Friday, 31 July 2009

New Plant Finds - Part 4

Broad-leaved Helleborine (Epipactis helleborine)

This orchid is not exactly a new find. In fact I found my first Broad-leaved Helleborine around 25 years ago under some willows near Sale Water Park. A book about orchids, which I was reading at the time, suggested that members of this group could often be found under willows – so I looked under every willow I came across. Eventually this strategy paid off and finally I found a Helleborine.

Broad-leaved Helleborines still grow under willows near Sale Water Park - but they’ve moved around a bit in the intervening years, and they no longer grow under the tree where I found my first one. Last year I found at least a dozen plants under the willows – but this year only two (this is fairly typical of orchids – they have good years and bad years).

This orchid also grows in Wythenshawe Park and today (31.07.2009) I found one in Gibb Wood. This is classic oak woodland – which just goes to show that, strictly speaking, Broad-leaved Helleborine doesn’t have to grow under willows (it just seems to ‘like’ them).

Broad-leaved Helleborine is the last of our local orchids to flower each year (end of July/beginning of August), and because of its woodland habitat it can grow and flower in fairly deep shade and can be quite hard to spot. There are around seven or eight species in the genus Epipactis in the UK and several more in Mainland Europe. There is some debate about exactly how many species there are in the genus, with some specialists splitting ‘single’ species into more than one on the basis of local differences, and other specialists claiming that certain ‘species’ are merely subspecies or varieties of a single species. Apparently this uncertainty is related to the fact that Epipactis (along with other orchid genera) are fairly ‘recent’ plants, in evolutionary terms, and are still actively evolving.

Wild Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa)

This member of the Carrot family (Apiaceae) is common in some parts of the UK – especially where there is some lime in the soil. For example, a couple of weeks ago I was viewing a magnificent stand of it in an old limestone quarry in Cambridgeshire. It’s fairly easy to spot because of its bright, yellow, almost luminous flower-heads (umbels).

In South Manchester it is very rare, but those plants that we do have seem to have chosen a most unlikely spot to grow in: the south bound section of Princess Parkway, near Northernden, which leads to the M56. It especially seems to favour the gaps between the crash barriers in the central reservations! I took the picture above, today, near the slip-road that leads north bound traffic towards the M60. Of course I couldn’t examine these plants in detail for fairly obvious reasons (severe danger of death being the most obvious – even I am not that keen!).

Wild Parsnip is closely related to Cultivated Parsnip. They are both members of the species Pastinaca sativa subspecies (ssp.) sativa. Wild Parsnip is variety (var.) sylvatica whereas Cultivated Parsnip is var. hortensis and has the familiar swollen, edible root. I suppose that the plants on Princess Parkway could be var. hortensis and, hence, garden escapes, but I’m not going to get the chance to dig them up to find out!

Dave Bishop, July 2009

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

A Glimpse of the Mersey Valley 50 Years Ago - Hilda Broady's Journal

28th July 1959

As a great amount of rain had fallen in the last two days we paid a visit to the plot. There was quite a cool breeze, but as the sun came out it became warmer.
The ground was very wet and much of the grass beaten down. The bottom stream had filled up with water and many insects were flying about. We took specimens of pond skaters, a fly, as yet unidentified, a spider, and this time a bee.

The hawthorn now has green fruits showing. Also the bittersweet is beginning to fruit – bright red berries and flowers appearing on the same stem. The willow herb was flowering only at the top of the stem now, the long thin, purple fruits appearing down the stems.
The fruits of the bramble appear some green, some red, and some quite ripe, a dark purple, almost black.

Several oak seedlings were growing among the tall grass. Silverweed [Potentilla anserina – Ed.] was growing at the side of the path. Common hemp nettle [Galeopsis tetrahit – Ed.] was growing near the stream. Two other plants were growing near the stream, which are not yet in flower, and which I cannot yet identify. The ground everywhere was softer and the earth browner since the rain.

