Sunday, 22 September 2019

How does a botanist get to work: Part Six

Clematis tangutica
Image: H. M. Beck
In an occasional series over the past few years, we've told you about the various means of transport botanists use to get up close to plants in their habitats.

Some of them have been known to descend from helicopters, others abseiled or dangled on the end of ropes; some have rowed themselves and their fellow botanists across water, all in pursuit of their target plants. More and more of them are taking to bicycles: our two orchid referees opted for a tandem on Inis Mhor last summer and now botanist Howard Beck has got on his bike to notch up some impressive first county records.

Over to Howard:

"Though most of my botanical outings take place on foot, the fact is that as a keen cyclist too I am able cover great lengths of road and trackside verges. Keeping one eye on the road ahead and the other roving eyeball scouring the side margins, it is possible - with keen sight - to spot the smallest of plants. I should point out for the safety-minded that though I am a very experienced cyclist I only engage in this wheeled form of botanizing along quiet lanes.

The only drawback is that I am invariable halting every few hundred metres and thus never really manage to establish a good cycling cadence. It is infuriating for my friends when I cycle in a group, yet the plants more than compensate. Over the past two years I have made some interesting finds while biking the minor lanes of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria.

Sedum sedoides
Image: H. M. Beck
This of course produces the usual crop of Lamiastrum galeobdolon subsp. argentatum (Garden Yellow Archangel), Lysimachia punctata (Dotted Loosestrife) and Geranium x oxonianum (Druce’s Cranesbill) as well as much else. However over the past two years I have been blessed with a run of good fortune, with out of the ordinary finds turning up on a regular basis – thus proving the efficacy of cycle-botany.

In 2018 while tootling along a network of lanes wending along the southern flanks of the Lune Valley, in Lancashire I was halted in the saddle by a jolly-looking flowering shrub in the hedgerow. This was new to my senses, and had a profusion of curious, tulip-like yellow blooms. The record together with some photographs were duly forwarded to David Broughton (County Recorder for mid-west Yorkshire), who identified the plant as Clematis tangutica (Orange-peel Clematis). I was also pleased to learn this was a new record for the vice-county.

To my lasting joy last year proved a fruitful one, for I found four more plants of some significance, none of which at the time rang any bells of recognition, and for which I had recourse to others for the ID.

Smyrnium perfoliatum
Image: H. M. Beck
Cycling through the wonderful leafy lanes of Silverdale on the north Lancashire coast I had stopped to admire some Cyclamen hederifolium (Sowbread) when across the road something else caught my attention. Draped on a wall top was a plant that I took to be a Sedum, yet it resembled none I had ever before seen. For a start it had hairy leaves and seemed not as fleshy as other species. It was a straggly plant rather than having any neat leaf clusters. I sent my pictures to the County Recorder, but it fell to the Sedum Society to come up with a species: Sedum sedoides (Rosularia). Once more it proved a first record, this time for West Lancashire.

Walls once again featured in my next discovery, for at the base of one in Arnside was a curious plant. It was a yellow umbellifer of around 60 cm tall with irregularly-toothed leaves completely embracing a ribbed stem. My immediate thought was Bupleurum rotuntifolium (Thorow-wax), but this notion was quickly dismissed in favour of Smyrnium perfoliatum (Perfoliate Alexanders). I was over the moon once again when the determiner advised me this too was a new record – for the whole of Cumbria.

Finally, one day participating in a group cycling trip we were speeding along the A683 near Nether Burrow (West Lancashire) when I caught sight of something orange-coloured – and interesting – in the verge. We couldn’t stop so I caught only the briefest of glimpse, yet after the ride I drove back, found the plant, and not knowing that it would prove to be a new record in The North, I took home a sample of the ‘lampshade’ fruit capsules and discovered it be Abutilon pictum (Chinese-lantern).

Cerinthe major
Image: H. M. Beck
By the year end I was on a roll and eagerly looking forward to the start of the new season. However before I did any more cycle-botany I treated myself to a three week sojourn around the Scottish Highlands and Islands. Among the many rarities I was privileged to see, I turned up a solitary Saxifraga tridactylites (Rue-leaved Saxifrage), new to the Isle of Skye; Asphodelus albus (White Asphodel) first record on South Ronaldsey, Orkney and then Saxifraga hirsuta (Kidney Saxifrage), a first record for the entire Orkney Isles.

Returning south of the border my run of good luck couldn’t possibly hold. But then during the summer while on a foot-slogging quest of an old record for Verbena officinalis (Vervain), I fell upon Spiraea japonica (Japanese Spiraea) spotted beside a high moorland lane above Settle, North Yorkshire. This was new to the Yorkshire Dales.

Then it was back into the Lycra and on the saddle. One of my regular and favourite routes is the 60km round trip from home to Settle. There seems always something new to see, and while pedalling it one sunny day I spied a curiously attractive plant that stood out in contrast the background greenery of the verge. David Broughton (County Recorder for mid-west Yorkshire) kindly identified this for me as Cerinthe major (Greater Honeywort), a garden escapee but new to the vice-county.

So then the yearly botanical cycle can take on a whole new meaning, one that, as I have proven here, certainly has the potential to provide extraordinary surprises time after time. I wheelie (groan!) enjoy my cycle botany".

Many thanks to Howard for sharing his account of how he took to his bike to track down so many interesting plants.

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