Monday 31 August 2020

August issue of British & Irish Botany published

Habitat of S. myosuroides in the
Killarney National Park, Co. Kerry
Image: R. Hodd
We've just pressed 'publish' on our biggest issue yet of British & Irish Botany: eight papers and three short notes. It looks as though lockdown restrictions, which kept so many botanists at home, also gave them a chance to write a scientific paper or two! 

So what's in this latest issue? 

First of all there's a paper from Rory Hodd and Fred Rumsey about the newest addition to the European flora - it's a tiny rare fern called Stenogrammitis myosuroides which Rory found in Killarney on the west coast of Ireland. But the jaw-dropping fact is that until Rory's discovery, the closest locations we knew of for this species were in tropical cloud-forests in Jamaica, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, more than 6000km away. 

Could it be that this little fern's spores were carried across the Atlantic in wind currents? That seems to be the most plausible explanation. S. myosuroides doesn't even have a common name yet: suggestions so far include Kerry mousetail fern, transatlantic flying mouse fern, Ferny McFernface... feel free to add your suggestion in the comments below! 

Fred Rumsey is a co-author on several other papers in this issue: there's an account by him and Chris Thorogood of Orobanche minor (Common Broomrape) in the British Isles, illustrated by some fabulous line drawings by Chris (thumbnail on left). Their seven page account reviews the taxonomic status of seven subspecies, forms or varieties, for which they provide an ID key: why not try it out and let us know what you think? 

Fred also co-authored two papers on hybrids. He and aquatics expert Richard Lansdown have published an account of the hybrid between Schoenoplectus lacustris and S. tabernaemontani, for which they propose the binomial S. x flevensis.

Hypericum x cetericae in Cardiganshire
Image: F. Rumsey
Andy Jones and Fred also describe the novel hybrid between Wavy and Perforate St. John's Wort, from Cardiganshire, and they give it the name Hypericum x cetericae.   

Ian Denholm, Editor-in-Chief of British & Irish Botany, says “This issue includes a very interesting and potentially controversial article by Tim Rich on the number of plant species that are endemic to the British Isles (i.e. restricted in their distribution to Britain, Ireland, the Channel Islands or a combination of these localities). It is interesting because I don’t think anyone has taken on this task in recent years and it is important that the relevant conservation authorities in Britain and Ireland are alerted to which species we have special responsibility for protecting. It is controversial because the majority of the species in Tim’s list belong to apomictic groups (dandelions, hawkweeds and brambles especially) that reproduce asexually and therefore persist as clonal lineages, though often with a substantial degree of morphological and ecological distinction. To my mind there is an outstanding and important discussion over whether we accord these endemic apomicts the same importance as the few sexually-outcrossing species that are confined to our shores, or not. Some of them are hugely restricted and endangered.”

Viola reichenbachiana
var. leucantha in Cumbria
Image: B.A. Tregale
Also in this new issue are a paper from Italian botanist Duilio Iamonico on some of the goosefoots referred to in Flora Anglica (1762); from Scotland, Lee Raye sets out to identify and discuss the hundreds of plant species listed in Scotia Illustrata (1684) and Michael Braithwaite considers the history and distribution of the bulbil-bearing subspecies of Ficaria verna (Lesser Celandine). 

There are also short notes naming a white variant of Early Dog-violet; validating the name of a Cotoneaster species; and renaming one of the goldilocks buttercups in honour of Cambridgeshire botanist Alan Leslie

So a bumper issue! Head over here to view and/ or download all the papers and short notes, completely free of charge and Open Access. 

We hope you enjoy this latest issue and might consider publishing in British & Irish Botany? Check out our submission guidelines or email us at to discuss your proposal.

