Tuesday 31 March 2020

Hawkweeds of south-east England: BSBI Handbook #20

The cover of Hawkweeds of
south-east England
There’s a new addition to the series of BSBI Handbooks. Handbook no.20 Hawkweeds of south-east England is due to be published in April and botanists will be able to benefit from an exclusive introductory offer of £25.50 (plus P&P) which will save them £9.50 compared the RRP of £35.00.

There has been a previous Handbook dedicated to hawkweeds, but it focused on section Alpestria. This new Handbook will be the first one to focus on those species found in one geographical area, south-east England. I caught up with author Mike Shaw and asked him to tell us a bit more about Hawkweeds of south-east England.

LM: Mike, the new book is 250 pages long and covers the 58 species that have been recorded in the south-east of England. When did you start working on the book?

MS: This was back in 2015 Louise. I had developed an interest in hawkweeds while recording for and writing the Hieracium species accounts for the new Flora of Sussex.

Mike Shaw examines a stand of
Hieracium neosparsum in Kirdford
LM: Ah this was while you were BSBI’s County Recorder for West Sussex?

MS: Yes, I realised from my own observations and feedback from fellow botanists that little was known about the distribution of hawkweeds in Sussex, and in south-east England generally, and thought that a book to provide further information on this and help with identification would be welcomed.

LM: Could you give us an example please of one of the species you cover and what we can expect to find out from the new Handbook about its identification, distribution and current status?

Sample page with photos,
notes on ID and distribution,
and map
MS: There are a couple of hawkweed species endemic to south-east England, one of which is Hieracium surrejanum, found only in Sussex and Surrey. The species account includes historical information about its discovery at Witley, Surrey by E. S. Marshall in 1889, the IUCN threat category, a comprehensive description following Sell & Murrell, details of status, habitats and flowering times, notes on any observational differences from the standard description and a section on diagnostic features to help separate it from related species. Its distribution in south-east England is described, illustrated with a map, and examples of some reliable locations are given.

LM: You must have visited a lot of locations across the south-east in the course of your research. Are there any that particularly stand out in your memory?

MS: Yes, I certainly covered a lot of ground. The Hieracium pollichiae which has adorned the walls of the Bishop’s Palace gardens in the grounds of Chichester Cathedral for 200 years is impressive, but Box Hill in Surrey must stand out as the best hawkweed location in south-east England, not only for its natural beauty but for the sheer number of species which have been recorded on and close to it—19 out of the total of 58 found in south-east England.

LM: How about herbaria – I think you also looked at herbarium specimens?

Sample pages with herbarium specimens & images
MS: Yes, I have visited several herbaria including BM, CGE, MNE, HCMS, BTN and PTM, most on more than one occasion [LM.: these are the codes for the various herbaria.]. I have also corresponded with others, both at home and abroad, such as OXF, NMW, S, LU, LY and ANG. In all cases I have found the curators extremely helpful in providing access to specimens, scanning and photographing specimens and responding to specific enquiries.
Study of herbarium collections is crucial to understanding the variation within critical species, and in many cases allows examination of type specimens upon which the original species descriptions were based. British herbaria are a vital resource, and some of the smaller ones are under financial threat of closure. The more botanists visit and use herbaria collections the more likely their future will be secured.

Sample page with close-ups and
images of plants in situ
Some institutions are developing on-line access to their collections and these are extremely useful, though care must be taken where specimens have not been expertly determined. Perhaps the best example I have seen is Sweden's Virtual Herbarium, although nearer home, HerbariaUnited promises to be an excellent resource as it becomes more comprehensive.

LM: Illustrations are an important part of any BSBI Handbook and I see that Hawkweeds of south-east England is illustrated with more than 400 full colour photographs. Who provided them – were you the photographer as well as the author?

MS: Many of the photographs are mine. There is a scanned or photographed image of a herbarium specimen for each species and these were mostly done for me by the curators at BM and CGE. Where the specimens themselves were not from my own herbarium the source is credited in the image caption. Most of the detailed micro-photographs were done for me by John Hunnex at BM and I am indebted to him for his time and patience while we worked together on them.

