Thursday, 14 January 2016

New Year Plant Hunt prizes #2: Most Hunts - Joint Winner

Montage of plants spotted in bloom by James,
Exeter 1/1/2016

Image: James Faulconbridge
Click on images to enlarge them
Following on from Gus's amazing five New Year Plant Hunts in Scotland, now read about James' five New Year Plant Hunts across England. And being a five-time Hunter wasn't the only thing these two botanists proved to have in common! Over to James: 

"I missed the boat for the New Year Plant Hunt in 2015, but managed to squeeze in five Plant Hunts to make up for it in 2016! The Hunts spanned from Devon to Lincolnshire – I would love to say this was commitment to the cause but in fact we spent New Year in Exeter and stopped a night in Bristol on the way back up to the Midlands – the perfect opportunity to explore new places and see what was in flower on the way!

Montage of plants spotted in bloom by James,
Bristol 2/1/2016
Image: James Faulconbridge 
City-centre Plant Hunts were rather different to the places where I’m used to botanising – you end up poking around behind bushes and in tucked-away corners which most people pass by, and subsequently finding things which people might not expect you to find! I’ll leave your imagination to fill in the gaps…!

Not knowing either Exeter or Bristol well, I set out and followed my nose, instinctively heading towards greener spaces such as parks and churchyards. But the majority of the finds seemed to be in less ‘official’ green space – these were the opportunistic or ephemeral species which found a niche at the side of pavements or concealed themselves within ornamental shrubberies. 

I found a thriving patch of Annual mercury Mercurialis annua beside a subway in Bristol, whilst Petty spurge Euphorbia peplus and Annual meadow grass Poa annua were fairly ubiquitous in both cities. Lawns were another good source of species with Daisy Bellis perennis flowering abundantly and other species such as Common mouse-ear Cerastium fontanum and Creeping buttercup Ranunculus repens also nestled amongst the Perennial rye grass Lolium perenne. Plants do not constrain themselves to the horizontal either – the delicate flowers of Ivy-leaved toadflax Cymbalaria muralis were well-naturalised on city-centre walls including Exeter Castle, where almost every plant seemed to be in flower. These two Hunts totalled 21 and 22 species respectively.

Montage of plants spotted in bloom by James,
Tyntesfield NT 2/1/2016

Image: James Faulconbridge
An afternoon walk around Tyntesfield National Trust property with my partner was another opportunity to tot up species. Luckily she is well enough used to me by now to get into the spirit of the Hunt with sharp eyes helping reach another count of 22 species – something of a trend emerging! Interestingly around a third of the species over a 2 hour walk came from ten minutes in an area where the Trust had undertaken some recent clearance works and where the ground was more disturbed. Here we counted Herb Robert Geranium robertianum, Bramble Rubus fruticosus agg., Wall lettuce Lactuca muralis, White dead-nettle Lamium album and Prickly sow-thistle Sonchus asper all in flower. The more established grassland and woodland edge habitats produced fewer specimens by contrast. Early spring flowers such as Hazel Corylus avellana catkins, Primrose Primula vulgaris and naturalised Winter heliotrope Petasites fragrans, Snowdrop Galanthus nivalis and Daffodil Narcissus spp. were another key component of the count at this site. 


Montage of plants spotted in bloom by James,
Stonesby Quarry, Leics 3/1/2016

Image: James Faulconbridge
Back home on the 3rd Jan, I got out at first light to beat the mid-morning forecast of rain and headed across the county-border into Leicestershire for a fourth Hunt. I went to a Leicestershire Wildlife Trust site – Stonesby Quarry – thinking that the topography of the site might create more sheltered spots where flowers would escape the frost. This was not the case however; the limestone swards yielded very few species with most of my finds occurring at the ecotones with scrub at the edges – species such as Red campion Silene dioica, White dead-nettle Lamium album and Wood avens Geum urbanum

One particularly productive area however was an area of old tarmac just inside the entrance which was being colonised slowly – here there were low-growing Thyme-leaved sandwort Arenaria serpyllifolia, Scarlet pimpernel Anagallis arvensis and Common mouse-ear Cerastium fontanum. Whether this ephemeral/opportunistic setting encouraged early flowering or whether they were simply much easier to spot than within a denser grassland sward, I couldn’t be sure. I called in at the next village of Branston afterwards - I turned up almost the same number of species in half the time, with Lesser celandine Ficaria verna, Primrose Primula vulgaris, Ox-eye daisy Leucanthemum vulgare and Yarrow Achillea millefolium, amongst others. In all, the count for the Sunday was 26 species. 

Montage of plants spotted in bloom by James,
Grantham, Lincs 4/1/2016

Image: James Faulconbridge
The 4th January was the last date for a New Year Plant Hunt and I combined a walk to work with a lunchtime meander to count up 44 species in Lincolnshire. This started out in the dark with a few photographs of species by torchlight, but ended with the much more pleasant sunshine of a winter’s afternoon. The Grantham Canal yielded a good number of species including Red and White campion Silene dioica and S. latifolia, Red and White deadnettle Lamium purpureum and L. album and Yarrow Achillea millefolium. There were also plenty of Hogweed Heracleum sphondylium flowers and a single Cow parsley Anthriscus sylvestris head – these were all in the strip cut beside the towpath in late summer whilst not one of the plants which had escaped the blade was flowering. 