Posted by Dave Bishop, 28th July 2009

Monday, 27 July 2009

New Plant Finds - Part 3

Hybrid Water-Lilies
Near Jackson’s Boat, on the Sale side of the river, there is an outflow channel which links a sluice gate on the Mersey with Sale Water Park. When the river gets too high the sluice gate opens and the flood water flows down the channel to the Water Park. In years of high rainfall this can happen several times a year – especially during the winter months.

Flooding, of course, is now generally regarded as undesirable and something to be prevented at all costs. But the fact that rivers like the Mersey carry huge volumes of water to the sea and regularly threaten to overflow their banks (and sometimes do so) is an inescapable fact of life and cannot be ignored. In the old days, before our culture decided that the environment was only there to be ruthlessly exploited and to be ignored the rest of the time, local farmers made good use of flooding (ref. 1) and installed sluice gates in the river banks so that silt could be deposited on their land and enrich it during times when the river was high.

I am convinced that flooding was, and to a more limited extent still is, an important factor contributing to the biodiversity of the Mersey Valley. Every year I find plants, in the vicinity of the river, the seeds, roots, rhizomes and corms of which, I believe, could only have been deposited via flood waters. The Sale outflow channel, mentioned above, regularly carries large volumes of flood water and is consequently one of the richest sites for wild plants in this central part of the Mersey Valley; it is particularly rich in aquatic and marginal plants.

In the spring of this year I noticed some Water-lily leaves, in one of the deeper parts of the channel, and waited rather impatiently for flowers to appear. I assumed that they would turn out to be our native species of Water-lily (Nymphaea alba) - which has white flowers. When the flowers did finally appear, in early July, they were red, not white. This means that the plant is almost certainly an artificial hybrid which has escaped from cultivation. A piece of the rhizome has been deliberately thrown out, or accidentally lost, from a garden pond (or larger body of water) and has ended up ‘in the wild’. Whether it entered the Sale outflow channel in a winter flood or was directly put there is anybody’s guess.

It would appear that most Water-lilies of this type were developed, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, by a French horticulturalist, Joseph Bory Latour-Marliac, and are often called ‘Marliacea Hybrids’. Apparently he was rather secretive about his methods but may have used N. alba and the American species N. odora as the bases for his creations (ref. 2). I think that there is a good chance that the plants in the outflow channel may be the Marliacea Hybrid, ‘Escarboucle’ – but I can’t be sure about that (does anyone out there know anything about hybrid Water-lilies?).

The most famous depictions of Water-lilies are, of course, those of the French Impressionist painter, Claude Monet (1840 – 1926). Monet produced a long series of 250 paintings of these beautiful plants which he grew in a large pond in his garden at Giverny, which is 80 km west of Paris. Although Monet was not primarily concerned with accurate botanical depictions of his plants, inspection of reproductions of his paintings (I’ve not seen the originals) suggest that he grew Marliacea Hybrids – some of which were red in colour like the one in Sale outflow channel. How marvellous to think that, by chance, a winter flood may have brought a reminder of Monet’s garden to a corner of Sale!

Dave Bishop, July 2009


1. 'Mersey Floods' by Andrew Simpson, FoCM Blog 02.06.2009.

2. ‘Reader’s Digest Encyclopaedia Of Garden Plants And Flowers’ Ed. Roy Hay and Kenneth A. Beckett, The Readers Digest Association, 1971.

3. Wikipedia Article on Water Lilies: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_Lilies

Thursday, 23 July 2009

A Glimpse of the Mersey Valley 50 Years Ago - Hilda Broady's Journal

23rd July, 1959

It was over two weeks since I had visited the plot, and on this occasion the very long grass around the main Sycamore tree had been flattened down. The lower undergrowth was very brown, and though we have had many showers during the last week, the grass looked dry and brown.

I parted the reeds and tall grass now growing all over what I had hoped was the bed of a stream, and noticed moss growing at the sides. There were numerous spiders’ webs between the branches of the Sycamores growing low down near the ground. Flies were a nuisance as I tried to walk about the tall grass searching for new specimens. There were many bees visiting the willowherb, but I did not feel justified in taking any of them as specimens.

