Wednesday 28 November 2018

Aspen: in poetry, in folklore and in Byron's Gin

Aspen catkin
Image courtesy of John Crellin/ Floral Images
You might not immediately think of a tree whose timber is the number one choice for the manufacture of packing cases also being an ingredient in a rather exclusive artisan gin! But there's more to aspen (Populus tremula) than meets the eye - or the ear... 

Flora Celtica tells us that the timber has been used for making milk pails, herring barrels and all manner of furniture - and especially packing cases - and also that a yellow dye could be made from the leaves.

Less prosaically, the distinctive sight and sound of aspen leaves ruffled by the wind has inspired poets through the ages. William Faulkner's 'A Poplar' rather disturbingly likens the tree with its trembling leaves to a young girl "whose clothing has been forcibly taken away from her". But the most famous aspen poem is probably Gerard Manley Hopkins' 'Binsey Poplars', arguably one of the first poems with a modern nature conservation theme. The poet mourns the felling of his "aspens dear" and the "strokes of havoc" which caused the destruction of a "sweet especial rural scene". 

Aspen leaves
Image courtesy of John Crellin/ Floral Images
A more humorous, if less politically correct, association comes from the folklore of Roxburghshire, where Flora Celtica tells us that aspen was known as "old wives' tongues" because the leaves were constantly moving! 

Apparently the people of South Uist believed that the aspen was a cursed tree because Christ was crucified on a cross made from its wood, and that it trembled its leaves out of everlasting shame, although in other parts of Europe elder is believed to have played that role. Flora Celtica also notes that, for the same reason, an old aspen growing near the head of Loch Shiel "was visited every Good Friday for a thorough dressing down by the local people". It's hard not to feel sorry for that poor tree!

Aspen is reasonably easy to identify by its trembling leaves but the other poplars (Populus spp.) are much more difficult. There's a BSBI Handbook just for Willows and Poplars - wherever there's a BSBI Handbook for a group of plants, you know it's because they are tricky to ID! 

But there's no difficulty in identifying the delicious Melancholy Thistle expression of Byron's Gin: just look for a picture of the poet on the label. 

And don't forget, for every bottle of Byron's Gin sold, a donation will be made towards BSBI's Training 
programme so we can keep supporting the next generation of botanists. Slainte!  

Tuesday 27 November 2018

QGIS and biological recorders

Jerry Clough talks about QGIS at the
BSBI Recorders' Conference 2018
Image: D. Alston
One of the most popular talks at the recent BSBI Recorders' Conference was Jerry Clough's talk 'Introducing QGIS for botanical recorders'. It was so popular that Jerry had to concede to requests for an impromptu and informal drop-in session straight afterwards. We managed to squeeze Jerry and several botanists in to the bar area as we already had workshops running in all the classrooms!

With so much interest in QGIS, it seemed very fortuitous when FSC's Rich Burkmar - Mr. QGIS himself! - contacted me to ask if BSBI botanists would like to collaborate with FSC in promoting a consultation they are running on the FSC Plugin for QGIS. I accepted on your behalf, so over to Rich to tell us more: 

"At the last NFBR conference at Preston Montford, Shropshire - a conference aimed squarely at biological recorders - I was surprised how many attendees, particularly those of younger generations, considered GIS to be central to their biological recording skillset. 

Jerry's QGIS workshop: participants included
(from left): Jon Shanklin (BSBI Field Meetings
Secretary), Dave Barlow (joint BSBI County
Recorder, NE Yorks.) & Chris Metherell
 (BSBI President)
Image: D. Alston 
"I'm really the last person that should be surprised by this - I can't imagine pursuing my own interest in biological recording without tools to spatially represent and analyse biological records - but many biological recorders of my generation pursue fulfilling interests in biological recording without going near GIS - that's something they leave for other people.

"This generational shift must be influenced by a number of things, for example it is likely that a higher proportion of younger biological recorders want to pursue related careers where GIS skills are highly sought-after. Another influence must be the increasing exposure of younger generations to all sorts of digital technology, including GIS, from an early age and the increasing accessibility of high-quality GIS tools. 

