Wednesday 29 July 2020

Send Lorna your sedges!

Large Yellow Sedge Carex flava
 is part of the SEM study
An early career botanist ,whose research plans have been thrown into disarray by Covid-19 restrictions, needs your help. Please take a moment to read Lorna's request below and see if you're able to come to her aid. 

Over to Lorna:

"Hi everyone, firstly let me introduce myself. My name is Lorna Halliwell and I’m a Masters by Research (MRes) student at Edge Hill University. 

"Some of you may have met me in 2018 when the BSBI Exhibition Meeting was held at Edge Hill. I was the student who was demonstrating the Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM). So, now that you know who I am, let me get to the point of the blog!

"For my MRes dissertation I’m using the SEM to look at sedges and particularly the utricles of Carex species. Unfortunately, due to the current situation with Covid-19 my plans have been thrown into utter chaos! 

Scanning electron micrograph of the
utricle of Long-bracted Sedge C. extensa 
Initially, I had planned to visit herbaria across the country to collect samples, however I have no idea when they will reopen to research students (and I’ve been told it could even be months still before they let people back in). 

"So, after speaking to my supervisor, Professor Paul Ashton and Dr. Mary Dean, they have suggested I use social media and reach out to the “Carex-o-phile” community to ask for help!

"So, this is my plea! If you could please collect utricles from any UK based Carex species. They can be from cultivated, garden varieties or from species found anywhere in the country. Ideally, what I would like is 5-10 mature utricles from each plant and, if possible, from 3 different plants.

Lorna with the SEM
at Edge Hill University
"If you are able to collect some samples, please could you place the utricles from each plant into separate envelopes and label them with the species, location collected (with OS Grid references or GPS location, if possible), the date collected and your name. 

"If you can help out and gather samples, please could you send them to the following address (with a note saying they are for the attention of Lorna Halliwell):
c/o Gabriel Dixon, 
BioSciences Department, 
Edge Hill University, 
St Helens Road, 
L39 4QP.

"If anyone can collect samples, I would be incredibly grateful to you! Stay safe and if you would like any further information not covered in this blog, feel free to email myself at"

Tuesday 28 July 2020

Joseph Banks from Botany Bay to RBG Kew

A new book has just been published which claims to restore Sir Joseph Banks "to his proper place in history as a leading scientific figure of the English Enlightenment".

'The Multifarious Mr Banks: From Botany Bay to Kew, The Natural Historian Who Shaped the World' is written by Dr Toby Musgrave and was published in April by Yale University Press. The book is 386 pages long and boasts 48 colour illustrations. 

A review of 'The Multifarious Mr Banks' will appear in the next issue of BSBI News, our membership newsletter, but meanwhile, here's a little more info from Yale University Press to whet your appetite: 

"As official botanist on James Cook's first circumnavigation, the longest-serving president of the Royal Society, advisor to King George III, the "father of Australia," and the man who established Kew as the world's leading botanical garden, Sir Joseph Banks was integral to the English Enlightenment. Yet he has not received the recognition that his multifarious achievements deserve.

The first page of the book -
click to enlarge the image and
get a taste of the author's style
"In this engaging account, Toby Musgrave reveals the true extent of Banks’s contributions to science and Britain. From an early age Banks pursued his passion for natural history through study and extensive travel, most famously on the HMS Endeavour. He went on to become a pivotal figure in the advancement of British scientific, economic, and colonial interests. With his enquiring, enterprising mind and extensive network of correspondents, Bank’s reputation and influence were global. Drawing widely on Banks's writings, Musgrave sheds light on Banks’s profound impact on British science and empire in an age of rapid advancement."

If you are a BSBI member and you would like to order a copy of the book, you can claim a discount of 30% off the RRP of £25. To order your copy at the exclusive price of only £17.50, please go to the password-protected, members-only area of the BSBI website where you will find the code and details of how to claim your discount. 

Forgotten your password? Email me, with your membership number OR your postal address, from the email address you used when you joined BSBI and if your details match those held on our membership database, I'll send you your password. Or you can find it in the welcome pack we sent you when you joined. 

