Wednesday, 28 January 2009

St Olaf's Candlesticks

Living in the south east all my life and not really being a plant twitcher willing to travel hundreds of miles to see a particular species has meant that certain species that grow only at the other extremes (especially northerly) of Britain have achieved an almost mythical and inaccessible status for me. One of the most extreme of these has been Moneses uniflora, so gloriously commonly known as St Olaf's Candlesticks or more mundanely One-flowered Wintergreen.

In Britain this species is confined to a dozen or so sites in the pine woods of northern Scotland, not an area I visit very often and never at the right time of year to see the plant in flower. It appears to be in decline due to loss of habitat and is another species covered by Plantlife's Back from the Brink programme. For many years when I have occasionally come across pictures of this plant I have drooled over the unlikely appearance of it's flower.

This year we spent a spring holiday in Les Grande Causses region of southern France walking and plant-hunting and on the first day wandered into a pine wood that in places (amongst many other goodies) was carpeted with small "candlestick"-like buds shown in the picture above. At first sight I had no idea what they were but a few more metres and all became apparent because there in their full glory were hundreds of Moneses in full flower. Two small green leaves hardly emerging from the pine needles and associated litter with a flower stem about 5cm high and a flower only about 2cm across. And what a flower, I find it absolutely spell-bindingly (!) beautiful living up fully to its mythical status. The holiday was already fulfilled just for that moment when I realised what we had found. Its a shame that such a moment couldn't have happened in Scotland but better in France than never.

In writing this I realise that other members of the same family (Pyrolaceae) native to Britain have also avoided my gaze. Of the five native species (belonging to three genera, Moneses, Pyrola and Orthilia) I only remember seeing one in this country, Common Wintergreen, Pyrola minor. That was growing on a roadside in Buckinghamshire at a site more famous for Ghost Orchid (Epipogium aphyllum) but that is another story.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Slugs and snails

There was a little snippet in the paper the other day about the optimistic expectations of commercial vegetable growers this year. They are hoping that the temperatures during the recent cold snap were low enough (to penetrate to a sufficient soil depth) and had lasted long enough to cause significant damage to overwintering populations of slugs and snails that they felt had built up to virtually plague proportions in recent years.

This made me think of observations I have made over recent years monitoring the vegetation on the local downs. Two species of orchid, Man Orchid (Orchis anthropophorum) and Greater Butterfly Orchid (Platanthera chlorantha), have been doing really well albeit from a low base. They can be counted early in the year because they start into growth around the end of January before grasses get going and the populations have been increasing nicely. Until two years ago this increase was also reflected in the number of flower spikes for each species but in 2007 there was a large drop in numbers of spikes and in 2008 there were hardly any mature spikes of either species in May/June.

In both cases this appeared to be due to slug and snail predation during damp spells in April/early May, immature stems collapsing after being half eaten away longitudinally, every gardener know the symptoms. So like the vegetable growers, with the cold spell and possibly a dryish spring perhaps we can look forward to a decent display of orchids this year.

I must admit until these observations, it had never really occurred to me the effect these gastropods have in the wild and on Chipstead Downs it is potentially even worse because we have Roman Snails (Helix pomatia)!! Anyone else any thoughts?

Friday, 16 January 2009

Lonesome Pine

Juniper (Juniperus communis) is one of the three conifers native to the British Isles and there was a time in the not so recent past, or so we are told, when it formed a significant component of chalk scrub along the North Downs. Indeed in Clapham, Tutin and Warburg's Flora published in the fifties, Juniper is described as "often dominant in scrub on chalk and limestone". However, a Plantlife report published in 2004 suggested that on the whole of the North Downs it was in terminal decline with only 100 plants left. Now, the only place near here where I have seen good numbers of this species is Hackhurst Downs above Gomshall although I have not been there for a few years.

This demise is not just local, nationwide the same report was suggesting a 50% or greater loss over the past thirty years or so. The reasons for this decline appear as with so many others, complex and difficult to define, certainly many populations do not appear to be regenerating from seed possibly as a result of climate change.

The "good" news is that if you want to see one there are still a few plants around Banstead. On Banstead Downs there are a grand total of six quite large plants scattered across the golf course side of the Downs, mostly in fairly tall scrub. They all appear fairly healthy and still appear to be growing well. On Park Downs the situation is rather sad, there is just a single, albeit large, plant slap in the middle of the site, see photo taken in the murk today. It is an elegant plant about 15 feet high with slightly drooping foliage.Certainly the situation on Park Downs appears terminal, Juniper is dioecious, i.e. has separate male and female plants and hence it takes two to produce seed!! Even on Banstead Downs although there are both male and female plants there is little suitable habitat for seedlings to flourish, not that mature fruit have been observed there regularly.

Luckily the final demise of the plant on Park Downs may be far off, Junipers live over 100 years and so the graceful plant on Park Downs may continue to give pleasure for quite a few years. Perhaps we should christen it George after the last Pinta Island Tortoise in the Galapagos.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Gentianella species

Most of my biological interest at the moment is in fighting off various viruses that seem to be interested in me!! So I am struggling to work up the energy to do anything and spend most of my time reading the paper.

I have to thanks Steve Gale (again!!!) for his welcome and link and for pre-empting a number of my entries. So in the absence of much botanical activity at this time of year I thought I would deal with one of those he mentioned.

