Month: April 2010

Opportunist species

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No-one enjoys traffic jams, that would be like looking forward to going to the dentist or hoping for higher taxes. Yet I found myself, earlier this week, supplicant before the great Gods of Traffic, asking for a jam… just a small one… in a particular place on the way to the University! Why this strangely aberrant behaviour? Well, this is a herbology blog and I wanted to get a close look at an unusual botanical success story.

In the warm spring sunshine it is easy to forget that three months ago Britain was in the grip of the coldest winter for more than a decade. Temperatures plummeted to -18 C in rural Cheshire, the University was closed for several days, and the landscape was blanketed in thick snow. Road salt was in heavy demand, and its use was concentrated on the motorways that the politicians insist oil the wheels of industry.

Three months later in the warm spring sunshine, swathes of starry white flowers have erupted along mile after mile of the M62 motorway. The story is repeated on many other motorways across the country. In some places there is almost a monoculture: white flowers stretch as far as the horizon.

Danish scurvy grass flowering on the central reservation of the M62 on the way to Manchester

The plant is Danish Scurvy Grass (Cochlearia danica), a saltmarsh species, which arrived in Britain in the Middle Ages. It is hardy and well adapted to hot, dry, and above all salty conditions. Danish Scurvy Grass flowers early in the year. It outcompetes native species in the roadside environment, where it tolerates the  salt produced by gritting.

Danish scurvy grass, cochlearia danica

Most Scurvy Grass specimens in the herbarium collection date from the nineteenth century. They are from locations such as Hilbre Island in the Dee Estuary and show that the plant was restricted to salty coastal environments at the time. Their distribution now also mirrors the British motorway and trunk road network, taking advantage of a habitat that simply didn’t exist in the nineteenth century. This illustrates one of the many uses of herbaria, mapping the changing distributions of plant species… as described in a previous post.


Lindsey’s April walk

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I pledged to enjoy the seasons changing by going for a walk every month as part of 2010:International Year of Biodiversity.

Benlech, Anglesey.  Easter weekend.  Spent most of the time in the wood behind the caravan site making elf houses.

This one has a path and a bench

A front door made of ivy leaves

Daisy and gorse flower garden

The bluebells are here!


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Lindsey’s recent posts about walking make interesting reading… so I have borrowed her idea to describe a short walk in Somerset. The provisional title (which suggested itself last night in the bath), was “Not Lindsey’s walk”. That produced a chuckle, followed by the observation that I wouldn’t remember, which led along a train of thought about how to make a waterproof notebook, and then to the advisability of chuckling in the bath… but I digress.

I usually like the implication produced by a definition in the negative. Commentators commonly describe modern democracy as the “least worst system”. “Not Lindsey’s walk” sounded pretty good at first, but it doesn’t have an obvious subtext. So “Ramblings” has won the day.

The impulse to think about the world around you while walking isn’t a new one. Aristotle (384-322 BC) famously taught while walking around the Lyceum in ancient Athens. The word peripatetic describes this process and identifies disciples of the Aristotelian philosophical system. One such disciple, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, extended Aristotle’s theories of the imagination, and it is with Coleridge, or more precisely with a statue erected in his honour, that this walk (from Watchet on the north coast of Somerset to Blue Anchor, a couple of miles to the west) begins.

A statue of the ancient mariner, Coleridge's most enduring fictional creation, on the harbour-side in the Somerset town of Watchet, provides a starting point for this walk.

The coast between Watchet and Blue Anchor provides a window into a remote geological past when ‘slimy things did crawl with legs upon the slimy sea’. The slimy things are now almost magically transformed into fossils… As well as the rocks and the fossils they contain, there are fascinating plants and animals to be seen, and who could resist a journey on a steam train?

The West Somerset Railway runs a steam service most of the year and has stations at Watchet and Blue Anchor.

There is a small museum on the harbour-side at Watchet, 100 metres west of the statue, which displays local fossils including a nearly complete ichthyosaur skeleton. Walking west from the museum a slipway at a gap in a row of terraced houses provides access to the beach. This is a good place to start looking for fossils. The blue-grey limestone pebbles in the bay commonly contain bivalves, and occasional mudstones preserve the spiral traces of ammonites. There are exotic foreign rocks here too, imported to provide sea defences for the town. Some of these contain fossils, but they are Carboniferous in age and not related to the local geology.

