Friday 27 August 2021

Plant-hunting on Ben Nevis with BSBI Scottish Officer and Team RBGE

View south from the summit of Ben Nevis
Image: J. McIntosh
Jim McIntosh, BSBI Scottish Officer, regularly walks the hills and climbs mountains in pursuit of interesting plant records, but he was recently invited to join a particularly interesting expedition. 

Over to Jim to tell us more: 

"19th August 2021 was the 250th anniversary of the first recorded ascent of Ben Nevis – by botanist James Robertson, who had been commissioned by John Hope, the King’s Botanist and Superintendent of the Botanic Garden, to explore the native plants of Scotland.

"Robertson’s account of the day given in A Naturalist in the Highlands- James Robertson – his life and travels in Scotland 1767-1771 is very brief, and he doesn’t even record what species he saw except that ‘the plants here are similar to those on Ben Awin and Carngarm..’ (Ben Avon & Cairngorm - for which he provides detailed lists in earlier pages). 

"He continues tantalisingly ‘only here, at the west side near the foot I found the M…’ but gives no indication what species ‘M’ is though it must be particularly notable for him not to name it in full! He describes the ‘the third part of the hill towards the top is entirely naked, resembling a heap of stones thrown together confusedly’.

"Fittingly a visit to the summit of Ben Nevis was organised by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) to mark the occasion, and the group included today’s Regius Keeper, Simon Milne, and Director of Science, Prof Peter Hollingsworth, RBGE bryologists and lichenologists, representatives from land-managers the John Muir Trust and Jahama Estates; NatureScot, the Sanger Institute and me!   

Jim & #TeamRBGE colleague pressing specimens
Image: S. Jones (RBGE)
"The idea was to collect specimens for the exciting new Darwin Tree of Life project which aims to sequence the entire genomes of all (70,000) animals, plants & fungi in Britain & Ireland. And we also collected specimens of Alpine Meadow-grass Poa alpina and Mountain Sorrel Oxyria digyna to lodge in the RBGE Herbarium to mark this special occasion. Click on the links to see BSBI distribution maps for those species. 

"We chose to ascend Ben Nevis via the challenging Càrn Mòr Dearg and its famous arête. And, of course, I couldn’t help recording (for Atlas 2040 of course!) as I went along. 

Jim (on left) & colleagues on 
Càrn Mòr Dearg arête
Image: S. Jones

"Also, because Càrn Mòr Dearg itself is one of our top ten highest mountains, at 1220 m, I made a full list of all flowering plant species within 10 m vertical of its summit, while everyone else enjoyed a leisurely lunch as the mist and drizzle gradually cleared. I logged 20 species in total, including many arctic-alpines of more acid substrates as befits a granite ridge.  

"As we scrambled along the ridge, we noticed occasional patches of Moss Campion Silene acaulis, more commonly seen on base rich soils and crags but somehow also happy here. But a highlight was finding Sibbaldia  Sibbaldia procumbens on the ridge and pretty commonly on late snow line areas on the lower plateau of Ben Nevis. 

Simon Milne & Sibbaldia
Image: J. McIntosh
"This is an important species for RBGE, which was co-founded by Robert Sibbald in 1670 and now has Sibbaldia as its emblem. The Regius Keeper duly knelt and paid homage to the diminutive plant.

"After group photos at the perfectly still summit, and short interviews to camera by Simon and Peter, we began the descent, collecting more bryophytes and looking for some of the most exciting flowering plant species. 

"No point in recording here after the comprehensive and thorough North Face Survey involving botanists and climbing guides in 2014-2016, but nice to chance upon Brook Saxifrage Saxifraga rivularis (image below) beside a cairn at the top of one of the gullies.

"Even more exciting was renewing acquaintance with Tufted Saxifrage S. cespitosa nearby – it's one of our rarest and most important arctic-alpines, on Schedule 8 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act (W&CA) 1981 and listed as Endangered on the GB Red List.

[Ed.: Check out the BSBI Code of Conduct for the full lists of plants on Schedules 8&9 of the W&CA and read more about the GB Red List here.] 

"Late in the evening as we descended the main path the sun began to break through wispy clouds, low in the west. 

"We eventually returned to the carpark some 12 hours after starting off on the 20km, 1500m ascent expedition tired, hungry but very happy!"

