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.

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