The Big Bluebell Watch is organised by the Woodland Trust and takes place from 2nd April until 31st May. This nationwide survey involves members of the public submitting their sightings of bluebells around the UK via an online map, the results of which will allow the Woodland Trust to monitor the status of native bluebells and to guide future conservation efforts.
Continue reading for more information about bluebells in the UK, as well as some tips on telling the difference between native and non-native species. Then head over to the Woodland Trust website to submit your findings.
Bluebells in the UK
Our native bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, flowers between mid-April and the end of May, transforming our woodlands with a stunning blue carpet beneath the budding canopy. Although present throughout Western Europe, more than half of the world’s bluebells are found in the UK where they are an important indicator of ancient woodland.
Despite being one of the nation’s favourite flowers, H. non-scripta is now threatened by habitat destruction, illegal collection and hybridisation with non-native species. Because of this, they are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) and, since 1998, it has been illegal to collect native bluebells from the wild.
The Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoideshispanica) is a closely related species which was introduced to Britain in the 1600s as an ornamental garden plant. It has now spread into our countryside where it hybridises freely with native bluebells. This is a problem as the hybrids tend to be hardier and can outcompete the native bluebell, while diluting their gene pool and characteristics. There is a huge concern that, if left without monitoring or management, the native British bluebell will no longer exist in the wild.
How to tell the difference between native and non-native bluebells
There are three types of bluebell that you may encounter in the UK: the native British bluebell, the introduced Spanish bluebell and the hybrid, which results when the two species cross-breed. Here are a few tips to help you tell the difference:
• Leaves are narrow (approximately 1 – 1.5cm wide)
• Stem often droops to one side
• All or most of the flowers are on one side of the stem
• Tips of the petals curl up
• Flowers are cylindrical in shape
• Flowers are usually deep violet-blue although sometimes white or pink
• Flowers have a strong sweet scent
• Pollen is creamy-white
• Leaves are broader than those of the British species (often over 3cm wide)
• Stems tend to be straight and erect
• Flowers are distributed around the stem
• Tips of the petals do not curl
• Flower are bell or cone-shaped
• Flowers often paler blue or pink or white
• Flowers have little to no scent
• Pollen tends to be blue
The hybrid bluebell is a cross between these two types and may show a wide range of intermediate characteristics. If you find a bluebell that has any of the characteristics from the second list, then it is probably safe to assume that you are looking at a hybrid bluebell.
Where do I submit my bluebell sightings?
During April and May, the Woodland Trust are collecting records of bluebell sightings from all around the UK. It doesn’t matter where you see them – whether they are in your garden, in a field or in a woodland, every sighting is important and will help to build a comprehensive picture of the state of our native bluebells. If you’re not sure which type you’ve seen then you can still make a submission to the records.
If you’re interested in learning more about the flowers and plants you see while out and about, why not pick up a wildflower guide. Below you will find a list of some of our bestsellers.
Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland Marjorie Blamey et al.
This is the first fully-illustrated and fully-mapped guide to the British and Irish flora, covering more than 1,900 species. Its restriction to the British Isles alone allows far more detail and more local information, and identification is made easier with the inclusion of maps for most species.
Collins Wild Flower Guide David Streeter
Featuring all flowering plants, including trees, grasses and ferns, this fully revised and updated field guide to the wild flowers of Britain and northern Europe is the most complete illustrated, single-volume guide ever published. Illustrated by leading botanical artists.
The Wild Flower Key Francis Rose and Clare O’Reilly
The expanded edition of this essential guide is packed with extra identification tips, innovative features designed to assist beginners and many more illustrations. Also includes a compilation of the latest research on ancient woodland indicator plants.
Carlos Magdalena is a botanical horticulturist at Kew Gardens, famous for his pioneering work with waterlilies and his never-tiring efforts to save some of the world’s rarest species from extinction. In his book, The Plant Messiah, Carlos shares stories of his travels and his work at Kew and, in doing so, opens our eyes to the delicate wonder of plants and the perils that many of them are now facing.
We recently caught up with Carlos to chat about plant conservation, his views on extinction and lots more.
In your book you describe your trips to some incredible places – most of which have resulted in the collection of valuable herbarium specimens and seeds for growing or storage. Where does the impetus for these projects come from? Do you get to choose the species and/or projects that you work on or are these assigned to you?
They can happen for various reasons. Sometimes, they are assigned to me, like the projects in Peru and Bolivia: there is a need for a horticulturist capable of speaking Spanish, with experience in propagation of tropical plants and therefore, they contact me and from there we start the ball rolling. However, there is always the personal interest, though this works in an indirect way. Because I have been interested for years in tropical waterlilies, especially those from Australia, I had built up masses of knowledge, contacts and experience and therefore one day, someone needs someone with those skills and they want you to join in their projects. My endeavours in Mauritius started when seeds were set in a Ramosmania plant in a glasshouse in London. After this happened, there was a need to bring back this species to the island. Since this was a very genuine reason that could be solved at a very low cost, funding was allocated soon to travel and then, any time I go, I return with many more species that need working on to secure them ex-situ so you establish a working relationship with the country. There is so much work to be done that at the end of the day, money and time are the limits to be honest, but especially, funding is the main issue I have.
Many of the methods you use for germinating seeds and propagating plants have been considered unorthodox, and this is undoubtedly one of the reasons behind your outstanding achievements. Did you find that your peers and colleagues were initially suspicious of your techniques and approach, or did you always feel supported in your methods?
I guess they are not that unorthodox after all, I will say is more in the lines of ‘if something does not work, let’s try something else’, which is a bit unorthodox but also the sensible thing to do in those cases. I guess it is always tricky to swim against the ‘mantras’ or certain situations where is easier to stick to ‘oh, it won’t work because it cannot be done’ but even when I can be a victim of this myself, I try to do my best to think that you never know if you don’t try. Horticulture is a bit complicated since there are so many aspects to take into account. Science has a big part to play in it, but there is also that bit that is more like cooking, not witchery, but no white lab coat stuff either.
In cultivation, there are too many factors, compost types, light, humidity, temperature, temperature fluctuation, pests, seasons, fertilizers, nutrient levels, and so on and so forth. It is very difficult sometimes to come from an answer as result of traditional science when trying to work out what are the best parameters for each of the 400,000 known species of plants. Good basic science knowledge is vital, but the capacity of guessing, the ability to acknowledge and correct your own mistakes, to be capable of observing very small changes in the general looking of a plant (which I guess involves good photographic memory) are equally important, throwing in a bit of ‘gut feeling’ as it can help too! Sometimes first you manage to grow a plant by ‘play it by the ear’ and if you succeed and manage to grow many, then you can do the empirical work in a more traditional scientific manner, but first, it has to grow!
