Vegging Out.

Getting to grips with vegetative plant identification.

This is The Vegetative Key to the British Flora by John Poland & Eric Clement:

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It’s a magic book that gives you the power to identify British plants in their vegetative state (no flowers) but leaves some of us mysteriously reluctant to use it.

I first heard of the book while doing a course in 2012. I was still getting my head around floral keys generally and the idea of vegetative ID was new to me. Someone asked Ros Bennett to recommend a vegetative key and she recommended Poland. She said it was good and that John Poland was younger than you’d imagine.

I went away and bought it with my usual good intentions, but as time went on and I began to gain a better understanding about how hard identifying plants with flowers was, the idea of attempting to ID them without got shelved along with bryophytes, diptera, Spanish and the ukulele.

Thing is, I knew it wasn’t going to be as hard as those. I had my copy with me when I attended an MMU day course in Shrewsbury, and Mark Duffel talked me through IDing something with it. The key is ever so slightly different to the usual dichotomous floras. It’s polychotomous with sometimes several options to choose from rather than the usual two. Mark drew a few lines in pencil on the opening key to major divisions and I got it…

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The polychotomous  thing really isn’t a big deal but it can be enough to put you off trying when you aren’t confident. So now I understood how it worked but I continued to procrastinate over veg ID. Four years after purchasing the key it still looked annoyingly new.

Well now I’ve given myself a project to do. As mentioned in my last couple of blogs I’m having a crack at producing a complete flora of the walls, gutters and random green places of Gorse Hill, where I live. Vegetative ID will be really useful to the project so I’m pulling my finger out and finally doing what I should have done all along and just use it so it.

I’m going to talk you though my practice attempts, where I went wrong, what I figured out etc, in the hope that it illustrates how good this key is and encourages a few people like me to get their copy out and have a go too.

Attempt #1. Dandelion.

I went into my back yard with the intention of IDing the first thing I saw. It’s a dandelion I thought. Let’s find out…

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The key took me through the following features (my descriptions below are not always direct quotes from the key):

  • The leaves are simple, not composed of leaflets.
  • The leaf margin is lobed.
  • The leaves are alternate. Now I got a bit stuck here because I didn’t realise they were alternate at first. That meant I went wrong and had to retrace my steps. Then I remembered someone had told me before how you tell if if a plant has alternate or opposite leaves by its basal rosette. I had a rummage through my old note pads (always keep your note pads) and found it! This took me to Key P.

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  • A non climbing herb.
  • Plant with latex (I tore a leaf off and there was clearly white latex on my fingers).
  • Hairs simple, smooth or absent. The alternatives here were hairs forked or scabrid which on inspection through a hand lens they clearly weren’t…

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  • Leaf midrib or leaf margins never spiny or prickly. Takes you to Key PG.
  • Leaves without large terminal lobe, often dandelion-like (with backward pointing lobes).
  • Petiole (leaf stem) hollow. Couldn’t get a photo but it was when you pinched it between your thumb and forefinger.
  • This gets you to Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale agg). There are subspecies of dandelion but this was good enough for me.

A good start. It didn’t take long. Next step will be to try something less familiar. Update to follow…

Gorse Hill Urban Botany Project – Planning

Planning an urban botany project…

As I described in my previous blog I’ve had the idea to attempt to produce a complete flora of the walls, gutters and random green places of Gorse Hill. That blog was good fun to write. It’s great having ideas isn’t it? Like planning to get fit in the new year then merrily scoffing all the cheese in the world throughout December. Saying you’re going to do a thing is easy but somehow when it comes to putting on your running shoes in January that motivated feeling is suddenly nowhere to be seen. That’s partly why I wrote a blog about it. It’s quite easy to conveniently forget to do something if it hasn’t made it beyond  your internal monolog. But if you tell the internet you’re going to do something, well, then you have to, right? I’m pretty sure that’s the rule.

My first act was to defer serious project planning for a while by spending some time dividing Gorse Hill up into zones and producing some basic maps to use in the planning of surveys and on the surveys themselves.

