Wednesday 28 April 2021

BSBI Handbook #22: Broomrapes of Britain & Ireland: interview with Chris Thorogood (joint author)

There’s a new addition to the series of BSBI Handbooks. Broomrapes of Britain & Ireland is due to be published on 1st May and BSBI members will be able to benefit from an exclusive introductory offer of £12.50 (plus P&P) which will save them £5 compared the RRP of £17.50.

There are two authors behind this new book: Prof Chris Thorogood – Deputy Director and Head of Science at University of Oxford Botanic Garden & Arboretum, author, artist, media star… - and Dr Fred Rumsey, Senior Curator in Charge of Historical Collections, Algae, Fungi and Plants Division, Life Sciences Department at the Natural History Museum, London. Fred is already well-known to readers of this News blog, but Chris maybe isn’t, so I approached him first and asked him to tell us a bit more about himself and about Broomrapes of Britain & Ireland

LM: Chris, before we start talking about the new Handbook, could you tell us a bit more about yourself please, how you got started as a botanist, some of the many strings to your bow and your particular area of botanical interest?

Chris in his element, hanging
out with water-lilies

CT: Sure Louise! Well I have been fascinated by plants for as long as I can remember. As a kid my bedroom windowsill was a bit of a jungle. And I was growing broomrapes at the age of 12 – I guess it was inevitable that I was to become a botanist really! Today, I am the Deputy Director and Head of Science at the University of Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum. The research I do here centres on processes that shape the evolution of parasitic plants and also carnivorous plants – those that can obtain food in ways other than photosynthesis.

 I also work on the floras that grow in Biodiversity Hotspots (priority areas for conservation) around the world, for example Japan and the Mediterranean, and in the Middle East. Working with scientists from other disciplines, such as physics, another aspect of my research examines how plants can inform design in technology. My work has taken me around the world where I have been lucky enough to see some beautiful plants in breath-taking places. My passion in life is painting. When I’ve seen something beautiful in nature (which luckily for me happens quite a lot), well I just have an irrepressible urge to capture it on canvas… And when I’m not scribbling or messing about with plants, you might find me tweeting, posting things on Instagram or chatting away on BBC Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time.

Pages from the new Handbook...

LM: Blimey, you’re a busy man and a bit of a botanical superstar! So how did you become involved in working on this BSBI Handbook?

CT: Years ago, my PhD research examined broomrapes Orobanche. I used molecular tools to answer evolutionary questions. In other words, in the lab, I examined broomrapes’ DNA to find out how they were forming new species. The results were surprising and quite exciting: populations of common broomrape O. minor that looked the same, were behaving very differently. In short, our work showed that they were adapted to specific hosts (clovers for example); and because different hosts have different preferences (sea cliffs, fields, car parks etc.), populations of broomrape can become genetically isolated from one another. And this paves the way for new species to evolve – a process we call incipient speciation.

You can find out more about one of the forms we described last year here.

Orobanche minor - this one is
subspecies maritima
Image: C. Thorogood 

LM: Ooh that’s based on this paper that you and Fred submitted to British & Irish Botany, BSBI’s Open Access, in-house scientific journal! Any News & Views readers who missed out on the paper last year (we flagged it here) can read it now – it’s a corker and beautifully illustrated by Chris and Fred!

CT: The handbook includes observations we made during the course of that research, and the many years that my co-author Fred and I have spent in the field, peering at broomrapes

LM: That’s ok Chris, you’re among your people here – BSBI has thousands of members who spend their time in the field peering at plants! So, the new book is 152 pages long, covers 16 species and 7 infra-specific taxa in the family Orobanchaceae. When did you and Fred start working on the book?

CT: You could say that the idea for the handbook has been knocking about for years. But in fact we only started working on it in earnest last summer (July 2020). Fred and I got so carried away that we spent many long nights and weekends working on it (obsessively some might say), so we finished it in a much shorter time than expected.

LM: Well we’re very glad that you did! Can 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 conservation status?

Orobanche picridis
Image: C. Thorogood
CT: Sure. Picris broomrape Orobanche picridis is an exceptionally rare species with only two thriving colonies in the UK (and absent entirely from Ireland). Well-developed specimens are pretty easy to identify; the trouble is, smaller ones look a lot like their cousin, the common broomrape (O. minor), which as its name suggests, is a lot more frequent. In the book we grasp the nettle on this parasitic plant puzzle, giving a lot more detail on how to tell apart this taxonomically troublesome pair than other guide books would have the inclination to do. I hope that the reader would be left in little doubt about what was in front of them!  