Screenshot of QGIS showing
the FSC plugin on the right
"Over recent years, QGIS has been a real game-changer in respect of making high-quality GIS more accessible. QGIS started life over 15 years ago and has since become the world's leading open-source desktop GIS. It started life as 'Quantum GIS' but the 'Quantum' part has officially been dropped in favour of a simple enigmatic 'Q'! Like scientific names of plants, it doesn't really matter how you pronounce QGIS, as long as you say it with confidence! (Personally I favour 'kew-jiss'.)

The FSC QGIS plugin
"Not only is QGIS freely available, but it supports a wide range of operating systems including Windows, Mac OS X, Linux and Unix. There is even an Android version under development. This means that choice of hardware and operating system is unlikely to restrict access to QGIS.  One of the best features of QGIS is its extensibility: it is possible for any programmer with the requisite skills to contribute a QGIS 'plugin' that extends the functionality of QGIS to carry out particular tasks more efficiently. That's exactly what we did when we created the 'FSC QGIS plugin' (also known as the 'TomBio plugin') for biological recorders as part of the FSC's Tomorrow's Biodiversity project.

The FSC team picking up the CIEEM
 'Best Practice Award for Knowledge Sharing'
in 2017 from Baroness Young
"The plugin plugs the gaps (pun intended) in QGIS when it comes to dealing with biological records - particularly those geocoded with Ordnance Survey grid references - as well as providing a number of other utilities for UK biological recorders, e.g. easy access to NBN Atlas data from within QGIS. The plugin has proved popular with over 31,000 downloads since its release in November 2014. The last release for version 2 of QGIS (version 2.8.0 of the plugin) has had over 5,800 downloads and our recent new release for version 3 of QGIS (version 3.0.0 of the plugin) has been downloaded over 1,600 times. The plugin was the winner of the 2017 CIEEM 'Best Practice Award for Knowledge Sharing'.

What other QGIS gaps could the FSC QGIS plugin fill?
"When the FSC Tomorrow's Biodiversity project came to an end, we were thrilled to be able to roll our support for the plugin forward into the new FSC BioLinks project. This means that FSC plans to support the maintenance and development of the plugin until, at least, the end of 2022. The release of version 3.0.0 of the plugin was an early result of its adoption by the FSC BioLinks project, requiring major reworking to accommodate the new architecture of QGIS 3. The FSC QGIS Plugin was amongst the first to be 'ported' to QGIS version 3. But support from BioLinks will mean much more than simple maintenance of the current toolset.

Jerry in full flow!
Image: O. Pescott
"We want to hear your ideas about what functionality you would like us to add to the plugin. For example one idea is to provide a direct link to MapMate so that records can be mapped directly from a local MapMate database without having to extract them first. Another is to be able to quickly generated distribution maps divided into date classes.  But what would you like to see? We're interested in hearing your ideas - however simple or outlandish! We've created a short online consultation where you can give us feedback on which of the current tools in the plugin you find most useful; what works and what doesn't and what new features, if any, you'd like to see.

"To have your say, please participate in the short online consultation hereThe consultation will be open until we carry out our next round of development on the plugin (likely in second quarter 2019). The more responses we get, the more likely it is that the next phase of development of the plugin will meet the needs of our biological recording community, so please pass the link on to anyone that you believe might be interested in expressing their ideas and opinions. Here's to the next five years of the FSC QGIS plugin!"

Many thanks to Rich for sharing the above. Please use this link if you'd like to take part in the consultation. And do check out all the other great resources from FSC.

Monday 12 November 2018

BSBI welcomes a new Welsh Officer!

BSBI is delighted to welcome our new Welsh Officer, Barbara Brown. You can find her contact details on the BSBI Wales page and we asked her to tell us a little bit about herself. Over to Barbara:

"I am stepping into the role of Welsh Officer for the BSBI though it is hard to follow the great work done by my predecessors Paul Green and Polly Spencer-Vellacott. I have lived in Wales, on and off, for over a decade now, having first been sent here as an Information Officer to RSPB South Stack in 1998. This was followed by a stint at RSPB Ynys hir and a role first as Tutor and then Senior Tutor for FSC Rhyd y creuau at Betws y Coed. I was pleased to have the chance to come back to Wales as OPAL Community Scientist for South Wales where I helped a wide range of audiences learn more about the natural environment and take part in citizen science surveys on everything from earthworms and lichens to tree diseases.