The Sycamores still appeared to be producing new leaves the stems of which were quite red. Bittersweet was still in flower. The reeds varied a great deal in height, some being six to seven feet high. As the grass was disturbed moths kept flying out from the undergrowth; these were mostly small and brown, but one cabbage white butterfly was seen.
Large patches of willowherb were still in flower, many of the plants were fruiting up to about half way up the stem. A specimen of willow herb was taken, showing flowers and fruit on the same stem. Some willowherb was over four feet high.

I was quite surprised to see just one snake weed [Bistort - Ed.] plant in flower. As the stem of the flower is so tall, the flower stood out clearly among all the low lying leaves.
The stream at the extended part of the plot contained a little water, which appeared very dirty and muddy. No specimen was taken as I have no microscope at home.

Goat weed [I’m not sure which plant Mrs Broady is referring to here; possibly Goatsbeard = Tragopogon pratensis? – Ed.] was in flower. A thistle was seen growing among the long grass. As I was not wearing gloves it was difficult to get a specimen, so I just took a couple of the leaves and flowers, without breaking the tough stem of the plant.

A tree to which I had previously paid little attention was seen to be covered yellow and red berries, the leaves being green and tipped with red. Specimens were taken for identification (Guelder Rose [= Viburnum opulus – Ed.]).

Bramble is in flower in parts, and is fruiting too. Shoots of bramble among the grass also make progress slow in moving about.

Posted by Dave Bishop, 23rd July 2009

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Pale Lady's Mantle

In all of the years that I’ve been interested in the plants of the Mersey Valley I’ve seen Pale Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla xanthochlora) two, or perhaps three, times, and on each of those occasions it was as a single specimen.
Nevertheless, Pale Lady’s Mantle was probably once a prominent component of Mersey Valley hay meadows – but, sadly, these have been systematically trashed over the last 50 years or so and only tiny, degraded fragments are left. The Lady’s Mantle seems to have been particularly vulnerable to this destruction.

In 2007 I found a single plant on the edge of Barlow Hall Tip (between Chorlton Golf Course and Chorlton Water Park). I managed to photograph it, but soon after this the owners of the site, Greater Manchester Waste Authority, in full licensed eco-vandal mode, sprayed it with herbicide (!) I honestly thought that I had seen the last specimen in the Mersey Valley and that it was now extinct locally.

Then, in spring of this year (2009), something dramatic happened. I received an email (1) from Alison Hunt who is Wildlife Officer for the West Didsbury Residents’ Association. She had found a site, in her part of the Valley, with many interesting plants including a Lady’s Mantle species. I went to have a look but I was a bit too early: the plants were not in flower and the leaves were very small. On the basis of this evidence I speculated (perhaps a bit too wildly) that this might even be another species different from A. xanthochlora. When I returned to the site, 4 or 5 weeks later, I was stopped in my tracks: the plants were in full flower, the leaves were now much bigger than those of the specimens of A. xanthochlora that I had seen before and there were 10 or 12 large clumps of the plants. It was the size of the leaves which threw me and I immediately thought that what I was seeing was a colony of A. mollis. This latter species is a garden escape. It is originally from the Carpathian Mountains, seeds itself around freely, and is now probably the commonest species to be encountered, in the wild, in urban areas like ours.
Nevertheless, when I examined the plants in detail I realised that they were not A. mollis. That species has leaves which are hairy on both sides, whereas our plants had smooth, non-hairy (‘glabrous’) upper surfaces to their leaves and these were only sparsely hairy on the reverse; only the leaf stalks were hairy. In addition the leaves were much more indented than those of A. mollis. These are all characteristics of A. xanthochlora (2) but I was still being thrown by the size of the leaves.