LM: Sounds like you and Fred visited a lot of locations across Britain and Ireland in the course of your research. Are there any that particularly stand out in your memory?

CT: Well Louise our broomrape safaris have taken us to some glamorous places, from supermarket carparks, to death-defying cliffs! When we weren’t ducking golf balls on Sandwich Bay golf course or taking the occasional abseil down a sea cliff, I guess I would have to say my favourite stomping ground for the plants is around Essex and Kent. Fred and I both grew up in this area, and in some respects, this region is the broomrape capital of Britain and Ireland. That said, beautiful broomrapes grow up and down the region, often in some very beautiful places indeed.

LM: Ooh so lots of opportunities to visit lovely places and peer at plants – that sounds like great fun! How about herbaria – did you two visit many herbaria to look at specimens? On which subject – how exactly do you press a broomrape? They are quite chunky! Do they have to be pickled rather than pressed?

Pages from the new Handbook...
these show the life-cycle of 
an Orobanche

CT: (Face-palm emoji) ahem broomrapes and herbaria…. well the thing is, they preserve terribly, Louise. This is a real headache for the broomrape connoisseur. They have no leaves to speak of, and their colours (lovely in life) turn a rather hideous shade of yellow or brown. In short, we’re left with a squashed asparagus. I exaggerate: in fact, there is a lot you can tell from a herbarium specimen if you look closely, for example the calyx shape, the amount of hairiness of the floral parts, and multifarious other bits and pieces. But is isn’t easy. Pressed specimens are best if they include notes on colours seen at flowering time, possible host plant species, and, best of all, a floral dissection or two.

LM: Yes, as we always say about herbarium specimens, the supporting info is as important as the specimen itself. And thanks for confirming my suspicions about the difficulties in preserving broomrape specimens – squashed asparagus indeed! But moving on, I imagine you also got a lot of feedback from BSBI County Recorders and many of our “ordinary members” who go out plant recording?

CT: BSBI County Recorders and enthusiasts up and down the country are incredibly helpful Louise. The maps in the handbook simply wouldn’t exist without them. And many provided their photos too. Our sincere thanks to you all.

Some of Chris's pen & ink drawings
LM: Yes, the BSBI community is amazing – whether recording, taking photos or trying to press plants for herbaria... You mentioned photos so let’s turn to the illustrations: they are always an important part of any BSBI Handbook and Chris, you are famous for your amazing plant illustrations. Could you tell us a bit about how you produce your drawings and your colour illustrations, how long it takes you and what materials you use?

CT: Thank you Louise. Fred and I both illustrate. I often use pen and ink which is quite a precise way to capture a plant, and is the perfect medium for depicting, for example, hairiness (an important diagnostic in broomrapes). I also use watercolours and (less conventionally) oil paints (which were used for the front cover). I find oils capture the soul of a plant in the way watercolours cannot always. If done in a leisurely way, a line drawing can be done in a day; a watercolour in a week; an oil painting in two.

Pages from the new Handbook...

LM: Are there photographs too?

CT: There are (quite a few in fact), but I am not really a photographer. Many people very kindly provided their photos for the book and it wouldn’t be the book it is without them.

LM: Yep, that amazing BSBI community again! I hear there are also BSBI distribution maps for the taxa, and that some of the maps compare the distribution of the various taxa with their primary hosts?

CT: Correct. We were fascinated by the idea of charting host and parasite in parallel to see if there were any insights as to why the broomrapes occur where they do. Interestingly, by way of example, thistle broomrape is exceptionally rare and confined to Yorkshire; yet its most common host – the creeping thistle Cirsium arvense is of course ubiquitous. There is a lot more than meets the eye to these very particular plants, clearly.

LM: Yes, they certainly are intriguing and that’s one reason why BSBI’s Publications committee thought people would be interested in a Handbook all about them. Finally: all BSBI Handbook authors benefit from an editor to help them through the process towards publication. Who was your editor?

Chris admiring an Orobanche
CT: David Pearman was our very patient editor, to whom Fred and I most certainly owe a debt of thanks.