Sunday 30 August 2020

Wildflower of the Month: August: Autumn Lady's-tresses

Autumn Lady's-tresses
Image: J. Dunn
Since March, BSBI Head of Science Kevin Walker has been focusing on a different wildflower each month and telling us a bit more its distribution, its ecology and crucially, why it's important to him as a plant enthusiast as well as a scientist. As the summer draws to a close, Kevin turns his attention to Autumn Lady's-tresses:  

"For many botanists, seeing Autumn Lady’s-tresses Spiranthes spiralis is a bittersweet moment as it is the last of our 52 orchids to flower each year, as so memorably recounted by Leif Bersweden (2017) in The Orchid Hunter. What Leif doesn’t tell us is that it can also be a very painful experience as its downland haunts are often infested with Harvest Mites Neotrombicula autumnalis which, as their name suggests, peak at this time of year.

We are blessed with four of these diminutive orchids in Britain and Ireland. All four are discussed in Jon Dunn's excellent Orchid Summer (2018) although sadly, the most regal, Summer Lady’s-tresses S. aestivalis, is no longer with us having been last seen in the New Forest in 1952: zoom in to this BSBI distribution map to see those long-ago records in just one grid square. It’s North American cousin Irish Lady’s-tresses S. romanzoffiana is scattered in the Hebrides and Ireland, although your chances of seeing them are slim as its appearance is somewhat erratic. [LM: Going out with fellow botanists on a BSBI field meeting, once Covid restrictions are lifted, will increase your chances of seeing rare plants like Irish Lady's-tresses!] 

Autumn Lady's-tresses (detail)
Image: J. Dunn
Creeping Lady's-tresses Goodyera repens is more straightforward. Head to a known site in the pinewoods of northern and eastern Scotland and, by virtue of its clonal habitat, you’re more than likely to find it. If that’s too far to travel then there are a few good sites in northern England and north Norfolk where some say it was originally introduced with conifers. 

In contrast, tracking down an Autumn Lady's-tresses should be a doddle: it is relatively common in coastal regions of southern Britain and Ireland with populations extending as far north as Sligo, the Lake District and the North Yorkshire Moors. Although it has a predilection for coasts there are plenty of inland populations – possibly the most landlocked is on an industrial estate in Banbury where it was first discovered in 2018.

All four lady’s-tresses have a spiral of creamy white flowers resembling a braid of plaited hair, hence the name. These plaits are well developed in Autumn Lady’s-tresses with a dozen or so twisting up the bluish stem. The tubular flowers open sequentially from the bottom in a way that ensures that older flowers are always pollinated by younger flowers from a different plant. Self-fertilisation is not an option and so it relies entirely on bumblebees for pollination. The mechanism seems a good one as seed production is invariably very high. The sequence of images below by Jon Dunn shows a bumblebee in action - click on the image to enlarge it. 

In common with a number of other British orchids, the leaves of Autumn Lady's-tresses disappear during the height of summer but a new rosette appears in the autumn, persisting throughout the winter and spring. Indeed, winter is one of the best times to search for Autumn Lady’s-tresses as the ‘plantain-like’ rosette of glossy, green leaves are easy to spot amongst the dead grasses.

Autumn Lady's-tresses on the grassland
above Morecambe Bay
Image: R. Bate
Most botanists associate Autumn Lady’s-tresses with chalk downland but in my experience British plants are surprisingly catholic. I’ve seen them on flood banks of a fenland drain at near Tydd Gote in Cambridgeshire, on damp acidic lawns in the New Forest, on parched limestone grassland surrounding Morecambe Bay and in a tightly mown lawn of a suburban garden. 

Whether acid or alkaline, the common factor is a short, open sward and a lack of soil fertility. Like many other threatened plants, it needs freedom from competition. Remove grazers or add nutrients and taller, more nutrient-demanding species rapidly take-over.

I have a special affection for this lovely little orchid. In the early 2000s, the late Terry Wells asked me to help him monitor a population of Autumn Lady’s-tresses at Knocking Hoe National Nature Reserve in Bedfordshire. How could I refuse! 

