Christ’s blood covers the Lords-and-Ladies

Being only mid-April it is quite early for a number of wildflower species to be blooming, in particular Orchids. Therefore I was very pleased when I spotted quite a number of individual orchid plants, or ‘spikes’, on Good Friday.

The colour of the flowers of these orchids were purple, and they were flowering quite early in the orchid season. That meant that they were Early Purple Orchids! I was pleased that I managed to see these orchids as although they are not a particularly rare or localised species, they are a species I have never seen before.

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Early Purple Orchid (Orchis mascula) whole spike

 

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Early Purple Orchid (Orchis mascula) flower detail

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Early Purple Orchid (Orchis mascula) whole plant

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Early Purple Orchid (Orchis mascula) leaf detail

As you can see from the last photo above, the leaves of this species are covered in dark black markings. Early Purple Orchids share this characteristic with several other orchid species such as the Common Spotted Orchid and the Heath Spotted Orchid. And, as there so often is, there is folklore that surrounds the spots that are present on the Early Purple Orchid. It has been believed that this flower grew below the Cross on which Christ was crucified, and the leaf spots are the drops of Christ’s blood.

And not only orchids have these dark spots on their leaves. We came across these leaves on the same walk:

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These are the leaves of Lords-and-Ladies, Arum maculatum. When the scientific name is translated into English it becomes ‘Spotted Lily’, after the spots on the leaves. Along with Lords-and-Ladies there is a huge range of other vernacular names including Cuckoo Pint, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Cows-and-bulls and Naked Boys. The names that are gender-related such as Lords-and-Ladies and Cows-and-bulls refer to how the flowers of this species apparently look like the process of sexual reproduction:

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The flower is very clever in attracting insects for pollination. The spadix, the dark inflorescence rising vertically from the flower, has an odour resembling that of dung which is particularly attractive to a number of fly species. The flower can also produce a temperature significantly warmer, up to 15 degrees or so, than the surrounding air, which also helps to bring in pollinators. Below the spadix there is a ring of robust hairs, which temporarily keep the flies inside. The flies are able to escape but usually only when they have come into contact with the male flowers inside the spathe (the green hood surrounding the spadix) and have therefore been covered in pollen. Once the fly has escaped then it will fly to another Lords-and-ladies flower, again attracted by the faecal scent. Some of the pollen on the fly will find itself inside the female flowers – which are situated below the male flowers – allowing fertilisation to take place.

Both Early Purple Orchids and Lords-and-ladies are common plants in the UK at this time of year, definitely species to look out for. Early Purple Orchids are easy to spot due to their tall and bright flowers, particularly in their favoured habitat of woodland and woodland edge. Lords-and-ladies are less easy to spot due to the green colour of their leaves, however keep an eye out for them and you should be able to find some of the distinctive flowers.

 

 

There’s a fungus on the Town Hall Clock!

If you’ve read my latest post you would know that I am a regular participant of #wildflowerhour. During last week’s Wildflower Hour there were predictably more photos due to the increase in flowering plants as spring progresses. Among these flowering plants was the easy-to-overlook Moschatel (Adoxa moschatellina), which I had never recorded before.

So last week I set out with a picture of Moschatel in my mind so that if I did come across the species I would recognise it. Yesterday I visited Pulborough Brooks RSPB reserve in West Sussex and I did both of those things: I came across a couple of large patches and I recognised it!

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The flower head. You can see that it is cube-shaped, which is what lead to the alternative vernacular name of ‘Town Hall Clock’.

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The whole plant

As you can see from the above photographs, Moschatel is not a hard plant to miss. Its flower heads are only slightly lighter than the leaves and therefore not easy to spot when they are lined up against the foliage of a woodland floor. To be honest, I was quite pleased with myself for managing to spot this indistinctive plant!

However once I had a closer look, there was more to see. One particular patch was very heavily infected with what appeared to be the fungus Puccinia albescens, which covered the leaves, stem and flowers of several plants. This species is a rust fungus, which is a type of fungus that usually parasitises wildflowers and other small plants. There is an incredible diversity of host plants within the 7000 species of rust fungi as most plants are only infected by a single species.