Many of the processes you describe in your book are very labour intensive and appear to involve a certain amount of trial and error. With the understanding that time is of the essence for many of the species you work with, and that availability of seeds may be severely limited, how do you cope with the prolonged uncertainty and pressure that must surely exist when attempting to germinate seeds or propagate cuttings?
You try to do the obvious first. Sometimes you know that something works very well with that family, so you will try that first. If it does not work you need to come up with a theory of ‘what happened’ and then create a scenario that tries to prevent that situation happening again. When quantities of seeds are abundant, then that makes things easier since you can try many things at once. With very small quantities of material this is not possible, so you try to use safer options. Seeds that cannot be dried die if you dry them. Seeds that need to be dried to germinate can stay wet for a period after harvesting, so if the seeds have not been dried already, I may sow them without drying in a way that I can recover it later to try a dry, then wet method. If something can be undone, sometimes takes preference over some action that cannot be undone. If that fails, then try plan B. if everything fails and there is no more material, you had that experience so that next time something is available you can try something else. However, were the seeds non-viable? Were they too old? It can be a bit tricky to get the whole picture sometimes. There are quite a few general rules that help, the difficulty is to spot the exceptions to the rule. In these cases, experience is the mother of science and not the other way around, but then, you have to be sure that whatever change you want to do make sense from a natural science point of view.
You frequently state in your book that extinction is unacceptable. How do you feel about the proposals by some ecologists that our modifications to the planet have in fact stimulated evolution, and that extinctions and non-native invasions are just part of a natural process, albeit it one that our actions may have accelerated?
First, I think that even if something is naturally going extinct, it should be preserved. No-one questions that we preserve items such as cathedrals or classic paintings under the excuse that ‘oh well, naturally they will fall apart and disintegrate in time’. They are an immeasurable resource and relevant part of our heritage. Regarding the invasive introductions…this is complex and cannot be summarized in a simple statement like the one above. There are species that naturalize and do not create a massive change, they just integrate as another item in the system, others occupy heavily pre-damaged ecosystems, so in fact, and they are a symptom rather than an illness of the damaged ecosystem. Look at Buddleia and its preference for cracks in concrete, brownfields, and decaying urban environments. Conservation is in a way altruistic (every species should have the right to live, just because it is a species), but also is an act of egoism and self-preservation because they are so useful to us in many ways. The more that we can keep, the more biodiverse the planet will be. As earlier stated, it is a very complex issue. What is the impact of invasive plants on CO2 absorption? Not sure what the answer to that is, but I bet that in some cases they are sequestering CO2, but not for all the species nor all the situations either. Avoiding extinctions should be always high on our agendas. We can aim to preserve many species long term, even if we still allow for lots of human changes taking place, but only if we can stop climate change and we manage the land properly. If we think ‘yeah, is all part of a natural process’ then we have to admit that burning fossil fuels is as natural as flying rabbits from Spain to the Antipodes, and also, that climate change will lead to a mass extinction but then, it will recover in a few million years later? No thanks, I rather keep the world as it is, beautiful and biodiverse, because guess what, nearly all of it is avoidable. Key word here: avoidable.
Animal conservationists often bemoan the fact that it is difficult to get the public interested in the “non-charismatic megafauna”. So, while the whales, tigers and pandas of the world have plenty of public attention and support, the plankton, toads and flies are often neglected. Do you feel this problem exists within the sphere of plant conservation too? Are the beautiful “charismatic” plants given attention over the less visually striking species? Or do you think that plants as a whole are neglected? As an extension of this, how do you think we should go about getting the public to care about the conservation of plants?
Firstly, yes, I think that plant conservation is low on people’s minds when compared with furry large animals. True that. But to be fair, a subspecies of the Javan rhino was declared extinct in Vietnam in 2011 and all the populations of this emblematic mammal are declining badly despite its cuteness, so there is work to be done with animals for sure.
I think we need to understand that plants are more important to our survival, and to the animal species survival than we think they do. With plants, we need to know them better before we can truly appreciate them. There is no Rhino without savannah and we need to look at the savannah more like a vegetation community rather than a background setting for Rhinos. Plants are the green glue that sticks the planet ecosystems together. We need to look at the system more, but systems are made of components and we cannot lose them if we want to keep the system going. It is always easier to attract funding and interest to showy plant species. Sad but true, but on the other hand, many stunning looking species are threatened and nothing much has been done. We need to raise the game in all departments of conservation. At the end of the day, it is the planet that we are protecting, not single species only. I have the feeling that avoiding plant extinction is easier than animal extinction, at least ex-situ. Yet, there are more instances of animals being reintroduced to the wild than plants. Sometimes, you need to introduce animals to recover the vegetation, i.e wolves rather than planting trees. Sometimes you may need to plant trees to reconnect two populations of large mammals. Fisheries rely heavily on seagrass and mangrove forest. Those two marine habitats fix massive amounts of CO2. Does global warming affects Panda’s favourite food? Rather than focus on animal vs plant conservation, we need to do this: to focus on single species so that they do not go extinct but also make sure that the worlds ecosystems are functioning. Easier said than done, but I refuse to accept that ‘cannot be done’. It is all avoidable.
Finally, is there a plant, either extant or presumed extinct, that you dream of seeing during your lifetime?
Only one? The trouble here is what to choose…there is so many things I do not want to miss in my life time. Never seen the redwood forest, I’ve never been to South Africa, Madagascar, New Guinea, Socotra…just to name a few incredible biodiverse areas that contain 100s of interesting ‘must see’ species. The discovery of a living fossil plant in the likes of Ginkgo or the Wollemy pine would always be very exciting…indeed the reappearance of an extinct species is always uplifting, however, if I have to choose, I go for the ‘extinction avoidance’. Mostly because, if I’m aware it is about to happen, and when it happens, it is so depressing. So I choose this: to produce and germinate seeds of Hyophorbe amaricaulis from Mauritius. Only one palm tree left, and decades of failures mean that is likely it will go extinct during my lifetime. I’m aware of this, and I cannot bear the thought of waking up one day to the news that a cyclone has split it in half.
The Plant Messiah by Carlos Magdalena is published by Penguin Books and is available from NHBS in hardback. The paperback version is due for publication in April 2018.
On 6th November, a date that marks the 800th anniversary of the 1217 Charter of the Forest, a new Charter for Trees, Woods and People will be launched. Read on to find out more, including the 10 principles of the Tree Charter and information on how to get involved.
What is the Tree Charter?
Led by the Woodland Trust, the Tree Charter brings together more than 70 organisations in a united effort to protect the rights of and relationships between trees and people in the UK.
The Charter will be launched on 6th November at Lincoln Castle. This date marks the 800th anniversary of the historic 1217 Charter of the Forest which set out the rights of the people to use the Royal Forests in England. Lincoln Castle is home to one of the only two surviving copies of this document, making the timing and location of the launch doubly momentous.
The new Tree Charter is intended to influence policy and practice by settings out the practical roles and responsibilities of individuals, businesses and government in the UK and will also provide a voice for the hundreds of thousands of people that it represents.