Knocking Hoe
Image: P. Stroh
Knocking Hoe is home to a glittering cast of rarities - Moon Carrot, Pasqueflower, Field Fleawort, Spotted Cat’s-ear, Burnt Orchid, - to name but a few. But it was the Autumn Lady's-tresses that Terry chose to study back in 1962 (Wells, 1967). Having just returned from Jamaica, Terry had started working for the Nature Conservancy at its new experimental station at Monks Wood near Huntingdon. At a bit of a loss to know what to do with him, his new boss gave him a Land Rover with instructions to head off into the wilds of England and start researching grassland ecology. That he did and the rest, as they say, is history.

Terry & Kevin surveying
at Knocking Hoe

Image: P. Stroh
Terry always had a passion for orchids but it was the work of Carl Tamm in Sweden that inspired him to study their population dynamics (Tamm, 1972). Terry used Tamm’s ‘triangulation method’ for accurately relocating individuals within a fixed grid thereby allowing him to follow their fortunes in response to changes in management, climate and rabbit numbers. Terry’s interest in Autumn Lady’s-tresses was sparked by another Monks Wood legend, Franklyn Perring, who worked on Autumn Lady’s-tresses during the hot summer of 1955. Due to the drought, lawns were left uncut leading to numerous reports of Autumn Lady’s-tresses flowering in gardens, some of which were reported in The Times. Never one to miss an opportunity, Franklyn wrote a letter back, with Max Walters his co-author of the Atlas of the British Flora, calling for details of further sightings which he later published as a paper (Perring, 1956).

Terry monitored the Autumn Lady’s-tresses at Knocking Hoe from September 1962 until his death in 2008. A group of us have recorded them ever since, so 2020 marks the study's 58th anniversary. Over that time thousands of individuals have been painstakingly monitored, revealing fascinating insights into their private lives (see Walker et al., 2015 for a nice summary!). We now know that, although most live for about a decade, some survive into their 40s and even 50s. Even more surprising is their capacity to survive below ground only to re-appear a year or two later, presumably when they have captured enough nutrients, courtesy of their fungal partners, to flower again. 

Lynne Farrell (on left): formerly Botanical 
Assistant at Monks Wood, now BSBI President, 
has been a key member of the Autumn
Lady's-tresses survey team at Knocking Hoe

Image: P. Stroh
Studies that chart the intimate details of the lives of plants in this way are extremely rare and so it is an honour to carry on the study. We’ll be at Knocking Hoe on the 10th and 11th of September this year so if you are in the neighbourhood please drop in for a socially-distanced chat – we’re easy to spot amongst the marker flags!

Another place I associate with Autumn Lady's-tresses is Hambury Tout above Lulworth Cove in Dorset. This is the first place I saw them in the mid-1990s, growing in the downland above the cove. The day we visited was searingly hot and I vividly remember the throngs of tourists plodding up the motorway path to Durdle Door. Our goal was much nearer at hand and I have a treasured photo of Autumn Lady’s-tresses framed by Stair Hole. We went back for a family holiday a few years ago and they were still there dotted across the hillside, as well as on the down above our little cottage on the other side of the cove.

Autumn Lady's-tresses on
Wilverley Plain, New Forest,
Image: L. Bersweden 
As I keep saying, one of the consolations of lockdown has been getting to know our own backyards better. So it is good to see reports of Autumn Lady’s-tresses in gardens as well as on heaths, downs and dunes. Take a look at this tweet by Maureen Millar on the Isle of Wight and this one by 'Orchid Newbie' in Wales, both of whom have been lucky enough to have Autumn Lady's-tresses come up in their gardens. 

Like the summer of 1955, a lack of mowing this year has probably allowed them to flower in places they have always been. Or maybe we are in the midst of a genuine increase? As a species more at home in the Mediterranean, it seems a likely candidate to expand its range as a result of climate change; and these populations turning up in odd places like car parks, industrial estates and gardens may be the first signs that times are a-changin’ for this lovely little orchid.

