Tag Archives: Plants

Rediscovery of a plant species 170 years after it was lost from the Northamptonshire flora


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This past week I’ve been hosting a postgraduate researcher from the University of New South Wales in Australia.  Zoe Xirocostas has been recruited to work on a project on which I’m a collaborating with Prof. Angela Moles and Dr Stephen Bonser (University of New South Wales) and Dr Raghu Sathyamurthy (CSIRO).  It’s funded by the Australian Research Council and will run from 2019-2022.

Zoe’s PhD is about understanding the role of herbivores and pollinators in determining how plant species native to Europe have become invasive in Australia.  She arrived with a wish-list of species that she wants to study at sites in the UK (Northampton), Spain, Estonia, France and Austria, in order to compare them with populations in Australia.  One of those species was small-flowered catchfly (Silene gallica), a plant that I hadn’t seen in Northamptonshire.  The NBN Atlas account for the species shows almost no records for central England and when I checked the Northamptonshire Flora it stated that the species had last been recorded in the county in 1843.  Clearly this was not a plant we could study for this phase of the project.  Or so we thought.

By coincidence, the week of Zoe’s preliminary fieldwork coincided with two days of surveys of the University of Northampton’s new Waterside Campus by staff and students.  This is part of an ongoing project to understand how the development has affected local biodiversity.  Friday was to be the last spring bird survey of the season (see this recent post updating that project) and Thursday was to be devoted to plants and bees.

To help with this we had the assistance of two County Recorders: Ryan Clark for the bees and Brian Laney for the plants, both hugely knowledgeable and enthusiastic about Northamptonshire’s.  We started the surveys on an area of short-cropped, species-rich turf that is being maintained by a combination of rabbit and Canada goose grazing:

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In no time at all Brian had racked up dozens of plant species; it’s really a very rich site indeed.  Bees were fewer and further between, but after an hour we had a list of about 10 species, including one of my favourites, the ashy mining bee:

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Zoe and her field assistant Susmita were busy bagging flower heads for the pollination experiments when suddenly we heard an excited shout from Brian.  He had moved on to look at some plants that were coming up in a disturbed area of ground some distance away.  Unbelievably, Brian had found small-flowered catchfly!  More than 170 years after it had last been record in the county.  On our campus!  We rushed over to take a look, and there it was, near a path that Zoe and I had walked just a couple of days before and completely failed to spot it.  In our defence, although it is striking in close up (see the image at the top of this post) it hides itself very well among other plants:

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An amazing discovery!  But what is this plant doing here?  The answer is that small-flowered catchfly is an annual species of disturbed areas, it requires soil to be turned over in order to allow its seeds to germinate from the soil seed bank.  The construction work on the site has involved moving around hundreds of tons of soil and this has provided ideal conditions for the plant and for many others that are associated with this kind of habitat.  The challenge now will be to work with the university’s estates department to decide on a management plan that involves regular rotovating of that area.  That shouldn’t be too hard, they are as keen to maximise the biodiversity of the campus as we are.

The natural world is full of surprises, especially “lost” species turning up unexpectedly.  Soil seed banks for some species can be very persistent, with seeds remaining dormant for decades or even hundreds of years until conditions are right for germination.  It’s very satisfying to be present at just the right time to see it happen!

To finish here’s a shot of the survey team, minus one member (Vivienne) who had to leave early; from left to right – Ryan, me, Brian, Susmita Aown, Duncan McCollin, Zoe, Janet Jackson:

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity

Wampee are not the only fruit: more from the International Botanical Congress

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It’s been a busy couple of days so this is my first chance to post a brief update on what is happening at the International Botanical Congress in Shenzhen, China.  Not only have there been great talks to attend, but it’s been an all-too-rare chance to catch up with friends and colleagues, some of whom I’ve not seen for years.  Also I’ve been able to meet researchers whose work I know well but whom I’ve never met.  And I’m still trying to finish my talk for Saturday…..  So here’s a few glimpses of what’s been going on, in no particular order.

On Tuesday I attended two fascinating symposia, one on the patterns and outcomes of pollen transfer between species in plant communities.  The first talk was this one by the great Chinese pollination ecologists Shuang-Quan Huang.  I’ve corresponded with Shuang for years but the IBC has been my first chance to meet him.

IBC 30 - Shuang

That was in the morning; in the afternoon I went to a session on my favourite plant family, the Apocynaceae, organised by my colleague and collaborator Sigrid Liede-Schumann.  This included some great talks on the evolutionary relationships within the family, and patterns of diversity in poorly studied parts of the world.  There were two talks on my favourite genus in my favourite family, Ceropegia. The first, by Sharad Kambale, was about the endemic species found in India, followed by a second on the pollination biology of the genus by Annemarie Heiduk.  Anne’s talk complements my own on Saturday, and in fact she, Sigrid and I are co-authors on a paper on the genus that, we heard on Monday, has just been accepted by the journal Flora.  Here’s a shot of the Apocynaceae participants; Anne is far right with Sigrid next to her.  It’s a sobering thought that Sigrid and I have been collaborating for over 20 years……:

IBC 28 - Apocs

Of the keynote lectures I’ve seen in the last couple of days, I was particualrly inspired by Loren Rieseberg’s over view of plant evolution in the Anthropocene.  This is surely the only talk this week, or at any IBC, that ended with a couple of episodes of a children’s animated series about nature!  Loren’s work with Scout and the Gumboot Kids was inspired by him becoming a father and recognising that the most important contribution he will ever make is the legacy he leaves as a teacher of the next generations, rather than as a researcher (though his research work is very significant!)

I also enjoyed Peter Wyse Jackson’s talk on “International developments and responsibilities for the botanical community in plant conservation”.  Peter very eloquently set out the case for how plant conservationists can lead the way in achieving many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, but the key must be to include local communities within projects and not exclude them.  It reflected a theme that’s running right through the conference, that plant science has a vital role to play in making our civilization sustainable: plants are absolutely key to this:


IBC 32 - Development goals

After all, humans are just Super Monkeys in evolutionary terms….

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…and monkeys need plants, especially fruit such as these delicious wampee (Clausena lansium) a new one for me that I’d never tried before.  It’s in the same family as oranges and other citrus fruits (Rutaceae) but has a texture more like a grape and a sour, slightly phenolic taste:

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In these blog posts I’m trying to give just a few personal insights into what’s been going on, but there’s much that I’ve missed: on any given day there’s as many as 28 separate symposia going on at the same time!  No wonder then that the IBC has its own daily newspaper:

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Now, I must get back to writing that talk….



Filed under Biodiversity