Gorse Hill Urban Botany Project – Survey #1

Beginning an urban botany project…

On March 27th, the day the clocks went forward I set out as planned to do my first survey for this urban botany project of mine. I’d put it in my diary weeks prior and decided that whatever the weather I would go out…at least for a bit.

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It was cold, wet and windy. I headed for zone 7:

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Zone 7 is the one at the top, the big one with the freight terminal and Old Trafford in. I walked to Old Trafford, passed the stadium, down the steps and onto the Bridgewater Canal tow path. The north towpath of this stretch of the canal is arguably outside the Gorse Hill boundary but for this project it is the boundary, as to exclude it would be to exclude my favorite patch of habitat in the area. This was also my reason for making it the site of my first survey. There might be lots of pavements with not much growing on to come, but the towpath was sure to get the project off to a fruitful start.

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I worked my way west, starting just to the west of the bridge which carries Sir Matt Busby Way, and covered a couple of hundred meters of the towpath embankment, recording the 30 or so species listed below…

Common name Latin name
Grey willow Salix cinerea agg
Bramble Rubus fruticosus
Great willowherb Epilobium hirsutum
Bracken Pteridium aquilinum
Common nettle Urtica dioica
Michaelmas daisy Aster novi-belgii agg
Buddleia Buddleja davidii
Broad-leaf dock Rumex obtusifolius
Herb robert Geranium robertianum
Cleavers Galium aparine
Common ragwort Senecio jacobaea
Ribwort plantain Plantago lanceolata
Great mullein Verbascum thapsus
Oxeye daisy Leucanthemum vulgare
Willow Salix spp.
Oak spp. Quercus spp.
Holly Ilex aquifolium
Fox glove Digitalis purpurea
Willowherb Epilobium spp.
Creeping buttercup Ranunculus repens
Violet Viola spp.
Common hogweed Heracleum sphondylium
Elder Sambucus nigra
Nightshade (to be confirmed) Solanum spp.
Forget-me-not  Myosotis spp.
Spanish bluebell Hyacinthoides hispanica
Groundsel Senecio vulgaris
Weld Reseda luteola
Toadflax Linaria
Moss spp. #1  Grimmia pulvinata
Petty spurge Euphorbia peplus
Colts foot Tussilago farfara
Dandelion Taraxacum agg
Daisy Bellis perennis

 

#Dandelion #BridgewaterCanal #UrbanBotany

#GreatMullien #BridgewaterCanal #UrbanBotany

#PettySpurge #BridgewaterCanal #UrbanBotany

#Weld #BridgewaterCanal #UrbanBotany

#FoxGlove #BridgewaterCanal #UrbanBotany #AwesomeSharkRuler

Grimmia pulvinata

#MichaelmasDaisy #BridgewaterCanal #UrbanBotany

So if you’re local/interested get on down there. Since that survey the bluebells have come out in flower. There is also a chunky Japanese Knotweed stem working its way up the fence at one spot now. And a patch of some rather lovely white deadnettle.

#WhiteDeadNettle #BridgewaterCanal #GorseHill #Stretford #Manchester #UrbanBotany

So far so good. I’ll add updates as I go. Feedback welcome.

Vegging Out. Part 3.

More on vegetative plant identification. A useful stumbling block…

Attempt #3. Great Willowherb.

Keying out a dandelion and petty spurge using The Vegetative Key to the British Flora been reassuringly straight forward. I was feeling confident (cocky), so when I saw this growing in a wet ditch while out on a job I thought I’d have a bash at it…

#GreatWillowherb

That picture doesn’t show it very well but it was growing out of a water body. I had it in my mind that it was therefore going to be an aquatic plant. I don’t know my aquatic macrophytes very well so for all I knew it could be a young bog bean, marsh marigold etc.

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

  • Leaves simple
  • Leaf margin toothed
  • Leaves alternate. This took me to KEY N
  • It’s a herb
  • Stipules absent
  • Latex absent
  • Leaves with hairs all simple or hairless
  • Leaves with pinnate or palmate veins
  • Petiole developing 1-2 hollows (Ranunculaceae) Key RAN. So now I’m thinking maybe it will be marsh marigold though if I’d looked at a photo I’d have realised straight away I was wrong, the leaves are totally different.
  • Leaves lanc to ovate, not orb, unlobed but weakly toothed.