Bersweden, L. 2017. The Orchid Hunter: A Young Botanist’s Search for Happiness. Short Books, London.
Dunn, J. 2018. Orchid Summer: in search of the wildest flowers of the British Isles. Bloomsbury Publishing, London.
Perring, F.H. 1956. Spiranthes spiralis (L.) Chevall. in Britain, 1955. Proceedings of the Botanical Society of the British Isles 2, 6-9.
Tamm, C.O. 1972. Survival and flowering of some perennial herbs. II. The behaviour of some orchids on permanent plots. Oikos 23, 23-38.
Walker, K.J., Stroh, P. Farrell, L. Carey, P. & Bellamy, G. 2015. Long-term monitoring of Autumn Lady’s-tresses Spiranthes spiralis (L.) Chevall. at Knocking Hoe, Bedfordshire. In:  R. Revells, C. Boon & G. Bellamy (eds.) Wild Orchids of Bedfordshire, pp.20-30. Bedfordshire Natural History Society.
Wells, T.C.E. 1967. Changes in a population of Spiranthes spiralis (L.) Chevall. at Knocking Hoe National Nature Reserve, Bedfordshire, 1962-65. Journal of Ecology 55, 83-99.

Tuesday 25 August 2020

Botanist boosting value to wildlife in her local area

In recent months, many of us have been focusing on the wildflowers in our local areas; some botanists have been doing what they could to enhance the botanical diversity on their doorstep and provide more benefit to the other wildlife species, such as bees, butterflies and moths, that depend on our wildflowers. Things don't always go smoothly and there can be obstacles to overcome. 

Read on to find out what Sarah S. aka 'MightyMothGirl' did in her local area, the difficulties she encountered and how she is trying to find ways round them. She also provided all the images on this blogpost:

"After moving to a rural village in Somerset in 2019, I quickly joined the village Wildlife Group and offered my skills as a botanist and naturalist. One of the first things I offered to do was a botanical survey of the churchyard as I had noticed there was already a wildlife area, but despite being left to grow long during the summer the wildlife area was generally rather floristically poor. Coarse grasses were dominating, preventing any wildflowers establishing. It was decided that the first step would involve seeding the most suitable areas with Rhinanthus minor (Yellow Rattle, above right), also known as the Meadow Maker. 

"This UK native meadow species is semi-parasitic on grasses, reducing their vigour and dominance within the sward. This in turn will allow more wildflower species to be successfully introduced. To ensure this initial stage was successful, the area needed to be scarified before sowing. I also reassured interested parties that none of these activities would in any way affect the appearance of the purple cultivar Anenome nemorosa (Wood Anemone) and Primula vulgaris (Primrose) in the spring, as these plants would have finished flowering before the Rhinanthus minor (Yellow Rattle) begins to get established (image on left). 

"I was absolutely thrilled to discover that so much of the (Yellow Rattle) had successfully germinated, especially as it can be a tricky plant to get going, as the seed needs vernalisation over winter. I was also interested to discover that it was possibly Rhinanthus minor  subspecies stenophyllus as pointed out by Josh Styles on social media. Other areas of the churchyard that I highlighted as particularly interesting have been left to grow long during the summer, mainly the bank on top of the perimeter wall that was awash with Leucanthemum vulgare (Oxeye Daisy).

"Other projects I decided to get involved with included the grass bank below the local school’s hedge opposite my house that runs parallel to the pavement and is currently just mown short all year round. Previous attempts have been made by the wildlife group to plant a mix of native and non-native species, but only in a 1m2 area which was mostly just left to its own devices. However it was upon discovering that even this tiny area was being strimmed into oblivion that I decided I needed to do something. It took some detective work and several emails to the Parish Council, County Council etc to finally find out it was actually being managed by the school. Before I had found out who was managing it I had been running out in my pyjamas in a panic at the sound of any strimmer or mower. 

"Finally the school and the Parish Council agreed to let me manage it and the maintenance team would not mow between April and August. I put up a very temporary sign, but before I could even contemplate my plans for the bank a local resident from further up the road had taken it upon himself to strim the majority of the bank for some unknown reason. This included the only remaining flowering specimens of Leucanthemum vulgare (Oxeye Daisy), Centaurea nigra (Common Knapweed) and Sanguisorba minor (Salad Burnet) which had been introduced by the wildlife group (image above right). 