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This was useful, giving me a better idea of the scale, geography and composition of the area. Gorse Hill is approximately composed of:

  • 74 Roads
  • 1 canal tow path
  • 3 parks
  • 1 allotment
  • 2 stretches of railway embankment
  • 2 major sports venues
  • 1 freight terminal
  • 1 metro station
  • 1 trading estate
  • 5 stand-alone urban features with grounds (Police station, College, Town hall etc)

This wasn’t horrifying. Ambitious but not implausible was my objective and these numbers felt about right for that.

Next I had a look online to see if there were any similar projects already happening elsewhere that I could use as a model for my own. I found a couple of bloggers in the US talking about urban botany but in a fairly general way, small case studies of individual species, that kind of thing. The closest thing I could find to my idea in Britain was the Urban Flora of Scotland project run by the Botanical Society of Scotland. That is a great project which aims to encourage the recording of neglected urban flora by collating urban records across Scotland in towns with a population of over 1000. So there is other urban botany stuff happening out there but not in the form of a comprehensive study of a particular urban area like mine. Please correct me if I’m mistaken. If there are similar projects already I would love to know about them.

I took a break from the maps and research and wandered down to the shop to buy a Pot Noodle. On my way I noticed tiny green shoot after tiny green shoot and began to get a little intimidated. These were going to be tough to ID and realistically I would have to ID them without pulling them up. It’d be no good producing a flora for an area which represented what was there before I’d removed it all. Urban flora is often made up of isolated individuals so attempting to leave the specimens as I’d found them was going to have to be a consideration. It also occurred to be that I was going to have to get over the fact that I might look a little weird. There are definitely going to be people walking past me, looking down and wondering what’s wrong with me as I squint at something on the pavement with a book in my hand.  I had that bitten off more than I could chew feeling.

I decided to take a step back and have a think about why I was doing a project. Without another, existing project to use as a model I was free to figure out what my motivations were and build my project around them. This came pretty easy. I want to use the project:

  • as an antidote to procrastination;
  • to give myself regular practice IDing with a key;
  • to get to grips with vegetative ID;
  • to engage with my community;
  • as a creative way to improve existing skills and gain new ones.

So, with these in mind, as well as some comments and suggestions from others, the basics of the project are as follows…

  • Survey all accessible places in Gorse Hill 4 times, once in each season.
  • Record higher, naturally occurring plants outside of peoples garden boundaries.
  • Record plants inside people’s gardens when easily viewed and identified from the street, and obviously wild.
  • When not in flower, attempt vegetative ID.
  • Produce and update an interactive map showing the location of species identified on surveys.
  • When all roads/features/areas have been surveyed 4 times, produce floral key for Gorse Hill.
  • Communicate survey/project info with community via social media.
  • Submit records to Greater Manchester Ecology Unit.

I’ve decided not to think too hard about a time scale. This is one of those ‘life’s a journey not a destination’ situations where the process is more important than the finished product.  But with all those roads, parks, tow paths etc, there are over 300 bits to survey before it’s finished.

I’m considering Sunday 27th March to be the official start date. Clocks go forward so the evenings will be lighter. That gives me a couple of months to prepare. Next job is to head out into the garden with The Vegetative Key and have a practice…

Essential tools for an upcoming #botany project

 

Thanks for reading. Do you have any thoughts, comments, observations about the project? All input welcome.

Urban Botany – A project for the coming season…

Thinking about urban botany…

Stretford in Manchester, where I live, has just the right degree of scruffiness. You can go about your business safely but it’s not so well to do that the walls and gutters have been stripped of the thin layer of soil that accumulates after autumn, and the little green things that grow there.