Sample page shows notes on
geology and a coincidence map
showing number of hawkweed
species per hectad
LM: And are there BSBI distribution maps for each species?

MS: All the distribution maps in the book were produced by me using DMAP software (by Alan Morton). There are maps for each species in south-east England based on verified data. The data sources (including the BSBI Distribution Database) and validation methods are fully explained in the book. Additionally, there are maps showing the wider distribution of locally extinct species in Britain and Ireland, and coincidence maps for several hawkweed sections, all based on data collated and shared by David McCosh.

LM: And I’m guessing that you also got a lot of feedback from BSBI County Recorders and many of our “ordinary members” who go out plant recording?

MS: Yes Louise, they all thought I was mad tackling hawkweeds! Seriously though, the enthusiastic support from the neighbouring County Recorders — Martin Rand, Tony Mundell, Ann Sankey, Geoffrey Kitchener and Colin Pope — when I first discussed my plan to write this book with them, gave me lots of reassurance. They were happy to provide detailed information, they collected specimens for me and often joined me on field trips.
Leaves of various hawkweeds
I had received tremendous support from members of the Sussex Botanical Recording Society with the Flora of Sussex and this continued throughout work on the hawkweeds Handbook. There is insufficient space here, but many other people who have provided generous and invaluable contributions are acknowledged at the start of the book.

LM: Botanists are a helpful bunch! Finally: all BSBI authors benefit from an editor to help them through the process towards publication. Who was your editor?

MS: I was very fortunate to have Tim Rich as my editor. He devoted a huge amount of time to reading the drafts and offering many suggestions for revisions and improvements based on his wide knowledge of hawkweeds specifically, and as an experienced author. The book is much improved and more accurate thanks to his input.

Tim Rich, Mike's editor on
 Hawkweeds of south-east England,
with Attenborough's Hawkweed 
LM: For anyone who is new to  British and Irish botany: Tim is the author of numerous BSBI Handbooks and scientific papers about hawkweeds (and many other plants!), the co-editor of the Plant Crib and a regular contributor to this News blog. You may have seen Tim on television a few years ago when he presented a potted specimen of Attenborough's Hawkweed Hieracium attenboroughianum, the hawkweed he discovered and named after his natural history hero, to Sir David himself.

I asked Tim what he thought about Hawkweeds of south-east England and he said: "What a fantastic contribution to make hawkweed identification in South-east England clear and accessible - I hope this will inspire others to get out and look at hawkweeds and enjoy these wonderful plants"

Sample page with detailed ID
notes for Hieracium vagum
So, thanks to Tim Rich for his editorial contribution and thanks to author Mike Shaw for talking to us about the forthcoming BSBI Handbook. We’d like to congratulate you both and thank you for all the hard work that has gone into this new addition to BSBI’s publications portfolio

Can’t wait to see the book once it’s published!

Now you just need to know how to get hold of a copy of the new BSBI Handbook. 

Please head over to this page and use the secure PayPal facility below if possible. You don’t need to have a PayPal account in order to pay this way: it’s quick and easy for you and it’s efficient for us.

Another option is to fill in the order form which you will find on the same page and post it, along with a cheque made out to BSBI, to BSBI Membership Secretary Gwynn Ellis. We hope you enjoy Hawkweeds of south-east England

Monday 30 March 2020

Wild flower of the month: March: Purple Saxifrage

Purple saxifrage on Pen-y-ghent,
 March 1997
Image: K. J. Walker
While we’re all confined to our homes and gardens, this seems like a good time to revive our Wild flower of the month feature and focus on favourite flowers we’ve seen over the years and which we always remember with affection.

Many of you will know Kevin Walker, BSBI’s Head of Science, from his many scientific papers, the BSBI books he’s co-authored, the field trips he’s undertaken to carry out research, the presentations he’s given... It’s easy to forget that Kevin, like all botanists, is driven primarily by a love of our wild flowers! So read on for Kevin’s account of a trek he undertook to see an iconic plant which flowers in spring:    

“One of my most memorable days botanising was my first ever trip to see Saxifraga oppositifolia (Purple Saxifrage) on Pen-y-ghent in Yorkshire in 1997. Although I had seen it on Ben Lawers a few years before this was the first time I’d encountered it at its best in the spring. I had walked Pen-y-ghent many times, usually as part of the ‘Three Peaks’ challenge, but this day was different. I was only interested in purple jewels that adorn the crags some 50 metres below. The species had almost mythical status to me. It was the plant of the mountains and tantalisingly described by Raven & Walters (1956) in Mountain Flowers as ‘the most spectacular element in the flora of the upper parts of Ingleborough, as also of Pen-y-ghent to the west…which makes as vivid a show here as anywhere else in the British Isles.’