Ammonites are very common in fallen blocks of Jurassic mudstone on the shore between Watchet and Blue Anchor

The cliffs reveal a pattern of folds and faults that illustrate the complex forces that have moulded the landscape. The oldest rocks are red, and accumulated in an ancient desert environment. Younger rocks were deposited in tidal mudflats. The youngest were laid down in warm tropical seas. The lost world they record existed 200 million years ago as the Triassic period ended and the Jurassic began. At that time, the landmass that is now the British Isles lay beneath tropical skies about 20 degrees north of the equator. The Variscan mountain range to the south and west, was gradually being worn away and by the beginning of the Jurassic period, warm shallow seas had replaced the desert.

Three quarters of the way toward Blue Anchor the character of the rocks changes and the cliffs are veined with white to salmon-pink gypsum. In the Middle Ages the gypsum deposits were worked to produce alabaster for carving and to make Plaster of Paris. The gypsum veins are exposed in the cliffs for several hundred metres before a fault throws up older orange-red Triassic rocks. These Triassic rocks, known to geologists everywhere as “Red Beds”, remain all the way to Blue Anchor.

A beautiful example of a fault in the cliffs near Blue Anchor. Red Triassic mudstones are faulted against marine sediments of Jurassic age

Coastal cliffs and the seashore provide a great opportunity to wander in the hope that nature will reveal something interesting. All sorts of plants grow on the cliffs. These include grass vetchling… a truly cryptic species, which although present in great abundance does a marvellous job of disguising itself as a member of the grass family, (at least, until it flowers). There are also orchids including the exotic greater butterfly orchid.

Grass vetchling (Lathyrus nissolia), a truly cryptic plant except in Summer when its pea-like flowers are conspicuous.
The greater butterfly orchid (Platanthera chlorantha). Note the long thin nectar-bearing spurs which can only be plumbed by the tongues of a few large moths.

Sea shore animals include shore crabs and nudibranchs (commonly known as sea slugs, but rather more attractive than our common garden variety). Recently, while looking at some geological specimens collected in the area I came across a very strange beast indeed… a pseudoscorpion. It will be the subject of another post, but I couldn’t resist adding a photo here!

Sea Slug
Shore crab

Different people have different perspectives on nature. Rocks and fossils or plants and animals aren’t everyone’s cup of tea! But this area of Somerset has attractions that can tempt even the hardiest non-naturalist. Foremost among these is the West Somerset Railway. This runs a steam service calling at both Watchett and Blue Anchor. A particular treat is in store in September, when the newly built peppercorn class A1 Pacific steam loco Tornado is making a guest appearance on the line.

The newly built A1 Pacific steam loco Tornado at its unveiling at the National Railway Museum, York.

A common sense approach when visiting the locations described is important. The cliffs between Watchet and Blue Anchor are tidal and the low and high tide times should always be determined. Do not start the walk on the seashore on a rising tide as the sea always reaches the base of the cliffs!

Manchester Cryptogamic Society

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We have been having a bit of a spring clean in the Herbarium recently and, whilst sorting through some old reprints, I found two rather dog eared books.  On closer inpection I was excited to discover they were the minute books from the Manchester Cryptogamic Society.  Cryptogams are plants that reproduce by spores, the commonest groups being lichens, mosses, ferns and algae.
Minute books dating from 1878-1890, 1891-1896

I’ve transcribed the first few pages of the book detailing the society’s first meeting:

Manchester Cryptogamic Society

Lower Mosley St School

November 4th 1878

Meeting of Cryptogamic botanists for the purpose of carrying out some suggestions recently made and further formulated at the annual service of the Lower Mosley St. Natural History Society by the cryptogamic botanists present, having reference to the establishment of a society for the especial study of cryptogamic plants. Mr James Cash having been duly elected as chairman.