The Charter consists of 10 Principles which cover different aspects of protecting and celebrating our trees. During National Tree Week (beginning Saturday 25th November) ten Tree Charter poles – one for each of the 10 Principles of the Charter – will be unveiled across the UK.
The 10 principles can be read in detail below, along with the locations of the charter poles.
The 10 Principles of the Tree Charter (Reproduced from https://treecharter.uk)
1. Thriving habitats for diverse species (New Forest Visitor Centre) Urban and rural landscapes should have a rich diversity of trees, hedges and woods to provide homes, food and safe routes for our native wildlife. We want to make sure future generations can enjoy the animals, birds, insects, plants and fungi that depend upon diverse habitats.
2. Planting for the future (Burnhall, Durham) As the population of the UK expands, we need more forests, woods, street trees, hedges and individual trees across the landscape. We want all planting to be environmentally and economically sustainable with the future needs of local people and wildlife in mind. We need to use more timber in construction to build better quality homes faster and with a lower carbon footprint.
3. Celebrating the cultural impact of trees (Bute Park, Cardiff) Trees, woods and forests have shaped who we are. They are woven into our art, literature, folklore, place names and traditions. It’s our responsibility to preserve and nurture this rich heritage for future generations.
4. A thriving forestry sector that delivers for the UK (Sylva Wood Centre, Abingdon) We want forestry in the UK to be more visible, understood and supported so that it can achieve its huge potential and provide jobs, forest products, environmental benefits and economic opportunities for all.
Careers in woodland management, arboriculture and the timber supply chain should be attractive choices and provide development opportunities for individuals, communities and businesses.
5. Better protection for important trees and woods (Sherwood Forest, Nottingham) Ancient woodland covers just 2% of the UK and there are currently more than 700 individual woods under threat from planning applications because sufficient protection is not in place.
We want stronger legal protection for trees and woods that have special cultural, scientific or historic significance to prevent the loss of precious and irreplaceable ecosystems and living monuments.
6. Enhancing new developments with trees (Belvoir Wood, NI) We want new residential areas and developments to be balanced with green infrastructure, making space for trees. Planning regulations should support the inclusion of trees as natural solutions to drainage, cooling, air quality and water purification. Long term management should also be considered from the beginning to allow trees to mature safely in urban spaces.
7. Understanding and using the natural health benefits of trees (Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, Liverpool) Having trees nearby leads to improved childhood fitness, and evidence shows that people living in areas with high levels of greenery are 40% less likely to be overweight or obese. We believe that spending time among trees should be promoted as an essential part of a healthy physical and mental lifestyle and a key element of healthcare delivery.
8. Access to trees for everyone (City Forest Park, Manchester) Everyone should have access to trees irrespective of age, economic status, ethnicity or disability. Communities can be brought together in enjoying, celebrating and caring for the trees and woods in their neighbourhoods. Schoolchildren should be introduced to trees for learning, play and future careers.
9. Addressing threats to woods and trees through good management (Land Craigs) Good management of our woods and trees is essential to ensure healthy habitats and economic sustainability. We believe that more woods should be better managed and woodland plans should aim for long term sustainability and be based upon evidence of threats and the latest projections of climate change. Ongoing research into the causes of threats and solutions should be better promoted.
10. Strengthening landscapes with woods and trees (Grizedale Forest, Cumbria) Trees and woods capture carbon, lower flood risk, and supply us with timber, clean air, clean water, shade, shelter, recreation opportunities and homes for wildlife. We believe that the government must adopt policies and encourage new markets which reflect the value of these ecosystem services instead of taking them for granted.
How to get involved:
• Firstly and most importantly – sign the Tree Charter. By adding your signature you will show your support for the principles stated in the charter and will join the growing list of 1000s of people who want to see trees protected, shared and celebrated in the UK. The Woodland Trust will plant a tree for every signature on the list and will also use your contact details to keep you up to date with the campaign.
•Join a local Charter branch. Join an existing group or, if there isn’t one near to where you live, set up your own. Charters can apply for funding from the Woodland Trust and will receive free copies of the seasonal newspaper LEAF! As a charter branch you will also be able to apply for a Legacy Tree. 800 of these trees are being planted around the UK as a living reminder of the 800 years between the original 1217 Charter of the Forest and the 2017 Tree Charter. Each tree will be supplied with a commemorative plaque.
•Explore some of the locations on the Tree Charter Art and Heritage Trail. All locations are displayed on a beautifully illustrated map by Adam Dant, highlighting the role that trees have played in the culture and heritage of our country.
Michael Scott is a nature writer and cruise ship speaker who has had an interest in botany since his undergraduate studies at Aberdeen University. His latest book, Mountain Flowers, is an extensive and engrossing survey of Britain’s montane flora. Michael expands on the story of Diapensia (see below) in the August 2016 issue of British Wildlife.
Tell us about the book and who might find it interesting.
I suppose it’s aimed mostly at people who already have some general interest in the wild flowers of Britain. Perhaps they already know something about the flora of lowland areas but don’t quite know where to begin seeking out the more elusive species that grow at higher altitudes in the British mountains. The book describes the key places to visit and some of the characteristic species at each site. It also describes the ecological requirements of each species, and I’d really hope that will encourage people to explore more widely in the mountains and hopefully make new discoveries there.
Many of the mountain areas of Britain are stunningly beautiful, and I would be thrilled if people who love mountains were also encouraged to read the book and discover more about these wonderful wild areas and about the colourful plants that grow beneath their feet as they hike the fells or ‘bag their Munros’. I’ve tried to select photos for the book that are as attractive and compelling as possible to inspire readers to explore and investigate – or just to act as a wonderful souvenir of holidays in Snowdonia, the Lake District, the Scottish Highlands or wherever.
I best sum up my objective for the book at the end of chapter one: “If I can persuade a few… hillwalkers to slow their relentless pace, to look around them as they climb, to venture off the beaten path and explore an interesting-looking crag or delve into the watery runnels that seep from the tops – in other words, to enjoy seeing a hill, rather than just conquering it – then this book will have been truly worthwhile.”
How did you first become interested in botany?
I grew up near Edinburgh Zoo and from an early age spent all my spare time in the zoo getting to know the animals. By the age of 8, I’d decided I wanted to be a zoologist when I grew up – which I thought meant going around the world looking at zoos! That enthusiasm never waned, and I went to Aberdeen University to study zoology. In first year we also had to study botany, and I found that new and fascinating. I knew that plants lay at the foot of all food chains, and therefore that plants were key to how the natural world worked, so I switched over to doing my degree in botany. I was lucky that the university had a field station at Bettyhill on the north coast of Scotland, and some of the first plants I got to know there were montane species growing at unusually low altitudes in the relative sub-arctic climate of the far north. Then, in Honours year, we had an amazing field trip to Obergurgl in the Alps, and I have been hooked on mountain flowers ever since.
