Saturday, 22 June 2019

Another hidden gem

In my last blog I talked about nature growing through the cracks in an urban street (Finding a Rare Plant). Today I'm going to tell you about a different sort of crack in our modern built environment where nature is continuing to thrive, but on a somewhat larger scale.

A few days ago another ecologist told me about a bit of grassland that he had just discovered, between the two sides of a dual carriageway not far from Middlesbrough, which had four species of wild orchids along with lots of other interesting plants. This morning I decided to pay it a visit. It wasn't very easy to get to, as it's effectively the central reservation of a large A-road taking traffic towards Redcar and Saltburn from the west, but I was able to do it legally and without causing an accident.

It's about 340 metres long and less than 50 metres wide at its widest point but it is beautiful and it is very easy to forget that you are in the middle of a major road. I don't know if it has survived by accident or has been deliberately left, but whatever the case is, I am very happy it has been left.
In a couple of hours I identified 56 plant species (not including trees which I didn't look too closely at, as I was more interested in the grassland species today) including the four orchids that my friend told me about:- Lots of Common Spotted and Pyramidal Orchids, plus smaller numbers of Northern Marsh Orchids and Bee Orchids. There was a lot of a very pretty little star-shaped white flower called Fairy Flax (its less pretty-sounding alternative name, Purging Flax is reflected in its scientific name Linum catharticum). Although I called it grassland - and that is the correct name for it - in the main part of the area there is not actually that much grass growing. However, those grasses that you can see are pretty interesting, such as Quaking Grass (Briza media), with its delicate flower heads made up of lots of little 'rice-crispy-like' florets which shake in the slightest breeze (which is why I wasn't able to get a good picture of it).

The sedges - grass-like plants in the family Cyperaceae - are one of my favourite groups of plants and I was very pleased to find, as well as scattered plants of the common Glaucous Sedge (Carex flacca), a large patch of the less commonly seen Hairy Sedge (Carex hirta), which I haven't seen for quite a few years. It is unusual for a sedge in having hairy leaves (on both sides) and hairy fruits as well.

There were also a few birds there today, including a Whitethroat - a migratory warbler which I think was nesting close to where I found the Hairy Sedge.

Looking south across the site towards the west-bound carriageway,
which you can't see because of the lie of the land
Three lovely Common Spotted Orchids
(Dactylorhiza fuchsii)
A slightly out of focus Pyramidal Orchid
(Anacamptis pyramidalis)

A Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera)
[photo taken at a different site]

The tiny little stars of Fairy Flax (aka Purging Flax) were everywhere
Hairy Sedge (Carex hirta) - as sedges go, this is a pretty photogenic one,
although I don't think I've managed to capture how
beautiful and distinctive it is in this photo 😊 
A Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) on a Knapweed plant.
This species is a migrant to the UK and is unable to survive our winters,
so this individual  was probably in North Africa a few weeks ago

Thursday, 20 June 2019

Finding a rare plant

A couple of weeks ago Sue and I were visiting friends in a small market town in County Durham in the north of England. We’d been for a walk and were nearly back at their house when I noticed an interesting-looking little plant growing between the cobblestones at the edge of a terraced street. At first I couldn’t figure out what it was, although it looked vaguely familiar, so I took a few specimens [NOTE - it was obviously an annual plant growing in some abundance - at least 500 plants in my estimation - so I knew that taking a few specimens would not harm the population].

By the time we got back to our friends’ house I already had a hunch that it might be something called Four-leaved Allseed (Polycarpon tetraphyllum) - a plant I had only seen a couple of times four years ago. Being away from home and my own books, and without even a handlens on me, was a drawback, although the pictures I found on the internet, and in the wildflower book my friends had, certainly looked right for that species.

The problem was that this was a) a tiny little insignificant-looking plant with no petals present and very little in the way of distinguishing features and b) it was occurring a few hundred miles north of its only native populations in the UK (on the south coast of England) and would, judging from the information available online, be the first record as a wild plant for the whole north-east of England, so I knew I had to be careful about jumping to conclusions as there was quite a high chance
it could be something else altogether.

The next step was to consult more experienced botanists than myself so I took some pictures and emailed them to a friend of mine who confirmed that it was as rare as I thought it was but wasn’t able to comment on the identification, being even less familiar with the plant than I was.

Later that night, when I was at home in Middlesbrough, with my own books and handlens I was able to have a proper look at it and by now was 99% certain that I was right, so I emailed the official botanical recorder for County Durham, with my photos and a description of the plant, where it was growing, and why I thought it was Polycarpon tetraphyllum.

I then bit my nails (metaphorically) for a week until I heard back from him - the delay was caused by a) me getting his email address wrong the first time and then b) the fact that he was on holiday. His first email was not encouraging - he was only looking at the photos on his phone (he was still travelling back from his holiday) but he didn’t think it looked right and thought it might be a Sedum (Stonecrop) instead. However, later the same day he emailed back after looking at the photos on his computer and was starting to think that I might be right after all, but only having seen it on the Isles of Scilly himself he sent the pictures to another botanist for his opinion.

Two more days of waiting and then another email to say that the other botanist also thought it looked good for Polycarpon but that I should send some actual specimens of the plant (rather than just photographs) off to one of the BSBI (Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland) referees for final confirmation, given that it would be a first for the region.

One of the advantages of being a member of the BSBI is that you have access to a network of real experts - the BSBI referees - who can be consulted on questions of identification regarding any plant found in the wild in the UK or Ireland. Usually you have to send them specimens of the plant in the post - either fresh specimens or pressed and dried. Details of which referee to send your plant to are found in the BSBI Yearbook which is sent out to all the members. Most referees specialise in particular families, or even genera (the plural of genus) of plants, but there are some broader categories, such as 'Garden Shrubs', 'non-British Arctic-Alpines' and 'Plants in a vegetative state (including winter twigs)' which have their own referees. Many of the referees are people who have literally written the book on their chosen plant subjects.

In my case I was advised to send some fresh specimens (which were still in good condition despite a week in a tupperware box in my fridge) off to the referee for 'Aliens' (although this sounds very funny it just means plants that are not native to or long-established in, the British Isles). This was because, although P. tetraphyllum is native to the UK it is not native to the north of England and also there may be other species of the same genus growing in gardens that could possibly be my plant. I took about half of the material I had and sent it in a jiffy envelope to the referee in question, who lives in Somerset, and then pressed the rest in order to make a herbarium sheet .

This morning I checked my emails and there was one from the referee confirming conclusively that my initial hunch had been right and that my plant was indeed Polycarpon tetraphyllum.

As you will see from the photos below this is definitely a "botanists' plant" and not one that I would expect a casual observer to get excited about, or even notice. It is however a pretty little thing, particularly when you look at the fruits through 10x or 20x handlens. Then you can see the star-shaped cross-section and the dark green lines along the vertical edges of the fruit.
Polycarpon tetraphyllum - Four-leaved Allseed on my friend Daniel's hand

Yes, it's just a tiny little weedy plant growing at the edge of an urban street
A slightly closer view of one plant.