Sunday 31 May 2020

Wildflower of the Month: May: Meadow Saxifrage

Painting of meadow saxifrage
by Deborah Lambkin
In recent months, we’ve heard from BSBI Head of Science Kevin Walker about a few of his favourite wildflowers: in March, he told us about the pilgrimages he had made over the years to see Purple Saxifrage, first as a 26 year-old plant obsessive and then over the years with his young family; in April he told us about Snake’s-head fritillary and how botanists have long argued over whether it’s native or not.

Now a locked-down Kevin tells us about a favourite plant he managed to find recently while following BSBI guidance about social distancing and permitted exercise

Over to Kevin:

“One of my botanical highlights of lockdown was the discovery of a small population of Meadow Saxifrage Saxifraga granulata on a riverbank close to my home in Harrogate. This lowland saxifrage is nowhere common; in my part of North Yorkshire there are probably about a dozen colonies, scattered on riverbanks, road verges and in the occasional churchyard. 

Meadow saxifrage site near Harrogate
Image: K. Walker
"In other parts of Britain and Ireland, you’re more likely to see it in damp meadows or at the bottom of dry chalk downland slopes where the soils are a little deeper. In some areas it even occurs in ‘old lawns’ that have been sympathetically managed for wildflowers.

“It is a glorious plant to look at; quite tall for a saxifrage and with large porcelain-white flowers on long, almost leafless, hairy stems. It has rather attractive leaves the shape of scallop shells and most surprising of all it produces tiny red bulbils at the base of the stem; these are the ‘granulations’ that give the plant its name and form completely new (albeit genetically identical) plants.    
Meadow saxifrage bulbils
Image: K. Walker
“Meadow Saxifrage is well adapted to a life in hay meadows, flowering and fruiting well before the grass is cut in July. Elsewhere its survival is more precarious. On riverbanks it has a different ecology growing where floodwaters scour away the soil transporting its bulbils with it downstream. Indeed, the floods this spring almost entirely obliterated one colony I know growing close to the River Nidd. 

"On road verges it is highly susceptible to mowing, especially during May including one of my local sites on the verge of a quiet lane leading to a farm. Only once have I seen it produce flowers when the farmer missed a small section near to the base of a tree. The same is true of many churchyards where the grass amongst the graves is kept uniformly short. So it is heartening to hear that one of our local churchyard colonies, in St John’s in Sharow near to Ripon, is thriving under a sympathetic mowing regime.

Meadow saxifrage in St. John's churchyard, Sharow
Image: S. Warwick
"In recent years Plantlife have been promoting #NoMowMay so that wildflowers like Meadow Saxifrage get the chance to flower and set seed in our lawns, churchyards and public spaces. This is part of their Every Flower Counts scheme which encourages us to leave our lawns uncut and then to record what is in flower at the end of May. Last year participants recorded half a million flowers of over 200 species, including orchids and Meadow Saxifrage, which equates to around 12 grammes of nectar sugar produced by every garden each day. 

"Such schemes are highlighting the huge benefits of letting the grass grow, not only for wildflowers, but also for other wildlife. This year #NoMowMay, whether by design or accident, has meant that our urban environments are much more flower-rich which has benefitted us all during these dark days of lockdown.

Meadow saxifrage flowers
Image: J. Warwick
"So why had this population of Meadow Saxifrage eluded me for so long? I had walked that way many times before and, I’m embarrassed to say, I had even spent a day recording the wildflowers in the same 1 kilometre square. Maybe it was because you needed to make a special effort to find it. The plants are tucked away between the stream and a patch of gorse and were only discovered when we descended to the stream to look for otter prints and to paddle. It’s also one of our earliest wildflowers to flower, usually in mid-May, and so is easily overlooked later in the year when most botanical activity takes place.

"But probably the main reason for its discovery is that lockdown has given us a reason to explore the hidden corners that we ordinarily ignore. In doing so it has opened our eyes to the beauty and attraction of the commonplace all around us. And what better way to celebrate this than through the discovery of wildflowers. As Charles Raven noted during the dark wartime days of the 1940s, “But for an interest that is always available, which takes you out into the loveliest scenery and yet can be satisfied in your own backyard, and that continually offers fresh insight into the beauty and worth of nature, the study of wild plants stands high.” For many of us, wildflowers have brought some much-needed happiness during our own dark days and will continue to do so, as we emerge, blinking into the bright June sunlight".