LM: Wow, David is a legend (newcomers to BSBI can read a bit about him here), so well done you for bagging him as your Editor! Well the new Handbook really does look amazing, many thanks to you and Fred for all your hard work that has brought us this fabulous new addition to BSBI’s publications portfolio and thank you also for talking to us today. Before you go, may I issue an invitation to you please? We are not sure at this point if our 2021 Exhibition Meeting in November will be held as a live event at the Natural History Museum in London or as a zoom event – or perhaps some kind of hybrid! But in whatever way it takes place, would you be up for giving us a short talk about broomrapes, maybe a poster too and perhaps we can have some kind of promotion around the Handbook? Fred is always involved in our Exhibition Meetings but it would be great to have both Handbook authors on the day – so, how about it?

CT: I would be delighted to, Louise.

LM: Thanks Chris, it’s a deal! Now, readers will want to know how to get hold of a copy of the new Handbook.

If you are a BSBI member, there is a flyer tucked inside the April issue of BSBI News which is winging its way to you as we speak. It explains how BSBI members can benefit from our exclusive offer and save £5 compared to the RRP. You can either use the flyer to order your copy by post before the end of June or else click here to order your copy via the password-protected members-only area of the BSBI website (you'll need to have your password to hand – email me if you’ve forgotten it and don’t forget to include your membership number).

If you are not a BSBI member, you have two options: you will be able to buy the book from Summerfield Books and other natural history book-sellers in June. Or why not join BSBI today and start enjoying all the benefits of membership, including this special offer? Take a look at our Join Us page  which lists all the benefits of BSBI membership and there's a secure payment option, making it very quick and easy for you to become a BSBI member and start getting involved

Monday 26 April 2021

BSBI News: April issue published

The latest issue of BSBI News, our membership newsletter, is currently winging its way towards thousands of members: look away now if you want to avoid any spoilers! But if you want a sneak peek at what's inside issue no. 147, or if you are not yet a BSBI member and want to find out what you're missing, read on...
The last issue had rather a theme of fascinating plant discoveries made by BSBI members but in this latest issue, there's something of a conservation theme. Kevin Walker, BSBI Head of Science, has authored the lead article 'The BSBI and plant conservation', setting out the background to - and rationale behind - our recently-published policy on nature conservation, which you can read in full here. As Kevin says, BSBI has never been a campaigning organisation but it has, over time, worked with environmental NGOs to gather the evidence that underpins their conservation work. We have collaborated with partners to produce Red Lists, Biodiversity Action Plans, State of Nature reports and Rare Plant Registers but "given the pressures that wildlife is currently facing, evidence alone is not always enough". He goes on to set out a list of actions whereby BSBI can play a greater role in influencing policy, promoting best practice and supporting plant conservation.

Jersey Pink
Image: M. Rand
Several other articles in this latest issue of BSBI News pick up the same theme and help reinforce Kevin's message. There's a summary of recent amendments to the Vascular Plant Red Data List for Great Britain, and a note about the new UK biodiversity indicator for plants of the wider countryside; it uses data collected by volunteer recorders and will provide statutory bodies with reliable evidence for reporting biodiversity change, shaping policies around habitat management and monitoring the successes and failure of such policies. 

There are also articles about the first Sussex record of Great Pignut, and the first UK mainland record of Jersey Pink - both these "firsts" thanks to sharp-eyed BSBI botanists and a reminder, if one were needed, of the contribution that our members make to the botanical recording that underpins evidence-based plant conservation.

Beaked Hawk's-beard: not a dandelion!
Image: D.R Allan 
For those just starting out on their botanical journey, Hazel Metherell's article 'When is a Dandelion not a Dandelion: a beginner's guide to yellow composites' will be essential reading while Bob Leaney's notes on separating agrimonies and hybrids of three common willows are aimed more at the intermediate level botanist. With six pages of botanical news from across Britain and Ireland, six pages of book reviews, pavement plants of the Wirral and the 14-page 'Adventives and aliens' sections, there really is something for everyone in BSBI News

Tucked inside their copy of BSBI News no. 147, BSBI members will also find news of the latest BSBI Handbook and how to claim their exclusive membership discount and save £5 when they buy the book, but more about that later this week, when we will also be bringing you the latest free sampler issue of BSBI News and a full article that members can share with friends who are thinking of joining BSBI but haven't taken the plunge yet. Watch this space!

Tuesday 13 April 2021

Spring arrives in blues and violets: April report from BSBI President Lynne Farrell

Last month, BSBI President Lynne Farrell was seeing the first signs of spring in her local patch in Cumbria. Now here's her report for April:

"Has spring arrived? 