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The close-up photograph above shows the pustules of the rust fungus, which is just one part of the complex life-cycle of rust fungi. These pustules erupt at this time of year and produce uredospores which are carried on the wind to new plants of the same species to infect.

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Telia

Also present alongside these pustules are what I believe to be the telia of the same species. These telia – the dark, round spots – are produced in the autumn in most species and would have overwintered. The telia produce teliospores, which are another method the fungus uses to spread as they disperse to find more plants of the same species to infect, just as the uredospores do.

The life-cycle of rust fungi is very complex and here I have explained it only briefly – different species of rust fungi can have different life-cycles and some infect two completely unrelated species during their life-cycle. These multi-host fungi are known as heteroecious fungi and one host plant is infected by the uredospores and the other is infected by teliospores. As Puccinia albescens is not heteroecious (and is autoecious), its life-cycle can be completed on just a single host species – Moschatel – and the single host species is infected by both the uredospores and the teliospores. Some good websites to visit for more information on the life-cycle of rust fungi are:

http://www.biologydiscussion.com/fungi/life-cycle-and-the-spore-stage-of-rust-fungi-fungi/64083

http://website.nbm-mnb.ca/mycologywebpages/NaturalHistoryOfFungi/Pucciniales.html – this one includes a lot of information, however it also contains a lot of scientific jargon and complicated vocabulary.

Purple Toothwort

The Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland (BSBI) is a fantastic organisation ‘for everyone who cares about the wild plants of Britain and Ireland’. It gives support to botanists and recorders of all levels of expertise and leads many projects to help better understand the flora of the British Isles. One of the ways in which the BSBI has been helping to bring British and Irish botany to the wider public is through social media and especially using the hashtag #wildflowerhour on Twitter.

Wildflower Hour takes place every Sunday at 8pm and is an opportunity for everyone to share their photos of wildflowers taken over the past week. Many people come together to share their plant sightings and Twitter becomes a hub of botanical activity. Wildflower Hour is not only a good way to share wildflowers with others but also a chance to revise plant identification and see what has been recorded in your local area.

A couple of  Sundays ago, Wildflower Hour took place as normal with many tweets on early spring wildflowers. One of these tweets was by @KateGold24 and included some photographs taken at Wakehurst Place in West Sussex. As I live quite close to Wakehurst I was interested, and even more so when I saw that one of the photos was of several flowers of a Purple Toothwort Lathraea clandestina.

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As I have never seen Purple Toothwort before, I was excited to visit Wakehurst Place on Friday afternoon just after we broke up for the Easter holidays. I was expecting to have to search long and hard for them due to the fact that they are not the largest of plants, however I was very wrong. They were all over the place! As well as in the main part of the gardens they were also in the deepest part of the woods and even on the bank of Westwood Lake.

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As you can see from the above photograph, the plant is currently without leaves and it will remain without leaves. Leaves are necessary for photosynthesis as they contain chlorophyll which is vital for the process. However, this plant contains no chlorophyll and is therefore unable to photosynthesise and produce energy in that way. Then how does it produce energy?

You will, most of the time, find this plant growing below mainly Poplar and Willow trees. This is because it is these trees it most usually parasitises, and it does so using its roots. These grow at a gentle downward angle until one of them finds a root of the tree they are parasitising. Each root has haustoria, suckers, on the end which attach to the root of the tree and from there the toothwort gets its energy.

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The Purple Toothwort is closely related to the Common Toothwort, Lathraea squamaria, which is also a root parasite. The Common Toothwort is more common, however it is a species I have yet to see. I am hoping I’ll be able to find some this year before they stop flowering in May. The generic name ‘Toothwort’ comes from this common species: their flowers look like a row of teeth!

 

Starting a Herbarium

For centuries botanists have been collecting specimens of the plants they observe. If done correctly, botanical specimens can last for a very long time. For example, the Angela Marmont Centre at the Natural History Museum has specimens collected by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Specimens can be very useful in documenting regional variation and how a species has changed over time.

