Thursday, 23 June 2011

Wild Roses

Roses are some of our most beautiful wild flowers and June is the month in which they bloom. The sight of them always lifts my spirits and when I come across them in some neglected corner of the Mersey Valley I reflect on how something of beauty managed to survive the brutal destruction of our local landscapes, mostly in the second half of the 20th century, and the largely insensitive, and often crass, interventions which followed.

These flowers may be beautiful but in terms of their classification (taxonomy) they are very complex. There are 20 or 21 species (depending on which authority you consult) of Rose growing wild in Britain – some of which are introductions (about 8 species). They exhibit variations within species and the species often hybridise with one another (there are more than 80 different hybrids).

Species and hybrids are distinguished from each other by examining details of their growth habit, leaves, prickles, fruits (‘hips’) and flowers.

How many species are native in present day South Manchester and the Mersey Valley is difficult to tell, and the picture has been complicated by the fact that many Roses (often of uncertain origin) were introduced in the 1970s and 80s. In his ‘Manchester Flora’ (1), published in 1859, Leo Grindon listed four species: Common Dog-rose (Rosa canina), White Dog-rose (R. arvensis), Hairy-fruited Dog-rose (R. villosa) and Downy-leaved Dog-rose (R. tomentosa). Modern authorities (2, 3) now call these respectively: Dog-rose (R. canina), Field-rose (R. arvensis), Soft Downy-rose (R. mollis – the name R.villosa now being obsolete) and Harsh Downy-rose (R. tomentosa). I’m not sure that I’ve sorted these four species out yet and I still need to do more work in order to state, with any confidence, that they are all still present.

In what follows I will describe the Dog-rose – which is still reasonably common around here – and two other British species which can be found in the present day Mersey Valley but which are probably not native in this area and were probably introduced in the 1970s and 80s.

Dog Rose (Rosa canina) – see top photo

This is a plant of hedgerows and scrub and is often an early coloniser of derelict sites around towns and cities.
Apart from its vicious, hooked prickles this is a common shrub of great beauty, elegance and (seeming) simplicity. In fact it is anything but simple! Experts have noted that this species is very variable and can be divided into four groups with a continuous range of variation between them (2,3). There are also a number of hybrids between Dog Rose and other species (ref. 2. lists ten and a more recent book, ref.3. lists eight).

Sweet-briar or Eglantine (R. rubiginosa) – see middle photo

This plant usually occurs on calcareous soils and although it can grow in hedgerows it is particularly characteristic of open scrub of chalk or limestone. Hence, it doesn’t really belong in the Mersey Valley at all! Nevertheless, it is now quite common at the western (i.e. Trafford) end of the Valley where it was probably planted around 30 – 35 years ago.

An important characteristic of Sweet-briar is the little, stalked glands on its flower stalks and leaves. When these glands are gently rubbed or pressed between fingers they release a very pleasant, sweet apple-like scent (hence the common name).

There’s something romantic and quintessentially English about this plant (although it’s probably not confined to England). Whenever I smell that sweet scent I imagine a pretty maiden emerging from a Helen Allingham, ‘chocolate-box’ thatched cottage on a dewy June morning, pausing to sniff the Eglantine growing around the door-frame before hurrying off to milk her cows – all accompanied by Vaughan Williams's, ‘The Lark Ascending’ of course!

Many-flowered Rose (R. multiflora) – see bottom photo

This is one of the introduced species now naturalised in Britain. It is a Chinese species, originally introduced as a root-stock for ornamental rambling roses. Gardeners sometimes throw these out, when they are past their best, and they end up on rubbish tips. A good place to see this spectacular species is on Hardy Farm near Jackson’s Boat Bridge. It’s no coincidence, of course, that Hardy Farm was once a Council tip.

Although the flowers of wild Roses may be beautiful, the hips are more diagnostic. These fruits are present from July to, at least, mid September – so I’ve got a bit more time this year to do a bit more sorting out.


1. The Manchester Flora, by Leo H. Grindon, William White, 1859.

2. Roses of Great Britain and Ireland - BSBI Handbook No. 7, by G.G. Graham and A.L. Primavesi, Botanical Society of the British Isles, 1993.

3. New Flora of the British Isles, 3rd Edition, by Clive A. Stace, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Dave Bishop, June 2011

Friday, 17 June 2011

Guided Bee Walk, Sunday 12th June 2011 by Carl Ashcroft

Many thanks to all of the Friends of Chorlton Meadows who in a collective act of optimism braved the torrential rain to take part in the guided bee walk on Sunday 12th June 2011.

While unfortunately not a bee was seen on the walk due to the bad weather, a lively discussion took place covering many aspects of bees, including their anatomy and form, life-cycles and behaviour. As a result, walk attendees should now be able to answer the following questions:

1. Do bumblebees nest above or below ground?
2. How many common bumble species are there locally?
3. Do bumblebee colonies in Britain over-winter (generally speaking)?
4. How many bees might you find in a bumblebee nest?
5. What are the benefits of swarming to the honeybee?
6. What are the costs of swarming to the beekeeper?1
7. What is Varroa destructor?
8. What is propilis?
9. What three things do honeybees collect from plants and why?
10. How many species of bumblebee currently are to be found in Briain?

