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.

No comments: