Saturday 31 October 2020

An astonishing find in Breckland

You know how sometimes you're out plant-hunting and you think you've found a rare plant? But 99 times out of a hundred it turns out to be something less amazing that's maybe looking a bit unusual? Read on to find out why it's always worth taking a closer look...

The mystery umbellifer in flower
Image: P. Stroh

First BSBI member Ian (mainly a birder but also a pretty good botanist) sets the scene:   

"In late June this year I was contacted by a council Planning & Countryside Officer, who asked me to look at an umbellifer that one of his volunteers had found at a site where the council had undertaken some work to create a wild flower meadow. Much of the area had been flooded over winter and was still damp/marshy in places.

"I had a look at the site a few days later and easily found the umbellifer which was frequent across the site and was certainly intriguing! It seemed to key out to and to best fit the description for Creeping Marshwort Helosciadium repens but, as that species is currently known from just one native site in Oxfordshire, logically it couldn’t possibly be that, could it? Moreover, some of the measurements were marginal and therefore it seemed more plausible that the plant would be some sort of hybrid. Following some consultation with others (who only saw photos) I reported back to the Council Officer that this seemed most likely, possibly even a cross genera hybrid between Berula and Apium/Helosciadium, which would be interesting in itself. However, the plants were at an early growth stage, and I determined to come back at a later date.

The mystery umbellifer in fruit and
with 3-7 bracts below the flower:
a mystery no more?
Image: P. Stroh
"Most of my spare time during July and August focused on surveys of other rare plants for the Breckland Flora Group and quadrat surveys on the BTO’s Nunnery Lakes reserve, and I didn’t return to the umbellifer site until late August. By that time, many of the plants were in fruit, and the tiny nagging voice I had earlier had at the back of my mind suddenly became very loud!

"A few measurements still seemed marginal, however, and given its rarity I still couldn’t believe that the plant would really turn out to be H. repens. I posted some pictures on Twitter to obtain some more opinions, without mentioning a possible ID. This prompted a quick and excited response with a number of Twitter experts suggesting it looked good for H. repens, and I subsequently contacted Pete Stroh, BSBI's England Officer who alerted Fred Rumsey at the Natural History Museum. After seeing the photos, both Fred and Pete came to see the plant in situ the following day".

Pete takes up the story….. 

"After meeting up with Ian, we strolled down to the site. Creeping Marshwort has a very distinctive ‘sickly green’ look to the leaves, and so my hopes were raised when we started looking around at the locally abundant, very neat-looking umbellifer. Several times over the years I’ve been excited about a possible find of this nationally rare species, only to find out after closer examination that it was the stunted growth form of Fool’s Watercress, an apt name all things considered. 

The damp meadow, with
Creeping Marshwort frequent
across the site
Image: P Stroh
"But this did appear to be different, and examination of the number of bracts (at least three, sometimes four or five), and the fruit shape (short and fat), as well as the shape of the basal leaves (as broad as long, more-or-less) raised excitement levels. Fred appeared out of the ether about 10 minutes after me and Ian arrived on site, and after examining some plants, had no doubt that they were Creeping Marshwort. In fact, he was pretty sure before getting to Thetford, based on the photos that Ian had posted on Twitter. No plants of Fool’s Watercress were present, which made the job of searching for a possible hybrid fairly redundant. 

"Wandering around, it was clear the plant was everywhere, and almost certainly must have arisen from the seed bank. It’s a quite amazing find, and credit must be given to the sharp-eyed volunteer who alerted Mark Webster, the Countryside & Planning Officer for Thetford Town Council. Mark organised the removal of topsoil for the specific purpose of seeing what would appear, wild flower meadow creation without resorting to imported seeds – how very refreshing!

"Now the task will be to ensure that the species persists, although given the enthusiasm of Mark, the fact that that the seeds are clearly very long-lived in the soil, and that hundreds of plants were in fruit, all the signs are that with a bit of disturbance now and again, and a few tweaks with mowing regimes, this second extant native site for Creeping Marshwort will remain the best example of wild flower meadow creation I have seen".

So a new dot has now appeared on the BSBI distribution map for Creeping Marshwort and it looks as though the next step will be for Pete to update the Species Account for this rare plant.

Tuesday 13 October 2020

September: feeling old? notes from BSBI President Lynne Farrell

In August, BSBI President was out looking for butterflies and monitoring rare orchids in the sunshine, but as we moved into September it was time to seek out new challenges.

Over to Lynne for her latest report:  

"Do I feel old? Well occasionally. I must admit that I enjoy looking at ancient stones, as my interest for archaeology was kindled when I lived in Kilmartin, Argyll. Look it up on Google to find some of the amazing things you can see there, and better still, visit them. There are beavers not far away.

"So, in early September I fulfilled an ambition of visiting Routhing or Routing Linn in Northumberland. Here is the largest cup and ringed marked stone in England plus a waterfall (on right). Linn really means a lake, river, pool or waterfall. Routing is said to mean ‘bellowing like a bull’. Make of that what you will. 

"Two BSBI friends accompanied me, and even though all of us are excellent map readers and used to exploring the countryside, we had difficulty locating features near Wooler golf course (on left) and at Weetwood Moor (below right), as they were hidden in the heather and under mosses and lichens. 

"Also this month I’ve spent some considerable time Zooming and trying to tackle the technology- with varying success. The older you get the more difficult it is to work these things out. Some of the results you will see in the President’s Welcome talk prepared for our annual meetings - all being held virtually this year".

A quick interjection from me: you'll be able to hear Lynne's welcome address at the start of the Scottish Botanists' Conference which runs over the weekend of 31st October to 1st November. Registration for this conference - the biggest annual gathering of botanists in Scotland - has already opened here

Lynne will also be opening the BSBI Annual Exhibition Meeting on Saturday 21st November: no registration required for this one unless you want to share an exhibit. If so, you'll want to register here asap

If you don't want to wait to hear more from our President, check out the latest BSBI Annual Review: Lynne's Message from the President is on page 3. 

Ok back to Lynne's report: 

"Exploration of Cumbria continues, and I visited the latest local Wildlife Trust reserve at Bowberhead, near Ravenstonedale, which has several upland hay meadows, a 17th century farmhouse, with fantastic flowery wallpaper (on left) still adding to the charm and several old limestone barns in varying stages of stability. 

"The meadows will be a riot of colour next summer: the views across to the hills are fantastic."

Monday 5 October 2020

Europe's newest, smallest, rarest fern becomes a media star!

The tiny fern on its rock
Image: R. Hodd

At the end of August we published a paper in our scientific journal British & Irish Botany about a very interesting discovery: Irish botanist Dr Rory Hodd was plant-hunting  in Killarney National Park in Co. Kerry when, on a rock, he spotted a tiny fern which he didn't recognise. 

Rory is one of Ireland's top botanists so if he doesn't recognise a plant, you know it's going to be something very unusual.

Rory sent a specimen to Dr Fred Rumsey of the Natural History Museum, London, who consulted with colleagues and confirmed it as Stenogrammitis myosuroides, a rare cloud-forest fern which had never been recorded before in Europe and whose nearest relatives are in the neotropics.

The sporangia on the underside
of a frond (a fern leaf):
they confirm the ID
Image: R. Hodd

We circulated a press release to our media contacts which gives the full story behind the discovery and since then, the little fern - and its discoverer - have spent the last few days in the glare of the media spotlight! 

First the story was picked up by Patrick Barkham in The Guardian, then it appeared on the RTE website and Rory was interviewed on Morning Ireland, the flagship news and current affairs programme for the Republic. Ryan Tubridy, arguably Ireland's top radio/ TV personality, also mentioned it on his show and the Irish Post covered the story here. 

As news services around the world picked up on the story (this one from India and this World News service) and the Botanical Society of America tweeted the news, Rory was keeping it local: he was in the studio giving an interview to Radio Kerry about their little fern that's hitting the headlines around the world.

Amidst all this excitement, there's a serious message here about nature conservation and the importance of habitats such as the temperate Atlantic forest found in the Killarney National Park, which as Rory says is "a habitat which is now mostly lost and highly degraded" but which can act as "a refuge for a wide range of species that would not survive without its protection". 

Sharp eyes (which Rory has!) were
essential to spot the tiny fern!
Image: R. Hodd

It's also a reminder that it's always worth keeping a look-out for plants that you don't recognise, recording what you find and alerting the botanical community to anything unusual. You could be the next person to discover a plant that nobody has ever recorded before on these islands! 

So now you've heard the reason why this little fern is in the spotlight, why not head over here and read the scientific paper all about it? And check out the other fabulous plants that appear in our journal, including - in the same issue - a new variety of Orobanche discovered in the carpark of a well-known purveyor of flat-pack furniture...  

Thursday 1 October 2020

Best time to join BSBI? Right now!

Large-flowered Hemp-nettle
Image: P. Stroh
If you have an eye for a bargain, this is the best month of the year for you to join BSBI, with our autumn special offer which opens today, 1st October. Join us now for 2021 and your membership starts at once, so you could enjoy 15 months of membership benefits for the price of 12 months. 

If you've been mulling over the pros and cons, and trying to decide whether BSBI membership is right for you, please read on to find out about all the benefits you can enjoy and all the ways in which your subscription can help us support both our wild plants and the botanists who care about them.

The first benefit is BSBI News, our members-only newsletter: 84 pages jam-packed with botanical delights. We'll send you three issues each year and you'll have on-line access to all the back copies (all 144 of them!) Here's a taster of what's in the latest issue and you can view or download a sample issue here. We also make one full article from every issue freely available and this time we've chosen a review of seven wildflower ID books: take a look and then head over to the BSBI News page to check out the previous sampler and a review of plant ID apps.

As a BSBI member you also get exclusive access to our network of 108 expert plant "referees" who include some of the top specialist botanists in Britain & Ireland: they will help you identify difficult plant groups.

Next, there are the special money-saving offers on botany books. In the past year we've published four titles under the BSBI banner: BSBI Handbook #19 Gentians of Britain & Ireland; Grassland Plants of the British and Irish lowlands; the second edition of the Vegetative Key to the British Flora and BSBI Handbook #20 Hawkweeds of south-east England. Any BSBI member ordering all four of those titles would have saved a total of £30 compared to RRPs. 

In July we arranged a 30% discount for our members on copies of The Multifarious Mr Banks from Yale University Press and there's currently a 30% members' discount on a copy of Britain's Orchids from Princeton University Press (that offer runs for our members until the end of November). And I haven't even mentioned the savings available to BSBI members who order botany books from our book sales agents Summerfield Books (they are currently offering members' discounts on 36 titles). There are five more BSBI Handbooks currently in the pipeline (two brand new titles and three new editions) and of course there's the third of our ground-breaking plant Atlases: we've been collecting data for it for 20 years and it's finally due to be published early in 2022. 

Thinking of taking a botanical training course? Then you may also want to apply for a BSBI Training Grant of up to £250 to help pay for it. Carrying out research? Then you'll want to check out our Plant Study Grants and Science & Research grants. Applications for all these grants open on 1st January each year here and although you don't have to be a BSBI member to apply, "members are favoured if there is competition for grants". And I've never known a year when there wasn't competition for grants! 

BSBI training session in Wales:
learning about plant families
Image B. Brown

Other membership benefits include access to scientific papers in New Journal of Botany, the BSBI Yearbook and other resources on our password-protected members-only area; a membership welcome pack; volunteering opportunities which can help you build up skills and improve job prospects; advance notice of forthcoming BSBI conferences, field meetings (in a "normal" year!) and exhibitionsmost of our events are open to all but some are members-only, or members have priority booking; and of course you'll have the chance to vote at our Annual General Meeting...

As a BSBI member, you'll also be helping to support our work, becoming part of the amazing achievements of our volunteer members:

To find out more about what our fabulous BSBI members - all 3,123 of them - achieved in the past year, take a look at our latest Annual Review. If you are already one of our members, we'd like to say a huge thank you to each and every one of you. If you haven't joined us yet - why not head over here and become member number 3,124? 

On our membership subscription page you'll see the various ways to pay: with options such as Paperless Direct Debit and PayPal, it's never been easier to join us and we can't wait to welcome you as a fellow BSBI member! And if you're already a BSBI member, why not forward a link to this blogpost to any friends, relatives or colleagues who you think might enjoy becoming a member? Together, we can offer even more support to our wild flowers and to the people who care about them.