, the new Handbook is as attractive as it is useful!   

The programme kicked off with a short welcome address by Dr Sandra Knapp, Head of the Algae, Fungi and Plants Division at the Natural History Museum.

Chris & Martin examine one of the oldest 
eyebright specimens in the NHM collection
Image: Alex Twyford
Then there was a presentation 'After the Handbook: what's happening next in Euphrasia research'. 

After lunch, there was a workshop in the Angela Marmont Centre and a herbarium tour, offering attendees a chance to see Euphrasia type specimens held in the world-famous British & Irish herbarium

Everyone was delighted to have a chance to look as well at some of the earliest British Euphrasia specimens held in the Historical Collections Room. 

Sandy Knapp shares a joke with the Euphrasiologists
Image: Jonathan Mitchley 
Fred informed the attendees that the possible E. pseudokerneri collected by Buddle [who died in 1715] would, if confirmed, push the first date for this species back by 120 years compared to the date given in David Pearman's The Discovery of the Native Flora of Britain & Ireland

People also enjoyed seeing some of the hybrids collected during BSBI-funded research trips for the Handbook, including the ‘new to science’ E. pseudokerneri x arcticaFred had brought in his preparatory sketches for the Handbook and he also offered attendees a chance to see a display on the little known Section Atlanticae Azorean endemics, some of the world’s most threatened eyebrights.

Kevin & David trial the Handbook on Colonsay
Image: Pete Stroh
The celebrations for Eyebright Day extended beyond the Natural History Museum - botanists across Britain and Ireland took part via social media! 

Chris had visited herbaria across Britain and Ireland during the research process for the Handbook and so today herbarium curators in locations such as Cardiff, Liverpool and RHS Wisley tweeted photographs of some of the herbarium specimens Chris had examined while preparing the keys for the Handbook.

Botanists also took to social media to share photographs of eyebrights from locations extending across the whole of BSBI's range - from Fair Isle, Shetland to the Isle of Wight, from The Burren to Northumberland, from Co. Mayo to the Gower peninsula to Warwickshire... one Canadian botanist even tweeted a photo of E. wettsteinii from Nunavut!

Eyebright specimens held in
 the herbarium at Cardiff

Image courtesy of 
National Museum, Cardiff
Meanwhile, up on the Isle of Colonsay, BSBI Head of Science Dr Kevin Walker and former BSBI President David Pearman were trying out the Handbook on some Hebridean eyebrights.

Check out the #EyebrightDay hashtag on Twitter to see the many photographs and comments shared during the day! 

So, Eyebright Day was a resounding success: thanks go to the Natural History Museum for hosting the launch, to all the guests who travelled to London for the day, to all the botanists and herbarium curators across Britain and Ireland who took part via social media and of course to Fred and Chris themselves. 

If you'd like to get your hands on the new Eyebrights Handbook, you can order a copy now from Summerfield Books

Scroll down to see some sample pages (and to admire the beautiful design work by LTD Design Consultants!).

Use the Comments box below to let us know how you get on using the new Handbook in the field. We think you will find eyebright identification, notoriously one of British and Irish botany's biggest challenges, much less daunting than ever before, thanks to Chris and Fred and their wonderful new BSBI Handbook!

Front cover and sample pages
Image courtesy of LTD Design Consultants

Sunday 17 June 2018

BSBI in the news

Killarney Fern
Image: Rory Hodd
By a curious coincidence, yesterday (16th June) BSBI appeared in both the Irish Times and The Times of London.

Michael Viney's article in the Irish Times mentions the "intrepid Irish botanists" who make up the celebrated Rough Crew, led by Rory Hodd. The article talks about the discovery of new locations for the rare Killarney Fern and links to the Irish Conference webpage, where you can find a report by Rory about the Killarney Fern gametophyte.

Jerome Starkey is the Countryside Correspondent for The Times of London and his article is about the most bio-diverse place in Britain. One 10 x 10km square in Dorset - grid ref SY98 -  boasts more mammals than anywhere else and it turns out the same square also has more plant records than anywhere else - a whopping 1,517 species. Check out the BSBI distribution maps page, type in a plant name and zoom in to SY98 (or any other grid square) and see if your plant is growing there. The article in The Times is behind a paywall but you can read it here

Thursday 14 June 2018

Charophyte workshops in Ireland

Hunting charophytes I: Lough Sewdy, Westmeath
Image: Hui Murphy
Two very successful two-day charophyte ID courses were held in Co. Westmeath last month, organised by BSBI Irish Officer Maria Long and supported by NPWS. Charophyte experts Nick Stewart and Cillian Roden led the courses which combined indoor workshops with outdoor sessions to practice those newly-acquired ID skills. 

