Friday, 17 November 2017

Eyes Wide Shut - a Botanical Awakening: Part Two

Image: D. Steere
On Monday, we brought you the first part of David Steere's story of how, in just four years, he went from not knowing the difference between a Dandelion and a Cotsfoot, to becoming a highly-valued botanical recorder in his home county of Kent

At the end of part one, we left him having just bought his first wildflower ID book and realising that he "knew very little about plants". 

Now find out what David did next:

Monkey Orchid
Image: D. Steere
"I amassed lots of old wildflower books from charity shops and wildlife reserve shops and realised my first little book was rather limited and the colour drawings of wildflowers were often inaccurate or vague. 

"As these books were inspiring but rather useless at field identifications I turned my research to the internet. Here I found a wealth of information and web sites, the two most influential to me being which had a wildflower and UK orchid forum and which lists most wildflowers found in the UK. 

"I also bought a copy of Harrap's Wild Flowers which had fantastic colour photos of most species with a good description of how to identify it. I followed this up with Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland by Blamey, Fitter and Fitter which had additional detail, but importantly, covered many alien species commonly found in the wild.

Late Spider-orchid photographed on
Folkestone Downs
Image: D. Steere
"Being fascinated by the orchids I had already found, I did lots of online research and resolved to find more Kent orchids, so in 2014 I set off to several well known sites and in a few short visits I found all the major species recorded in Kent, including Man, Lady, Greater Butterfly, Early and Late Spider, Monkey and many more. 

"It was an amazing time of discovery and wonder. I had no idea my own countryside had such stunning gems within it waiting to be found. In 2015 I set out to find orchids not in nature reserves and my star find was a population of previously unrecorded Lady Orchids, possibly never seen before by botanists.

"British and Irish orchids are amazing, yet I couldn't fail to notice other species along the way, from Eyebrights to Yellow-wort, Poppies to assorted Toadflax and so my interests considerably broadened. 

Lady Orchid, Luddesdown, Kent
Image: D. Steere
"I started photographing and logging all wildflowers I could identify. I wanted to find the wonderful flowers shown in Harrap's book for myself. 

"One big tip I learned early on was that taking some photos of a plant's flowers is often insufficient to identify the plant in front of you. 

"I quickly learned to take detailed photos of every bit of any plant I couldn't identify, including the underside of leaves and if possible even the type of hairs on the leaves. I still do that today which is invariably sufficient to gain a firm identification from Twitter botanists or my County Recorder.

"In 2015 I joined the Kent Botanical Recording Group which is free to join. I was welcomed from the start and enjoyed attending their field trips, where in a few hours with local experts I learned more than I could have done in a year of solo trips. They took time to explain the differences in species and what to look for. 

Field of Common Poppy, Eynsford, Kent
Image: D. Steere
"In addition to that, they put out a newsletter and Kent Botany each year with a wealth of information within them. I would highly recommend you join your local county group (see and click on your county from the map shown). Or use the list here.

"One thing that did baffle me on the field trips was the habit of everyone talking about plants using their scientific names and I frequently had to ask what flower they were talking about. 

"Feeling a bit embarrassed about it, I decided I would try to learn them as well and here's how I managed to remember seemingly impossible names, such as Tripleurospermum inodorum and Helminthotheca echioides: I became a BSBI member and started recording for the BSBI Atlas 2020.

July flowers at Lullingstone, Kent
Image: D. Steere
"To do this I could only record species whose identity I was 100% sure of. I then entered my finds into a spreadsheet, but you have to use the scientific names to do so. 

"As such, after repeatedly typing in common plants the names stuck in my memory. 

"Another tip is to mentally say the scientific name to yourself each time you notice it. Just walking down an urban street, I'm muttering to myself “Stellaria media, Euphorbia peplus, Conyza canadensis” etc. I now find I sometimes struggle to remember a plant's common name!" 

Sun spurge and Dense-flowered fumitory
Image: D. Steere
Let's leave David there, walking down the street muttering scientific names (yes, I do it too and so does every botanist I know!), enjoying being an active BSBI member and expanding his botanical knowledge. 

Tune in next week when we bring David's story bang up-to-date with the third and final part of his story: his recent botanical finds, his pet hates and obstacles encountered, how he overcame them and now helps beginner botanists expand their knowledge.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Spotlight on BSBI Local Groups. Number One: Kent

Eyebright expert Fred Rumsey & members of
Kent Botanical Recording Group, Dover, 2017
Image: Alfred Gay
BSBI’s network of local recording groups continues to grow and some of them have a staggering amount of useful information on their webpages. 