Not yet a BSBI member? Our subs page lists current membership rates and offers various ways to join us with just a couple of clicks of your mouse! It also has links to blogposts like this one listing all the benefits of BSBI membership - discounts on botany books is only one of the many perks of joining our society, whose numbers are growing by the day!   

Monday 27 July 2020

Wildflower of the Month: July: Sulphur Clover

Sulphur Clover at Brampton
Meadow SSSI, Hunts.
Image: K. J. Walker
This year, BSBI Head of Science Kevin Walker has been focusing each month on a different wildflower. From March's purple saxifrage to June's bee orchid, we've all found out more about some of our best loved and most iconic wildflowers. But July’s Wildflower of the Month is a plant that many people are unlikely to have heard of, never mind seen. 

Over to Kevin to tell us more:

"Sulphur Clover Trifolium ochroleucon, a lovely pale-yellow clover, is a speciality of grasslands on the boulder clays of East Anglia stretching in a wide arc around the fenland basin. Here you are most likely to stumble across it on one of the ‘protected road verges’ that are scattered across the six East Anglian counties. Due to the catastrophic loss of old meadows and pastures, these narrow strips of grassland are fast becoming wildflower arks for some of our most threatened species. If we needed a flagship species to encapsulate their plight then Sulphur Clover would be a good candidate; its recent history provides us with insights into why these road verges are so important and also the challenges their wildflowers face due to mismanagement, pollution and increased disturbance from human activities.

Sulphur Clover, Honeydon road verge
Image: P. Stroh
Post-glacial relic
"Sulphur Clover isn’t particularly rare by British standards. In conservation jargon it is Nationally Scarce, that is it occurs in less than 5% of the hectads (10 x 10 km grid squares) that make up Great Britain. Nor is it highly threatened – it’s title ‘Near Threatened’ means that it’s not quite ‘Vulnerable’ but then again certainly not of ‘Least Concern’, although I’d wage money on it being classified as ‘Vulnerable’ or even ‘Endangered’ on the next iteration of the GB Red List. But categorisations aside it is indicative of good quality habitat, the sort that is worthy of conservation at the local if not the national scale. It seems to be a pioneer species of raw mineral soils and as such is a poor competitor that was probably more suited to the harsh conditions that existed in East Anglia during the early post-glacial period before the development of woodland. So today it hangs on where summer droughts prevent the spread of more competitive species. Thankfully, like other perennial clovers it is probably quite long-lived and produces lots of seeds that are readily dispersed, most likely by animals and machinery (Walker, 2019).

Crested cow-wheat
Image: P. Stroh
"I first became aware of Sulphur Clover when I worked at Monks Wood experimental station near to Huntingdon. It was something of a local celebrity with populations easily accessible during lunchtime walks. It even grew on the edge of the ride in Monks Wood although it had gone, possibly due to shading, before I arrived. In some local sites it grew in excellent company, most notably with Crested Cow-wheat Melampyrum cristatum and Bath Asparagus Ornithogalum pyrenaicum on a spectacular verge near to Honeydon in Bedfordshire, which I first visited with colleagues in 1997. [Ed.: if you'd like to see what  Sulphur Clover, Crested cow-wheat and other wild flowers look like growing on a protected road verge in Hunts., check out this short video by BSBI England Officer Pete Stroh].  

"The plant interested me so much that I devoted a chapter of my PhD to it. Using historical records I managed to trace 35 localities in ‘Old Huntingdonshire’ where it had been recorded in the past. Over two hectic summers I revisited 30 of these sites collecting information on populations sizes, habitats, threats and management. The results were worrying (Walker & Pinches, 2009). At only 13 sites could we find any plants, eight of which were on road verges. Even more alarming was the decline in old meadows and pastures; only four of 11 populations had survived. Thankfully one of the best sites was a SSSI in the middle of Huntingdon Racecourse where 1000s of plants occurred in a large area of species-rich grassland. We were not alone in charting the fortunes of this lovely plant. Around the same time similar surveys were carried out in Cambridgeshire, Essex and Norfolk. The results in some counties were even worse in Cambridgeshire, for instance, three-quarters of its populations had perished and it had virtually disappeared from meadows and pastures (Cadbury, 2012).