"I have now updated the sign to attempt to gain more local understanding and support. I was also asked by a friend to create some signs for her newly developing wildlife area at the school she teaches at to prevent the constant comments of ‘that’s untidy and weedy’. I chose to create the signs (image on left) with quotes from famous authors, artists or scientists that have been inspired by nature. For example, ‘There are always flowers for those who want to see them’ - Henri Matisse or ‘Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better’ - Albert Einstein.

"Meanwhile I have been growing from seed several appropriate species for introduction as plug plants (image on right) in both the churchyard area and my own garden meadow area. I am growing Lathyrus pratensis (Meadow Vetchling), Lotus corniculatus (Common Bird’s-foot Trefoil), Galium verum (Lady’s Bedstraw), Centaurea nigra (Common Knapweed) and Knautia arvensis (Field Scabious). The Lotus and Lathyrus have been very successful and easy to grow, the others are somewhat slower to start and in particular the Galium is still very small and hard to get big enough for planting out. 

"The plan will be to involve the school children with planting of these in both the bank and the churchyard, Covid 19 restrictions allowing. For now, I will be only seeding areas of the bank as I’m not sure I could bear to see the plants I have tenderly grown being strimmed by the ‘neat and tidy brigade’. Both the churchyard area and my garden will be mown at the end of August and the risings removed to limit nutrient deposition.

"A small section of my garden that is of lower herb diversity is going to be completely reseeded. I will take off the turf and prepare the soil for seeding with a meadow mix obtained from a neutral meadow only about four miles away. During all these projects, several approaches to creating native wildflower areas are being employed including an area in my garden being simply left long for the summer months and allowed to develop naturally over time. Perhaps in an ideal world this is how we would manage all the wildflower/ nature areas, with a less hands-on approach other than mowing in autumn and removing the risings. 

"However, we live in a world where people are expecting results much more quickly or are falsely given the impression of wildflower areas being a rainbow display of annual and non-native species. So after consideration I came to the conclusion that by accelerating the appearance of suitable and appropriate species for the soil type and geographic location by seeding or plug planting, I could increase my chances of being allowed to create more of these areas locally and maybe further afield. I hope that the final results will show just how important our native wildflowers are to pollinators and other invertebrates when the churchyard and bank are buzzing with life". (Image above left shows a Dark Bush Cricket in the garden meadow area; image on right shows Bush Vetch in the churchyard).

Good luck Sarah and thanks for telling us what you've been up to in your local area - I love the nature-inspired quotes on your signs, that's a great idea! We'll look forward to seeing your photos next year when, fingers crossed, the churchyard and bank are buzzing with more wildlife than ever before.

Monday 24 August 2020

July blowing hot and cold: notes from BSBI President Lynne Farrell

High Brown Fritillary
Image: L. Farrell
Last time we heard from our President Lynne Farrell she was being a busy bee and finding a rare hoverfly in her local patch, as well as an interesting bee. Lynne isn't just an expert botanist and BSBI County Recorder for Mid Ebudes, she's an all-round naturalist and conservationist, just like a lot of BSBI members. 

Now Lynne tells us what she was spotting during July:

"Some days during the month were hot and sunny whilst others were wet and windy - normal weather for Britain and Ireland then. However, lockdown was lifted, enabling us to get out and about further, even if we could not hold official meetings of large groups safely.

Fingered sedge growing in
Lynne's local area
Image: L. Farrell 
"I was allowed to return to my butterfly transect on Whitbarrow, one of the longest and more interesting in the South Lakes. It is on Forestry Commission land, so I needed permission to ‘walk’ on a weekly basis. This I was keen to do, as volunteers and contractors worked hard last year making scalloped edges and widening the rides, so more flowers could bloom and act as crucial nectar sources for the insects. The transect is over three miles long, and travels through a variety of habitats including deciduous and coniferous woodland, limestone grassland, wet and dry patches, often bordered by bramble and hazel scrub. 