From left: Neil Bell (RBGE/BBS), Pete Hollingsworth
(RBGE), Stephen Venables (broadcaster/ mountaineer),
Simon Milne (RBGE) & Jim McIntosh (BSBI) - 
on the summit!

Many thanks to Jim for this fascinating account - sounds like a great day! 

Being a botanist really can take you to the most amazing places. 

If Jim's account has left you hungry to read more about botanising on Scottish mountains, check out our 4-part 'Botanical Book at Bedtime' by Peter Llewellyn, all about his plant-hunting adventures in the Cairngorms - part one is here.

We'll leave you with an image taken by Jim of the view from the path on the descent - enjoy!

Thursday 26 August 2021

Call-out for Restharrows

Botanist Mike Wilcox has been looking at Restharrows Ononis spp. and now he has a request - over to Mike:

"Recently, plants seen of Ononis do not fit the description in Stace (2019) for O. repens (on right) and not fully for O. spinosa (below left) even if using Sell & Murrell where O. repens is treated within the subspecies of O. spinosa

"Whether these are hybrids or not is debatable. In relation to the two taxa and putative hybrids, I would be interested in material (fresh) to have a look at in detail, including some anatomical aspects as they are given as two different chromosome numbers in Stace (2019) and looking at aspects such as stomata it might help decide what the two taxa are and or putative hybrids.

"It may be a bit late to start doing this but I will pick it up next year and hopefully see more material from different areas.

"Meanwhile, if you have one or both (or putative hybrids) I would be interested to see some material for a preliminary look at these taxa. Email me at for details of where to send your specimens".

Images courtesy of John Crellin at Floral Images

Friday 13 August 2021

BSBI Training Grants: Supporting botanists in 2021: Part Two

View of Salisbury from Old Sarum Castle
Image: K. Mason
Following on from Mike's account of the 'Using a Flora' course, which he was able to undertake thanks to a BSBI Training grant, we now present Kevin's account of the course he attended in May:

"My journey in plant identification began when I studied a degree in Animal biology and conservation, and more recently my passion for wildflowers has been fed in my current role as a Wildlife Trainee with the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust. My position means I get to spend my days in amazing habitats from floodplain meadows to ancient woodlands. 

Rough chervil with
purple blotching on the stem
Image courtesy of
John Crellin/ Floral Images

The incredible diversity of wildflowers I see each day is both beautiful and daunting, and it seemed that as soon as I got to grips with identifying one species, countless others would spring up around me as the season went on. While I like to attempt identification by myself, I felt attending a course in wildflower ID would give me an edge. Thanks to a training grant from BSBI I was able to book myself onto a course.

The course I had chosen was the ‘Wildflower Identification and Survey - Neutral and Calcareous Grasslands’ course, run by the Species Recovery Trust. We met on a rather wet day at Old Sarum Castle on the edge of Salisbury, the cathedral barely visible through the steady rain. Despite the weather, spirits were high and I was really keen to get out into the grassland with the other attendees. 

Our tutor for the day, Dominic, started us off with some common but important species of grasslands and meadows. While I could already quite confidently identify Trifolium pratense and T. repens (Red and White clover), I learned that you can quickly get an idea of the nutrient levels of a grassland by how much White and Red clover is present – more White clover generally means higher nutrient levels. We soon found Lotus corniculatus (Common bird’s-foot trefoil), another common but important grassland flower, told apart from Lotus pedunculatus (Greater bird’s-foot trefoil) by the latter having a hollow stem.

Image: K. Mason
After we had gone over most of the flowers at Old Sarum Castle, we got back in our cars and made the short trip up the road to Figsbury ring, an Iron age hill fort managed by the National Trust. The entrance track was more suited to a tank than my little car but I eventually made it in one piece. We regrouped in the car park and had a quick look at the surrounding flora. 

The group had spotted a large white umbellifer and had misidentified it as Anthriscus sylvestris (Cow parsley), as had I. Dominic told us that cow parsley would mostly have gone over by the end of June, and that what we had found was actually Chaerophyllum temulum (Rough chervil), identified by the purple spotting on the stems. After a quick brief on the history of the site we walked on to see what we could find.