First, a word or two about Alchemillas (the word means ‘Little Alchemist’, by the way, because medieval alchemists thought that the dew which collects on their leaves in the early morning could be used to turn base metals into gold (3)). They are members of the Rose Family (Roscaceae) and are ‘apomictic’ (i.e. they reproduce non-sexually). Apomixis usually leads to very similar species which are hard to separate. There are about a dozen British native species and two or three introduced species. The majority of the British natives are upland plants and the limestone parts of the North Pennines are particularly rich in them. Luckily, only about three of the native species tend to occur in the lowlands, and of these A. xanthochlora is probably the commonest.

For a variety of reasons I thought that it would be wise to get these ‘new’ plants identified by an expert. So, I pressed a couple of leaves and some flowers and sent them off to Dr. Margaret Bradshaw, who is the Alchemilla referee for the Botanical Society of the British Isles (I note that she lives in the North Pennines – which is probably not a coincidence!). Dr. Bradshaw sent me a very nice letter (4) back confirming that the plants were “very well grown” specimens of A. xanthochlora and I am very grateful to her for her help (I am now confident that I can recognise A. xanthochlora when I see it).

So, Pale Lady’s Mantle is not extinct in the Mersey Valley and there is a rather large and thriving colony in the Didsbury area. I don’t really want to reveal where the site is at this stage. Strictly speaking it is private land (although presently it’s fairly easy to access) but there are some very exciting plans to conserve it and its wildlife. I hope to be able to write about this in a future article.

Dave Bishop, July 2009


1. Personal Communication from A. Hunt (West Didsbury Residents’ Association), April 2009

2. ‘Interactive Flora of the British Isles’ (DVD ROM) by C.A. Stace, eds R. van der Meijden & I. de Kort, ETI bioinformatics, 2004

3. ‘Flora Britannica’ by Richard Mabey, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996

4. Personal Communication from Dr Margaret E. Bradshaw MBE, Ph D, re: ‘Identification of an Alchemilla specimen from a site in the Mersey Valley, South Manchester’, 15th June 2009.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Arable Weeds in South Manchester

In the mid 19th century most of South Manchester consisted of villages set in farm land. Above the floodplain of the Mersey much of this land was arable. For example Andrew Simpson (1) has estimated that around this time Chorlton had 680 acres of meadow (mostly in the floodplain), 490 acres of arable land and 10 acres of woodland. Another of Chorlton’s historians, the late John Lloyd reconstructed the 1841 tithe map (2) and this shows that the land to the north of Beech Road, for example, was arable as was the land between Sandy Lane and Chorlton Brook and that between Barlow Moor Road and Barlow Hall. Those communities further from the river (such as Withington) probably had a greater proportion of their land devoted to arable.

Before the days of ‘clean’ seed and selective herbicides farmers struggled with weeds. Arable crops had to compete with a huge variety of wild plant species. Weeding these fields by hand was an onerous and labour intensive task. Dorothy Hartley (3) described how arable fields were weeded (in May) in the old days. The weeder walked between the rows of corn and:

“He uses two sticks: with the first, hooked stick he plucks the weed out from among the corn stalks, and with the second, forked stick, pins the weed’s head down under the fork. The weeder then steps one pace forward, placing his foot on the head of the weed, and, with this forward movement, swings the hooked stick behind him, lifting the root high out of the ground, before dropping it in line. In this way each pulled up weed is shaken clear of soil, and laid with its root over the buried head of the previous weed. Thus, as the weeder goes along the line of the furrows he lays a mulch of decaying weeds alongside the roots of the corn, and forms a line between the rows at least as wide as his foot.”

I would guess that this was a highly skilled task that took much practice to master but that a skilled weeder moved in a sort of rhythmic, swinging dance among the corn. Note, too, that what is being described here is a sort of ‘organic’ system in which not even the invasive weeds are wasted but are used to mulch the corn.