You are now lucky enough to spend a lot of your time as a quest speaker on cruise ships around the world; how might you go about getting passengers interested in Britain’s mountain flowers?
It’s funny that you should ask that, because I’m just about to go off on a cruise to Nova Scotia in Canada, and on one of the four days when we sail back across the Atlantic to Liverpool I’m planning a talk called The Lure of Mountain Flowers. I think I’m going to start that with the story of a birdwatcher called Charles Tebbutt, who is best known for his book on the birds of (distinctly unmountainous!) Huntingdonshire. In July 1951, he was walking on a rugged hillside in Inverness-shire, when he spotted a plant at his feet that he didn’t recognise. He collected a few samples of the flowers and leaves, which he sent to various botanic gardens and he was promptly told, with some excitement, that he had discovered a rather handsome flower called Diapensia* which had never previously been recorded in Britain.
That may be 60 years ago now, but I think it shows that there might still be exciting discoveries to be made in the British mountains – and that you don’t need to be a professional botanist to make them! I’ll then go on to a series of beautiful scenic photographs, just to remind folk how beautiful our mountains are, then I’ll show some of our most attractive mountain plants to prove just how much they add to the allure of the hills. That will lead into the mystery stories behind these plants: I’ll speculate why Diapensia is still only known from that single, rather unremarkable hillside and what that might have to do with Norwegian commandos. I’ll tell the story of two attractive little plants that cling to survival in Snowdonia, and why a relative of the garden pinks is known from only two very different sites, one a crag in Lake District and the other a hillside of shattered rocks in Angus. There are plenty of ‘ripping yarns’ from mountain botany to interest cruise ship passengers – and I hope they will also inspire readers of my book.
(* Incidentally, I apologise to any keen botanists reading this who, like me, know many plants better by their scientific names. As in the book, I’m not quoting scientific names here because I don’t want to scare off readers who aren’t botanists – and those of us who are botanists probably have plenty of books in which we can check the scientific names if we need them).
What distinguishes a mountain flower and how many such species occur in Britain?
That’s a really good question. Many of them are species which also grow in the Alpine regions of central Europe or in the Arctic regions of the far north, so they are categorised broadly as ‘arctic-alpines’ – a term that will be familiar to most gardeners. But Britain lies in a special position off the west coast of Europe and its climate is tempered by winds that come off the Atlantic. As a result, many alpine species grow here at dramatically lower altitudes than where they occur in the Alps, and some arctic species also grow here, far south of their normal latitudes. Several species meet on the mountain cliffs of the Lake District or the southern Highlands of Scotland that grow together nowhere else in the world (which makes these especially important conservation sites in an international perspective). I also list in the book several species that grow in Britain at their northernmost or their southernmost sites in the world.
So, although I could define a mountain plant as one that grows typically above, say, 1,500 feet, that doesn’t always work in Britain because many of these come down almost to sea-level on the wind-battered north coast of Scotland or on the Western and Northern Isles – and that’s what makes British mountain botanising so intriguing. In fact, I almost reverse the argument in the book. I have selected 152 species that I regard as typically montane, then, for the purposes of the book, I define mountains as places where these plants grow – and these range from unexpected places like The Lizard in Cornwall, right up to the island of Unst in Shetland.
Tell us more about the unique conditions in the UK and their effect on mountain flower distribution.
The important thing to recognise is that many of our montane species have been clinging to survival on remote mountain ledges since just after the end of the last Ice Age. They survive there because of the chance juxtaposition of the right kind of rock and soil and a local microclimate that mimics the conditions to which they are adapted elsewhere in the high mountains of Europe or the high Arctic. It is vitally important that we try to understand why they survive there and continue to monitor their populations, because these are the plants that will give us the first warning of changes that are likely to happen on a much bigger scale in the Alps and the Arctic because of climate change. They are vital “miners’ canaries” for what lies ahead – plus I think Britain would be infinitely the poorer were we to lose them from our hills.
How have 21st century developments in botanical research affected our understanding of mountain flower ecology?
Hmm… In the strictest sense of botanical research, the latest genetic studies have sometimes made life a bit more difficult, especially for ageing botanists like me! It has changed our understanding of the relationships between species which in turn has led to a lot of changes in scientific names and how species fit into our concepts of plant families. It has also shown that one or two of what we thought were good mountain species are actually just variants of much commoner species, highly adapted to the mountain environment.
What has increased hugely over the 60 years since the last major account of British mountain flowers was published is our knowledge of the distribution of our mountain flowers, thanks to the hard work of hundreds of botanists in recording schemes masterminded by the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland (BSBI). The BSBI published increasingly comprehensive atlases showing the distribution of our native plants in 1962 and in 2002, and recorders are now hard at work gathering data for the next Atlas 2020 project, due to be completed in three years’ time, while, all round the country, enthusiastic botanists have compiled and published detailed accounts of the plants of their local counties or areas. I was given privileged access to the BSBI’s online databases in compiling the information in my book, and I am hugely grateful for that.
What I now want is for readers to prove me wrong! From the BSBI databases, I have tried to note the northernmost and the southernmost sites from where the key montane species have been recorded, and the highest and lowest altitudes at which they have been found, but I am sure keen readers could find new records beyond these extremes – and report them, I hope, to their local botanical recorder. I have reported on sites from which certain species appear to have died out, and I would be thrilled if that encouraged readers to go out and re-find the plants there.
What is the biggest conservation threat to mountain flowers in the UK?
I imagine most informed readers of the NHBS newsletter would expect me to say climate change was the biggest threat to mountain plants, and, in the long term, there is no doubt that climate change is a huge threat. But, as I have tried to show in the book, the impact of climate change on the mountain environment in the short to middle term is difficult to predict with any certainty and may not immediately be as disastrous as we fear.
What is beyond doubt is that, if we are to give montane plants any chance of adapting to the changes ahead, we need to get much better at managing our hills and mountains. Overgrazing by red deer is a huge problem across most of Scotland. The regular burning of moorland areas that are managed for the sport shooting of red grouse or to produce a ‘spring bite’ for sheep tends to encourage a few resilient species at the expense of many other, more delicate plants. Yet some mountain habitats also benefit from restricted amounts of grazing, and if continuing financial challenges lead to further declines of extensive sheep farming in the uplands that could become a big problem too. The challenge lies in getting the right balance between these conflicting priorities – and I’m afraid the decision by the people of England and Wales to leave the European Union (the EU has been a huge help in establishing conservation priorities in Britain) is not going to make that any easier.
Tell us about some specific species you find particularly interesting and that feature in the book.