One of the most vibrant local groups is the Kent Botanical Recording Group. Since 2010, they have published an annual newsletter with accounts of field meetings, and they also publish ‘Kent Botany’, an annual report of botanical developments in the county, which lists notable plant records. 

Their webpage also features site Floras, historic Floras, notes on conservation work carried out on rare species in the county, a photographic gallery and ID videos by resident ace photographer Lliam Rooney and sections of the Rare Plant Register as they become available. All these resources are available for any botanist to download free of charge. There is also a link to the Kent Botany Facebook group.

I asked County Recorder Geoffrey Kitchener how long he had been at the helm in Kent and what was the secret of the Kent Botanical Recording Group’s success.

Geoffrey said: “I've been Kent recorder since the end of 2009 (subsequently joined by Sue Buckingham as co-recorder for East Kent). In March 2010, I brought together 36 other botanists to form the Kent Botanical Recording Group. We now number 124 members, young and not-so, and there's been a lot of enthusiasm. I'm particularly pleased how many have developed considerable botanical skills as a result of joining in. 

"By the beginning of 2017 we had gathered nearly 300,000 records since the group started; but it's not just about numbers - we have, I think, made significant advances in our knowledge of the Kent flora, moving on from the baseline established by Eric Philp's two Kent Atlases.

Hypericum montanum spotted during
 a KBRG field meeting
Image: Alfred Gay
“I think it's important that those recording, or interested in it, can see, as soon as may be, the results of our meetings and recording. So, in addition to the newsletter giving reports of meetings, plant lists for each meeting are sent to all recording group members shortly afterwards; and all the special records for the year are featured in our annual report”.

The growing number of Kent botanists who post photographs of their plant finds on Twitter suggests that Geoffrey’s approach is proving highly effective. The story of one of these botanists, David Steere, is currently being serialised on these pages, with the first instalment creating huge interest on social media. David is living proof that if you are keen to improve your botanical skills, your local recording group can be just the support you need! 

Head over here to find out about local groups in your area.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Third meeting of the Kerry BSBI group

Not a bad view!
Image: J. Hamilton
Following on from Jessica's reports on the first and second meetings of the BSBI Kerry group, we're going for the hat trick! 

Here is Jessica's account of the third field meeting of this group of wonderfully enthusiastic botanists in the west of Ireland. 

Over to Jessica:

"Where has the time gone? We’re almost halfway through November and the days are quickly blurring to bring the year to a close. Today I am reflecting on our findings from BSBI Kerry’s third outing.

Stream in the woods
Image: J. Hamilton
"Later than planned due to clashing schedules and less then amicable weather conditions, on the first Saturday of this month (4th November), we headed out to Glenageenty, a location that’s steeped in history and has a selection of trails to choose from surrounded by beautiful rural scenery. 

This outing was led by myself, Geraldine (Lecturer at ITT) and we had a small but enthusiastic group of 6 people. I decided against taking one of the direct trails and instead we did a looped walk which would keep us on a definite path yet encompassed the widest range of species and habitats within the parameters that time and weather allowed.

Image: J. Hamilton
"As usual our first source of distraction was the car park and we quickly clocked up a nice list of species including two garden escapes, Calendula officinalis (Marigold) and Tanacetum parthenium (Feverfew) - the latter was a species I hadn’t come across but it’s scent (from the leaves) is one I won’t forget.

"Within the car park area we ticked off lots of more common species such as Viola riviniana (Common Dog-violet), Senecio vulgaris (Groundsel), Angelica sylvestris (Angelica) and grasses such as Holcus lanatus (Yorkshire Fog) and Dactylis glomerata (Cock’s Foot). 

Image: J. Hamilton
"The elegant looking Athyrium filix-femina (Lady-fern) was spotted in the corner and nearby Conium maculatum (Hemlock) was also found and although it had gone over it was nice find as it’s not a species one comes across everyday.

"We then proceeded to stroll along the road and started ticking off lots of woodland species, the majority of which were not in flower but were easily recognisable by their leaves or seed heads. 

"Two such plants were Potentilla sterilis (Barren strawberry) and Fragaria vesca (Wild strawberry), the main difference between the two being that wild strawberry’s middle leaflet is longer than the other two. 

Image: J. Hamilton
"One plant which was putting on a great display was Umbillicus rupestris (Navelwort). I really loves its Latin name which hints to its appearance and where it grows. (Umbilicus = navel shaped, rupestris = growing on rock). 