So, what is a weed? ‘The Concise Oxford Dictionary’ defines it as: “A wild herb springing where it is not wanted”. I’ve always found this definition (and similar ones) rather unsatisfactory because it only defines a weed in relation to humans and their agricultural activities. But weeds have been around longer than human agriculture and must play a wider role in the scheme of things. Many weeds are ‘annuals’ – that is, they spring up, flower and produce lots of seed and progeny in single season, then die. They don’t compete well with established plant communities (woods, scrub, grassland etc.) but are adapted by evolution to colonise disturbed ground. Because we humans are creatures who habitually disturb the ground, we’ve only got ourselves to blame!
Any piece of land in lowland Britain, if cleared of all vegetation (even down to the bedrock), and then left to its own devices, will slowly revert to woodland. This process is known to ecologists as “natural succession”. The classic description of natural succession can be found in A.G. Tansley’s book, ‘Britain’s Green Mantle’ (4). To quote the author:

“A number of phases of vegetation are thus successively established, usually in the order – lower plants, herbs, shrubs, and trees … In all favourable climates woodland is ultimately established, and this will eventually be dominated by the tallest trees, casting the deepest shade, which can succeed on the particular soil and in the particular climate.”

Broadly speaking the “herbs” in the above passage are annual weeds, followed by perennial weeds (docks, thistles etc.). To use more than a large chunk of poetic licence, weeds are a bit like the planet’s ‘clotting factor’. Damage the Earth’s surface and weeds appear to ‘mend’ the damage and to initiate a process leading to the re-establishment of woodland.

The extraordinary thing about South Manchester (although I’m not implying that it’s unique) is that, in spite of the fact that the farmers and the ‘weed dancers’ are long gone, and many of their arable fields are buried under bricks, mortar and tarmac, many of the weeds are still here! The ‘seed bank’ is still in the soil.
Some of the ‘old’ arable weeds that I’ve found are: Long-headed Poppy (Papaver dubium), Corn Poppy (P. rhoeas), Small Nettle (Urtica urens), Corn Spurrey (Spergula arvensis), Redshank (Persicaria maculosa), Black-bindweed (Fallopia convolvulus), Field Pansy (Viola arvensis), Wild Pansy (V. tricolor), Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris), Wild Radish (Raphanus raphanistrum), Wild Mignonette (Reseda lutea), Scarlet Pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis), Hairy Tare (Vicia hirsuta), Sun Spurge (Euphorbia helioscopia), Field Bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis), Red Dead-nettle (Lamium purpureum), Cut-leaved Dead-nettle (Lamium hybridum), Perennial Sow-thistle (Sonchus arvensis), Marsh Cudweed (Gnaphalium uliginosum), Scentless Mayweed (Tripleurospermum inodorum), Scented Mayweed (Matricaria recutita) and several more.

One group which fascinates me are the Fumitories (Fumaria sp.) – they are scrambling species with small, deeply divided leaves. They also have small, narrow, pink or white, rather snap-dragon-like flowers; they are notoriously difficult to identify to species level. This year (2009) I found one of the commonest species, Common Ramping-fumitory (F. muralis) all over the place, often as a street weed. It was particularly common along Barlow Moor Road, between Mauldeth Road West and Princess Parkway, and also in the Hough End area. I found another species, White Ramping-fumitory (F. capreolata) in Southern Cemetery of all places! There may also be at least one more species present (I need to do more work).

Manchester’s mid 19th century botanists (5, 6) found even more interesting weed species, such as Bugloss (Anchusa arvensis), Bristly Hawk’s-beard (Crepis setosa), Corn Buttercup (Ranunculus arvensis), Shepherd’s Needle (Scandix pecten-veneris) and Field Madder (Sherardia arvensis). I have not found any of these locally and some of them are rare and/or declining nationally.

I would have loved to have seen one of Chorlton or Withington’s weedy corn fields – but I was astonished to see something very like them last week. I went to a poetry festival in Eastern England. My route took me via a road between the Lincolnshire towns of Grantham and Sleaford. I spotted a barley field full of poppies and, after parking the car, went to investigate. This field (see photograph above) contained many other field weeds besides the poppies, including some of those listed above. It was a sight I never expected to see and I still can’t account for it.
One of the weeds in this field puzzled me for a while: it was coarse and bristly with tiny yellow flowers. It turned out to be Fiddleneck (Amsinckia micrantha), a plant originally from Western North America – now increasingly common in Eastern England. This illustrates another aspect of arable field weeds – they tend to be cosmopolitan. Since man invented agriculture they have been moved around the world and Fiddleneck is just one of the latest examples of this phenomenon.