Sulphur Clover on a road verge
Image: P. Stroh
"So why had Sulphur Clover declined by so much? The simple answer was that many of its former grassland haunts had been ploughed-up or improved as farmers either shifted to arable or intensified grassland management. The few surviving meadow populations were often protected as SSSIs or County Wildlife sites. The declines on roadsides, though less marked, were more difficult to explain. A paper by Ken Adams in Essex provided some much-needed answers (Adams, 2007). The management of road verges had clearly changed dramatically over the last 100 years. Before the Second World War verges were usually cut by local farmers relatively infrequently and usually during the late summer. The arisings were often removed as hay and is some cases broad verges might have been grazed. Hedgerows would have been managed less intensively and inputs of nutrients from human activity, in particular from farming and cars, would have been negligible. 

Crested Cow-wheat on the road verge, Honeydon
Image: P. Stroh
"By the end of the C20th, however, the management had changed dramatically. Many roads had been widened to cope with increased traffic and cutting was carried out by contractors much more frequently and earlier in the year. Contractors also left the cuttings in place thereby increasing soil fertility. Further eutrophication was caused by deposition of nutrients from adjacent farmland and from traffic and other airborne sources. As a consequence, our roadsides have become less diverse and dominated by a small number of tall grasses and herbs such as Cow Parsley Anthriscus sylvestris.

Sulphur Clover
Image: P. Stroh
A last refuge?
"A few years ago Plantlife published an excellent report on the importance of road verges for our threatened wildflowers (Plantlife, 2017). This included a league table in which Sulphur Clover came in fourth with 68% of its populations confined to road verges, although those above it were confined to just a single or a handful of sites. So road verges really are its final refuge. If we are to save it and many other roadside wildflowers for future generations, then we need to improve their protection and management.

"One of the key problems we face is making sure that highway managers know where the best road verge sites are. This might sound simple but it has so far proved problematic. We can erect signs, posts and big flashing beacons but this still doesn’t stop contractors trashing them with depressing regularity. Wouldn’t it be great if we could set-up a national inventory of the best sites that could be easily accessed by all those involved in their conservation and management? This can’t be beyond our wit! Most county councils have a list of protected verges and many have undertaken surveys to establish which wildflowers are present. Combining this information with the BSBI’s records on a webpage could be a game-changer for our roadside wildflowers if sufficiently well-publicised and supported.

Crested Cow-wheat and Sulphur Clover
on the verge: Stocking Lane
Image: P. Stroh
"Once they are ‘on the map’ then we need to ensure that road verges are managed appropriately. Thanks again to the efforts of Plantlife, we know what good management looks like. Their best practice guidance provide highway managers with all they need to know – in a nutshell, cut at least once a year but only after plants have had a chance to seed, remove the cuttings and, if you can, maintain a bit of structure to benefit other wildlife (Plantlife, 2016; Bromley et al., 2019). And this campaigning appears to be paying dividends; highway managers in different parts of the country are starting to manage road verges with wildflowers in mind. There is still a long way to go but at least there is now more hope for the road verge specialities such as Sulphur Clover, Crested Cow-wheat and Bath Asparagus. By increasing awareness and improving management, their life on the edge of our highways and bye-ways may not be as precarious as it once was".