"As you might suspect, it also has plants of interest, including Carex digitata (Fingered Sedge) and C. ornithopoda (Bird’s-foot Sedge), and Daphne mezereum (Mezereon). There are some magnificent Oaks and old Scots Pines, so a pleasant walk, which can take four hours, during peak flight period in mid-July when I recorded 19 species of butterfly, and 5 species of moth. It is still one of the best places to see all three large Fritillaries - Dark Green emerging first, followed by High Brown and then Silver-washed. It is a thrill to see these large, fast-flying insects, but being able to tell them apart when they zoom by, is challenging. Zooming has featured in recent BSBI meetings agendas frequently!

Lynne's painting of Hale Moss
Image courtesy of L. Farrell
"I’ve continued to visit some of the local nature reserves, each of which has its own particular features, and I have been trying to ‘capture’ these in my paintings, which I’ve picked up again in lockdown time. To date five have been completed, so only another 32 to go. You can see here an example of Hale Moss, which is a small area partially wooded with exposed marl patches with Schoenus nigricans (Black Bog-rush), Parnassia palustris (Grass of Parnassus), Primula farinosa (Bird’s-eye Primrose) and Frangula alnus (Alder Buckthorn), which is at its northern limit in Cumbria. The whole valley was once covered by a large freshwater lake, which eventually filled up with vegetation and this formed a peat layer over the marl.

"Several friends have been out with me, and I have been teaching them butterflies and plants. They already have an interest in the natural world so are eager to accompany me in the field. Some of them are much better photographers and send me their ‘shots of the day’. Local friend Sue from Silverdale has now taken on a butterfly transect of her own, plus she helps me with annual recording of Spiranthes spiralis (Autumn Lady’s tresses) in late August. It’s good to have someone to share the beauty and diversity of the outdoor world".

It's also good to hear what our President is spotting while she's out and about in her local area. Thanks Lynne, we'll look forward to hearing your next account of your wildlife sightings!

Wednesday 19 August 2020

Send Michael your Prickly Lettuces!

A request has come in from botanist Mike Wilcox, who wants to find out more about the two forms of Prickly Lettuce.

Over to Mike who says:

"Mature seeds (achenes) of the two forms of Prickly Lettuce Lactuca serrriola are wanted, to look at any differences. 

"The two forms are f. serriola (image above right) with runcinate-pinnatifid leaves and f. integrifolia (image below left) with entire leaves. 

"The former is becoming increasingly more frequent in places.

"Preferably, send me a photo of the plant (or a leaf with the achenes) to show the leaf type and put each gathering of seeds in a small folded piece of paper for each plant. 

"Please send to Mike Wilcox at 43 Roundwood Glen, Greengates, Bradford, BD10 0HW and/or email me at:"

Mike also mentioned that the Prickly Lettuce plants are fruiting where he is in Bradford, so this is the right time for people to go out looking for those mature achenes.

A reminder that if you aren't quite sure what terms such as achene runcinate, pinnatifid or the double-barrelled tongue-twister 'runcinate-pinnatifid' actually mean, there's a helpful botanical glossary here. Happy Prickly Lettuce hunting!

Sunday 16 August 2020

Strange Frog Orchid!

Howard's strange Frog Orchid

Botanist Howard got in touch to tell us about a rather strange Frog Orchid he found while out plant-hunting.

Over to Howard:

"A recent attempt to extend the known range of Field Gentian Gentianella campestris on the wider Ingleborough massif, ended up counting instead many Frog Orchids Dactylorhiza viridis

"It was while surveying on Over Pasture (Compartment 31 of the Ingleborough NNR) that I came across a most unusual specimen. 

"After blinking a couple of times it quickly became clear—no, I was not suffering double vision. The plant in question had a normal stem for the first few centimetres, then bifurcated into two perfectly healthy looking spikes".