Dave Bishop, July 2009


1. ‘Chorlton’s History – From Agricultural Village to Suburb’ by Andrew Simpson, FoCM Blog, 29th September 2008.

2. Personal Communication from Andrew Simpson.

3. ‘The Land of England’ by Dorothy Hartley, Macdonald & Jane’s, 1979.

4. ‘Britain’s Green Mantle’ by A.G. Tansley, George Allen & Unwin, 1949.

5. ‘A Botanical Guide to the Flowering Plants, Ferns, Mosses and Algae Found Indigenous Within Sixteen Miles of Manchester’ by Richard Buxton, Longman, 1849.

6. ‘The Manchester Flora’ by Leo Grindon, William White, 1859.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

New Plant Finds - Part 2

Some Alien Honeysuckles

Tartarian Honeysuckle (Lonicera tartarica)

Early in the spring of last year I was looking at the Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum) which climbs up the wire fences of the old sewage works compounds at the north western end of Chorlton Ees. I noticed something odd. Some of the plants did not appear to be climbing the fences but were exhibiting a more shrub-like habit. As the season advanced both the climbing plants and the shrubs developed very similar leaves but they were fairly obviously different species. In May the shrubs flowered and then it became obvious that they weren’t our native species (i.e. L. periclymenum).

L. periclynemum is our only native species of Honeysuckle, although there is another species which is ‘possibly’ native. This latter species is L. xylosteum - Fly Honeysuckle, which is a rather uncommon plant of southern England. Both of these are climbers and not shrubs. The new plant on Chorlton Ees had rather small (even rather insignificant), pink flowers. It was not particularly easy to identify but eventually I was able to name it as L. tartarica - Tartarian Honeysuckle (top photograph). It is a rather obscure garden escape, originally from southern Russia. The specific epithet commemorates the Tartars – a major ethnic group in southern Russia and the Ukraine. It appears to have been introduced into British Gardens 70 or 80 years ago but may only now be spreading. I think that it’s almost certainly bird-seeded – the birds which find the fruits of L. periclynemum palatable probably also take the fruits of L. tartarica (which is why I found the two species together on Chorlton Ees). I thought for a while that I might have a new record for Greater Manchester but it turns out that it has been found around here before. For example, a few years ago local botanists Priscilla Tolfree and Audrey Locksley found it by the Fallowfield Loop cycle path.

I recently discovered an odd fact about this plant on the Internet (you couldn’t make this up!). Apparently, in Canada, twigs of Tartarian Honeysuckle are sold as cat toys because they contain a chemical called, nepetalactone – the same chemical that is found in the plant Catnip. As anyone who has ever owned a cat will know, Catnip is extremely attractive to cats and drives them wild!

Henry’s Honeysuckle (Lonicera henryi)

By the side of the Fallowfield Loop, less than half a mile east of Princess Parkway, a vigorous, evergreen climber smothers the bank side vegetation and trees. There is a similar patch of it in the midst of the willow carr at Fletcher Moss park in Didsbury. I was convinced that both of these patches were representatives of the species, Lonicera henryi – Henry’s Honeysuckle (middle photograph), another garden escape, originally from China. I needed to see the flowers to be sure but last year failed to do so. This year I managed to creep up on the Fallowfield Loop patch at exactly the right time (mid-June) and caught it in full flower, and it proved to be what I thought it was.