Banstead Downs is well known in botanical circles for Early Gentian, Gentianella anglica (left), a number of small colonies of which occur there. G.anglica is an annual/biennial, endemic to England and is one of five species of the genus that grows in Britain. It is a plant of chalk and limestone and is considered endangered largely from loss of habitat. It is one of the species that is managed under the Plantlife “Back from the brink” programme and the population in Banstead has been monitored for many years and although the numbers vary from year to year overall it seems to be doing quite well.

On Banstead Downs it grows in very short chalk turf (less than 5cm) and rarely reaches more than 5cm, in contrast to the other very similar species Felwort, G.amarella (right), that also grows on the Downs and other chalkland sites nearby, that can reach 20cm. The most obvious difference between the two however is that G.anglica flowers from April to June and G.amarella from July to September. Interestingly, a few years back a DNA study was published that suggested G.anglica is merely a form of G.amarella "that has been created and maintained as a consequence of former grassland management practices", i.e. they were the same species. I've not seen any more on this but knowing the two plants that does seem a bit strange.

Something else about these plants is that their flowers open mostly when it is sunny, which for G.anglica means that it can be incredibly difficult to find on a cloudy day even when you know exactly where it grow.

G.amarella also grows on Park downs just south of Banstead and in areas where there is heavy rabbit grazing stands out like a sore thumb. Presumably the rabbits don't eat in because of its bitter taste (amarella comes from the latin for bitter).

To show the true beauty of the flowers of this genus I have to include this picture (left) of Chiltern Gentian G.germanica that does NOT grow in this area but as the common name suggests it is restricted to the Chilterns in this country. Altogether a much bigger plant up to 30cm with many flowers. The picture shows the fringing to the corolla that separates this genus from Gentiana proper.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Suppression and Vandals

Thought I would start the blog proper with a rant. Start as I intend to continue!

One of the reasons there are so many birding rather than plant blogs is, I suspect, related to the relative mobility of the subjects of interest. For most of the year, birds are mobile and exchanging information on their whereabouts offers little threat to their survival and so everyone is happy to share information with others who know full well the bird may not be present in the same place the next day. The exception is at nesting season when because of a small group of peculiar people who collect eggs, genuine birders tend to suppress information especially with regard to rarer species.

With plants the situation is different, they tend to be rather sedentary organisms and once located do not tend to move too far!!!! As a result disseminating accurate information about their whereabouts means that others have a high chance of finding them. This is great for those with innocent intent to see and perhaps photograph the plants. Unfortunately there is another group of strange people who would rather translocate the plants to their own collection/garden (especially the rarer species with a high probability of dying within a season) and hence deprive everyone else of the more simple pleasures of viewing them.

When I first got interested in wildlife over 40 years ago it was often very difficult to persuade any genuine naturalist to disclose the whereabouts of a rare plant species especially orchids. I must admit that I thought that the intervening period had resulted in a more enlightened scenario with fewer people digging up plants and locations becoming more widely broadcast. Unfortunately it seems to still be a problem. Nationally, 2008 saw at least two instances of orchid removal hitting the national press. Plants of the very rare Military Orchid (Orchis militaris) were dug up in Bucks (luckily the perpetrator was caught in the act) and plants of Dark-Red Helleborine (Epipactis atropupurea) were removed from a site in Derbyshire, Still, probably isolated instances? No, certainly not from my experience this year!

In the Banstead area we have at least one small colony of Violet Helleborine (Epipactis purpurata, left), a rather statuesque and handsome species that is characterised as it ages by developing into a clump of flowering shoots but would be easily missed by the casual observer because its true beauty is only seen close up, see below. Its preferred habitat is fairly dense shaded woodland on alkaline soils (not a habitat available in most people’s gardens) and whilst not regarded as rare is a fairly local species confined to southern England. The colony consists of about thirty plants two of which have multiple stems, one (~12 stems) grows in the middle of a footpath and is regularly trodden down but the other (in the photo) was tucked up on a bank close to a large tree trunk. I say “was” because back in July this year the half-grown plant was dug up and removed! The resulting hole was carefully filled with leaf litter. I would just like to record my personal thanks to the selfish b*****d who did it, so depriving others of the pleasure of seeing this plant in its natural habitat. Pure vandalism!

If I believed that this was the action of someone who thought “Oh, there’s a pretty plant, I shall have it for my garden”, I could partially understand it, and a bit of re-education would probably prevent a recurrence. Unfortunately I suspect that the perpetrator knew exactly what they were digging up and wanted it for their “collection”, it is not a species readily available commercially. If that is the case may him/her and his/her collection rot!

As a result I will not be giving any detailed references to plant sites in Banstead that I know of, a shame because I enjoy sharing my experiences of wildlife.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

This blog

My entry to the blogosphere is largely inspired by the blog of Steve Gale who covers a geographical area I also wander in regularly. His blog covers mostly bird-related subjects although occasionally he mentions plants, my main interest. Whilst randomly following the links from his blog I was struck by the huge number of birding-related blogs and the paucity of UK plant-related blogs (I might be wrong, please let me know if I am!). So I have decided to increase the number of botanical blogs by one!

I should point out at the beginning I do not intend to totally restrict my posts to Banstead or botany but will have a considerable bias in those directions.

Thought I would start by giving a little background to Banstead. Banstead is a small town sitting on the North Downs in north Surrey fortunately surrounded by largely open space on three sides (N, S, and E) and even to the west housing is not too dense. In the next few entries I will go through specific areas but generally we have some chalk downland (mostly Banstead and Chipstead Downs that are SSSIs), arable farmland and mixed "ancient" woodland that provides a considerable diversity of habitat and resulting fauna and flora. In short it is quite a nice area to walk in and appreciate natural history.