Friday, 19 January 2018

Encouraging the Next Generation into Botany

It's a relatively quiet time for wildflowers now, so I thought I would write a short blog on sharing the joy of wildflowers with my Grand Daughter, JJ. She is just 12 years old but has been coming out with me and her Nan for a few years now.

Given that many of our days out are botany related, she has now amassed a fair amount of knowledge of identifying wildflowers - and fungi, butterflies and bugs of course.

JJ admiring thousands of naturalised Narcissus cyclamineus at Hilly Wood, Kent.

JJ is like most other children, usually glued to a tablet or TV, but she does like to go outdoors as well, in particular to woodlands where she has seen far more of nature than her whole class at school put together has seen.

She has learned the names of many common wildflowers, including most Dead-Nettles, Groundsel, various Buttercups and so on.

On a school trip to a woodland camp when she was about to leave primary school, she surprised the teachers by knowing all the plants they pointed out as well as the fungi. This was all down to her accompanying us on our nature walks and absorbing the information given about everything we found.

JJ with a Large Puffball she found on the Scotney Estate.

Shepherd's Purse was one of the first wildflowers she identified herself and is a favourite. She picked a heart shaped seed and gave it to her Mum when we took her home.
Use a bit of imagination when describing wildflowers to children and the information sticks with them.

Cow Parsley is another plant she can successfully identify  and she got to see some lovely swathes of them on our walks. This is Rectory Meadow at Hartley, North Kent. Incidentally, this tiny reserve also harbours Man and Pyramidal Orchids, White Helleborine, Dyer's Greenweed, Slender Bedstraw (see Kent RPR species account for this discovery on BSBI county pages) and a host of more common wildflowers.

JJ helping me find wildflowers and beautiful orchids on Anglesey's Cors Bodeilio nature reserve last June.

Knowledge of nature isn't the only benefit. Exploring nature keeps children fit and healthy and sets them on course for good health in later life. Here's JJ on the foothills of Mount Snowdon. She found some nice Round-leaved Sundews and Heath Spotted Orchids for me as well.

This is another of JJ's favourite plants, the humble Red Dead-Nettle.

It's very common and most children should be able to find this plant.

Just like adults, JJ finds orchids fascinating and has seen virtually all of the species found in Kent and East Sussex. Here she is posing with a Lady Orchid at KWT Park Gate Down, also home to Early Purple, Fly, Monkey, and Common Spotted Orchids and more.

I remember her excitement when we found a colony of Lizard Orchids near Rye in East Sussex (thanks to Owen Leyshon for directions). We had been looking in the wrong place for some time so when I eventually found them she rushed over full of enthusiasm.

I'd like to say her photos were stunning, but as is often the case her excitement got the better of her and they came out a bit blurred due to camera shake.

Here's one I took at Sandwich, Kent the same year (2017)

Another fantastic and much rarer orchid only found in Kent that JJ has seen, is the Late Spider Orchid, like a big red furry oversized Bee Orchid, they are a stunning wildflower. Showing plants like these to children gives them a realisation of nature's beauty and the threats that nature faces in the modern world. The more children that realise this, the better the possible future will be for these species.

When one knows a species, one values it and doesn't want it to become extinct. That's my theory anyway.

As the season moves into high Summer in July, there are still orchids to be found.

Here's JJ all excitable again at finding some Violet Helleborines in a wood on the North Downs in Kent.

We have "trained" her to look where she treads and not to go rushing up to a flower, to avoid trampling unseen plants. A point worth bearing in mind when taking children to see rare plants.

Of course, botany doesn't just keep the children fit and healthy, it keeps us older folk on the go as well.
My partner and a Frog Orchid in Sussex.

It's a great feeling seeing JJs' little face light up when we find an interesting or beautiful plant (butterfly, bug etc) and so much more rewarding for the child than being in front of a screen all day long. My hope is that this bodes well for the future both for the child and for the state of nature and environmental issues that she will grow up with.

So come on you parents and grandparents, get off the sofa and get outdoors. It really doesn't matter if you can't identify what you find at the time. Take a few photos (on your phone or camera) and extend the fun at home by looking up what you have found. There's a whole new world of nature out there waiting to be re-discovered.


Sunday, 14 January 2018

New Year Plant Hunt 2017/18 - Kent : Part 2 : Swanscombe & Strood

This concluding part of my New year Plant Hunt covers 31st December and 1st January.


The area covered was mainly Manor Way, nearby road verges and a small bit of Swanscombe Marshes. It was full of litter from the numerous lorries that overnight here on a regular basis, including full plastic bottles of urine. Thus you can see I don't necessarily select beautiful areas to hunt for wildflowers.  I have mostly excluded species I found in Part 1 so as not to duplicate things.

Yarrow was flowering almost everywhere in Kent a week before the hunt, but a couple of hard frosts killed off most of the flowers.

So I was lucky to find a couple still going.