In the book I have selected 18 species, most of which are rarities, whose distribution and survival particularly intrigues me. I call them “Three-star Mountain Enigmas” for reasons I explain in the book and I give an extended account of each of them. For some of these species, I hope to shed insight, based on the scientific researches of dedicated mountain botanists; for others, I can only pose questions, in the hope of inspiring someone to find an answer. And there are plenty of puzzles in our mountains. Why, for example, is Alpine Rockcress found only in a single corrie in Scotland, when it grows almost as a weed in disturbed ground in the Alps and Arctic? Why (and how) is Iceland Purslane dispersed all the way from Iceland to Tierra del Fuego, yet in Britain it only grows on gravelly slopes on the Isles of Skye and Mull?
In the book, I suggest that Alpine Sowthistle is restricted to tiny populations on just four remote cliffs in the eastern Highlands of Scotland because humans have almost completely destroyed the mountain woods in which it once grew (and where it still flourishes in the Alps and Scandinavia), and I show how the 2001 outbreak of Foot-and-mouth Disease revealed how Marsh Saxifrage and Alpine Foxtail grass are actually much commoner than we ever realised.
For someone interested in a bit of amateur research, where are some of the best spots for finding mountain flowers?
I’d always say that the best place to start is the montane site that is nearest to home, whether that’s the Brecon Beacons, the Peak District, the Pentland Hills or wherever – they’re all covered in the book. Then you can make regular visits through the spring and summer to find each of the local species in full flower and follow them through the season to catch them in seed too (there are some species which you can only identify with certainty if you can find their fruits as well as their flowers) – although I should add that, by the time you read this, it is probably a bit late in the year already for mountain plants, so buy the book and start planning for next year!
Once you have got to know the commoner montane species for your local patch, you can perhaps plan a holiday further afield to one of the real mountain hotspots, like Snowdonia or Upper Teesdale, the Breadalbane hills of Perthshire or the Cairngorm Mountains of Inverness-shire. One spot that I particularly recommend in the book is the area around the Glenshee Ski Area, south of Braemar in Aberdeenshire. The A93 road from Blairgowrie to Braemar rises here to 670m (around 2,200 feet), so montane species grow right beside the car park, but the area is already so well-used by skiers that you needn’t worry too much about damaging the vegetation – and there are some really special plants for plant explorers to find.
It is currently the school summer holiday period – any tips for getting kids interested in botany?
Another great question. Kids like action, and it’s the perfect time of year to show plants in action. Find the different kinds of fruits that plants produce and see how they are dispersed. Find the winged fruits (called samaras) of a sycamore tree or the ‘keys’ of an ash tree and work out how they spread. Who can get their fruit to travel furthest? Find some dandelion ‘clocks’. Don’t just see how may blows it takes to remove all the seeds from the ‘clock’; instead try to follow one of the seeds on its little parachute and find out how far it travels. If you can find a patch of Rosebay Willowherb, investigate how it spreads its seeds. If a riverside near you has been invaded by Himalayan Balsam (aka Policeman’s Helmet); see if you can work out how its explosive fruits have made it a successful ‘Alien Invader’ (in this case from India, not from Outer Space). How do the wild relatives of garden peas and strawberries spread – and what about potatoes? If you want to get really yucky, you might want to ask kids why they think tomato plants sometimes start growing beside sewage treatment plants!
If you have a boggy area nearby, see if you can find Common Butterwort growing there and investigate how its sticky leaves trap little insects which the plant then dissolves and absorbs to get the nutrients it needs to grow. Even better, see if you can find Common Sundew whose leaves are covered in red hairs which curve over to trap little insects caught by the sticky surface of the leaves. Then go online to discover how Venus Flytraps, Pitcher Plants and other insectivorous plants trap their prey – there are some great websites aimed at youngsters about these plants.
Your book is proving to be a huge success – what prompted you to write it, and who is your target audience?
It mostly came about from the grass courses I’ve run for the last seven years, during which I built up a huge body of observational evidence on grasses, from chatting to people and just spending a lot of time looking at them. Teaching plants is fantastic as it really makes you be concise about why things are what they are, plus you get to see what people muddle up; things you might never think yourself.
In addition I felt there was a niche for an affordable, portable, and easy to use book. It definitely won’t suit everyone, but I hope that people who might have been put off by some of the more weighty tomes might find this a good way in (which certainly applies to me). It won’t teach you every grass, but hopefully it will make people feel much more confident about the ones you tend to encounter regularly.
How did you become interested in grasses?
During my early years of being a botanist I was terrified of grasses and it took me a long while to get a handle on them. This came about from spending time with other friendly botanists and gleaning as much as I could from them. Once I had got better at them (and I’m still a long way from mastering them) I was really keen to share this knowledge with other people. I did my first grasses course at the Kingcombe Centre 7 years ago, which I was absolutely terrified about running, but it went OK, and it all moved from there. I now run about 18 grasses courses a year, which I absolutely love doing, and all the proceeds from these go into our species conservation programme, meaning a single day’s training can fund a species programme for a year.
What defines the graminoids, and how can the three groups – grasses, rushes, and sedges – be distinguished?
It’s a difficult term, graminoids! I’m very guilty of calling them grasses, which of course only some of them (the Poaceae) are. I also tend to commit the grave sin of talking about wildflowers and grasses (especially when describing courses) when of course grasses are in fact flowers. Their key characters are that they are all monocots, and exclusively wind pollinated.
Telling them apart can be relatively easy, the rushes tend to have waxy round stems, the sedges are tussocky with separate female and male inflorescences, and the grasses are, well… grassy looking? But there are so many exceptions to this! Just today I was running a course where someone muddled up Slender Rush with Remote Sedge, and I realised that these two look almost identical from a distance!
What is the importance of the graminoids in the ecosystem at large?
Graminoids are exceptionally useful as indicator species, with many of them showing incredible affinity to certain soil types, nutrient levels and pH. If you walk into a field and see a shiny green swath of Perennial Ryegrass you know you’re unlikely to be finding overwhelming levels of biodiversity. Go into another field and find a clump of Meadow Oatgrass and you know you’re in for a long haul of finding other species.
As it says on the Species Recovery Trust website, over the past 200 years, over 400 species have been lost from England alone. Do you think enough is being done to halt biodiversity loss in the UK?
Tricky question! We have an incredibly large and diverse conservation sector in the UK, full of talented and passionate individuals devoting their lives to saving the planet. And yet we are still losing species at an alarming rate. When I was born, just over 40 years ago, the world had twice as many species as it does now, so this is not a historical problem we can blame on previous generations, this is the here and now of how humans are choosing to live our lives and harm our planet.
These are clearly difficult times financially, and clearly every sector is feeling the pain of budget cuts, however it is upsetting to see the way biodiversity has almost dropped off current political agendas (the environment was barely mentioned at all in the referendum debates) so I do worry that people, and governments, are just not doing enough. It is now fairly widely accepted that we are living through (and causing) a sixth mass global extinction event, which should be the biggest story and policy issue anyone is talking about, and yet species conservation still seems to be a niche market!