Purple Saxifrage on Pen-y-ghent,
 April 2010.
Image: K. J. Walker
“So here it was in England, growing within an hour’s drive of my home. I had only the vaguest idea of where it grew. Having read Jeremy Robert’s (1991) excellent account of the alpine flora of Ingleborough I knew it grew in abundance above the ominously named Black Shiver – a deep chasm created by a huge landslip. This though was on Ingleborough, the second highest of the Three Peaks (723 m) and the first place it was ever recorded in the British Isles in 1668 (Pearman, 2017). A botanist friend had told me that it was easier to see on Pen-y-ghent; ‘just head up the motorway and when you hit the first line of limestone crags start looking – you won’t miss it’. That sounded easy enough but knowing the geology of the area I was a bit confused. Surely the limestone was lower down where the pavements protruded from the lower slopes. Wasn’t everything above that point just acid?

“So on the penultimate day of March, 1997 I set off from Horton-in Ribblesdale with the brooding hump of Pen-y-ghent in my sights. There was virtually nothing in flower on the way up, except for snowdrops and daffodils along the village stream, a few sprigs of Cottongrass in the bogs, the brilliant bluey-purple hue of Purple Moor-grass florets just emerging on the limestone. And then, just where the track cut through the first line of crags, there it was just below the path - vivid purple cushions amongst the drab greens and browns. On closer inspection the flowers were exquisite with the delicate pink petals enclosing a garish ring of orange anthers. The trailing red stems held tight clusters of leaves, resembling tiny cabbages dipped in sugar due to the deposits of lime on their tips. 

Purple Saxifrage amongst the snow
 on Pen-y-ghent in March 2020
with the distinctive summit of Ingleborough
 in the far distance
Image: Peter Kerr
"I found lots more that day on the line of limestone crags that stretch for almost a kilometre along Pen-y-ghent’s north-eastern flanks. These ended in a large amphitheatre where the piercing call of a male peregrine drew my search to a close as it warned me away from its nest.

“Since then I’ve been back periodically to pay my respects, either to Pen-y-ghent or Ingleborough where it grows on the same band of limestone below the summit. On a beautiful spring day last April, we went as a family to Pen-y-Ghent and then on to the adjacent Plover Hill. As we descended towards Foxup Beck we hit the same band of limestone, here forming a jumble or small outcrops, boulders and flushes. Amongst the rocks were the distinctive leaves of its close relative Saxifraga aizoides (Yellow Saxifrage), another rare alpine confined to a only few sites in Yorkshire, a few fronds of  Asplenium viride (Green Spleenwort) and another limestone speciality of the area,  Alchemilla glaucescens (Silky Lady's-mantle). 

Purple saxifrage on Svalbard
Image: under licence from Robert Harding
"And then there it was – glistening in the spring sunshine – a few patches of Purple Saxifrage in what appeared to be a new site. Alas on checking the BSBI’s Distribution Database I saw that someone had recorded it in the same tetrad – but at least I had put some flesh on the bones of the location.

“Purple saxifrage is a notable for a number of reasons. It is without doubt one of our most attractive mountain flowers adding a welcome splash of colour to the drab locations it usually inhabits. It is also by far the earliest mountain plant to flower, usually poking through the snow in March (exceptionally February), providing nectar for early flying insects. 

Leaves of Purple-saxifrage: 
can you see the lime-exuding pores? 
Image courtesy of J. Crellin/ Floral Images
"It is also exceptionally tolerant of frost and wind growing throughout the arctic and on higher mountains farther south in North America, Europe and Asia. It inhabits some of the coldest regions on earth, including the most northerly known patch of vegetation in the world at 83°N in Peary Land (Scott, 2016). It also has the highest altitudinal record of any plant occurring at an elevation of 4,505 metres (14,780 ft) in the Swiss Alps (Körner, 2011).