Achillea millefolium

Red Valerian loves "waste" areas as well as coasts and here was no exception.

Centranthus ruber

Along the road verge I came across numerous Creeping Thistles with flowers in bud, so I was pleased to find one with flowers sufficiently open to count.

 Cirsium arvense

Conyza is a tricky set of species to tell apart, however this is Canadian Fleabane, but much more prevalent was Bilbao Fleabane, but the photos were all blurred.

Conyza canadensis

Most people are familiar with catkins hanging off trees in Spring.

These are the male flowers of the Hazel tree. Look closely at the photo and you can also see the tiny red female flower above them.

Corylus avellana

Here's a close up of the tiny female flower. It was difficult to photograph being high up on a branch swaying in the breeze.

I was pleased to find a Fennel plant flowering along the rubbish strewn verges. Its yellow flowers and fine leaves make it an easy umbellifer to identify.

Foeniculum vulgare


Hoary Mustard was in flower here as well. It seems to have spread rapidly through Kent.

Seeds are the best way to ID crucifers, thus I took the photo below to make sure I was right.

Hirschfeldia incana

Then came the most surprising find of my New Year Plant Hunt, a naturalised Red Hot Poker.

This is a Summer flowering plant that usually adorns well kept gardens, but here it was on a road verge with no houses or habitation nearby.

Here's a close up of the flowers

It probably arrived in fly tipped soil.

Kniphofia agg.

And a habitat photo showing the road verge full of Ivy

Further along Manor Way was another Summer flowering surprise species, a native Common Poppy!

Papaver rhoeas

Hawkweed Oxtongue put in an appearance, though it was covered in chalk mud from passing lorries making it look grey!

Picris hieracioides

This picture shows the leaves and how different it is to the other similar looking common plant found through Autumn, Bristly Oxtongue.

All along Manor Way were colonies of Narrow-leaved Ragwort. It's a plant originally from South Africa (a hot country) so it's surprising that it flowers all through Winter here. It's now widely naturalised all through North Kent.

I also found Common and Oxford Ragworts in flower.

Senecio inaequidens

Here's a couple of scenic shots. What it does show (apart from how crap we are with leaving and dealing with litter) is that wildflowers don't care in the slightest though birds and mammals could end up in serious trouble if they get entangled in the waste.

It was pretty much like this all the way along the road.

A short diversion onto Swanscombe Marshes gave up this Red Clover with their multi flowered heads.

Trifolium pratense

Scentless Mayweed was here and there, including some with very small flowers which were unusual but probably due to the recent cold snap.

There's even a pollinating fly on this one.

Tripleurospermum inodorum

The final plant in flower was this grass, called Cocksfoot. There were many plants scattered about in all stages of flowering to being in seed.

Dactylis glomerata


I had half an hour left in my allotted 3 hours hunt time, so I drove the short distance to a road in Northfleet that backs onto the tidal Thames behind the Wallis Park estate, an ugly 1960s concrete block of flats.

By the road were a few flowering plants of Hedgerow Cranesbill.

However, behind an iron gate, was an old concrete slipway down to the Thames covered in over 100 flowering plants!

Geranium pyrenaicum

Alexanders will be flowering in their hundreds of thousands in my area in 2-3 months time, but one had jumped the gun and was in full flower now in Wallis Park car park!

Smyrnium olusatrum

My last photo was also in the grassed areas of the car park, Common Chickweed.

Stellaria media

That ended my 2nd day of plant hunting.

Strood - South

Day 3 was to a venue South of Strood that backs onto Plantlife's Ranscombe Farm reserve close to the M2 motorway. I didn't find as much as I had hoped for here, but did find several records. Here's some photos from here.

Through my eye loupe I could make out stamens so this partially open flower counts for the hunt.

It's a Spear Thistle, which I haven't seen in flower since late Summer. They go to seed earlier than Creeping Thistles so this was a surprise find.

Cirsium vulgare

The pale green parsley type leaves and the purple spotted stem means this can only be Hemlock, a very poisonous plant found growing up a barbed wire fence of a horses field

Thankfully, the horses obviously know it's poisonous as they hadn't touched it. This usually flowers in late Spring in their thousands with plants often exceeding 6 feet tall.

Conium maculatum

Nipplewort with its dainty lemon coloured flowers is often found in arable fields where it can be quite small.

Here it was growing in a shaded location where they often grow over 3 feet tall.

Lapsana communis

This slightly out of focus shot is of Perennial Mercury, coming into flower about a month early. It's very common in shady woods on chalk. Like it's cousin Annual Mercury, there are no petals on the flowers.

Mercurialis perennis

A few Bramble flowers put in an appearance though looking a bit tatty.

Rubus fruticosus agg.

Finally, some Gorse, frequent wherever the soil isn't too limy.

Ulex europaeus 

There was another day of the New year Plant Hunt left but I was unable to go out that day. However, I was very happy with what I did find and hope it contributes to the ongoing research that the BSBI are hosting.