Last weekend I was out with the South-east branch of the British Bryological Society recording mosses and liverworts at Devil’s Dyke, north of Brighton. As is often the case, however, one of the highlights of this field trip was in fact not to do with the subject of our search! Once we had passed through a section of Ash woodland on our walk we came to a lovely crystal-clear chalk pond. Despite few bryophytes around the pond’s edges the pond was full of life, including several water plants. Most common was the Ivy-leaved Duckweed, Lemna trisulca, and there were also a few Potamogeton natans plants as well. However what really caught our eye was a very beautiful looking pondweed with a lovely texture and colour that was unfamiliar to me but not for the other members. They identified the pondweed as Groenlandia densa, otherwise known as the Opposite-leaved Pondweed.

Groenlandia densa is not a very common species and is sadly declining in Britain. This is mostly due to urbanisation, and therefore it is missing from the vast majority of London. It has also declined due to a factor known as eutrophication which is the presence of excessive nutrients in a water body. This is most commonly caused by run-off from the nearby land, and it creates a dense growth of plant life which can potentially displace species that cannot compete. Due to this decline, it was suggested that I collect a piece of the pondweed, in case it becomes a very rare species and little material for herbariums could be found without damaging a population.

It is easy for anyone to start preparing plant specimens; little specialist equipment is needed. This is all that is needed for a beginner to make a good quality specimen:

  • newspaper
  • heavy books
  • a dry environment
  • good quality card
  • PVA glue
  • printed labels

And these are the steps I went through to create my pondweed specimen:

  1. Lay out the specimen on half of a full double page spread of newspaper in a way that should show as many features as possible.
  2. Once the plant is in a good position, fold over the other page of the double page spread.
  3. Add some more sheets of newspaper to the top and bottom of the folded newspaper with the specimen inside.
  4. Put the newspaper on a hard, flat surface.
  5. Place a few heavy books on top of the newspaper.
  6. Leave the specimen until it is sufficiently dry and flat, this could take a few weeks or only a few days, but don’t overdo it and don’t leave it for too short a period.
  7. Once the specimen is ready carefully take it out from the newspaper and lay it out on your piece of card making sure that it shows the necessary features. Remember to leave room for a label!
  8. Using PVA glue or any other glue recommended by botanists, stick the specimen down on the card. PVA glue dries clear so don’t worry too much if you get some on the card where you don’t want it.
  9. Fill in a label. Ideally the label should show as much information about the plant as possible: species; family; collection number; locality (grid reference, name of site, nearest town, county etc.); habitat; collector’s name; date of collection; and also note down features of the plant that may have been lost in the drying process.
  10. Finally, and optionally, you could also attach a small paper envelope to the specimen containing dried fruit/seeds that would have been ruined in the pressing process.

And there you have your specimen! This is what my pondweed looked like before and after collecting, pressing and mounting:

This is not the only specimen I have so far collected. At the beginning of the summer, as part of my interest to record the slightly trickier-to-identify species, I collected a couple of Bramble (Rubus) species. These were the first specimens I collected and I was quite pleased with the result. However, they weren’t good enough. After I had dropped them off at the Angela Marmont Centre at the Natural History Museum, Dr David Allen kindly looked at them for me. Unfortunately they were lacking some necessary features vital in identification, such as a section of the first year growth. Using his advice, I went out recently and collected a specimen of a particularly late-flowering Bramble, and this was the result:

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I will also attach with the specimen a couple of photos of the plant before it was collected:

This shall hopefully even further aid identification and maybe contribute to the understanding of this poorly known group.

Many groups are overlooked, because they are tricky to identify or they are too small or they need specialist equipment to collect. Some examples are dandelions, a nightmare of identification; desmids, microscopic algae; and parasitic wasps, also very difficult to identify. This results in these groups being little-known as few people are willing to try to find and identify them. This leads to under recording of species that are probably common, creating deceptive data. One of my aims is to try and master these very difficult groups and hopefully make a difference.

Worms from the depths…

Last weekend, on the way back from a great stay at Portland Bird Observatory, I met Tony Davis and Josie Hewitt in a small car park in the New Forest. Our aim was to find as many rare plants as possible and we did well, finding really uncommon species such as Yellow Centaury, Pillwort and the delightfully named Duck-potato. Below are a few photos of the plants we managed to record.

