Thursday, 28 March 2013

The plants of Easter

Posted by  Dr Seona Anderson

Dressing down the Loch Shiel aspen.
Several of our native wild plants are associated with the Biblical traditions of Easter and Easter celebrations.

Ever since Christianity was adopted in the British Isles there has been the problem of finding substitutes for the palm leaves used to celebrate Palm Sunday or the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem. Willow branches are one of the more common substitutes but yew and juniper have been used also. Because of this the day has also been known as Yew or Branch Sunday.

There is a widespread tradition that aspen (Populus tremula) was the wood useFlora Celtica (Milliken & Bridgewater 2004) records an old traditon regarding a veteran aspen tree in a hidden glen between Shuna and Saint Finnan’s Isle on Loch Shiel. On Good Friday people gathered to give the tree a formal dressing down for its part in the crucifiction of Jesus.
d to make the cross on which Christ was crucified and that its leaves still tremble at this memory in shame.

The redshank (Persicaria maculosa) is called Lus chrann ceusaidh (herb of the tree of crucifiction) in Gaelic. This stems from the legend that it grew at the foot of the cross: when drops of blood fell upon its leaves they became spotted with red. There is also a medieval tradition that after betraying Jesus for thirty pieces of silver, Judas Iscariot hung himself from an elder tree.

On a lighter note, the beautiful Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla vulgaris) is named after the feast of Pasques/Pâques (French for Easter) because it flowers during this period. Alternatively it may be because its flowers were used to dye Easter eggs. The Pasqueflower is the county flower of Cambridge and Hertfordshire. You can find out what your county's is here.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Good news and bad news from Wales

Posted by Dave Lamacraft, Plantlife Cymru Lower Plants Officer

Red eyed shingle lichen - thought, until recently
 to be extinct in Wales. Image © Dave Lamacraft. 
The announcement that three more cases of ash dieback have been discovered in Wales is a poignant counterpoint to the discovery last week of a lichen thought to be extinct in Wales.

The importance of the National Trust's Parc Dolmelynllyn estate (near Dolgellau, Gwynedd), for woodland lichens has been known for some time. In fact it is one of the finest areas south of the Scottish Highlands for the lichens of the 'Celtic rainforest'. Wandering through the woods last week I noticed an ash tree with that indefinable ‘look' about it, something that said “I’m worth a closer look”. It stood on the edge of a glade, was well-lit and mottled with a patchwork of colours from the lichens and mosses covering its bark. It was obviously a special tree; the black smears of the black-bordered shingle lichen were a good sign, but what struck me first was a delicate blue-grey leafy lichen. Although not much larger than a 50 pence piece, the distinctive rusty-red fruits caught my eye. A quick look at Frank Dobson's field guide to British lichens confirmed my suspicions - it was Pannaria rubuginosa, the red-eyed shingle lichen.

Not only is this a most attractive lichen, it was a significant find; it had not been recorded in Wales for almost 50 years and was assumed to be extinct. It was also particularly poignant in a week when another three cases of ash dieback have been found in Wales; as with many of our rarest lichens it was growing on an ash tree. Ash dieback has the potential to devastate our ash trees and the wildlife they support, including many lichens. Some 30% of UK lichens occur on ash - 536 species in all. Of these, 84 are threatened with extinction. It now seems ironic that ash provided an alternative host for lichens affected by the catastrophic decline of elm trees during the 1970s.

With ash dieback in our sights again, the next 12 months will be an opportune time to understand more about the disease and its effects. As well as a halt on the importation and planting of infected ash, we should trial different practical measures to find the best actions for reducing the progression and intensity of the disease. The genetic diversity of our native, non-planted wild ash means that some strains may be less susceptible than others, and observations in Europe suggest that mature trees are more resistant to ash dieback. It could be that widespread felling turns out to be the worst thing to do. We also don't really know how the disease behaves. It could be that ash dieback may spread more rapidly in dense canopies resulting from close planting and a lack of management, in which case thinning and opening up of woodland could be important. This would certainly help other woodland wildlife; flowering plants, birds and butterflies are declining as our under-managed woodland becomes ever darker.