"Most recently I have been working for the Radnorshire Wildlife Trust at Gilfach Nature Reserve where I worked with and trained up volunteer plant surveyors, obtained NRW consent for the collection of Vicia orobus (Wood Bitter Vetch) and Trollius europeaus (Globeflower) seeds as well as developing a range of species distribution maps using a QGIS map of the reserve which I created. I also tried my hand at short film making, and may do so again if a field trip is both sunny and picturesque!

"In my spare time I have been taking part in Plantlife’s Cennad apprentice scheme which has helped me to learn a lot more about lichen and biological recording. As well as enjoying both planning and leading walks for various hillwalking groups across Wales’ great countryside, I usually spend holidays in the Pyrenees where observations of locally common species have helped me to recognise and record more unusual species in Wales. Living in Rhayader, I hope to be in relatively easy reach of most of the County Recorders and will be in touch with you shortly to listen to your plans for next year, talk about data flows and exchange ideas about identification courses".

I'm sure you'll all want to join me in extending a very warm welcome to Barbara, and if you're coming to the BSBI Annual Exhibition Meeting on Saturday, you will be able to meet her in person. 

Thursday 8 November 2018

Botanical anachronism #1

Last weekend Jonathan Shanklin, BSBI's Field Meetings Secretary and joint County Recorder for Cambridgeshire, was in Edinburgh for the Scottish Botanists' Conference. Relaxing in his hotel room afterwards, Jonathan decided to watch a little television and opted for ITV's Grantchester, set in 1950s Cambridgeshire. 

Jonathan was only eight minutes into the programme when he spotted a botanical anachronism - and again twelve minutes in - and again fifteen minutes in - and a minute before the end of the programme! Characters were shown by the River Cam at Grantchester and there in the river behind them were rafts of Floating Pennywort. 

BSBI distribution maps, which show where plants are recorded over time across Britain and Ireland, will explain why Jonathan immediately called this a botanical anachronism. The first map shows distribution of Floating Pennywort up to 1969 and the second shows the same plant's distribution now. That's right - there was no Floating Pennywort in the Cam in the 1950s! This invasive plant was not recorded in the county until 2003. Jonathan's photo (above right) was taken at almost the same place that the TV programme was filmed - click on it to enlarge and see those rafts of Floating Pennywort.

Have you spotted any botanical anachronisms on TV or in films? If so, please let us know. This could be the start of an occasional series of wildflower howlers!    

Friday 2 November 2018

Biggest ever gathering of botanists in Scotland takes place this weekend

There has been such a huge demand for tickets to this weekend's Scottish Botanists' Conference at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh that organiser Jim McIntosh has had to close bookings.

The conference, previously known as the Scottish Annual Meeting, was rebranded this year to flag what it's all about more effectively - there are lots of talks, hence the 'conference' bit, and it's aimed at all botanists interested in the wild flowers of Scotland, whatever their skill level or affiliation.

Jim took to Twitter yesterday to share some impressive stats about the conference. Apparently it will boast:
  • 175 delegates
  • 35 exhibits or posters
  • 9 speakers
  • 7 mini-workshops
You can download the abstracts from the Scottish Botanists' Conference webpage, where you can also see the programme of speakers.

If you are not one of the 175 lucky delegates who managed to book a space, you will still be able to follow the action on Twitter by clicking on the #ScotBotanistsConf hashtag.

Jeff Waddell, BSBI's joint County Recorder for Roxburghshire and Selkirkshire, was on Twitter earlier this week to share the image on the left of the plant specimens he is taking to the conference. They are all recent new or second county records. 

We'll bring you more news as it comes in from Scotland's biggest ever gathering of botanists!

Thursday 1 November 2018

Paying tribute to pioneering botanist Agnes Arber

The blue plaque for Agnes Arber
Image: R. Vickery
Back in September, a representative from English Heritage got in touch with BSBI to notify us of plans to unveil a new blue plaque to botanist Agnes Arber and to ask if BSBI representatives would care to attend the unveiling. We were delighted that Roy Vickery, former vice-president of the society, agreed to attend and represent BSBI. 

