A Tale of Two Plant Hunts

The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland’s (BSBI) New Year Plant Hunt is an annual event in which botanists, experts and amateurs alike, head out to record the plant species bucking the time-honoured trend and blooming in the depths of winter. Now in its ninth year, the four-day survey is both great fun and an important means by which to assess how changing weather patterns are altering the behaviour of our wildflowers. If you would like to take part, tomorrow is your last chance, at least until 2021.

Having enjoyed my attempt in 2019, I was keen to once again take part in the NYPH this year. What I had not anticipated, however, was that I would end up leading a group walk as part of a friendly competition here in the North-East between botanically-minded members of the Natural History Society of Northumbria. A challenge that would see an expert group, led by a former BSBI President, no less, traversing the picturesque dune slacks of Lindisfarne; while a slightly less practised group, led by myself, would take on the parks, roadsides, and front weed-strewn front gardens of Newcastle.

Setting out on New Years Day, it immediately became apparent that non-native species would form a cornerstone of our collective, botanical haul. Indeed, the streets of Heaton, my own district of Newcastle, revealed a kaleidoscopic mix of aliens, each having breached the confines of their garden prisons long ago. Red Valarian, tall and lusciously pink, bright yellow Oxford Ragwort and the star-shaped blue heads of Trailing Bellflower conspicuous against the greys and browns of concrete and brick. Looking closer, other colonists became apparent also: Canadian and Mexican Fleabane, Yellow Corydalis and Snapdragon. Later in the walk, Pru, a member of our group, also pointed out a new species for me, Mock Strawberry, a yellow flowering native of South Asia. Newcastle, it seems, like a great many of our cities represents somewhat of a botanical United Nations, boasting species from almost all corners of the globe.

Of course, native species also featured as part of our foray. Mainly the tenacious ‘weeds’ that are widely known to persevere throughout the winter months: Shepard’s Purse, Groundsel, Hogweed, Feverfew and the omnipresent Annual Meadow Grass. That said, it was surprising to find the delicate white blooms of Wild Strawberry clinging on in the relative shelter of Jesmond Dene, a local woodland, and the minute, octopus-like female flowers of Hazel greatly brightened up our morning.

All in all, our merry band of urban plant-hunters finished on an unseasonally high total of 40 species. As did the team roving on Lindisfarne, it turns out. With a great day had by all, it would be rude to scoff at an amicable draw.

Mock Strawberry, Wild Strawberry, Hazel and Feverfew

Fast forward to Thursday and keen to head out with my newly acquired hand lens and Collin’s guide to British flora, and a jaunt to the coast beckoned. What transpired was a lovely (and uncharacteristically sunny) three hours at Tynemouth, ultimately culminating in a grand total of 43 flowering plants. The highlight of which had to be Alexanders in bloom – a regionally scarce species abundant at this site due, I am led to believe, to the culinary taste of the monks who once inhabited the long-abandoned Tynemouth Priority.

Elsewhere, I chanced upon two new species for me: Seaside Daisy and Buck’s-horn Plantain. The former, a native of California persevering along a small stretch of stonework near the priory, and the second, a pretty cool native species whose leaves (at least in my mind) resemble more the serrated bill of a Sawfish, as opposed to the horns of a buck. I am unsure how I have overlooked this plant until now – it’s pretty distinct.

Left to right: Alexanders, Seaside Daisy & Buck’s-horn Plaintain

All in all, this year’s New Year Plant Hunt provided a great opportunity to get out and about and appreciate the diversity of local flora. While also providing an opportunity to learn from and socialise with a number of local botanists far more knowledgeable than I. A win-win!

If you would like to cast your peepers over the results of this year’s hunt or, like me, keep a watchful eye on what others have seen in your area, you can check out the BSBI results page here: https://nyph.bsbi.org/results.php

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