What does it take to re-establish a species like Starved Wood-sedge, which is one of the Trust’s Species Recovery Projects?
Starved Wood-sedge (SWS) has two native sites in the UK, and we’re working hard at both of these over a long time period to steadily improve the conditions, bringing more light in through coppicing and canopy reduction, and trying to encourage seedling establishment through ground scarification. SWS has an interesting bit of trivia in that it has the largest utricles (seeds) of any native sedges which should make it very easy to grow, but recently we started to think these large seeds may be their downfall as they are so susceptible to vole and mouse predation – but it’s hard to know for sure. We have established and continue to closely work on the two re-introduction sites, where we used plants grown up by Kew Gardens to establish new populations, and we are keen to establish one more in the next decade in a more traditionally managed wood to look at how the species would fare in active coppice rotation.
If you could put one policy change in place today to enhance species conservation what would it be?
I’m not sure, my current rather grassroots view is I’m not sure if conservation isn’t dying a death by policy. A few years back I spent the best part of two years of my life working on Biodiversity Opportunity Areas, only to see these being replaced by IBDAs (which I’ve now forgotten what it stands for) only to see these superseded by NIAs. I then had somewhat of a personal crisis that in all that time, even though I’d been instrumental in producing some very interesting maps of core area and buffer zones and opportunity areas, I’d done absolutely nothing to help species on the ground. I think it was during this same time that Deptford Pink went extinct in Somerset and Dorset too, which I still feel pretty bad about.
The problem with policies, and ministers, and successive governments is that they never last for that long. While not disputing that our current democracy is a wonderful thing, and obviously I feel lucky to live in a country where we can all vote and potentially change things we like, if you superimpose governments and policies on top of the Anthropocene (the current geological age where humans have gained the ability to start fundamentally changing the planet, both in terms of biodiversity and climate) then the two simply don’t match up in terms of the timescales we need to be operating on to bring a meaningful change to biodiversity loss. And it goes without saying that when government budget cuts occur it will always be the environment sector that will suffer, and this obviously has a terrible net effect on projects that are up and running and are suddenly suspended.
Without wanting to sound too ‘big society’ I think the meaningful changes we are seeing are from individuals, either making a big difference in their jobs in the environment sector, or simple volunteering, spending a few days a year clearing bramble from around a rare species, counting butterflies on a transect, monitoring their local bat populations. For me, that is where change is happening, not in government policy units.
How would you encourage a young nature lover or student to take an interest in the subject of grasses?
I’m lucky to have two young children to try this out on, and I must say they are now budding graminologists. I think the starting point is everyone likes knowing what things are and naming them, whether it’s music, works of art, types of lorry. We are on the whole naturally inquisitive beings, so I just tend to show people things and encourage them to go off and find more like them. Add to that some stripy pyjama bottoms (Yorkshire Fog), Batman’s Helmet (Timothy), Floating Sugarpuffs (Quaking Grass) and Spiky Porcupines (Meadow Oatgrass) and the whole thing becomes pretty fun! Incidentally there are equivalent adult versions of these too, which are unmentionable here…
What is the most surprising, odd, or unexpected fact you can share about grasses?
Grasses have a profound link with humanity. 4 million years ago the spread of grasses in the savannas of East Africa is now believed to be the main driver in our primate ancestors coming down from the trees and developing a bipedal habit to move between patches of shrinking forest while keeping a watch out for predators. 40,000 years ago we saw the birth of agriculture with the development of early crops, the decline of hunter gatherer lifestyles and the start of the society we live in today (gluten intolerance sufferers probably think this is where it all started to go wrong). And all because we learnt to collect seed from promising looking grasses, and start planting in quantities we could harvest.
Tell us more about the plant identification courses. What are these all about and how people can get involved?
When we set up The Species Recovery Trust we knew that funding projects over a long term basis (all our work plans are 50 years long) was going to be a challenge, so we set about seeking ways to bring in modest sums of unrestricted funding over that period of time, for which running training courses was an obvious contender. This was combined with my passion for teaching plants, and then finding other people who shared this view. We’ve now been able to build up a team of some of the best tutors in the country, who combine their expert knowledge with running courses that are extremely fun and really help people get to grips with a range of subjects.
By automating the booking process (which works most of the time) we can also keep our prices extremely competitive, as well as offer discounted places for students and unemployed people who are desperate to get into the sector. On alternate years we offer one ‘golden ticket’ which enables one winner to attend 10 training courses for free, which will give people a huge helping hand in their conservation careers.
All the information on the courses can be found on the training courses page of The Species Recovery Trust website.
Can you tell us about any interesting projects you are involved with at the moment?
We have a great project running on Spiked Rampion at the moment, and after 6 years we now have the highest number of plants ever recorded, all due to a fantastic steering group of the good and great from Kew, Forestry Commission, Sussex Wildlife Trust, and East Sussex County Council, along with some very committed local volunteers. It’s been a lot of work but proved a great example of many organisations joining up with a single achievable aim of saving a really rather special plant from extinction.
This summer is going to see a network of data loggers placed around the New Forest as part of a project to re-discover the New Forest Cicada, that we’re working on with Buglife and Southampton University. There are real concerns about whether this species is already extinct, but as it spends most of its life underground and only emerges and sings for a short period it is a good contender for the UK’s most elusive species.
With a topic such as seeds and Ivy Press’s reputation for beautiful books you would be forgiven for thinking that this might be another coffee-table book in the same vein as the successful series of books published by Papadakis on seeds, pollen, and fruit. Although richly illustrated, Seeds: Safeguarding Our Future is very much a popular introduction to the biology of plants, focusing on seeds in particular, with pithy chapters covering evolution of plants, reproduction, seed dispersal, and germination. The subtitle gives away the angle this book takes though, with the first chapter on the importance of seeds to humanity, and the final chapter on how we might use seed biodiversity to ensure our own survival in the future. Though modern agriculture can feed many, its monoculture approach has also led to the loss of a large amount of genetic diversity. The dangers this could pose, especially with the impact of a changing climate, is a theme that runs throughout the book. Each chapter ends with a profile of a well-known plant and a profile of one of the many seed banks around the world that operate to conserve and catalogue the genetic diversity of plants.
Carolyn Fry is well-placed to write on this topic, having previously published books on Kew’s Millenium Seed Bank Project and on plant hunters. Furthermore, Kew Royal Botanic Gardens have endorsed the book and several of their experts have contributed expert advice. The book is a good primer on plant biology, and I noticed the short sections on, for example, reproduction were a great way to brush up on my slightly forgotten textbook knowledge. The seed bank profiles, pretty much one for each continent, are interesting little sections, highlighting the important work done here to safeguard against future threats to agricultural crops. Though shortly mentioned in the final chapter, I would have loved to have seen the futuristic Svalbard Global Seed Vault profiled in the same way. As a planetary back-up of agricultural seed collections around the world, this surely is one of the most impressive and intriguing seed banks.