The name commemorates the Irish botanist, Augustine Henry (1857 – 1930). From 1880 Henry was employed for 20 years by the Imperial Chinese Maritime Customs Service. This post seems to have allowed him plenty of time for botanising as he collected widely in Hubei, Sichuan, Taiwan and Yunnan and managed to send around 150, 000 dried specimens to Kew. At least some of the specimens that he collected also ended up in Manchester Museum Herbarium. I’m not sure whether he discovered or even collected this particular species. He certainly didn’t name it (it is not the ‘done thing’ to name a species after oneself!). It was given the name by the eminent botanist, William Hemsley who, while working at Kew, compiled an important catalogue of Chinese plants.

By an extraordinary coincidence, while studying this plant and the career of Augustine Henry, I discovered that his great, great nephew lives just around the corner from me in Chorltonville!

Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica)

I’ve only ever found this plant (bottom photograph) in one place – along the old railway line from Chorlton to Old Trafford (soon to be part of the Metrolink tram network). It has white flowers which turn yellow as they age. In shape they are not unlike those of our native Honeysuckle. It’s a native of Asia, particularly Japan, Korea, north and east China and Taiwan.
In China it’s an ingredient in herbal medicines and is said to have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.

In North America it’s a major invasive species. It’s classified as a ‘noxious weed’ in Illinois and Virginia and is banned in New Hampshire.

I would suggest that all three of these species have the potential to become major pests in the UK as well. On the other hand they might just blend in with the native flora and add to local biodiversity or they might just fade away un-noticed. It all seems to be completely unpredictable.

So the alien Honeysuckles might be coming! Keep watching the skies? No, keep watching the hedgerows ... doo, doo, doo-doo, doo, doo, doo-doo!

Dave Bishop, July 2009


1. ‘Shrubs’ by Roger Phillips & Martyn Rix, Pan Books, 1989

2. ‘Travels in China: A Plantsman’s Paradise’ by Roy Lancaster, Antique Collectors’ Club, 1989

3. Wikipedia Article of Japanese Honeysuckle: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_Honeysuckle

Sunday, 5 July 2009

A Glimpse of the Mersey Valley 50 Years Ago - Hilda Broady's Journal

5th July, 1959

After a week of glorious sunshine and intermittent heavy showers, I visited the plot. Yesterday was the hottest of the year so far, being 84 degrees but it has rained all day today.

The ground was very wet and seeking specimens of wild plants in the long grass amused my young son, but not myself.

Bittersweet is still much in evidence in the stream bed (which still refuses to fill with water), and we noticed a large patch of horsetail growing in the bed of the stream.

Between the large numbers of Sycamores growing and the long grass it was very difficult to walk about. Willowherb is very prolific, and bramble too is growing all over the plot. Some bramble is in flower, but in places fruits, which are green, and yellow, are appearing. There is now no sign of the long stems of the snakeweed. Green fruits are also evident on the Hawthorn tree.

My plot has been extended to include a stream which actually contains water this week, although last week it was completely dry. We brought home a sample of this water, but unfortunately it was accidentally lost and another sample will have to be taken.

We caught a red insect which has not yet been identified. Willowherb was in full flower.

Posted by Dave Bishop, 5th July, 2009.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

New Plant Finds - Part 1

I’ve been doing quite a lot of intensive botanising recently and thought that I might share some of my more interesting finds with FoCM Blog readers. So as not to risk boring you I thought I’d pick a couple of plants to talk about in each article. The two plants that I’ve chosen to discuss this time are: Small Nettle (Urtica urens), a plant which, although I struggled to find it in 2008/9, was once so common around here that it would have been considered almost as unremarkable as Common Nettle (Urtica dioica); and Wood Small-reed (Calamagrostis epigejos), a grass which always appears to have been fairly rare in South Lancashire; I think that there’s a good chance that my discovery of it, near Urmston this week, may be a new record for the Mersey Valley.

Small Nettle (Top Picture)

This is a smaller, more delicate, annual relative of the Common ‘Stinging’ Nettle (it also stings, by the way!). It is generally considered to be an ‘archeophyte’ – that is a plant introduced into this country, from elsewhere in the world (in this case continental Europe), before the wholly arbitrary date of 1500 AD. Like most archeophytes the seed probably arrived as a contaminant of the crop seeds which were traded between European countries for millennia.