Here is where I knew I’d gone wrong. I spent some time trying to convince myself that that the leaves could be described as lanceolate to ovate but they just aren’t! They are obovate if anything. I was seduced by the weakly toothed bit making it hard to let it go. You brain likes to latch on to a bit that works in a plant description making you blind to all the other bits that don’t.

So there’s lesson one: Don’t ignore the descriptive elements you don’t like. If it’s wrong it’s wrong.

Next it all kinda fell apart as these things sometimes do when you get stuck. I misread an early line of text and convinced myself I should have answered yes to:

  • Plant with submerged or floating leaves. Key E

Lesson two: Always read the key carefully and make sure you’ve understood it before moving on.

I started again and after a while trying and failing I admitted defeat and asked Miranda what it was. She took one look at it and said: “It’s great willowherb”. My heart sank. Oh yeah, I thought. “But it was growing in water” I said. “Yeah it often does” she said. “Oh”. I set about reverse engineering the key so I could see the route I should have taken.

#VegetativeID

It seemed to me that I would have needed a stem to use The Vegetative Key. I had another go using a young willowherb growing in my garden and again became stuck without a stem…

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I consulted my favorite social media resources to check I was right. The BSBI on Twitter, and the ever obliging folk of Facebook’s Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland group confirmed my suspicions. I asked Sarah whether she had any advice on getting further than ‘willowherb sp’ with plants this size. Her advice was: “I’d walk on by…willow herbs are a really tough group, they also hybridise, and doing them vegetatively is tough enough without doing rosettes.”

Lesson three: You need a stem to identify willowherbs using The Vegetative Key.

The next day I was working in North Wales. I’d been rummaging around in some woods and was on my way back to the van, parked in a lay-by on a country road. I looked into the roadside ditch as I walked along and saw lots of young great willowherb (Epilobium palustre) growing there…

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Lesson four: Mistakes and failures can be every bit as useful as simple successes. 

It took more than the key on its own to get there but knowing a species at every stage of it growth is so useful.

Thanks for reading. I hope you’ve found it useful or at least reassuring. Onward and upwards! More to follow…

Vegging Out. Part 2.

Continuing getting to grips with vegetative plant identification.

Attempt #2. Petty Spurge.

Buoyed on by my success with the dandelion in my previous blog I ventured once again into my back yard with the aim of attempting to use The Vegetative Key to the British Flora to identify the first plant I saw. This meant ignoring 3 more dandelions for the sake of variety but in just a few steps I came across this unassuming little thing…

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I thought it might be petty spurge when I saw it. I don’t know spurges very well but I vaguely remember someone telling me once that a plant that looks a bit like this was petty spurge so I had an idea what it might be. Less confident than the dandelion which seemed appropriate for my next attempt.

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

    • Leaves simple
    • Leaf margin entire
    • Leaves with pinnate veins
    • Leaves alternate. This took me to Key K.
    • It’s a herb
    • Latex present:

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As you can see the latex is obvious (please excuse the close up of my thumb nail. I googled what ridges mean on finger nails and apparently it’s a sign of age. I am in my mid thirties which apparently is the age you start getting all gnarley).

  • Leaves all on stems but never clasping with auricles (Euphorbia). This is encouraging as spurges are in the Euphorbia genus. On to Key KH.
  • Leaves hairless
  • Leaves >2mm wide
  • Plant green. Ruderal.
ruderal
ˈruːd(ə)r(ə)l/
BOTANY
adjective
  1. 1.
    (of a plant) growing on waste ground or among rubbish.
noun

While I bristle slightly at this apparent slur on my back yard I accept it’s a green ruderal.

  • Annual with vertical tap root. This kind of feature could cause me problems when I’m carrying out surveys for my upcoming urban botany project in which I intend not to kill any specimens while identifying them, but for now while I’m learning I allowed myself to pluck this one up…

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And I was encouraged to see a pleasingly vertical, tap root.

  • This gets you to Petty Spurge (Euphorbia peplus).

This is easy, I thought. And I was of course quickly proved wrong. My next attempt was frustrating but useful. Blog to follow…

Thanks for reading. If you disagree with my IDs or have thoughts on the subject please comment. All feedback welcome.

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.

Phase 1 CAN

Final course of the 2014/15 season with the Cheshire Active Naturalists (CAN).

Tom’s car going through some stuff so we traveled in it only as far as Fleur’s where we switched to her mini and bombed off to Knutsford this Sunday morning. The venue was Cottons Hotel & Spa which Tom and I in particular have come to love thanks to it’s comfy seats and complementary coffee, boiled sweets and mechanical pencils. It doesn’t get much better than that.

It seemed fitting that the final course of the season was to be lead by Rachel. In the two years I’ve been a member of CAN Rachel has been chair and events organizer, present at most of the events I’ve attended. But this was the first one I’ve been on that she’s lead and we’d been looking forward to it.

One of the good things about CAN is that you get a real mix of course types. Some are things I might not have considered investigating if there wasn’t a course running, like harvestmen or diptera. Others are full on industry specific, work skills stuff, like the GCN courses I completed in my first year which lead to me getting my newt licence.

This Phase 1 course was like that. If you know anything about ecology consultancy work you know that being able to deliver a good Phase 1 Habitat Survey is a string for your bow that’s well worth working at. I have some experience of Phase 1s. Not enough to go out and do one on my own professionally yet but enough to understand the size of task you’re facing when you decide to pursue it as a skill.

A couple of years ago I attended the FSC introduction to Phase 1 surveys, lead by Johnny Stone at Flatford Mill. That was back when I had a habit of arriving at courses convinced I would leave an expert in whatever it was on. You’d think I’d have learned my lesson after Using a Flora. Among the things I learned on the FSC course was that Phase 1s are not a set of facts to learn and then apply. It’s more like learning a language than a list of rules. And like learning a language its something that improves with practice and is best learned by learning from those already proficient in it.

So the FSC course was a start. I’ve shadowed colleagues on surveys since then and each time you learn another little trick or fact that informs your understanding of the process a little more.

This CAN course was essentially a chance to gain more tips, more advice, from someone who’s been doing them professionally for 14 years. Attending were people who were absolute beginners, experienced ecologists who conduct the surveys regularly, and people like me with a little knowledge looking for more.

We spent six hours discussing the main habitat types as featured in the ‘JNCC Handbook for Phase 1 habitat survey’ and what defines them. Things to watch out for. Things to make your life easier. The handbook is available as a pdf here: http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/PDF/pub10_handbookforphase1habitatsurvey.pdf

Personally I like the bound copy which is available from the JNCC website I believe…

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I’m a fan of the Phase 1 process. I like how it enables communication about the features of large expanses of habitat. Some people don’t like the fact that the process necessitates as they see it the pigeon-holing of dynamic environments which cannot neatly defined as one thing and not another. Personally I think they’re missing the point. The Phase 1 acknowledges its flaws. It knows that habitats are dynamic and enigmatic. It is objective. You classify habitats objectively and you interpret reports objectively. The result is a level of communication between ecologists, developers and legislators that isn’t possible by other existing means.

The key to this, like so many things is not to see the learning process as having an end. There is always going to be a useful tip someone can give you to improve your method. This course provided me with loads of useful info which now adorns the margins and spaces of my handbook ready for future me to rediscover it on a rainy day in a field somewhere…

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Finding Richard Buxton

I mentioned the botanist Richard Buxton in a recent blog about The Manchester Herbarium which I had been treated to a tour of a week or so ago. The herbarium curator Rachel had told me a little about him and other important botanists who had contributed to the collection. The snap shot description had described him as having been a working class man, a shoe maker’s assistant who had taught himself to read and gone on to write the first flora of Manchester.

In the days that followed this story never strayed far from the front of my mind. I was intrigued by this idea of Victorian working class botanists. People who worked long hours in hard jobs and dedicated their spare time to the study of their local flora.

Photo sourced from Tony Shaw's blog - Link at at end

This guy in particular was interesting due to the idea that he had had a tough life. He lead a humble life from start to finish but during it managed, against the odds to produce a complete flora of Manchester.

My interest peaked I found myself embarking unwittingly on a mini voyage of discovery around this man who had lived and died in Greater Manchester between 1786 and 1865. If you want to know all about him he is an easy man to research on Google. Here’s a brief account of how I came to know more about him…

While writing my blog on the herbarium in which I mention him, I had read the overview of his life on Wikipedia. I noticed that he was buried in St Mary’s Church in Prestwich and I thought to myself that if I were to find myself in Prestwich some time perhaps I could pay the church a visit and see if I could find his head stone. Is that odd? I think it’s a certain kind of curiosity that makes you want to visit a stranger’s grave. Perhaps it’s a desire to add something solid and actual to a subject that until then has just been a concept.