We asked participants to tell us what happened and offer some feedback about the workshops.  

BSBI member Kate said: "I came to the workshop having previously attempted to work through charophyte keys and given up in frustration, not being confident that I was seeing the relevant features, and not having verified specimens to compare anything against. It was wonderful to be able to work through these issues in the workshop with Cillian and Nicks excellent guidance. I got a much better feel for the field characteristics, relative size and 'jizz', and key microscopic features of the most commonly encountered species, and I feel much more confident that I'll be able to correctly identify them in the future! The fact there were two days allocated meant that we had time to consider the aspects of identification that were most challenging for us, and revisit them, so we were not leaving the workshop confused or with unanswered questions. Cillian and Nick's passion and enthusiasm for this group made the workshop fun and relaxed yet still highly educational".

Learning about Ireland's 29 charophyte species
Image: Hui Murphy
Finbarr Wallace, joint County Recorder for East Cork, attended the course and said: "Thanks to all involved in organising and delivering this event. It certainly dispelled some of the myths about the difficulty in identifying members of this group. A great venue with great facilitators. Also great to have the opportunity to see vascular plant species not known from this neck of the woods, especially Cicuta virosa."

Áine from NPWS said: “Huge thanks to the BSBI for organising and participating in the excellent charophyte training course. The level of aquatic expertise from trainers and trainees was highly impressive. Many thanks also to IFI for providing the superb venue of the Lough Owel angling centre.”

Hunting charophytes II: Lough Sewdy, Westmeath
Image: Hui Murphy
Flicking through the feedback forms, other comments received included: “Excellent workshop, very well done!”; “I am glad that I went and learned a lot!”; “It was great to have time to look at so many specimens and figure out what we were looking at and attempt to key the species out. Nick and Cilian were so patient with us which was much appreciated. Having the course run over two days allowed (for me!) the information to linger in my head and get processed before the second day so that it felt as if I was building on a base of information on the second day.”

We always like to offer a balanced view so we trawled through all the feedback forms looking for some negative comments but - sorry, we couldn't find any! Another triumph for Maria and her fellow Irish botanists!

Friday 8 June 2018

Nominations open for NBN Awards for Biological Recording & Information Sharing

Biological recorders
Image by BSBI member Natalie Harmsworth,
Organiser of the BSBI Photographic Competition
Building on the success of the previous three years, the National Biodiversity Network, the National Forum for Biological Recording and the Biological Records Centre are launching the fourth UK Awards for Biological Recording and Information Sharing. 

Nominations have now  opened for this year's awards - who will you nominate? Do you know any botanical recorders who have made an outstanding contribution?

The Awards recognise and celebrate the outstanding contributions made by individual adults and young people as well as by groups, to biological recording – which is helping to improve our understanding of the UK’s wildlife. 

These contributions can include anything from a significant number of records made in a year, the number of participants at a BioBlitz, plugging of gaps in knowledge in a specific area of the UK, through to the number of datasets available for download, technical innovation in recording wildlife or encouraging participation through the development of apps or games etc.

Evan Potter
Image by Jenny Potter
There are six categories of awards: 
  • Gilbert White Youth Award for recording terrestrial and freshwater wildlife
  • Gilbert White Adult Award for recording terrestrial and freshwater wildlife
  • David Robertson Youth Award for recording marine and coastal wildlife
  • David Robertson Adult Award for recording marine and coastal wildlife
  • Lynne Farrell Group Award for recording wildlife in any environment – group members may be of all ages. This award is named after BSBI's own Lynne Farrell, County Recorder for Mid Ebudes, BSBI Hon Gen Sec 2010-2014 and co-author of the Vascular Plant Red Data List for Great Britain
  • Adult Newcomer Award for recording wildlife
Nominating someone for an award couldn’t be simpler - you can even nominate yourself! Just complete the appropriate Awards nomination form and return it to the National Biodiversity Network Trust by 31 July 2018.