Adams, K.J. 2007. Notes on Essex specialities. 12: the status and distribution of Sulphur clover, Trifolium ochroleucon Hudson, in Essex and Eastern England. Essex Naturalist 24: 115-118.
Bromley, J., McCarthy, B. & Shellswell, C. 2019. Managing grassland road verges. A best practice guide. Plantlife, Salisbury
Cadbury, C.J. 2012. Sulphur Clover Trifolium ochroleucon: its decline in Cambridgeshire (v.c.29). Nature in Cambridgeshire 54: 44-53.
Walker, K.J. 2019. Trifolium ochroleucon Sulphur Clover, in P. Stroh, K.J. Walker, S. Smith, R. Jefferson, C. Pinches & T. Blackstock (comp. & eds.). Grassland plants of the British and Irish lowlands. BSBI, Durham, pp. 307-308.
Walker, K.J. & Pinches, C.E. 2009. The status of Trifolium ochroleucon in Huntingdonshire. Nature in Cambridgeshire 51:3-12.

Sunday 26 July 2020

Nature up close and personal: a well-being experiment

Our colleagues at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology have been in touch to tell us about an exciting new research project developed to investigate the relationship between nature connectedness, citizen science and well-being, especially in the context of Covid-19. They are hoping that News & Views readers will take part in this project, which will help UKCEH make recommendations on the most effective ways to engage with nature for well-being.

Over to the UKCEH team to tell us more:

"During this period of lockdown and social isolation, many of us have learned (or re-discovered) the importance of engaging with nature to our happiness and well-being.
Maybe we are noticing nature more in gardens and parks, the countryside, or simply looking from our windows. Engaging with nature will remain valuable, even as lockdown restrictions are being eased. But what we don’t yet know, is how different types of nature activities affect us.

"To help answer this question the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH), University of Derby and the British Science Association is asking members of the public to take part in a research project ‘Nature up close and personal’. This project will take place across six weeks and will determine what affect interacting and being aware of nature has on well-being.

"By joining in, you’ll be asked to take part in simple, nature-based activities, allowing you to experience nature up close and personal – spending 10 minutes or so each day, for five days over the course of one week. You will be asked a few short questions, to learn more about your experiences. Whether you’re a nature nerd or nature usually passes you by – this is for you".

Dr Michael Pocock, an Ecologist at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, who is leading the project, hopes it will provide new evidence around the benefits of citizen science:

“Although there is already lots of evidence of the positive impact the natural environment has on our well-being, many of the studies have been on exposure or time spent in natural spaces, rather than how engaged with nature people are. We hope that through this new project, we will discover the impact of different types of nature-based activity on our well-being and connectedness with nature.”

“Hopefully, we will even be able to identify how different types of engagement with nature provide different impacts on the participants. We can then make evidence-based recommendations on how to develop activities to help mitigate the negative effects of social isolation. This is particularly relevant now with the effects of the COVID-19 crisis.”

"The ‘Nature up close and personal’ project runs for a duration of six weeks from 14th July 2020 until 25th August 2020. Participants can sign up at any point over the six-week period, then participate in their nature-based activities across one week. The participants will be divided into five groups, each doing a different nature-based activity – from noticing to recording nature.

"A private garden or access to masses of open space is not required – a local park, patch of weedy ground, or even a balcony is all that is needed. And with activities taking between 10-15 minutes a day, the project team hope that even the busiest of people will be able to easily join in.

"Together we can discover how our well-being is affected noticing nature up close and personal". 

Check out this short video about the project - you can also find it on the new BSBI YouTube channel on the Biological Recording playlist and then head over here to take part: "

Thursday 16 July 2020

Remembering botanist and apothecary James Petiver (c1663 - 1718)

Royal Society Publishing has published a special issue of Notes and Records, their Journal of the History of Science, called  Remembering James Petiver.

Petiver was a C17th botanist and apothecary who corresponded with John Ray and Carl Linnaeus

The special issue marks the 300th anniversary of Petiver's death and provides the most comprehensive academic account of Petiver's career yet published, combining his known biography with new research; it accounts for Petiver's formation as urban apothecary and botanist, his emergence as public natural historian in the mid 1690s, and his subsequent career as natural history collector and author.