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Autumn Lady’s-tresses

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Pillwort, this is actually a fern and reproduces using spores!

Despite seeing over 30 new species for my pan-species list that day my highlight was actually an annelid worm! I don’t often look at annelid worms (which are mostly earthworms) as they are not the most exciting creatures in my opinion and I find them very tricky to identify. However the species I added was far from boring!

To find this species, we stood in a pond.

We didn’t have to do anything else, just stand in the pond and wiggle our feet. It wasn’t long before I spotted a long dark creature swimming towards me like an eel on its side. It twisted through the water and came right up to my boot before swimming off. Then Josie spotted another at my heel. There were several of them, twisting through the water weeds with elegant wavelike movements.

This part of the New Forest is excellent for this species of annelid worm, the Medicinal Leech. This is due to the number of ponies providing the leeches with lots of food! Many leeches are terrestrial, however some, like this species, prefer to inhabit freshwater and are adept at swimming. The Medicinal Leech is often mistaken for the Horse Leech, which the leeches in this pond were at first thought to be. Although they appear very similar in appearance, they have very different prey preferences. Despite the name, Horse Leeches can’t penetrate the tough skin on mammals and therefore cannot feed upon their blood. Instead they choose to eat much smaller prey, such as snails and earthworms, both in the water and out. Medicinal Leeches are able to bite tough skin and their main food sources are cattle and horses. However, they also feed on frogs and sometimes even humans!

Unfortunately, these fascinating invertebrates are one of the few I know to have an IUCN designation worse than Least Concern. Most are Not Evaluated or Data Deficient and the species with enough research to provide details on the fluctuations and size of populations are often not too rare. They are classified as Near Threatened despite the population trend – among other things – being unknown. Their main threats are local collection for medicinal use; loss of habitat; and decline in one of their main prey items, frogs.

Below are a few photos I was able to take of the leeches that swam towards us:

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It’s Popping Hot

Some people find plants boring. However, they are very clever. How can a plant be clever? Through evolution, plants have developed many fascinating ways to survive and thrive.

The key to a plant’s success is largely in the seed dispersal technique. Without a way to disperse seeds, plants would not be able to colonise new suitable habitat and spread. Therefore plants have learnt to be ingenious in their methods of ensuring the future of generations to come.

Yesterday afternoon I was walking through my local farm when I heard a few pops coming from the vegetation beside the path. At first I thought they were the calls of a grasshopper or a cricket, but definitely not a species I had heard before. I stopped and waited to see if I could hear anymore. I did, and this time I thought they sounded like click beetles, but why would so many be clicking at the same time? I was puzzled by this strange sound until, accompanied by a pop, I saw a quick movement out of the corner of my eye. I looked closer to where the movement had come from but I couldn’t see anything that I thought could have made the sound, just a patch of vetch. Then I realised that the sound was coming from the vetch itself!

Vetches are plants related to peas, they have pods like peas although usually much smaller. The pods begin green, the same colour as the leaves, and then as they mature they turn darker until they are brown. Plants in the pea family often have pods that pop, which is advantageous to the plant as it is a great method of seed dispersal. This method ensures the seed is enough distance away from the parent plant to prevent overcrowding.

Before I witnessed the popping of the seed pods yesterday I had no idea how it actually worked. How did the pods pop? I have done a bit of research and what I found out was fascinating. On hot days like yesterday the seed pods dry out, aided by the dark colour of the mature pods in some species which absorb heat. During the drying process forces build up inside the pod until it reaches a point when the pod explodes. In most pods there are two lines of weakness running along the pod, and it is here where the tensions which are set up in the wall of the pod cause the pod to explode. Similar to when a pulled spring is let back, the two halves of the pod curl back at lightning speed which flicks the seeds out of the pod!

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These two pods are still green and have not dried enough to pop.

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Two seed pods which are ready to pop! They have dried in the hot weather and turned brown.

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Two freshly-popped seed pods, showing the two halves of the pod

 

1 Garden, 24 Hours, 184 species!

…and counting! Last Sunday, the 5th, I took part in the Garden Bioblitz for the first time. The aim of a bioblitz is to record every species you find in an area within a period of time. For the Garden Bioblitz, you record every species you find in your garden during a 24 hour period.