Immediately it was obvious that the flora was more diverse at Figsbury, which is a Site of Special Scientific Interest due to the quality of the chalk grassland present. My eyes were instantly drawn to the orchids – Anacamptis pyramidalis (Pyramidal), Dactylorhiza fuchsii (Common spotted) and Gymnadenia conopsea (Chalk fragrant). Moving on we saw my personal favourite, Hippocrepis comosa (Horseshoe vetch), with bright yellow pea-like flowers arranged in a horseshoe and 4-8 pairs of pinnate leaflets.

Unlike Maria (above), Kevin didn't see
Frog Orchid - let's hope he sees it soon!
Image: L. Marsh

The short sward of the chalk grassland was ideal for spotting small, low-growing wildflowers such as bright pink Thymus polytrichus (Wild thyme) whose leaves had a disappointingly weak scent, and the memorably named Squinancywort  Asperula cynanchica with attractive pale pink, 4 petaled flowers. Earlier on in the day Dominic had shown us how to make a “gun” with the flower head of Plantago lanceolata (Ribwort plantain), which is quite drab as flowers go, so when we saw Plantago media (Hoary plantain) I was impressed by how bright it was with its white flowers and purple filaments.

After a final unsuccessful search for Dactylorhiza viridis (Frog orchid) which are reportedly present at Figsbury Ring, Dominic decided that it would be sensible to finish early and get out of the rain. While a part of me was disappointed to finish the day early, I was also very relieved that I could finally get a little drier. Despite the rain I had a great day out and learned so much from Dominic, and I am already looking for the next plant ID course to attend!"

Thanks Kevin, we're delighted that you were able to enjoy the course!

Wednesday 11 August 2021

Hotting up: August report from BSBI President Lynne Farrell

"The weather has certainly hotted up in the past month and some extreme temperatures have been felt all around Britain and Ireland. This might well have attracted people to aquatic habitats and coastal areas. Now, at the beginning of August, a weather front is sweeping in, bringing heavy rain and strong winds, battering down the plants in our gardens and in the wild. 

The last few inclement days have provided me with an excuse to watch the Olympics, and I discovered that seeing the events unfolding live in the early morning was infinitely preferable to watching the review in the evening, so my usual timetable has changed too, and will revert to normal soon.

The hot temperatures and bright sun actually made me retreat to shady areas when outside and the local lime trees, many of which are Small-leaved lime Tilia cordata in Cumbria, are laden with flowers, which the bees appreciate. After a dearth of honey last year, this will be a bumper season.

Pollinators such as hoverflies have been late emerging and now are flying strongly. The large Fritillary butterfly species have benefitted from the warmth and good numbers have been observed allaying concern that many were disappearing in some parts of Britain. Earlier species did not fare well. The butterflies woke up early too in the morning sun so counting and photographing them on my weekly transect walk was challenging. Luckily part of the walk is in the shade.

However, choosing an overcast day with tolerable temperatures, was definitely required for a visit to South Walney island nature reserve to enjoy coastal breezes and plants that love exposed areas. Viper’s Bugloss Echium vulgare catches everyone’s eye due to its abundance and striking colours. The rarer, and poisonous Henbane Hyocyamus niger,  (top right) is also attractive but only to look at. 

Sea Holly Eryngium maritimum is also a coastal species being found at the back of the dunes, often where they are just stabilising, whereas Yellow horned-poppy Glaucium flavum (on right) prefers the shingle banks. Wild pansy Viola tricolor ssp. curtisii (above left) which occurs both in dunes and further inland on heaths, quickly shrivels up in the heat. So I hope you have all survived this hot spell".

Sunday 8 August 2021

BSBI Training Grants: Supporting botanists in 2021: Part One

Tutor Mark Duffell and students in the 
meadow at Colemere
When the 2021 round of applications for BSBI Training Grants opened on 1st January, we weren't sure how many plant ID courses would run this year; all of the 2020 grants we'd awarded had to be put on hold, as courses were cancelled or postponed due to the pandemic. So it was a huge relief when the first of 2021's successful applicants started to email us with reports of the training courses that had taken place, and which they had been able to undertake thanks to their BSBI grants.

The first report was sent in by Mike who attended a course in late May - he also provided all the images on this post. Over to Mike to tell us all about getting to grips with 'Stace' aka the Botanists' Bible:

"As a mature student returning to biological recording after a long absence, I was well aware that my plant identification skills were in need of considerable improvement. I am currently on the second year of the Manchester Metropolitan University’s MSc course in (take a deep breath) Biological Recording and Ecological Modelling. The course contains a mix of core and optional units, all taken (Covid-19 permitting) at a Field Studies Council centre – usually Preston Montford near Shrewsbury. The presence of Mark Duffell’s excellent four-day introduction to Using a Flora on the list of optional units was too good an opportunity to miss, so I signed up quickly.

Comparing keys at Preston Montford
Needless to say, the course concentrated on Clive Stace’s New Flora of the British Isles – a book that (along with the previous Clapham, Tutin and Warburg) I have always found challenging. My preference has always been to default to something with pictures – currently David Streeter’s Collins Wild Flower Guide. But now, I felt, was the time to start ‘doing things properly’.

In tackling this daunting tome, Mark Duffell took three main approaches. First, was a general introduction to the key terminology – with a particular focus on flower anatomy and determining the floral formulae for the key UK plant families. Second, was dissection: flower parts were carefully removed and then mounted on a piece of Sellotape, enabling the floral formula to be worked out and the final result attached to a piece of paper for future reference. Finally, we practised constructing simple dichotomous keys for a small group of common species. This, it turns out, is not as simple as it might appear. Working outside at Preston Montford, we were able to attach our keys (and specimens) to a convenient fence.  It was surprising how different the efforts of the various groups were.

An enjoyable feature of the course was the ability to get out of the lab and, armed with lenses, tweezers and Sellotape, to explore some of the wide range of habitats in the vicinity of Preston Montford. The first day saw us in a lowland meadow at Colemere in North Shropshire, where we were able to distinguish Ranunculus bulbosus (Bulbous Buttercup) from the more familiar R. repens and R. acris (Meadow and Creeping Buttercups respectively). A white umbellifer flowering in profusion across the meadow produced a stiffer challenge. Most of us knew that it was Conopodium majus (Pignut), but getting there through the key in Stace was a less than straightforward exercise. This was my first introduction to the stylopodium (a term that unhelpfully does not appear in Stace’s main glossary). Mark’s description of it as a ‘happy beetle’ was pleasingly memorable.

Mark and course participants at Snail Beach
Our next day’s field excursion was to the mysteriously-named Snail Beach, an area of former lead mining south-west of Shrewsbury. Here the target species included several of the Asteraceae, a family that required us to get to grips with some different plant terminology – notably capitula (the terminal heads upon which the many small flowers are borne) and phyllaries (the sepal-like bracts that lie outside the flower-bearing area). The almost ubiquitous Leucanthemum vulgare (Ox-eye Daisy) was a generally easy introduction, although the narrow transparent wings that separate Leucanthemum from the non-native Leucanthemella were hard to pick out in the field. Thus prepared, we entered the (for me) always tricky area of “yellow compositae” (using the old family name), identifying both Pilosella officinarum (Mouse-ear Hawkweed) and Leontodon hispidus (Rough Hawkbit). 

Common rock-rose
The final day’s field trip took us to Llanymynech Rocks, a wildlife reserve straddling the Welsh-English border that is managed by the Montgomeryshire and Shropshire Wildlife Trusts. As well as being a fine viewpoint across the Shropshire landscape, this site includes a range of interesting habitats. Helianthemum nummularium (Common Rock-rose) was in flower on open grassland above an old quarry, while Neottia ovata (Common Twayblade) lurked in the shady woodland. 

Back at base, the course finished off with an identification test (although an additional home-based assignment was also set). When it came to identifying plants under the pressure of a time limit, I admit that Stace was not the first reference book that I reached for. The ability to quickly assign a plant to the correct family, which I suspect most experienced botanists possess, enables the initial Stace keys to be by-passed – whilst bearing in mind that pitfalls may await too hasty a diagnosis. However, when it came to separating out genera within a family, or species within a genus, it was reassuring to know that Stace was close at hand.

Heading home from Llanymynech Rocks
Looking forward I now have more confidence to embark upon surveys of habitats in my own area of the country (Dorset) where I have already been stalking over the grasslands armed with an impressive array of literature. However, despite the presence of some now out-of-date names (a perennial botanical bugbear) my old ‘Field Flora’ (aka ‘Baby Stace’) still represents a more portable document than the shiny new fourth edition!"

Many thanks to Mike for this account - great to hear that a BSBI grant has helped him get to grips with the Botanists' Bible!