The Chalara Control Plan is about to be published. I really hope this doesn’t ignore the needs of our often overlooked species; the many mosses, liverworts, lichens and invertebrates that depend on our ash trees. The plan needs to set out a sensible, considered, approach for dealing with this disease in the long term, and not be a knee-jerk reaction. As far as we know, a single ash tree is the only home to red-eyed shingle lichen in Wales. It’s a stunning lichen, wonderful to look at like so many in the Celtic rainforest, and I had a real thrill in finding it. I’d dearly like others to be able to experience this too. Yes, we do urgently need a plan, and action, to limit the impact of ash dieback as much as possible, but this has to be the right action; an ill-directed chainsaw could bring about the extinction of red-eyed shingle lichen in Wales in a matter of minutes.

Friday, 8 March 2013

A Wild Mother’s Day

Posted by Dr Trevor Dines.

I’ve not bought a bunch of flowers for years.

Don’t get me wrong - it’s not that I’m a misery guts or lack any sense of romance or occasion. The symbolism involved with giving and receiving flowers is incredibly powerful (which in itself reveals the deep, subconscious relationship we have with plants; we don’t after all, say it with seagulls). I honestly don’t think there’s any better way, in a very personal manner, to express your love for someone.

But what better way to do this than with a bunch wild flowers that you’ve picked and put together yourself? It’s much more thoughtful than the flaccid forecourt fodder on offer at the local garage. Walk into any supermarket or garden centre this weekend and you’ll be faced with row upon row of the most garish, unseasonal and unnatural blooms. Flown in from all over the world, they remind me more of plastic supermodels dressed for tarty night out in Ibiza. Certainly bright and brash and bold they may be, but such flamboyance fades quickly, offending the eyes by the following morning.

Instead, a bunch of hand-picked wild flowers will mean so much more. It will be unique, personal, and will have a very special local feeling too – a blend of flowers and foliage that reflects where you live rather what some nursery manager in some far-flung continent thought what your mother would like. When you factor in the cost, wild flowers become even more attractive.

Mother’s Day, of course, occurs when many flowers are yet to bloom - it’s just a bit too early in the year. But if you rise to the challenge, the finished product will carry much more meaning. You’ll need to get outside and see what’s around. I did just this yesterday and was surprised at what I could find.

So what kind of seasonal bouquet can I recommend? Rather than big and blousy, I’d suggest keeping it tasteful and refined. A mix of subtle colours and leaf textures can be bought together in a small, hand-tied bouquet. And you don’t have to be purist about it either; other garden flowers that are out now or a small bunch of tasteful blooms from the florist can be brought to life with the addition of some wild, foraged leaves and flowers.

You can see the result of my efforts in the photo above. Here, I’ve put together the following:

  • Snowdrops: Although not native flower, they’re beautiful and familiar woodlanders that are wonderfully pure with their white and green nodding flowers.
  • Hazel: A sprig of this with some catkins looks very spring-like and very architectural.
  • Polypody fern: Evergreen and deeply lobed, these sometimes have bright orange spores on the back.
  • Ivy: The flower stems and young berries are very distinctive and architectural.
  • Yew: A wonderful evergreen, which flowers early with beautiful pale yellow bobbles that go on to form its red berries.
  • Bog myrtle: Dark mahogany coloured stems with distinctive short catkins. Not common but grows in western upland areas.
  • Lichen: Small fallen twigs with some lichen can be included for unusual colour and texture.

It all depends on what you find. Keep you eve out for other early flowers such as violets, and primroses, other textures from different ferns, and even dried seed-heads from last-year’s flowers.

But what about picking wild flowers? Isn’t that illegal? Usually it’s not. At Plantlife, we not only endorse but thoroughly encourage people to pick common wild flowers when it legal to do so. For full details, click here.

We want people to literally get back “in touch” with their wild flowers, bring them back into their lives and use them again, making those connections we used to have. So on this Mother’s Day, why not find time to reconnect with wild plants? Your mum will probably be delighted.