To begin my Garden Bioblitz I looked through the moth trap from the previous night. There was a very wide range of species, including 23 that were new to me. The highlights were:

  • Great Oak Beauty – annual in Domewood, but Nationally Scarce B (NB).
  • Cacao Moth – usually found indoors in stores of products such as nuts, almonds, tobacco and cacao. I’ll be checking my muesli from now on…
  • Scorched Wing – a beautiful moth which is also classed as Local. There were 8 in the trap.
  • Peach Blossom – a great moth with a great name although quite common.
  • Cypress Carpet – quite an uncommon moth, which arrived in Britain through its host plant, cypress. There are lots of Lawson Cypress trees in the garden which probably explains its occurrence here.
  • Diamond-back Moth – for some reason, I rarely see immigrant moths. The Diamond-back Moth is only the third immigrant moth I’ve recorded. I recorded it for the first time during the last weekend of May, but there were 29 in the trap!

I also caught a very interesting beetle that had a very pungent smell. I thought it was a sexton beetle and I was right. However, I wasn’t too sure which species it was. It was all black and luckily there are only two all-black species in the British Isles: Necrodes littoralis (the Shore Sexton Beetle) and Nicrophorus humator (the Black Sexton Beetle). It turned out to be the Shore Sexton Beetle due to the antennal clubs not being brushes as in the Black Sexton Beetle. Thanks to Chris Brooks on iSpot for the identification. Sexton beetles are interesting because they feed on dead animals. If the dead animal is small then they will bury it to keep other scavengers from taking it. They do this by excavating the soil under the body so that the dead animal sinks into the ground. The adults lay eggs nearby and when the larvae hatch they crawl to the dead animal to feed and even be fed by the adult. Even though this beetle was caught in the moth trap there isn’t necessarily a dead animal nearby as they can fly quite long distances in order to find their food.

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After I had finished looking through the moth trap, I walked around the garden listing all the wild plants. Before I added the plants I already had a list of almost 70 and there was still lots to identify! Other non-moth highlights included a Canada Goose flock flying over and the first Grey Heron I have seen fly over the garden in more than a year. After I finished off the plants I had breakfast, meaning that I had a list of 130 before breakfast. Things were going well!

It wasn’t just plants that I added to my list on the walk around the garden. It was quite early but there were still some insects on the wing, including Rose Sawflies, Speckled Wood butterflies, Large White butterflies and various bees. I was even lucky to see the young fox that has been hanging around the garden for the past few weeks. It is not that shy, here is the photo I took when I first spotted it:

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After breakfast I looked under the logs and stumps in my garden. As always, they were brimming with slugs, beetles, woodlice and other creatures. The most common ground beetle was Agonum emarginatum, a species usually associated with damp habitats near freshwater. This makes sense as most of the stumps were near our tiny pond. The list of slug species was quite good too: Budapest Slug, Leopard Slug, Yellow Slug, Dusky Slug, Greenhouse Slug and Ambigolimax nyctelius, the species I found new to Surrey last year. When I first found it I had to send it off to Wales to get the genitalia looked at, but this confirmed the scientist’s suspicions that there were slight morphological differences between Ambigolimax nyctelius and the Greenhouse Slug. In my experience, Ambigolimax nyctelius is more boldly marked than the Greenhouse Slug.

Finally, the highlight of my bioblitz was finding an amazing fly species that I have been looking for in my garden since Tony Davis told me that it was likely to appear here. It’s not rare or scarce, but it is impressive. It is a species of hoverfly that mimics bees. It has many different forms that each mimic different bee species. It’s called the Narcissus Bulb Fly or the Greater Bulb Fly and it’s eggs are laid in bulbs of various species such as garden daffodils. I found a mating pair on a Bulbous Buttercup, perhaps the plant that the eggs were about to be laid in? The male seemed to be an Early Bumblebee mimic:

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However, I’m not sure which species the female was impersonating:

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It seemed to be all black except for the last 4 or 5 abdominal segments, which were off-white.

So, I’m currently on 184 species and hope to identify a few more for my bioblitz list.