In his local Flora of 1849 (1) Manchester’s celebrated shoe-maker botanist, Richard Buxton found this plant around, “Chorlton and Withington, Stretford, Prestwich. Many other places.”

In his ‘Manchester Flora’(2), published 10 years later, Leo Grindon’s note on it states, “Waysides, common, but not like the larger one [i.e. U. dioica] universal. Plentiful about Chorlton, Stretford, Broadheath, Prestwich &c.”

Finally, a (relatively) more recent flora, published in 1963, ‘Travis’s Flora of South Lancashire’ (3) describes its habitat and frequency as: “Cultivated and waste land, especially on light soils. Common.”

But by the early 21st Century it did not appear to be common any longer – at least I could not find it in any of the Mersey Valley sites that I had free access to. Nevertheless, in 2008 Graham Kaye (BSBI Vice County Recorder for Cheshire) showed it to me at a site near Frodsham and when Richard Gardner (FoCM Secretary) and I visited the Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s headquarters, near Beeston, in May of this year, we saw a patch of it in their grounds, growing right next to a patch of Common Nettle for contrast.

It occurred to me that, like many annuals, Small Nettle was very likely to be a plant of disturbed ground and the Cheshire sites, mentioned above, confirmed this view (they were both farmyard-type habitats). I decided to have a look at local allotments – which are the closest habitats to farmyards that we’ve got left (I’m not too sure if Allotment Plot Holders would be pleased with that description or not!). Alison Hunt (Wildlife Officer of West Didsbury Residents’ Association) has a plot in the Albemarle Road Allotments in Withington and she introduced me to the Allotment Key Holder, Joan Dot. Joan was very happy to show me round and soon we found a bank of soil by one plot on which, to my great delight, was growing Small Nettle! Even though I started whimpering at this point, Joan would still like me to go back and compile a plant list. Who knows what other treasures there are to be found among the Allotment weeds – must try to control the whimpering!

Wood Small-reed (Bottom Picture)

One of my favourite walks is along Hawthorn Lane by Stretford Cemetery, and then by Kickety Brook under the A56 and the M60 Motorway. Eventually this path emerges on the river bank opposite Ashton-on-Mersey Golf Club. I then generally turn right here and follow the river until I reach the Carrington Motorway spur and a footbridge across the river. Beyond this point I can either, stay on the same side and carry on to Urmston Meadows, or cross the river to Ashton. At the top of the river bank, and in the shadow of the Carrington Spur, there is a small patch of planted trees. In front of these trees is a patch of tall, rather coarse grass which has puzzled me for a while. Slowly it dawned on me that this might be a Small-reed (Calamagrostis) – grasses which I had read about in the books but had never seen (or if I had, not recognised them as such).

I had found this grass a couple of months ago but it doesn’t flower until late June/early July and I needed to see the flowers to confirm my identification. It has never been common in this area. Buxton recorded it from Rostherne Mere and Mere Clough, Prestwich and a few other places (none in the Mersey Valley). Grindon also recorded it from the same two places. By 1963 ‘Travis’s Flora of South Lancashire’ was describing it as “Rare” and none of the listed sites, in that work, are anywhere near the Mersey Valley.

Last Monday morning I found it just coming into flower and was able to confirm my suspicions that it was Wood Small-reed (Calamagrostis epigejos). This time there was no-one nearby to hear the whimpering – although the Environment Agency workmen on the other side of the river may have been a bit puzzled by the keening and the high-pitched yelps!

Dave Bishop, July 2009


1. ‘A Botanical Guide to the Flowering Plants, Ferns, Mosses and Algae Found Indigenous Within Sixteen Miles of Manchester’ by Richard Buxton, Longman, 1849.

2. ‘The Manchester Flora’ by Leo Grindon, William White, 1859.

3. 'Travis's Flora of South Lancashire' ed. by J.P. Savidge, V.H. Heywood & V. Gordon, Liverpool Botanical Society, 1963.