Month: February 2011


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Things are going to be a bit quiet on the Herbology Manchester blog as I’m having a blog break for a few months.

I’ll still be on twitter (follow me: my twitter name is Aristolochia).

See you later in the year!

Fern Hunting in China

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There are 1500 species of fern in Yunnan Province, China – compared to just 50 in Britain.  Yvonne Golding of the British Pteridiological Society arranged a fern hunting trip to Yunnan last year, and in February 2011 gave a talk with slides about the hundreds of ferns they saw, what they ate and the people they met.

Two herbarium sheets and some of Yvonne’s chinese fern books

Unusual Trees to Look Out for (8) & (9)

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 Araucaria heterophylla, Norfolk Island Pine 165/24 

Meaning: The genus is named for the Araucaria Indians of Patagonia, and heterophylla = different-leaved, referring to the conspicuous difference between young and mature plants.  Sometimes also called “star pine” because of its symmetrical shape as a sapling.  Synonym: A. excelsa.  There are 19 species in the genus.

 No more a pine than the Chile Pine (Monkey-Puzzle Tree), these survivors of a very old coniferous family are scattered around the Pacific and of course, Chile.  From an origin in the Triassic, the family expanded and diversified in both hemispheres in the Jurassic and Early Cretaceous and remained a significant component of Gondwanan vegetation until the latter part of the Cenozoic.  Norfolk Island is located between Australia, New Zealand and New Caledonia, and the genus is especially concentrated about 700 km north of Norfolk Island, where 13 closely related species are found.  In their native habitat A. heterophylla can grow to a height of up to 65m.


According to two supposedly authoritative sources, the only known outdoor specimen in the British Isles is in the Scillies, but I think this may be out of date.  In recent years, they have had some popularity as an indoor potted Christmas tree, although they need some care to flourish.  Outdoors, although they’re known to be quite happy in salt and wind, they’re said not to survive in areas of prolonged cold.  Some people may have a strong allergic reaction if they touch the leaves.  They are, however, widely planted in Australia, New Zealand, southern Florida, coastal California, south Texas, Hawaii, coastal Chile, South Africa, and some cities of Brazil.


There’s a considerable bit of history attached to Norfolk Island and its ‘pines’, and other plants, too, particularly New Zealand flax.  It was made a penal colony in the 1780s, mainly for Australian convicts who were too mutinous even for Australia, and this practice continued until 1847.  Meanwhile, in 1789, the Bounty mutineers had been marooned on Pitcairn Island.  They intermarried with Tahitians, and by 1856, 194 of their descendants, who had become too numerous for Pitcairn, were allowed to resettle on Norfolk.  The story of how the settlers had planted two rows of the pines to create a magnificent avenue, and how, now a majestic 80 feet tall and six feet in diameter, they came to be cut down in the course of World War II in the Pacific, is told in James A. Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, Chapter 3, “Mutiny”.  We also have Michener’s book to thank for the musical.  The island of Bali-ha’i in the stage story and film is said by no less an authority than Stephen Jay Gould to be based on the island of Moorea, and some of Moorea’s natural history is also the subject of an essay in Gould’s Eight Little Piggies.

Araucaria araucana, Monkey-Puzzle Tree 165/24 

 Meaning: As above, plus species named for the Araucano Indians of Chile.

The tree was first found in Chile in the 1780s by the botanical explorer Molina.  Before 1850, it was known in England as “Joseph Banks’s Pine” or “Chile Pine”.  In about 1850, when it began to be cultivated in England, the species was still very rare in gardens and not widely known.  The proud owner of a young specimen at Pencarrow Gardens near Bodmin, in Cornwall, was showing it to a group of friends.  One remarked that “It would puzzle a monkey to climb that”, and the name “Monkey-puzzle” stuck as a popular term.

  A. araucana in Whalley Range, Manchester

  In the mountains of Chile

A big thank you to Botany volunteer Dan King for the idea, words and images of ‘Unusual Trees Around Manchester’.

Pinning beetles

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A few weeks ago I spent a couple of hours helping pin beetles in the Museum’s Entomology Department.  These insects were collected by E.W Aubrook in New Zealand. 

Little creepers in the mud

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Difficulties arise in identifying groups of plants for various reasons: some groups are just too large!  There are a lot of umbellifers (the parsley family), not very similar to each other but it is hard to remember them all.  Other groups consist of many closely related, and very similar, species whose identification requires very close examination (for example, the Lady’s Mantles (Alchemilla), or the Eyebrights (Euphrasia)).  Others groups are difficult for other reasons and many may justifiably throw their hands in the air, or at least shrug their shoulders! Consider small creeping plants with smooth eaves in opposite pairs that grow in damp or watery areas, especially in mud, many of which root along their stems.* These are too inconspicuous for many to bother with, but come from a wide range of unrelated families. Not only do these look superficially similar, but some vary quite considerably accordingly to where they grow – they are `polymorphic’ – varying with the depth and speed of flow of the water and the substrate (mud, sand or rocks) and often looking very different in different environments. Worse than this, some rarely flower, so that no flowers or fruits are available and we have only stems and leaves for identification purposes.  

So why bother with such difficult and inconspicuous groups? Well, that is what botanists do! And, as usual, the more closely we look, the more interest there is, and from such observations occasionally great discoveries are made. So with one such sample (above), gathered from a burn in Olav’s Wood in Orkney, I visited the University of Manchester Herbarium – a magnificent and historical collection, with approximately one million specimens many dating back to the mid 19th century. This is valuable not only as all good herbaria are – an important resource for plant sciences – but also because many of the specimens are from sites in the UK (and elsewhere) now lost, and moreover ancient specimens open up the possibility that we can examine how plants may have changed, even over 100-150 years. The difficulties of identification are shown in the herbarium specimens. Some of the Water starworts (Callitriche) have three labels attached over the decades with different names (partly because species boundaries have become clearer) and few have any flowers or fruit. Stace [New Flora of the British Isles, Clive Stace. C.U.P. 19191] says of the Water starworts “leaf-shape is notoriously variable and misleading” and “difficult to identify certainly without a strong lens or microscope”. I’ll only be satisfied if I can get my specimens to flower and fruit, but don’t wait around!

David Rydeheard

* Amongst such plants are the Blinks (Montia), Water starworts (Callitriche), Waterworts (Elatine), Bog stitchwort (Stellaria uliginosa), Water purslane (Lythrum portula), Pigmyweeds (aquatic Crassula species), New Zealand Willowherb (Epilobium brunnescens) and Bog pimpernel (Anagallis tenella). A useful article on these plants can be found in the BSBI (Botanical Society of the British Isles) News No. 103, September 2007 (which is available online).