I am not sure, as there have been no April showers so far and heavy overnight frosts, snow flurries with bright sun in between.

Some species are struggling into flower and this is a good time to see Violets, so I’ve been out in the local woods, looking at the more common species and Primula vulgaris Primrose. 

The area surrounding where I live is the headquarters of Sesleria caerulea, Blue Moor Grass (image above right), scattered across open limestone areas in Cumbria and Yorkshire. 

In Scotland it is found in Perthshire, and in Ireland mainly along the west coast in Galway and Connemara, and further inland in Fermanagh.

In addition I am including a special species being nurtured in my garden, which has been raised from seed gathered with permission and is now flowering. This is Viola rupestris, Teesdale Violet, which grows nearby and is part of an annual monitoring programme. 

The Arnside Knott population is distinguished by its white flowers (image above left). You have to travel much further east into Bulgaria to see it, as it has a restricted European distribution and is a plant of the Euro-siberian temperate element. 

By the way, you can find out a lot more about the Teesdale Violet in this excellent species account which tells you all about the plant's habitat, biogeography, ecology, threats and how to identify it. 

There are around 80 Species Accounts prepared by BSBI's Science Team and they are all well worth a look.  

But back to violets: the two species most commonly found now are the Viola reichenbachiana, Early Dog Violet and V. riviniana Common Dog Violet (image on right). The excellent BSBI Handbook number 17, Violas of Britain and Ireland, provides details of these, their hybrids and all the other violets you might find. For a beginner's guide to some of the common violets, try Moira O'Donnell's violet crib sheet. It is freely available to anyone getting started with identifying violets.

Another widespread species is Sweet Violet, V. odorata, which Mike Porter, one of the Handbook authors, pointed out to me that the white form (image on left) appears to flower earlier than the normal violet-coloured plants. 

Does this also happen in other parts of Britain and Ireland? Don't forget to contact your BSBI County Recorder with any interesting observations about violets or any other plants in your area.

Also this month I've been chatting to BSBI's new CEO Julia Hanmer, congratulating my friend Brian Ballinger on his recent award from the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society and of course looking forward to the next BSBI Handbook which is due to be published later this month with a special offer for BSBI members, but more about that next time. By then hopefully spring will definitely have arrived".

All images on this page courtesy of Lynne Farrell apart from the white-flowered Teesdale Violet image which appears courtesy of Rob Petley-Jones.

Thursday 8 April 2021

Interview with Julia Hanmer, BSBI's new CEO

Julia enjoying the spring
blossom at RBG Kew

This is an important week for BSBI! In late January Jane Houldsworth, our Head of Operations since 2013, left us to take up a high-profile post leading a brand new charitable foundation. Recruitment started for a Chief Executive Officer to lead us forward, building on Jane’s excellent work but also forging new paths and seizing new opportunities. The recruitment process was long and rigorous, with almost 100 applications for trustees to sift through, but once we had found our preferred candidate we were delighted to find out that she could start work on 6th April.

So this week we welcomed Julia Hanmer as BSBI’s first ever CEO and she was as keen to be interviewed and tell us something about herself as I was keen to introduce her to all of you:

LM: So Julia, welcome to BSBI! Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself and what you were doing before you joined us?

JH: Thanks Louise - I’m delighted to be joining BSBI! I’ve spent 25 years working for nature conservation NGOs including 14 years leading the Bat Conservation Trust; before that I was at CPRE, The Countryside Charity and the Mammal Society. Along the way I’ve learnt that I really enjoy leading and developing organisations, speaking up for wildlife and building collaborations to make a difference for conservation.

Julia in her previous role, supporting bats, 
bat groups and c6000 BCT members

Recently I’ve been on a career break - I wanted to take some time to reconnect with my volunteering roots in conservation. So I’ve been getting involved in the work of ecoACTIVE (a London based environmental education charity of which I’m a trustee) to engage diverse local communities in nature conservation and education for sustainable development. I also trained up as a forest school leader.

LM: Gosh you’re ticking some serious nature conservation boxes there! So take us back to the beginning - did your interest in wildlife start at university or when you were a child?

JH: When I was a child visiting my grandparents in Dorset, they took me out to explore the local chalk downlands which sparked my interest in wild plants. Although I went on to study a degree in zoology, I still had a keen interest in plants. So when I was studying for my MSc in conservation I chose to do my dissertation on the changes in wet meadows in Jersey, to improve my botanical skills. That was way back in 1993, but my recent forest school training has helped me brush up on some of my botanical skills again.