Cow Parsley
Image courtesy of JR Crellin/Floral Images
www.floralimages.co.uk/page.php?
taxon=anthriscus_sylvestris,1
Through the town of Grantham itself were a typical collection of opportunistic and annual species (we don’t encourage the word ‘weed’) including Shepherd’s-purse Capsella bursa-pastoris, Wavy bittercress Cardamine flexuosa and Canadian fleabane Conyza canadensis. The proximity to gardens also boosted the naturalised ornamentals including Greater periwinkle Vinca major, Wood spurge Euphorbia amygdaloides and Oregon grape Mahonia sp.. 

The hedges turned up a couple of surprises as well including Dogwood Cornus sp., Blackthorn Prunus spinosa, Holly Ilex aquifolium and Hazel Corylus avellana all in flower. Up to the Hills and Hollows to the east of the town at lunchtime ticked off a few more species and finished with Gorse Ulex europaeus which was flowering abundantly on the hillside overlooking the town. As the phrase goes, ‘when gorse is out of flower, kissing is out of fashion’!

Hogweed
Image: Claudia Ferguson-Smyth
The New Year Plant Hunt was a great excuse to get out in the fresh air after Christmas, and it is cheering to see so many flowers still in bloom – in all, excluding duplicated, I totalled 64 different species. Following the progress of others on social media was a great way to put your finds in context – to get a feel for what others were finding in flower or otherwise. 

It was good to see what the real experts were finding too – the lists coming from some luminaries were very impressive and an inspiration to continue to learn and develop ID skills. It was great too to see how many people were taking part from an enthusiast or amateur standpoint, totting up the splashes of colour they were seeing on the New Year’s Day walk or heading out as a family to see what they could find. 

Geoffrey Hall, County Recorder for Leics,,
 refinds Dianthus deltoides on a road verge
Image: L. Marsh
Five hunts across four counties has left me with a strong impression of what kind of species flower in the dead of winter, and why, but I am looking forward to the analysis and summaries which the BSBI are undertaking on the overall results to see whether my hunches are replicated across the country. 

It looks like a bumper year for participation so hats off to Louise Marsh and Ryan Clark who have undertaken a serious commitment to collate and compile the results. [ed. Aw thank you James but Ryan is doing the serious stuff while I waffle and tweet about it!] I’m looking forward to taking part again next year!

My three wishes, to be granted by the BSBI genie, would be:

 My first wish is one which I have to share with Gus – hopefully the power of two wishes from the BSBI genie will be irrefutable – and that is that the ‘Road Verge Campaign’ run by Plantlife in 2015 reaches more people and gains traction with local authorities and land managers in 2016. 


Find out why Geoffrey was so pleased to see this plant:
bsbi.org.uk/Dianthus_deltoides_species_account.pdf
Image: L. Marsh
The space for wildflowers, and the species which depend upon them, is increasingly being squeezed and so much of the land in urban and rural areas is managed at great expense to effectively minimise its ecological functionality through weekly mowing. The road networks are a natural ‘green corridor’ around the whole of the UK linking our towns and cities, and ecologically sensitive management could provide a huge boost to biodiversity as well as an aesthetic and wellbeing boost to those who use and travel through these spaces. 

The positive effect on wellbeing has been demonstrated where wildflower meadows have been introduced to urban spaces such as Bristol. Many people respond to reduced mowing regimes by considering it untidy or unmanaged – there are even counter-campaigns asking councils to resume their previous management. Education, explanation and inspiration are needed to succeed and I would wish for success in achieving progress with this.

#wildflowerhour poster at
BSBI Exhibition Meeting 2015
Image: Terry Swainbank
Secondly that the excellent  #wildflowerhour on Twitter goes from strength to strength. This was initiated by Fennel & Fern and taken up by BSBI on Twitter. It is an invitation for people to share images and sightings of wildflowers every Sunday night between 8pm and 9pm simply by tweeting and using the #wildflowerhour hashtag. 

It allows you to share interesting finds, and in turn to get a weekly snapshot of what is flowering and where across Britain and Ireland. And if nothing else, there is little more cheering on a Sunday evening than a feed full of wildflowers as you get ready to go back to a week at work.

Ros Bennett talks about teaching plant ID.
BSBI Training the Trainers workshop 2014
Image: Oli Pescott
Thirdly, a BSBI-specific wish, I would like to see a BSBI ‘Introduction to the 10 or 15 Commonest Plant Families’. I remember well – a breakthrough moment when I was first learning botany was an FSC course where they introduced the 20 most common wildflower families in the UK. There are certain characteristics which, when you learn to spot them, can take you straight to the family – suddenly the 1,600+ possible IDs could be quickly narrowed to 20 or 30 species in a family. 

I’m sure these are available commercially tucked away in books, and a quick Google finds this information in disparate forms is available online, but a simple, clear, friendly and accessible guide targeted at beginners would be excellent to encourage people with an interest in botany to take an immediate step-up in their confidence and abilities".

Many thanks to James, who isn't just a great New Year Plant Hunter, he's also pretty good at guest blogposts! What do you think of James' third wish? Why not leave a comment below? I bet James would love to hear from you!