Some walk attendees asked about books on bees. The following, for me, are the ones which stand out as good, and would certainly provide answers to the above questions.

Benton, T., 2006, Bumblebees: the natural history and identification of the species found in Britain, Collins, London.

This is part of the Collins New Naturalist Series. It is probably the best book general book on bumblebees found in Britain that there is. As with all New Naturalist books, it is aimed at the informed amateur. It also includes robust and thorough taxonomic keys for males, workers and queens for all taxa. Not cheap, probably around £20 for the paperback, but worth it.

Goulson, D., 2003, Bumblebees: behaviour and biology, Oxford University Press.

This is a 235 page literature review of scientific publications covering most aspects of bumblebee behaviour and biology compiled by the country’s leading bumblebee academic.

Hooper, T., 1997, Guide to Bees and Honey, 4th edition, Master House, Regent Publishing Services, China.

This for me is the beekeeper’s bible. If you want to be a beekeeper buy this. Otherwise, it is probably not for you. It is a technical manual.

Intenthron, M. & Gerrand, J, 1999., Making Nests for Bumblebees: a way to save an endangered species, International Bee Research Association, Cardiff.

A little pamphlet which shows you how to make nests for bumblebees.

Carl Ashcroft, June 2011


We may not have seen any bees on the day of the walk but a couple of days later local resident, Mark Chamberlain, e-mailed me to report that he had spotted a swarm of honey bees in a Horse Chestnut tree on The Meade in Chorltonville. He asked me if I knew of a local bee expert - and, naturally, I thought of Carl and gave his e-mail address to Mark. Carl had had little experience of dealing with swarms himself but knew of an expert from North Manchester who came down and sorted it out. We don't know what happened next but perhaps the story will emerge in time (?) Mark took a photograph of the swarm the swarm (see lower picture above).

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Ragged Robin

One of my favourite wild flower sites is to the west of Chorlton. I’m not going to describe exactly where it is because ... well, it’s a secret!

I visit my secret site several times a year so that I can observe the succession of fine flowers which adorn it.

My most recent visit was last week when it was decorated with Marsh Orchids (Dactylorhiza spp.) and several magnificent stands of Ragged Robin (Silene flos-cuculi *).

According to one of my favourite wild flower books (1) Ragged Robin is a common perennial plant of wet meadows, marshes, fens and wet woodlands on mineral or peaty soils (I think that the soils on my site are quite complex because, like much of the Mersey Valley, it has been variously stripped and tipped on and generally messed about with). Ragged Robin flowers during late spring and early summer (about now, of course!) and is pollinated by a variety of butterflies and day-flying moths.

Although Ragged Robin is a striking plant, with its fair share of vernacular names, Geoffrey Grigson (2) tells us that it has “few associations”. He quotes the great Tudor herbalist, John Gerard who reported that: “These are not used either in medicine or in nourishment: but they serve for garlands and crowns, and to decke up gardens.” Nevertheless, in another passage Grigson discusses the ‘Robin’ name in the context of Herb Robert (Geranium sanguineum). He writes: “The name Robin, a diminutive of Robert by way of French, seems innocent in its attachment to flowers, but most of the Robin flowers appear to have been linked to goblin, robin and evil ... and snakes, death, the devil, fairies, sex, and cuckoos.” Therefore Grigson appears to have uncovered few recorded associations for Ragged Robin but suggests that the name implies that several sinister associations may once have existed. Mind you the fairies told me that everything would be fine as long as I paid the tithe ... anyone know where I can get a unicorn’s horn?

Richard Mabey (3) reports that Ragged Robin is a declining plant of wet meadows. Sadly, many British wild flowers could be said to be ‘declining’ but this one still occurs in a small number of Mersey Valley sites, including my secret site – which is probably the best of them (anyway, that’s what the fairies told me to say ...)

Dave Bishop, June 2011

1. 'The Wild Flowers of the British Isles’, illustrated by Ian Garrard, text by David Streeter, Macmillan, 1983.

2. ‘The Englishman’s Flora’ by Geoffrey Grigson, Paladin, 1975 (first pub. 1958).

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

*This plant’s scientific name has changed recently from Lychnis flos-cuculi to Silene flos-cuculi (see Stace, 3rd edition, 2010).

Friday, 3 June 2011

Two FoCM Guided Walks in June and July

For any readers of this blog who are not (probably as a result of my incompetence) on the FoCM e-mail list there are two guided walks coming up which you might be interested in:

1. An Introduction to Bees led by Carl Ashcroft (local bee keeper); Sunday 12th June, meet Chorlton Ees car park (end of cobbled road off Brookburn Road) at 10:30 am.

2. Insect Life of the Meadows led by Richard Gardner and Julian Robinson (FoCM Committee members); Sunday 3rd July, meet Jackson's Boat Bridge at 10:30 am.

Both events are free and no booking is required. Both walks may last 3 or 4 hours but there is no obligation to 'stay the course' (although please let walk leaders know if you decide to leave early so that they will know that they haven't lost anyone!).

More walks and task days are in the planning stage.

Dave Bishop, June 2011