Julia and Carol Williams, BCT's Conservation
Director, outside the Houses of Parliament
Image: Evie Winter
LM: Thanks, that answers the ‘are you a botanist’ question! You’ll obviously be able to transfer many of the skills you’ve built up and your years of experience leading NGOs to your new role at BSBI. I imagine there will be quite a few similarities between the Bat Conservation Trust (BCT) and BSBI, but maybe there will also be some differences?

JH: Yes many similarities - both are founded on a network of very active and passionate volunteers who achieve a huge amount on the ground. Both have a clear emphasis on science and gathering the evidence needed to understand how our species are doing, as well as inspiring people to learn more. BSBI has many more species to look after! (there are 18 species of bats in the UK) and has been around a lot longer (BCT was formed in the early 1990s). Like BSBI, BCT runs training courses for volunteers and professionals (including for ecologists, arboriculturalists and the construction industry) and leads on citizen science programmes - but BSBI has a very impressive role as a pioneer here!

Julia enjoying time outdoors in the Lake District
LM: Yes, our volunteer recording activity in the 1950s which resulted in 1962’s Atlas of the British Flora was arguably one of the first citizen science projects, and of course we’ve carried on that tradition of outreach and engagement with the New Year Plant HuntGarden Wildflower Hunt and - the big one! - Atlas 2020. Your recent work as a Forest School leader suggests that engaging the next generation of naturalists is important to you – would you like to say a bit more about this?

JH: I love seeing the excitement that close encounters with wildlife can inspire and feel really fortunate that I had the opportunity to discover nature as a child. So I’ve found it very satisfying introducing children to the wildlife of their local parks in very urban parts of London as a forest school leader. Many have never done any digging, let alone held a worm or named a dandelion before. It’s so encouraging to see their journey of discovery, with that initial excitement then turning into a determination to look after wildlife.

LM: Yes, I think that’s exactly how many of us who are BSBI members and supporters first got “hooked” by this lifelong passion for the natural world! Ok so that’s the background and now you are here with your hands on the BSBI steering wheel - so what’s your first priority for the next few weeks?

Julia and husband Trevor enjoying
the gorse and heather in Howth,
Republic of Ireland
JH: I’m keen to listen and learn from everyone at BSBI in my first few weeks in the role, so I gain a really good understanding of the organisation.

LM: What about longer term? What goals would you like to have achieved by the end of the summer?

JH: The new BSBI strategy is a great starting point and drawing up plans to implement the strategy will be my overall focus in the medium term. I hope my skills and experience can help BSBI with broadening engagement, strengthening training to address key botanical skills gaps and ensuring BSBI’s amazing data and information about wild plants is widely known and used to influence decision making, so wild plants can thrive and are valued.

LM: Hear hear! Is this a good moment to ask about your other passions? What do you do when you are not at your desk or engaging children at a Forest School? Do feel free to tell me if I’m just being too nosey here but it isn’t every day that we welcome a new CEO – in fact it has never happened before!

JH: I enjoy spending time with my family (which is fortunate in these lockdown times!) - my husband Trevor and our two daughters, Lore and Elly (who are 20 and 17). As a family we enjoy hill walking although over the past year, like everyone, we have been very much more focused on local walks. I’m involved in my local church and I recently helped them to install solar panels on the roof. Other than that I love seeing friends, gardening, travel and spending time outdoors wherever possible.

LM: Yes that’s been really important over the past year, hasn’t it, finding ways to keep enjoying the natural world while staying safe under lockdown. Well, thank you for telling us so much about yourself and your plans. I guess you will be writing something about your first few months at the helm, and your plans for the months ahead, for our next issue of BSBI News (our members-only newsletter so if any non-members want to hear more, they will jolly well have to join the Society!) Maybe you would also like to offer us a short talk at November’s AGM and Exhibition Meeting, so you can tell everyone how you are getting on in the role?

JH: Yes, I’d be delighted to. I am really looking forward to meeting more of the amazing people who make up BSBI.

LM: Ah, we have lots of amazing BSBI people for you to meet! And until then, can our members and supporters contact you?

JH: Yes, I’d be happy to hear from people - the best way to get in touch is by email

LM: Great, thanks for talking to us Julia - please keep us posted on how you’re getting on and once again, welcome to the BSBI!

JH: Thank you Louise! Exciting times ahead.