I found out I was to assist Vicky on a Phase 1 habitat survey near Darwen in Lancashire this Tuesday gone. When Vicky and I were discussing where would be easiest to pick me up (she was travelling there from Sheffield) I noticed the line of direction on Google Maps passed through Prestwich and I suggested I get the tram there from South Manchester where I live and wait outside the tram stop.

Further investigation of the map showed me that St Mary’s is a 2 minute walk from the tram stop. I asked Vicky if she’d mind picking me up from the cemetery at St Mary’s instead (and explained why). She laughed. I thought: “Is this odd?” I decided, as I generally do, that it wasn’t.

Come the day I arrived in Prestwich early enough to walk over to St Mary’s with a few minutes to seek out the head stone and take a photo souvenir. On arrival I discovered that St Mary’s, which you can’t see until you’re almost upon it, is actually pretty big. I approached two old chaps at a shed near the gate and told them I was looking for a particular grave and asked if they had any advice on finding it. They laughed and said that there were over 30,000 graves there and that I would never find it. I should give them the details and they’d have someone look up a plot number and get back to me. As I had time to kill I went for a wander first, hoping I might happen across it by chance.

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The cemetery is vast, extending down hill for a couple of hundred meters. It’s one of those cemeteries where you have to walk over grave stones which are laid out like paving, just to get around. You constantly try to navigate around what look most like the feet ends of the stone because it feels rude to walk over the head end.

I couldn’t find it. Vicky called to say she and Tom were outside. I headed back to the gate, via the old chaps who I passed a piece of paper on which I’d written ‘Richard Buxton – died 1855’ and my details. “Richard Buxton the flower guy?” one asked. “Why didn’t you say? He’s over there”

Paid a visit to a Prestwich cemetery to see the botanist Richard Buxton

So now I’d seen his resting place and the stern Victorian photo portrait featured at the top of this blog and on most other websites you’ll find with an internet search. From the photo he looks quite down trodden; staring worried into the middle distance. It’d be easy to think no further on this. It was Victorian times and he was poor, of course he looked like that, but I’d read that one of his favorite flowers was Germander Speedwell…

That’s my favorite flower too and I know how I feel whenever I see it. So my mind’s eye takes the face from the stiff, monochrome Victorian photo and imagines it in colour on a man lying down in the countryside on a warm spring day, pushing apart the vegetation with his callused, shoemaker’s hands and breaking into a smile at the site of some familiar, pretty blue flowers concealed among the grasses.

You don’t botanize miserably. You do it cheerfully or not at all.

I decided to write up the above in this blog. My discovery of the man, my trip to his grave and my thoughts on what might be a misleading photo. While doing some background research I discovered to my surprise that his 1849 book ‘A botanical guide to the flowering plants, ferns, mosses and algae, found indigenous within sixteen miles of Manchester’ is available for free as an E-book here:

https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=o00EAAAAQAAJ&rdid=book-o00EAAAAQAAJ&rdot=1

On reading it I discovered that in place of a preface he writes what he describes as a sketch of his life. He describes his life and botanical work from childhood to the age of 62. He writes wonderfully about the importance of appreciating the beauty of nature, not just in botany but the natural world as a whole. Quite remarkable for a man who taught himself to read and write at sixteen. I could have quoted it all here but I urge you instead to read it. I found it inspiring. He embodies the spirit of a modern day naturalist more than a Victorian botanist. The affection with which he discusses the natural world is quite moving at times.

Here are 3 short quotes. They are not my favourites, those read best in the context of the whole ‘life sketch’, but they illustrate nicely I think that I was right to look past the stern man in the photo. He may have been poor but his life was rich with a passion for nature.

RB1

RB2

RB3

My personal hero of botany. Who’s yours?

Here are some links to other sites/blogs about him…
http://herbologymanchester.wordpress.com/2013/02/27/is-that-richard-buxtons-nose/#comment-708
http://herbariaunited.org/wiki/Richard_Buxton
http://tonyshaw3.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/richard-buxton-in-prestwich-artisan.html

I hope you enjoyed this blog. I love botany but also blog about various other ecological subjects as I find them. I’m a mature student studying Ecology & Conservation at Manchester Metropolitan University, currently on a years sandwich year work placement at an ecological consultancy. Comments on the blog or just general story sharing are always welcome.