Back in 2013 when I was gathering data for my dissertation I had cause to cycle through Hale Barns, one of Greater Manchester’s posher corners, on my way to my survey site. As I did I would sometimes stop peddling and glide past the mansions, having a gawp, a little disappointed in myself at the twang of envy I felt. Not that I didn’t like my red brick terrace rental in Rusholme, but look at the size of those gardens, those trees, you could fit my whole place in some of the garages. But then I’d notice the walls, pavements and roads. Not a single thing lived outside the gates of those houses. It was as though someone had fastidiously swept up every last crumb of detritus, and plucked out every green shoot like an embarrassing floral mono-brow spoiling the neat and tidy face of Hale Barns.

I’ve lived in Stretford for a year now and am pleased to report there is no shortage of crud here!  I love it. I like seeing what different plants exploit what nooks and what crannies throughout the year. You get to know what’s in what garden or tree pit when you’re walking home. There’s a place on Taylor Street which I noticed early in the year had a blanket of either wild or barren strawberry growing in it. I’d glance in every time I walked past until one day, ‘there they are!’ A blanket of little strawberries. And the rosebay willowherb, and horsetail stems poking up here and there were like a calendar, growing taller each day like slow fireworks building up to the coming explosion of summer.

#HorseTails #Stretford #Manchester #UrbanFlora #Manchester

I’ve been working on my plant ID skills for a few years now and in that time I’ve wondered what my ‘interest’ would be? I like it when I meet people and they tell me they have an interest in lowland heaths or calcareous grassland or whatever. When people ask me what I like I’m never sure which habitat to say. I sometimes say woodland, but secretly think that while I like woodlands they aren’t ‘the one’. Truth is that people’s interests tend to relate to jobs they’ve had or places they live or have lived. It’s about exposure.  I live in Manchester. Big, urban Manchester. If I’m honest I suppose my interest, the one I think about most often, is in the walls, gutters and random green places in urban areas. There I said it. Ah! It feels good to have that off my chest!

Eruca vesicaria #GardenRocket #Stretford #Manchester #UrbanFlora #botany

So an idea has been brewing in the back of my mind for a little while. Since graduating last year there’s been an absence of project in my life. I thought it’d be fun to have a mini project which encouraged me do botany with a key regularly throughout the spring and summer, submit biological records to my local records center, and indulged my interest in urban botany.

#Dandelions #BridgewaterCanal #Stretford #Manchester #UrbanFlora #botany

The area of Stretford I live in is called Gorse Hill. As it happens Gorse Hill has a bit of a buzz about it. There’s a project called Gorgeous Gorse Hill whose mission is to make the area gorgeous for its residents through public art and gardening among other things. It’s a great idea. Stretford is not in its self a thing of natural beauty. Stacey and I have a running joke of singing the Dallas theme tune as we drive along Chester Road past Harry Ramsden’s, Tesco Extra, White City Retail Park etc. But what the area has in spades is a good sense of community (as anyone on the Stretford M32 Facebook group knows). People like it here and they’re interested in helping each other out and making it a nice place to live. So the murals, fruit trees in big pots, and mosaic tiles on concrete bollards give it a quirky, friendly feel.

#shepherdspurse #Stretford #Manchester #UrbanFlora #botany

I thought I could satisfy my own project needs and add a little to suburb’s quirkiness by having a go at producing a complete flora of the walls, gutters and random green places of Gorse Hill.

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Gorse Hill (more or less)

It’s less than a couple of square kilometers. Mostly residential streets but with a sprinkling of other curiosities from parks to allotments to industrial estates, and my personal favorite, the Bridgewater Canal no less! Enough to make it ambitious but not so much that it’s implausible. I imagine it’ll be fun, and that it’ll be useful in ways that are yet to occur to me. And without a deadline there’s no pressure on time, it can take as long as it takes.

#cowslip #BridgewaterCanal #Stretford #Manchester #UrbanFlora #botany

As of right now that’s all I’ve got. Next step is to think about logistics. What will I need? How should I go about it? Is this kind of thing already happening anywhere else? These aren’t rhetorical questions by the way I’d genuinely like your opinion! All comments and suggestions welcome. Planning blog to follow…

Thanks for reading.