Tuesday 26 May 2020

Spittlebug survey under lockdown

Cuckoo-spit on a Galium sp.
Image: A.J. Stewart
Last year we passed on info from colleagues at Forest Research, the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Royal Horticultural Society and the John Innes Centre who were working together to raise awareness about a potential threat to our trees and how you could help researchers understand more about this threat. The BRIGIT project aimed to find out more about the  Xylella fastidiosa bacterium and botanists were asked to record spittle or frog-hoppers on plants while out recording for Atlas 2020

Things are quite different this year: recording for Atlas 2020 has finished and we're all under lockdown so we are definitely not roaming around the countryside looking at plants! But, although fortunately there have not been any occurrences of Xylella recorded in Britain or Ireland yet, that doesn't mean that this potential threat has gone away. 

Over to Dr Alan Stewart from the University of Sussex to tell us more:

"Did you know that the ‘cuckoo-spit’ that you see in spring is produced by the immature stage (nymph) of a spittlebug or froghopper? It is thought that the spittle is produced to protect the nymphs from drying out and from their predators. Once the nymphs emerge as adults, usually in late June, they leave their spittle ‘nest’ behind and become free flying. The name froghopper reflects the fact that their face is rather bulbous and therefore froglike, and that they are one of the most powerful jumpers in the animal kingdom. 

Meadow Spittlebug Philaenus spumarius
Image: C. Harkin
"There are ten species of froghopper in Britain. The so-called Meadow Spittlebug, Philaenus spumarius, is one of our commonest insects and has possibly the broadest diet of any insect, being known to feed on more than 400 species of plant.

"Interest in these insects has recently been heightened by the fact that they all feed on the liquid contents of the plant xylem tissue and are therefore capable of transmitting various plant diseases that reside there. One of these, the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa, has recently been responsible for the death of millions of olive trees in southern Italy. 

"Fortunately, the Xylella bacterium has NOT been found in the UK, but there is a danger that it could be accidentally introduced in imported plants (especially lavender, rosemary and olive trees).

"We need to collect good data on two aspects of these insects to understand better how the Xylella bacterium would spread if it were ever introduced into Britain: the geographical distribution of the different species of spittlebug and what plant species they feed on. Last year, we started to collect some of this information through a national survey, funded by the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and coordinated through the RHS, focused on gardeners recording spittle on their garden plants. 

Another reminder of what to
look out for in your garden
or during permitted daily exercise
Image: A. J. Stewart
"This year, the restrictions on movement due to Covid19 mean that we have to be careful about extending the survey into the wider countryside. Nevertheless, we hope that people will enjoy recording spittle in places that they visit as part of their daily permitted exercise. Of course, those people lucky enough to have a garden will still be able to record the presence of cuckoo-spit on the plants in their garden.

"Can you help? It would mean recording cuckoo-spit when you find it in your garden or elsewhere and especially the plant species on which you find it. Your plant identification skills will help us collect vital information. Please consider contributing to this important survey. Much more information and an online form for submitting your sightings can be found on our website at:

"We have developed an ‘exercise sheet’ for families to follow when confined to their gardens, that should appeal particularly to young children:

"We have also recently released a short video on how to find spittlebugs:

"Please be sure to follow the government’s instructions at the time about social distancing when walking in the countryside." 

So if you are in your garden recording as part of the BSBI Garden Wildflower Hunt, or if you're taking permitted exercise near your home, while of course following carefully the latest guidance for your country around social distancing, why not keep a look-out for cuckoo-spit and use the links above to record your finds? 

Monday 25 May 2020

Looking at Fingered sedge during lockdown

Fingered sedge near Lynne's home
Image: L. Farrell
As the recently-updated BSBI response to Covid-19 makes clear, it is possible for botanists in some parts of the UK and Ireland to take permitted exercise close to home. Of course, government guidance for their country must be followed to the letter, including adhering to social distancing rules and avoiding popular/ busy beauty spots etc. 