Petiver's botanical and entomological collections - photo above right of one of Petiver's specimens -  were bought by Hans Sloane and his herbarium specimens are now part of the collection held at the Natural History Museum,London

The special issue is organised and edited by Richard Coulton and Charles E Jarvis. It is  currently free to access here: and there is also a blog post here: 

Wednesday 15 July 2020

Being a busy bee: BSBI President goes all entomological!

Fly orchid
Image: Sue Brindle
In late May, we heard from BSBI President Lynne Farrell who had been out looking for - and finding - Fingered Sedge in her local area while the whole country was under deep lockdown and none of us could go too far from home. A month later, Lynne was able to go a little further afield (while still following Government guidance, of course) but one of her most interesting finds was actually made much closer to home! 

Over to Lynne:  

"After my local walking survey of Carex digitata (Fingered sedge), I have moved on to search for Ophrys insectifera (Fly Orchid) in the South Lakes, as I am now allowed to drive to visit sites. However, due to the very dry and hot weather we experienced in May and early June, this has not been so successful. Some of the populations have been located, often with local people accompanying me at a safe distance, in the field. But many of the early-flowering orchids have been struggling with the unusually clement weather, which is not what I would have expected for species that enjoy Mediterranean conditions. At several sites there were shrivelled rosettes, which did not look at all like they would produce inflorescences, and indeed many of them did not, and simply fizzled out. A few did survive and an image of a fine spike growing on the Arnside reservoir grassland was visited by people keen to see it on their walks (photo above right). It is a species with a relatively short life-span, often no more than 5 years for an individual plant, and it prefers edges of woodland/grassland, so populations fluctuate anyway, and sites ‘disappear’ when they become overgrown. Perhaps readers can let me know how Fly Orchid has fared in their patches?

Wool Carder Bee
Image: Rob Petley-Jones
"But the fine weather has benefited other species, and many friends have reported the buzzing of the bees in their gardens and out in the countryside. Sitting on my garden bench one hot afternoon, I was suddenly aware that the orange Buddleja globosa behind me was alive with literally 100s of bees. I got my Field Guide to Bees out and found at least five species, sending a few images to local entomologists. Friends Ron and Jane Petley-Jones, also keen gardeners, came round to help with further identification, take Buddleja cuttings, and have tea in the garden, during which time Rob took more photos, saying he thought one bee, resting on my rockery, was especially interesting. This turned out to be an Anthidium manicatum (Wool Carder Bee), which is widely scattered in England and Wales but not that common, and very attractive (photo on left).The males have abdominal spines, which they use to defend their territory round a patch of flowers, usually in the Lamiaceae family, head-butting, wrestling, crushing and even killing intruders. As the Field Guide says, it is a robust bee. So I have been Buddleja-watching for several weeks now. The dark purple ‘Black Knight’ is about to come into bloom.

The Phantom Hoverfly on Arnside Knott
Image: L. Farrell
 "Of course, I have been up Arnside Knott again as I live very nearby, keeping an eye open for various plants, but I also managed to photograph an unusual flying object (photo on right). This turned out to be even more exciting than the bee, as it was identified as The Phantom hoverfly Doros profuges, a UK BAP species, mainly found in the Weald, at one site in N. Lancs, and strangely, one caught in a malaise trap in 1991 on Mull (yes, in "my" vice-county). Rob got very excited when I sent him my photo and came over the next day, as Doros only flies for 2-3 weeks, so I had to go up the Knott again! The news hit the hoverfly network and even Stuart Ball and Roger Morris, authors of Britain’s Hoverflies Wildguide, expressed delight. The book says ‘unmistakable due to its size and wing-markings’ and ‘extraordinarily difficult to find, even at its few well-known sites’. However, it now has a new British site, and I am very pleased with my recent entomological observations.

"Keep your eyes open when out botanising folks, you never know what else you will find".

I love the fact that the President of the Botanical Society is also finding rare invertebrates at new locations! We may not all have Lynne's huge network of contacts across all branches of wildlife and nature conservation, but we can certainly emulate her by keeping our eyes peeled as we explore our local patches, noting and photographing what we see and using the internet to find local contacts in biological recording networks. Happy hunting!