All in all this is an excellent introduction to seed biology with a focus on conservation and agricultural importance, executed to Ivy Press’s typical high production standards.
Foraging for wild food is a world away from the trolley-push through the supermarket.
Those brightly-lit aisles barely cut it when you imagine gathering wild garlic in springtime, blackberries from late summer hedgerows, or sweet chestnuts as the tired old year begins to cool.
Clare Cremona wants to remind us how easy foraging for wild food can be, and it’s perfectly possible to start at home. “You would be surprised what is coming up on a bare patch of earth in your back garden,” she says.
And as an unusually mild winter slowly gives way to spring, she adds: “Right now there is actually quite a lot about. I think everything is coming out quite early, like pennywort, that is very good in a salad.”
Pennywort – the distinctive round leaves at their best and juiciest before flowers appear, usually in May – is just one of the wild foods she has chosen in the most recent of the Field Studies Council’s handy fold-out charts.
“I agonised over the 25, that was the hardest thing,” she says. “Twenty-five is not very many, that took longer than actually writing it, deciding what to leave out.”
Among those that made the cut are common sorrel, one of the earliest green plants to appear in spring; jack-by-the-hedge, another harbinger of spring, which can be used to make a slightly garlicky sauce for lamb; wood sorrel, a woodland plant, once recommended by John Evelyn as suitable for the kitchen garden; fat hen, a very old food plant, its remains have been found at Neolithic settlements throughout Europe; and wild garlic, a good addition to salads and soups.
There are hints on when and where to look for each plant, identification notes, and suggested uses.
Several of the well known favourites that need no introduction are there, such as blackberry. As is the customary health warning – never eat any wild food unless you are absolutely sure you have identified it correctly.
Cremona includes a few poisonous plants that could be confused with the edible ones, such as hemlock water dropwort, extremely toxic and probably responsible for more fatalities than any other foraged food, and dog’s mercury, highly poisonous, common in woodlands, and easy to inadvertently pick with other foraged plants.
There is a conservation issue too. She advises only picking what you need, never uprooting a wild plant (an offence without the landowner’s permission under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981), and never pick a protected species, such as cowslip, even if you’ve found an old recipe book with the most tempting of recipes.
Cremona, a Forest School and Wildlife Watch leader for the Field Studies Council and Devon Wildlife Trust, says: “Generally people have a go and test something, people generally don’t strip the land of everything.
“For me it is far more important people know what they are seeing, if they don’t we are not going to look after them. And we are losing the knowledge of what you can and what you cannot eat.”
Which brings us neatly to cooking. Cremona makes her first nettle soup of the year at Easter time – it has become a family tradition – and includes a recipe for nettle soup here, and some others, including a mouth-watering wild garlic pesto.
A seasonal tradition in parts of the north of England is to make bistort pudding – sometimes called Easter-ledge pudding, dock pudding, passion pudding, or herb pudding – where foraged bistort leaves are cooked with onions, oats, butter and eggs, although recipes vary from place to place and sometimes other hedgerow leaves go into the mix.
The resulting partly-foraged and wholly distinctive savoury pudding is served as a side dish with lamb at Easter, or with bacon and eggs at other times. Competitions are held to find the best tasting, including the annual World Dock Pudding Championships, at Mytholmroyd, in the West Riding.
So perhaps this Easter is the time to have a go at foraging for wild food?
The bird atlas movement that has swept the world in the last 40 years is surely one of the great recent achievements of citizen science.
More than 400 have been published since the 1970s and it is possible more people have been involved as volunteers than in any other form of biological data collection.
But it was not birders but botanists who pioneered the biological atlas, with the now familiar grid-based dot-maps. The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland’s Atlas of the British flora was a revelation when it appeared in 1962; half-a-century later American ornithologist Walter Ellison would describe it as the “great-grandfather of the hundreds of natural history grid-based atlases that were to follow in the next few decades as the atlas movement swept over the face of the Earth”.
The story is nicely told in C.D. Preston’s paper Following the BSBI’s lead: the influence of the Atlas of the British flora, 1962-2012. Planning had begun in 1950 and from the start it was intended to be a scientific exercise. The atlas in fact had little impact on science, which had to wait until computers that could analyse the amount of data atlases generate became widely available, but it did have an immediate impact on conservation – leading directly to the first British Red Data Book.
Speaking at the atlas’ launch, Max Nicholson, then head of the Nature Conservancy, described it as a great leap forward. And – we can imagine the great Twentieth Century conservationist had his tongue firmly in his cheek – suggested the ornithologists had been put to shame by the botanists.
Tony Norris, another of Britain’s conservation greats, responded when he and members of the West Midland Bird Club produced the Atlas of the Breeding Birds in the West Midlands in 1970.
The first grid-based bird atlas, modelled on the format pioneered by the botanists, covered the English counties of Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire, and inspired the Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland, organised by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and the Irish Wildbird Conservancy, published in 1976.
The 1976 bird atlas was followed by The Atlas of Wintering Birds in Britain and Ireland (1986), The New Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland (1994), and, bringing things right up to date, the Bird Atlas 2007-11: The Breeding and Wintering Birds of Britain and Ireland(2013). The fieldwork led to any number of county and regional atlases to various parts of Britain and Ireland – a recent post on the Devon Bird Atlas 2007-2013prompted this look at bird atlases.
Dawn Balmer, the BTO’s head of surveys, guesses at least 60,000 volunteers have contributed in Britain and Ireland alone over the last 40 years, 40,000 on the most recent atlas. Some take holidays in remote places in order to fill gaps, some make expedition-like trips to remote islands, some embark on marathon mountain bike journeys to record birds in inaccessible parts of the Scottish Highlands.
She said: “The atlas only gets finished because people do amazing things. Every time there is a new atlas you are engaging people in citizen science… it is quite addictive, people become atlas addicts.”
By the turn of the 21st Century there were also British atlases to butterflies, moths, bryophytes, reptiles and amphibians, spiders, dragonflies, molluscs, leeches and ticks. Freshwater fish followed soon after, and after that fleas, the latter the product of a 50-year labour by schoolteacher and wartime Spitfire pilot Bob George.
All stemmed from the Atlas of the British flora, which perceptive contemporary reviewers recognised had a significance beyond the British Isles.
Grid-based dot-maps were promoted by the European Ornithological Atlas Committee, formed in 1971 – the idea of using grid squares, for many years a solely military pre-occupation, had originally come from the Netherlands.
Bird atlases for France and Denmark appeared in 1976. The first American bird atlas, to Vermont, was published in 1985; by 1990 all the Atlantic coastal states from Maine to Virginia had completed fieldwork for bird atlases.
At the last count there were more than 400 national or regional bird atlases from nearly 50 countries, the majority in Europe and North America. There were fewer covering Africa and the Pacific, where all but one come from Australia, and only a handful from Asia, the Middle East and South America.