“To find it (once Covid-19 restrictions are lifted) your best bet will be to head for base-rich crags in the mountains of Scotland, north-west Ireland, North Wales or the Lake District where, if you are familiar with the distinctive leaves with their lime-exuding pore at the apex, you’ll find it at any time of year. 

"But to see it at its best I suggest you make a pilgrimage to Pen-y-ghent next year in late March or early April so you get to see it at its best against a backdrop of snow and limestone. Follow the motorway route up the southern shoulder and look for it on the first set of crags – like my 26 year-old self - you won’t be disappointed!”

Sunday 29 March 2020

The Dandelion ID bug: Tim says it’s contagious…

Tim in his garden with some dandelions
Image courtesy of T. Rich
Recently I’ve been noticing people posting photos of dandelions in their gardens on social media and expressing surprise that there are almost 250 species in Britain and Ireland! A few brave souls have been trying to put them into sections (there are eight sections) and a few have even tried to ID them to species – no easy task – so I thought we needed some help. 

Who better to advise us than expert botanist Tim Rich, co-editor of the celebrated Plant Crib and author of numerous BSBI Handbooks and scientific papers published in journals such as British & Irish Botany and its predecessor New Journal of Botany.

Over to Tim: 

“Stuck at home? Frustrated? Alone? Anxious with all the uncertainty? Well that’s what happens when you try to identify dandelions in your garden; it’s another contagious bug.

“Start by diagnosing to section, which you should be able to pick up quite quickly as most species in the garden will be section Ruderalia with some Hamata, and occasionally one or two Erythrosperma or Celtica. Generalising, Ruderalia will be in lawns, flower beds, paths etc. - only species with prostrate leaves survive in lawns due to mowing, conversely those with upright leaves grow in wild parts where they can compete with other vegetation. Dandelions in section Hamata tend to be a bit weedy in ecology so like scruffy flower beds. Those in section Erythrosperma prefer dry open conditions such as gravelly drives and path edges. Those in section Celtica like rockeries and patios, perhaps mimicking their natural habitats.

“Diagnosing to species is much harder. I’ve recorded 8-12 species in my three recent gardens, excluding those escaping from my pots (the neighbours have been socially distancing for years).

So here are a few golden or rather yellow rules:
  • Use the right reference sources; the Plant Crib Taraxacum accounts are the primary sources coupled with the BSBI Handbook, Dandelions of Great Britain and Ireland, subject to updates in the Cribs. Stace's New Flora of the British Isles 4th ed. has much the same key to sections as the BSBI Handbook, but the illustrations are too diagrammatic for me.  
  • Be cautious of online picture sources: all of my pictures on iSpot or Dandelions of Cardiff have been verified by the BSBI Dandelion referee so are reliable [Ed.: access to BSBI’s network of expert referees for difficult plants is one of the benefits of membership].    
  • Learn what NOT to try to identify – such as plants trampled on paths, those in regularly mown lawns (even if not yet mown this year), plants regrowing after being weeded, plants in shade, those with feeding damage (keep that tortoise off) or anything that looks like it has a virus or a cough. That makes the job smaller - doesn’t leave a lot in my garden!
  • Select good healthy material with range of leaves, mature buds and open flowers (bract characters are taken from mature buds just before they open). Seeds can be obtained by clocking an immature fruiting head on the windowsill (as above).  
  • In lowland gardens there is only a narrow window for identification/collecting in March to April. Don’t bother outside this period as summer leaves are atypical, though as you sunbathe on the lawn you can impress your friends with "That’s Taraxacum multicolorans you know!”.
  • It is usually very hard to identify dandelions reliably from photos alone, so confirmation will be needed from well-collected and quickly-dried specimens (see guidance in the Plant Crib and the BSBI Handbook on Dandelions). If you need an excuse just to look, the bees and hoverflies will be grateful. 