"It’s one of my favourite plants as it was of the first ones that I asked ‘what are you?’ (My first plant I ever properly identified was the beautiful Saxifraga tridactylites (Rue-leaved saxifrage) and I still get excited when I see it for the first time every year).

"We also met our third garden escape still putting on quite a pretty display Fuchsia magellanica (Fuchsia). 

Irish Spurge
Image: J. Hamilton
"The shaded roadside verges also gave rise to lots of lovely fern species including three spleenworts Asplenium scolopendrium (Hart's-tongue fern), A. trichomanes, (Maidenhair fern) and A. adiantrum-nigrum (Black Spleenwort), as well as Blechnum spicant (Hard fern), Dryopteris dilatata (Broad-buckler fern) and Dryopteris affinis (Scaly male-fern). Euphorbia hyberna (Irish spurge) was also spotted which was another nice species to come across.

"One optimistic spring flowering plant whose leaves were already starting to appear were Ficaria verna (Lesser celandine), and it wasn’t long before we met another spring flowering plant Primula vulgaris (Primrose) which was actually  in flower. 

Yellow pimpernel
Image: J. Hamilton
"As we ascended slightly a roadside verge gave another boost for the recording sheet. Despite the chilly weather, Lysimachia nemorum (Yellow pimpernel) was trying its best to look cheerful and we met our fourth garden escape of the day – Buddleia.

"We had lunch at one of the quaint picnic benches that are dotted at various spots around the location. 

"I say at - we actually had to stand around the picnic bench due to the damp conditions!

Bridge near cottage ruins
Image: J. Hamilton
"After lunch we soon passed a second picnic spot which bordered a stream where we came across the ruins of an old cottage which was used as a place of refuge, as was many other areas within the forest, during times of unrest in Irish history- there was something quite humbling about the spot as the silence was broken only by the nearby stream.

"We then moseyed on through a conifer plantation  where the time of year and low light levels somewhat halted our species list. We then finished the loop and ascended back to the main road where we ticked off a couple of species we had missed the first time around.

Contrasting colours of the conifer plantation
vs the deciduous trees
Image: J. Hamilton
"When we got to the car park it was quite funny to note that we actually finished more or less bang on time for a change, and just as we got back to the cars the heavens opened giving us our queue to wrap things up for the day.

"All in all we covered two monads and recorded a nice range of species, I have some to tot up the final tally but we were not far off the 100 mark which isn’t a bad feat for the time of year.

"To conclude, this maybe our last outing of the year, but keep an eye on the BSBI Kerry Facebook page here or if you’re a Twitter user here

That's a wrap!
Image: J. Hamilton
"And remember, if you are in the Kerry locality and would like to get involved and come out with us on future outings, send me an email to and ’ll add you to the mailing list.  

"To think we only had our first ever official #BSBIKerry outing in July – I think we’re off to a great start and I cannot wait to see where our next outings will take us! 

I agree - thanks to Jessica, the Kerry group has got off to a great start! 

Many thanks to her for telling us about this third meeting of the Kerry BSBI group and all the plants they spotted.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Eyes Wide Shut - a Botanical Awakening: Part One

Agrimony and Wild Basil
Image: D. Steere
Anybody who follows BSBI on Twitter will have noticed fabulous wild flower photographs from David Steere who tweets under the name @Barbus59. His photos have also been used in BSBI leaflets and publications such as the Annual Review 2016 and the recent Atlas 2020 Appeal leaflet. And he is always keen to lend a hand during #wildflowerhour and offer ID help to less experienced botanists

So I was surprised when David told me that he only took up botany a few years ago! I asked him to tell us his story and here is the first instalment, illustrated with a selection of his photographs: 

"I am at the ripe old age of 57, yet just 4 years ago I didn't know a Coltsfoot from a Dandelion. I regularly post wildflower photographs on Twitter and also help others to identify their own finds. As such, many assume I am a trained botanist or some kind of expert. 

Green-winged Orchid
Image: D. Steere
"This is far from the truth! I have been asked to tell you how I became interested in botany and give an account as to how I expanded my knowledge from nothing to a reasonable level within a few years.

"It all started when I began to take country walks with my partner, for the sole purpose of exercise. Like most people I saw everything, yet in reality noticed nothing. I would recount having a lovely walk in woods and seeing some views but little else. The botany bug rather predictably all began with a wild orchid.

"While on a Spring walk through a woodland path one day, I noticed a group of purple flowers looking majestic in the sunlight. I stopped and took a few moments to admire them and wondered what on earth they could be. 