At the time of writing, botanising away from the home, whilst sticking to the rules, is permitted in England. BSBI President Lynne Farrell is fortunate to have some first-rate habitat right on her doorstep and within walking distance, so she did some careful planning and then ventured out. 

Over to Lynne:

“I live in the Arnside and Silverdale AONB, which straddles both West Lancashire (VC60) and Westmorland (VC69), and recently, I’ve walked some of the local footpaths close to my home, keeping my distance from other local people, who have also been exploring these pathways. Once the Government guidance on permitted daily exercise was updated last week, I took the opportunity to look up the local Rare Plant Register and the records on the BSBI Distribution Database for the rare Fingered Sedge Carex digitata, which, I was aware, has one of its main areas right on my doorstep. 

BSBI distribution map for Fingered Sedge
Dark red squares show C21st records
Pale pink squares show C20th records
"Plotting the sites on the local 2.5 inch OS map, it became clear that I could actually walk to many of them from my home, and so during this exceptionally fine spell of weather, I have investigated what was, to me, a relatively unfamiliar species.

“Now I am aware that Carex digitata prefers to be in dappled shade, on well-drained limestone, often rocky banks and even though it has not rained here for more than a month, it has flowered well, although in some of the more open limestone pavements places it is looking rather desiccated. 

"Clearly this is a plant which takes its opportunity to grow, flower and fruit before the leaves are fully expanded on the trees, often Yew Taxus baccata, Ash Fraxinus excelsior and Hazel Corylus avellana. Other grounds flora plants have often not emerged but Dog’s Mercury Mercuralis perennis is a frequent associate.

The woodland where Lynne saw Fingered Sedge:
click on the image and zoom in to see the plants
Image: L. Farrell
“There are only another 286 species listed in the Cumbria Rare Plant Register and Fly Orchid Ophrys insectifera is the next target species I’ll be looking at, as it struggles to come into flower in this dry May, and I am now allowed to walk a little further afield to investigate. I’ll let you all know how I get on”.

Many thanks to Lynne for telling us about the Fingered Sedge which she is lucky enough to have so close to her home.

We’re always keen to hear which plants people are spotting while sticking to those essential guidelines about staying safe. So, whether you are exploring rare plants or common species, whether within walking distance, right on your doorstep or in your garden, why not drop us a line and let us know what you are spotting? But please remember to read the guidelines carefully before planning any journeys outside your home and do take all the necessary precautions - the plants will still be there next year and we want you to be there too so you can enjoy them! 

Tuesday 19 May 2020

Fern ID course with Josh Styles

Do you know what the fern is, featured
on the opening slide of Josh's fern ID course?
If not, consider signing up for the course!
Botanist and ecological consultant Joshua Styles is well-known to readers of this News & Views blog. Back when he was an undergrad at Edge Hill University, studying under Prof Paul Ashton, he exhibited at BSBI's Exhibition Meeting in 2016 and benefited from a BSBI Plant Study Grant

Since then Josh has published in BSBI News (twice!), taken part in Botanical University Challenge (twice!), and written about how he set up the North-West Rare Plants Initiative. He has also managed to notch up a FISC level 6 - there aren't many level 6 botanists in Britain and none as young as Josh (he's still in his 20s!). 

Now he's turned his hand to training, starting last month with a free online ID course to dandelion sections. His latest venture is a fern ID course, this time with a small fee involved (£7 per person).

Cystopteris fragilis
Image: J. Crellin
Josh said "“Ferns are such prehistoric organisms. They came about in the mid-Devonian around 390 million years ago and they’re still around today. As well as being amongst some of the earliest vascular plants, many extant species in Britain also have associated conservation interest today. If you’d like to learn more about this fascinating group, and how to get to grips with identifying some of the 50+ species that grow across GB and Ireland, sign up to my Fern Identification course running this Saturday at 11a.m.!”

Josh tells me that the course is almost full but there is a waiting list so why not register now and he'll let you know if you have secured a place or if you're on the waiting list?