“The three PowerPoints I presented at the BSBI Recorders Conference in 2018 provide more detailed help for those getting started:

“And when you’ve caught the dandelion identification bug, unless carefully isolated, next year you’ll find they will have infected your whole garden and life. There is no cure”.

Many thanks to Tim for introducing us to the dandelion identification bug and providing the images on this page. If Tim’s suggestions have prompted you to have a go at identifying dandelions to section or beyond: good luck, let us know how you get on! If you’ve decided that you’d rather just call them all dandelions and focus on identifying some less challenging plants, check out Tim’s helpful series of botanical ID videos via the links on this page. 

Tuesday 24 March 2020

COVID-19: responses from BSBI staff, officers and trustees

Bluebell wood in Herts.
Image: I. Denholm
You will probably be aware by now that, in order to comply with Government advice and to reduce the risk of transfer of the Covid 19 virus, BSBI’s Board of Trustees decided last week that all centrally-organised BSBI events, either indoor or outdoor meetings, will be cancelled until at least the end of May. 

They added “It is possible that this will need to be extended. We will review the Government's ongoing advice and update this guidance regularly on our website.

“For anyone booked on a centrally-organised BSBI event that is cancelled, they will be refunded any fees paid to BSBI”.

Local Botanical meetings
County Recorders are cancelling this year’s locally-organised field meetings, at least until the end of May, with immediate effect and until further notice. To find out more, please use the links on the Local Botany page to visit your county page and/ or contact your County Recorder. Many of the county pages also feature a range of local resources (county Floras, Rare Plant Registers, newsletters etc.). So, this is a good time to do some background reading about the plants in your area!

In these challenging times, we’d also like to bring you a message from our President, Lynne Farrell, and then some suggestions to help you keep in touch with the botanical world online:

Wood anemones in a 
Leicestershire wood, 21/3/2020
Image: L. Marsh
A message from the BSBI President
“Following Government advice issued on 23rd March, I am now planning to stay at home and focus on validating records that BSBI members have submitted for the Atlas 2020 project. Everyone has been zealously recording for the past few years and all those records have now, fortunately, been submitted.

“Those of us lucky enough to have gardens may simply want to enjoy looking at plants again, rather than making detailed notes, but personally I always make notes and take photographs of what appeals to me in both a scientific and artistic way, so this is an option open to any of you with a garden.

“If there is a Rare Plant Register available, why not have a look at that and perhaps make plans to visit some of these interesting habitats and species and update some of the records, later in the year if/ when Government advice permits. 

“Botanists are a resilient group of people so I am sure you will be planning what you can do in light of the restrictions and Government advice, which you can keep an eye on here”. 

Great advice from Lynne! More info and helpful tips below but first, enjoy this gorgeous photo, an entry in the 2015 BSBI Photo Competition, taken by Mike Beard: if you’re not sure what tree this is, we have another blogpost in the pipeline that may help!


Resources to see us through
There are still some plant-related activities we can enjoy while we are staying safely at home and going in to our gardens (if we are fortunate to have gardens). BSBI’s online presence and website provides options for connecting with other botanists and contains a huge array of tools, resources and information you may find useful at this time. Examples include:
  • webpage providing a host of videos containing plant ID tips. If you know of any good plant ID videos not shown here, send us a link and we'll include them!
  • Our 'Get Started' page for beginner botanists features reviews of plant ID books currently in print: why not help mentor the next generation of botanists by reviewing a plant ID book? Email me if you’re interested.
  • In your own garden, are you noticing any ornamental plants showing signs of invasiveness? Plant Alert is a project aimed at discovering which garden plants have the potential to become invasive and problematic in future. Upload your photos and records to the Plant Alert website.
  • Did you know that photos entered in to this year’s BSBI Photo Competition don’t need to have been taken this year? This would be a great time to go through your archived photos and see if you have anything suitable to enter! 
  • If you’re looking after primary school-age children at home, and have access to a garden, do check out the Herbology Hunt spotter sheets.
  • While indoors, we have an archive of older publications, free to browse – take a look: https://archive.bsbi.org/
  • Wild Flower Hour is a public participation exercise where botanists share images and discuss via Twitter the wild or naturalised plants they’ve found in bloom that week. Plants you’ve seen through your window or in your garden also count for Wild Flower Hour!
  • Social media provides a great way of catching up with fellow botanists without running the risk of... catching anything unpleasant in the process! If you've turned down Twitter, ignored Instagram or feared Facebook until now, maybe this is the time to dip your toe in the water? 
So, stay safe and stay in touch! Maybe leave a comment below if you have other suggestions to help fellow botanists cope with these challenging times?  Let’s end with another fabulous plant photo, this time from ace flower photographer Karen Woolley (thanks Karen!) and look forward to blue skies, sunshine and flowers ahead: 

