Sunday 31 March 2019

Promoting botany in south-west Scotland

David talking about plant recording & monitoring at
the 2019 SWSEIC Wildlife Recorders' Gathering
Image courtesy of SWSEIC
Saturday saw the 2019 Wildlife Recorders' Gathering organised by South West Scotland Environmental Information Centre and two Scottish County Recorders were on hand to spread the botanical word. David Hawker, County Recorder for Kirkcudbrightshire ran a BSBI stand and gave a talk about local plant recordingChris Miles, County Recorder for Dumfriesshire chaired the afternoon talks session; and there was also a talk about the National Plant Monitoring Scheme by SWSEIC's Peter Norman. 

David told me:  

"Attendees numbered over 130, but I have no idea how many I and Chris talked to over the day. We were certainly kept busy and several people picked up BSBI joining leaflets and other publications including flyers for the National Plant Monitoring Scheme. I gained a new member for my local botany group as well as botanical records I knew nothing about - new rare/scarce plant locations."

Many thanks to David and Chris for reaching out to plant-lovers in south-west Scotland, and to SWSEIC for organising the event and tweeting about David's talk.

Thursday 28 March 2019

National Plant Monitoring Scheme: time to get involved?

Spring is in the air so this is a good time to remind you about the National Plant Monitoring Scheme (NPMS), to let you know what we've learned from the results so far and to give you a heads-up about the free resources and training opportunities available to everyone who registers to take part. 

Launched in 2015 as a partnership between BSBI, the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and Plantlife, surveys carried out so far have already thrown up some good news and some bad news about the wildflowers found in woodlands across the UK. 

If you've heard about the NPMS and have been weighing up whether or not it's right for you, here are a few things that might help you make up your mind:

NPMS training day showing people
 how to mark out a square to survey
Dr Kevin Walker, BSBI's Head of Science, was a key player in the setting up of the NPMS; Kevin said: "The great thing about this scheme is that it is inclusive to a wide range of volunteers at different levels of experience who are providing us with evidence of changes in our wild flower populations. It is a fantastic opportunity to develop botanical and field recording skills while contributing valuable data. It's just a great way for people to get involved in citizen science and learn more about our wild flowers".

There are three different levels at which you can record, so the NPMS is suitable for all botanists, whether you're just starting out or you're already an expert.

You get a lot of free resources when you register for the NPMS, so it's ideal if you are just  getting started with botany and want to develop your ID skills as quickly as possible but you don't have the budget or the time to buy lots of plant ID books or sign up for multiple training courses. NPMS surveyors receive a free illustrated plant ID book when they register, a set of species lists for each habitat, species ID crib, access to mentors across the UK who can help you if you get stuck, videos to help you survey...

There are also (free) training courses - 25 arranged so far and more in the pipeline, at locations from Cornwall to the Caledonian pine forests and from Kent to north Wales. Take a look.

For the more experienced botanist, the NPMS is a chance to put your botanical knowledge to good use, whether as a surveyor, contributing to a national citizen science scheme, or as a trainer or as a mentor, supporting the next generation of botanists.

Why not take a look and see if there is a survey square available near you? If there is, and you'd like to get involved, it only takes a few minutes to register. Why not make this the year when you become a national plant monitor?

Monday 25 March 2019

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

Image courtesy of
John Crellin/ Floral Images

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy of
John Crellin/ Floral Images

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

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

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

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

Friday 22 March 2019

Lots on offer for botanists in Ireland

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 19 March 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 14 March 2019

A host of golden daffodils

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 13 March 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck! 

Monday 11 March 2019

BSBI prize-winner #2

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

The prize draw was set up by BSBI's  Finance Manager Julie who has been encouraging members to pay their annual BSBI subscription via Direct Debit mandate - you may have seen a notice in the September issue of BSBI News? Direct Debit is a great way to pay your sub - quicker and easier for you and more cost-effective for BSBI. Everyone who completed a Direct Debit mandate was automatically entered into a competition and two names were selected at random to win a prize.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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