The unveiling went ahead today and here is Roy's report:

"A good number of historians of science, family members, neighbours and botanists gathered in the rain outside 9 Elsworthy Terrace, in the London Borough of Camden, to celebrate the unveiling of a plaque on the house in which the botanist Agnes Arber spent her early years, before her marriage and her move to Cambridge in 1909.  

"Arber's earliest known publication was a letter on 'Sir Walter Raleigh and evolution', published in Nature, in 1902, before she moved on to study palaeobotany, then studying the anatomy and morphology of monocots, before moving on to more philosophical works, her final, posthumous, publication being a contribution, 'Theoretical basis of plant morphology', in Peter Gray's The Encyclopaedia of biological Sciences (1961). In 1946 she was the third woman, and the first woman botanist, to elected to membership of the Royal Society.

Guests brave the rain to attend
the unveiling of the blue plaque
Image: Jon Agar
Roy also added a personal comment: "For many years I have been consulting Arber's book Herbals which, although first published in 1912, remains a reliable reference work, much appreciated when I'm working on plant folklore.'

The event also included speeches from several eminent female botanists including Dr Rebekah Higgitt, Senior Lecturer in History of Science at the University of Kent and member of the Blue Plaques Panel; Professor Paula Rudall, Head of the Dept. of Comparative Plant & Fungal Biology at RBG Kew; Kathryn Packer who wrote about Agnes here; and Dr Patricia Fara, President of the British Society for the History of Science.

I should add that several eminent BSBI botanists based outside London, who were sadly unable to attend today's unveiling, were keen to share their memories of Agnes Arber and her daughter Muriel.

Cambridge-based botanist Dr Chris Preston, author of the BSBI Handbook on Pondweeds and joint winner, with co-author Philip Oswald, of the 2013 Thackray Medal for their translation of John Ray's Cambridge Catalogue, said "I used her water plants book when writing the Pondweeds Handbook and have often consulted her book on herbals. It took scholars about 50 years before they began to appreciate the validity of her criticisms of Raven's biography of John Ray, made in an extremely perceptive review in Isis".

Kathryn Packer, Paula Rudall,
Patricia Fara, Rebekah Higgitt & others
gather to pay tribute to Agnes
Image: Jon Agar
Philip himself said "Rudi Schmid, for very many years until fairly recently the Reviews Editor of Taxonwrote at some length about Agnes Arber, and she was the subject of one of a series of biographical notes on founding and early members of what is now the Society for the History of Natural History". Rudi also wrote this obituary of Muriel of whom Philip says that he and his wife were "extremely fond. She was a lovely person, an expert on the geology of Lyme Regis and, despite appearing extremely diffident, was President of the Geologists' Association 1972-3.

Philip, who is also based in Cambridge, added "Agnes Arber befriended the young Willie Stearn when he was working at Bowes & Bowes (where the CUP bookshop now is). Muriel remembered him coming to Sunday lunches etc.; she was an only child and he was like an elder brother. Years later, in 1986, he helped Muriel republish her mother’s Herbals and wrote a new introduction for it".

Arthur Oliver Chater said of Agnes "It really should though be Cambridge that has a plaque, as she worked there most of her life! Yes, I had tea with her in the autumn term of 1952, she sitting in an armchair all the time and tea served by Muriel. But absurdly I cannot remember what was talked about. My father had been in contact with her, I think through F. W. Oliver (after whom I am called Oliver), and he had told her I was going up to Cambridge. I have long admired and learnt from her works, especially The Natural Philosophy of Plant Form (1950).

The note below from English Heritage explains why the blue plaque is in London rather than Cambridge: 

History of London’s Blue Plaques Scheme: The London-wide blue plaques scheme has been running for 150 years. The idea of erecting 'memorial tablets' was first proposed by William Ewart MP in the House of Commons in 1863. It had an immediate impact on the public imagination, and in 1866 the (Royal) Society of Arts founded an official plaques scheme. The Society erected its first plaque – to poet, Lord Byron – in 1867. The blue plaques scheme was subsequently administered by the London County Council (1901-65) and by the Greater London Council (1965-86), before being taken on by English Heritage in 1986.