The original Atlas of the British flora contained another gift: it included pre-1930 records – not as far away in time then as it appears to be now – of uncommon species as open circles and contemporary records as black dots, making it immediately clear many species were in decline.
A standout feature of the 1994 New Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland was a huge reduction in the breeding range of farmland birds since fieldwork for the earlier atlases had been done. The 2013 atlas revealed upland birds and wading birds – according to Balmer the extent of the latter’s problems came as a particular shock – were under far more pressure than previously recognised.
“It is about the bigger picture and you only get that from having these large scale surveys periodically,” Balmer said. “It really helps you identify species which are showing the greatest change over time and it can highlight groups that are real conservation challenges.”
Winter woodland has a bare, skeletal charm all of its own, and a walk in the woods is a good time to try to put names to those familiar trees.
Suddenly leafless but not as anonymous as we sometimes think, with a little practice it is surprisingly easy to begin to place those barren winter twigs.
Here is a quick, and by no means definitive, guide to identifying six of the UK’s more common deciduous trees in winter, chosen at random on a midwinter ramble in my local woods.
Oak (below): A rugged twig with fat, oval orange-brown alternate buds, and a characteristic cluster of buds at the tip. The twig of the sessile oak is less rugged than pedunculate oak, but be careful the two species often hybridise and it can be tricky to tell the difference.
Ash: A twig that looks as if it means business, with black buds in opposite pairs and an unmistakable, fat terminal bud covered in black scales.
Beech: A slender, rather delicate twig with long, alternate and markedly pointed brown buds. Hornbeam is very similar but the buds hug the twig rather than point outwards, and the twig is noticeably more zigzagged.
Hazel: The twig is downy all over – although you may need a hand lens to see this clearly – with alternate, pale green to reddish-brown, smallish buds. Catkins are not at the end of the twig, unlike in birch species.
Field maple: Hairy twig and buds – again a hand lens is useful – with tiny reddish-brown buds, always in opposite pairs. The terminal bud often has smaller buds on either side, sometimes appearing to be a triple end bud.
Sycamore: Another sturdy twig, with plump pale green buds in opposite pairs. The large green bud scales on the terminal bud are easy to see.
I use an elderly copy of the Forestry Commission’s Know Your Broadleaves for Christine Darter’s fabulous drawings of winter twigs; David Streeter and Rosamond Richardson’s similarly dated Discovering Hedgerows has a useful key.
The stand out recent work is Dominic Price and Leif Bersweden’s Winter Trees: A Photographic Guide to Common Trees and Shrubs one of the Field Studies Council’s AIDGAP Guides, which covers 36 of the common broadleaved tree and shrub species likely to be found in the UK, as well as a few rarer ones. With pictures of bark as well as twigs, and notes on habitat, winter tree-ID suddenly seems much easier. Author royalties from the book go to the Species Recovery Trust.
James Byng is the author of the new Gymnosperms Handbook and a founding member of Plant Gateway, the botany organisation that published this, and his previous book, The Flowering Plants Handbook (out of print – new edition pending). In this interview he tells us about his work with Plant Gateway, raising the profile and accessibility of plant research, his own work with the genus Syzygium, and a day in the life of a working botanist.
You are a founding member of the Plant Gateway team. What is the vision for this botany organisation?
Taxonomic research is an underfunded and underappreciated branch of science and so few plant taxonomists are employed today in universities, and most national botanical institutions are cutting staff. However, the need to document the world’s species diversity has never been greater with as many as a fifth of all known plant species estimated to be threatened with extinction.
We believe at Plant Gateway an important step in slowing the biodiversity crisis is making plants more relevant and more accessible to people. It sounds simple but plant research in general is never quite appreciated as much as research on animals or in other scientific disciplines. But plants are fundamental for our own existence and continued survival on this planet, and we still barely know anything about most of them. Plant Gateway was founded for passionate like-minded taxonomists to make sense of the complicated botanical literature by publishing practical literature, running affordable and engaging identification courses, and undertaking taxonomic research with the aim of bringing it to a wider audience and making significant strides in our knowledge.
Who are the Plant Gateway courses for and how can they get involved?
Whilst training to be a plant taxonomist I witnessed over the years that plant identification skills were rarely being taught at universities anymore despite there still being a huge demand. Even though several courses exist which teach these skills, many of the courses are very expensive and/or taught too much from the specialist’s point of view which scares people off. Our courses are designed for everybody and anybody whatever a participant’s botanical background – all you need is an interest and love for plants! On past courses we have had undergraduate and postgraduate students, university professors and lecturers, horticulturalists, ecologists, Friends of Botanical Gardens and gardeners. We run several 1-day identification courses all over the UK in May and June, and a week long course in Tenerife around Easter time in 2016. Places on these courses can be reserved on our website.
The Gymnosperms Handbook is the second publication from Plant Gateway. Who is this book aimed at?
The Gymnosperms Handbook is a concise introduction to identifying extant gymnosperms of the world. It is aimed at both specialists and non-specialists; ranging from experienced botanists, ecologists, horticulturalists, biologists and gardeners to students and those people who are learning about and interested in conifers, cypresses and other gymnosperms because they see them in their local parks and forests. So the handbook is aimed for everybody whatever their background.
Part of your own research is focused on the systematics of Syzygium (Myrtaceae). What led you to this particular genus?
In 2007 I was an undergraduate at the University of Aberdeen when I first encountered the genus Syzygium in Zambia while undertaking ecological fieldwork. Since then I have been intrigued by the genus as most botanists seem scared by the sheer number of (known and unknown) species and the difficulty in identifying them due to the seemingly poor diagnostic characters which separate species. The genus is famous for containing the commercial clove (Syzygium aromaticum) and is now the largest tree genus in the world with over 1,200 species. I am now leading a project, with collaborators in the USA, Australia, Africa and Asia, to unravel evolutionary relationships of Syzygium and to document all species in a global monograph.
What does a working day as a botanical researcher look like for you?
A typical working day for a plant taxonomist in the twenty first century varies from week to week. Most of my time is spent with dried plant collections, housed in herbaria, where I sort through specimens collected from past and present field expeditions and document and describe species diversity. I also spend time collecting new data and plants in the field, usually in the tropics, and undertaking lab work where I extract and amplify DNA to understand evolutionary histories. Lastly, but perhaps most importantly(!), I spend time in front of the computer writing up my findings in the form of scientific papers, reports and books. It can be a combination of enjoyment and stress but once I finish a piece of work it makes it all feel worthwhile.
What’s next in line for publication from Plant Gateway?
One of the next titles in our practical handbook series will be a revised second edition of The Flowering Plants Handbook which will include notes on all flowering plant genera, more images, and will follow the soon to be published Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (APG) IV classification system. Also, there will be a practical handbook on ferns and their allies co-authored with my Plant Gateway colleague, and leading fern specialist, Dr Maarten Christenhusz.