"As I looked around I also noticed some clusters of small yellow flowers on stalks with big green crinkled leaves (read on if you can't guess this species) and it was then that I had the realisation that I was now in my mid fifties and I had no idea what any of the wildflowers around me actually were, so I determined to find out.

Cowslip and Early Purple Orchid
Image: D. Steere
"The purple flowers were of course, the beautiful blooms of the Early Purple Orchid and the yellow flowers those of the Cowslip, though it took some time to work that out. 

"I bought my first wildflower book, The Pocket Guide to Wild Flowers by Peter Moore (Bounty Books). It was this little book that finally opened my eyes to how many wildflowers there were and I determined to find and identify as many as I could. As I found species over the course of that year, I would put a tick in the book – rather like an adult version of an I-Spy book!

Bee Orchid
Image: D. Steere
"A couple of weeks later, by chance, I found another iconic wildflower, one that has drawn many people into botany over the years, the humble, but stunning Bee Orchid. It was a single flowering spike on sandy soil by a lake and I was entranced by it. I had never seen anything like it and was very excited about finding it. I had a small compact camera with me and took some poor photographs of it. It was the disappointing photos that also led me into botanical photography. Now, I can't imagine going out into nature without my camera with me, a much more advanced Canon 700D DSLR with a 100mm macro lens being the norm. 

"I also found a white sad looking "tulip" growing in a chalk woodland that intrigued me. I didn't photograph it as I thought someone had planted it there. I later found out it was a White Helleborine! The more I looked now, the more I really did see and I realised that I knew very little about plants and at that time their flowers".

In the next instalment, David will tell us how he proceeded on his botanical journey - watch this space!

Saturday, 11 November 2017

BSBI Training Grants helping botanists in 2017: Part Four

Wildmoor Pool
Image: D. Wallace
In August, we told you how a BSBI training grant allowed Tomos to study orchids in Scotland.

Now we have another account of how a BSBI training grant made it possible for botanist Debs Wallace to get to grips with aquatics. 

Debs had already applied for, and received, a training grant in 2016 to study grass ID - a reminder that you can apply more than once for a BSBI training grant. 

Over to Debs to tell us now about her second grant:

Montgomery Canal: the group contemplate
the range of duckweeds
Image: D. Wallace
"When I applied for a BSBI training grant this year to attend a three-day Aquatics Plants course I confessed that I had a copy of the BSBI Pondweeds Handbook which was in pristine condition on my book shelf and had never been out in the field or anywhere near a Potamogeton (Pondweed). 

"I am delighted to report that this situation has well and truly changed thanks to receiving a BSBI training grant and attending a three-day Aquatics Plants course. 

"Chris Preston’s wonderful Pondweeds Handbook has now seen some action.

How many different duckweeds
are in the tray?
Image: D. Wallace
"The course was led by Nick Law at Preston Montford FSC and was a mixture of field work, lab work and a bit of fun and games added in to make learning enjoyable. During the course we were introduced to a broad selection of aquatic plants growing in their natural habitat and these were supplemented by specimens which Nick had brought in. 

"Day one, was a visit to Wildmoor Pool and with beautiful sunny weather it was a perfect introduction to the course.

"Day two saw us exploring the Montgomery Canal where the day started with a tray of Duckweed species to sort out and identify. 

"The course handbook by Sarah Whild and Nick Law is a very useful resource and is now a regular addition to my field kit.

"During the course we looked at a range of Potamogeton species and with Nick’s help, and a bit of perseverance, we got to grips with some of the Potamogeton terminology such as, amplexicaul / semi-amplexicaul and sclerenchymatous strands (not words that often crop up in everyday conversation). 

Potamogeton praelongus
(Long-stalked pondweed)
Image: D. Wallace
"We found stipules, phyllodes and turions and I added several new words to my botanical vocabulary during the course.
"We looked at the vegetative characterises of emergent species such as Sparganium erectum (Branched Bur-reed) with its strongly keeled leaves with dark brown leaf tips and Butomus umbellatus (Flowering Rush) with its twisted leaves which have fine, spiral fibres in the leaves which can be seen if a leaf is carefully pulled apart.

"Learning the techniques for preparing voucher specimens of aquatic plants was extremely useful as many aquatic plants do not naturally lend themselves to being arranged on herbarium paper. 

Spiral fibres of Butomus umbellatus
Image: D. Wallace
"The technique has several stages (and many changes of paper before the plant is pressed). Starting by placing a sheet of paper in a tray of shallow water, the plants are added and arranged in the water. The paper is then carefully extracted with the plants in place.