Greater stitchwort photographed last week
by Karen Woolley @Wildwingsand 

Wednesday 4 March 2020

BSBI: securing our future

Business consultant Christine from CASS
 leads us into the first day of workshops
On New Year’s Eve, we told you about some of BSBI members’ successes in 2019 and plans to build on these successes in the coming years. We mentioned the Resilience project which aims to help BSBI define what we stand for and ensure that we can achieve what we want to achieve in the next five years, and the acclaimed CASS Business School Centre for Charity Effectiveness that we were able to work with thanks to funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Chris Miles, County Recorder for Dumfriesshire and Chair of the Board of Trustees, has been steering the Resilience project through and he published this short note in BSBI eNews in November. I thought News & Views readers would appreciate an update so I caught up with Chris the other day to get the latest news and find out what the project means for members.

Trustees, staff, committee chairs, Council
members and officers: Workshop 1
LM: Ok Chris, what can you tell us?

CM: Well, we’ve had a series of meetings and workshops with trustees, officers, Council members and staff and a strategy is emerging underpinned by BSBI values, principles, goals and vision. We’re pulling all this together into a draft strategy document which the Board will be looking at when it meets in March.

LM: So can you summarise for us where the Resilience project has got to so far?

CM: Yes! Three clear goals have emerged under which our priorities and actions will be focused:
3 staff members, a past and current President
and CASS consultant Caroline: workshop 2 
  • The first goal is about building and sustaining a diverse community of botanists so that we can develop the skills to maintain BSBI’s expertise and so that people can get greater enjoyment from our wild flora. In practice, this means an enhanced focus on training and learning activities for all skill levels, from beginners to more experienced botanists.
  • The second goal is about maintaining our high-quality data and interpreting that to help plant conservation. This would be our main contribution to the biodiversity and climate change challenges.
  • The third goal is to sharpen our communication and information sharing through more public engagement projects like the New Year Plant Hunt and continued evolution of our website and social media interfaces.

Officers and trustees working in small groups 
LM: Great, so more opportunities to learn more about plants; more highlighting of our data (collected by our wonderful volunteer members, interpreted by County Recorders, staff and officers); and Chris, as BSBI Comms Officer I’m particularly pleased to read about goal three!

CM: Yes we’re going to be building on our outreach activities, many of which have been reported on these pages: New Year Plant Hunt, Wild Flower Hour - but several things need to be right for us to deliver these 3 goals.

LM: Ok so what do we need to do?

Chris Miles considers the list of priorities that
Christine pulled together from Workshop 3.
Text blocked out - strictly embargoed for now!  
CM: There is a need to have sound finances and we are working with another consultant on a funding strategy. News & Views readers can see from our Annual Reports, which we publish here, that we are moving in the right direction on finances but we’re not yet quite where we want to be. We also need to make sure that our volunteer members, who are the beating heart of BSBI, remain at the very centre of all that we do. So staff will continue to focus on supporting volunteer activity and volunteers will be encouraged with appropriate training and treated with the same professional standards as staff. We will look at how to improve our decision-making processes so that BSBI is able to move quickly and take advantage of opportunities as they arise. And we will keep raising the society’s profile so that our fantastic data and breadth of our activities are known by more people and are used to influence policy to give a brighter future to our wild plants.

LM: That all sounds great Chris – and huge thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund for making the Resilience project possible for BSBI! Will you come back here after the March Board meeting to tell us how it went please? And maybe to give us a glimpse of the strategy document and talk us through how we’re going to achieve these goals?

CM: Ok it’s a deal! See you later this month.