  1. It was proposed by Mr Thos. Brittain and seconded by Mr James Neild of Oldham that the title of the aforementioned society be the Manchester Cryptogamic Society. – carried unanimously
  2. Proposed by Mr Sunderland of Ashton andseconded by Mr Neild that a subscription of 2 shillings per year be contributed by each member of the society in accordance with the rule which regulates the membership of the Natural History Society., and which said contributions are applied in defraying incidental expenses of meeting and purchasing books on Natural History for the use of members of both these societies. – carried unanimously
  3. Proposed by Thos. Rogers and seconded by Thos Brittain that Mr John Whitehead be elected president of the society. – carried unanimously
  4. Proposed by Mr James Cash and seconded by Charles Weld that Thomas Rogers be elected as secretary. – carried unanimously
  5. Proposed by John Whitehead and seconded by Thos Rogers that W H Pearson and Thos. Brittain be elected as vice president. – carried unanimously
  6. Proposed by Peter Cunliffe of Handforth and seconded by John Whitehead that Mr Cash, Mr Hyde, and Mr Weld be elected as a committee in conjunction with the foregoing officers as managing committee for the next twelve months subject to re-election. – carried unanimously
  7. Proposed by Mr Neild and seconded by Mr Cash that the secretary be elected as treasurer. – carried unanimously
  8. Proposed and seconded that the meeting of the Society be held in the library of the L.Mosely St. Natural History on the second Monday in each month at 7.30. – Carried unanimously

The meeting which carried the foregoing resolutions was well attended and about 20 members joined the society whose name will be entered in subscription list at the end of this book.  The following paragraph is cut from the Manchester Guardian Nov 5th.

Page 3 of minute book showing report in Manchester Guardian, Nov 5th1878

The books are full of the minutes of the of the society’s meeting together with many newspaper clipping reporting the meetings in the Manchester Guardian.  As well as being a keen amateur botanist,  James Cash, the society’s first Chariman, was also a journalist for the Manchester Guardian, this may or may not have something to do with the meetings being reported so frequetly in that publication.

The subscription lists at the back of the books are a great resource for the history of Manchester botanists.  Not only does it give the names and addresses of the key botanists working in Manchester at that time but it also shows how closely they knew each other and that they regualrly met to discuss and share their knowledge and passion for botany.

Flower Power

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Coltsfoot shouldering the tarmac aside at the derelict Middlewood Locks, between Manchester and Salford

In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:
“I am great OZYMANDIAS,” saith the stone,
“The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
“The wonders of my hand.” The City’s gone,
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
We wonder, and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

Written by Horace Smith in the early nineteenth century in competition with the better known short verse by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Ozymandias is another name for Ramesses the Great, Pharaoh of the nineteenth dynasty of ancient Egypt.

Visit from Budapest volunteers

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Just had the lovely Agnes and Elizabeth, volunteers from the Budapest Museum of Fine Art, visit us in the herbarium.  Tom Petch, botany volunteer,  showed them round the herbarium, and after English tea I demonstrated specimen mounting.  They enjoyed having a go – and were very good at it too!

Unusual Trees to Look Out for (3)

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Pinus wallichiana (Pinaceae), Bhutan Pine 165/026

This one’s named after Dr. Nathaniel Wallich (1786-1854), who was born in Copenhagen but who spent much of his life exploring the botany of northern India and nearby areas.  Wallich was among the most prominent botanists of his times.  He introduced the seeds of this pine into England in 1827.  The tree is native to the Himalaya, Karakoram and Hindu Kush mountains, from eastern Afghanistan east across northern Pakistan and India to Yunnan in southwest China.  It grows in mountain valleys at altitudes of 1800-4300m (but rarely as low as 1200m), and reaches from 30-50m in height.  It likes a temperate climate with dry winters and wet summers.

Our three photographs of living trees are of specimens in Sackville Gardens in the city centre and one in a churchyard in Chorlton, Manchester.

Specimen sheet from the Grindon Herbarium

-Daniel King

Lindsey’s March walk

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Spring is here!  It feels different.

Mersey Vale Nature Park, Heaton Mersey, Stockport.

We found frogspawn! 

And lots of new growth.