"We also made grapnels and used these on the final morning to collect plants from the River Severn. 

"I left the course feeling keen to do more and soon signed up as a canal and Rivers Trust volunteer and have subsequently assisted with a survey of a section of the Rochdale Canal SSSI.

Nick Law demonstrating how to carefully float
aquatic plants onto a sheet of paper
Image: D. Wallace
"As an existing volunteer recorder for the Greater Manchester Ecology Unit, I regularly help to survey Local Wildlife Sites and with my newfound interest in aquatic plants, my grapnel has had several outings to sites with waterbodies. 

"The aquatic plants course has enabled me to record far more species and make a greater contribution to these surveys. I was delighted to find Lythrum portula (Water Purslane) and Eleocharis acicularis (Needle Spike-rush) in ponds on a golf course in Bury. 

Eleocharis acicularis is not commonly recorded in VC 59 and the last confirmed record was in 1992. The County Recorder was pleased with a recent (confirmed) record for a new site.

Lythrum portula
Image: D. Wallace
 "I am very grateful to the BSBI for the training grant and to Nick Law for an excellent course. This course has added a further dimension to my voluntary recording.

I am going to take my grapnel to the BSBI Summer Meeting next year and I hope to find some waterbodies on the Isle of Man to investigate".

Many thanks to Debs for telling us about the BSBI training grant she received and how it has helped her get to grips with aquatics. 

If you are at the BSBI Summer Meeting on the Isle of Man next year and you need some help with pondweed ID, you'll know who to ask!

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Black Poplars at the BSBI Exhibition Meeting

Two mature male Black Poplar trees
beside the Cam at Fen Ditton
Image: Roger Horton
Bookings are flooding in for BSBI's Annual Exhibition Meeting (AEM): to give you a taste of what we can look forward to this year, we've asked exhibitors to tell us what they will be offering at the Natural History Museum on 25th November. 

Leif Bersweden has already told us about his Orchid Hunter exhibit and now Roger Horton, a regular AEM exhibitor, tells us about his exhibit on Black Poplars.

Over to Roger:

Where are they now? Refinding Black Poplars in the NatHistCam area.

"The Cambridge Natural History Society project 'NatHistCam' aims to create a snapshot of the flora and fauna of Cambridge during 2017-2019 within an area 88km square around the city. 

NatHistCam project area
Image: Mark Hill
"A publicly-accessible database is being maintained by Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Environmental Records Centre (CPERC) so that experts and novices alike may submit their findings and watch the project's progress. 

"The native Black Poplar (Populus nigra subsp. betulifolia) sometimes called "England's rarest tree" has been frequently recorded in and around the city. 

"Numbers are in decline, however, because of urban development, storm damage, and lack of natural regeneration. 

"NatHistCam will provide an opportunity to re-examine the tree's survival, and survey recent planting.

"Mature examples of this poplar, most common beside rivers, can be identified by their rounded crown and burred trunk which often leans and forks. Branches are usually down-curved, petioles and tips of young shoots pubescent. 

A Black Poplar in a
development area next to a
fastigiate Lombardy Poplar
Image: Roger Horton

"Documented old trees, if still standing, should be relatively easy to locate, but young trees, especially in areas of replanting, or those subject to redevelopment, may be difficult to distinguish from more common hybrids. 

"The BSBI Populus Plant Crib provides a useful starting point, and BSBI Handbook No. 4: Willows and Poplars (1984), giving greater detail, is still available. 

"For serious botanists Stace 3 (New Flora of the British Isles) gives extensive notes on species within the genus, as well as the distinguishing features of hybrids.

"The poster presentation will make use of links in the form of QR codes (Quick Response: 2-dimensional barcodes). Readers with smart phones instead of having to write down URLs will be able to scan the code and immediately open a web page in the phone's browser, thus leading to full details of the NatHistCam project. Come prepared!"

The image below shows the QR code for the NatHistCam webpage.

If you want to see Roger's poster on Black Poplars - and the many other delights we have lined up for you at this year's Exhibition Meeting - head over here and book. 

It's completely free and you don't even have to be a BSBI member - although it's a great way to find out more about BSBI

You will be able to join on the day if you want to (Membership Secretary Gwynn Ellis will be there to receive your payment and completed membership form) and then you can start enjoying all the benefits of membership

Gwynn tells me that more than 50 people joined BSBI in October so we must be doing something right!