Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Cautionary Tale....

A few days ago I posted a picture of what I thought might be a rather rare rough poppy, found beside a pavement in Newcastle. I can now report that it (ahem) wasn’t. It was a bog-standard long-headed poppy. The foliage of the plant that I found was quite different from the surrounding poppies and as the flower had only just opened (and, to be honest, I didn’t look too closely at the time anyway) I couldn’t really be sure whether the seed capsule characteristics were correct. Smitten by doubt, I went back a couple of days later, after the capsule had begin to swell and – sure enough – it was a long-headed poppy Papaver dubium. Mercifully, Blogger had its nervous breakdown immediately after I posted the picture and when it recovered the incriminating post had vanished into cyber-ether.
What have I learned?
1. If you think you’ve found a rarity, it probably isn’t – however much you might like it to be (I knew that anyway, but......... maybe, jusy maybe.....).
2. Double-check, then check again – especially if the ID depends on floral or fruiting characters that are not fully developed.
3. Plants are treacherously variable when it comes to characters like leaf shape, so that two individuals of the same species can look remarkably dissimilar if they are growing under even slightly different conditions.
So, will I be more reticent about tentatively naming things in future? Highly unlikely. I just can’t imagine the day when I lose naive enthusiasm for finding out about anything in nature that seems to be even slightly out of the ordinary, even if I’m completely wrong in interpreting it. Being wrong is an integral element of the learning process. And fortunately organisations like the excellent Botanical Society of the British Isles has an oustanding network of excellent county recorders to exert quality control, filtering out miss-identifications by reckless chancers such as myself when it really matters.

Meanwhile, here are a few more examples of native flora growing in the heart of urban Newcastle, this time correctly identified (I think!).

Ribwort plantain, flourishing in flower beds beside the busy Byker Bank

A female plant of the thalloid liverwort Marchantia polymorpha, with cupules, gemmae and archegoniophores, growing on the wall of a roadside drain, Byker Bank

Broom flowering in a derelict building site beside Portland Road. The flowers have been tripped by bumblebees - these brownfield sites are excellent nesting sites for wild bees.

Bluebells, greater stitchwort and burnet rose on the derelict building site at Portland Road. It was the fabulous scent of the burnet rose that attracted my attention as I walked past.

Wall barley - doing 'exactly what it says in the tin' - at Stepney Bank

White campion flowering under the Byker railway viaduct


  1. Whew! I'm glad I'm not the only to make that mistake - I am a real pro at getting excited thinking I have something new, maybe rare, only to discover it's some old thing that EVERYONE knows. :)

  2. Glad to know that I'm in good company Ellen...

  3. I found my way to your blogs via an article in The Guardian today and am just beginning to enjoy all your work. Many, many years ago I majored in Botany at the University of Georgia, USA, but swiftly abandoned botany to the necessity of earning a living. I am now retired and live in the Green Mountains of Vermont, USA. The flora is mostly new to me and I've just begun to become reacquainted with Botany. Your blogs are a nice inspiration. Thanks very much.

  4. Hi Frank, Thanks for visiting and for your kind comments. I count myself very lucky to have continued with botany as part of a career - I don't think there are any universities in the UK that still teach a degree called botany. Kind regards, Phil

  5. I enjoyed your post Phil, both your cautionary tale and the urban nature sightings of which I'm fond. Its all a learning experience isn't it, and I have to say that your blog is one of the best in terms of providing interesting, informative and visually appealling accounts of the natural world. Regards, Linda

  6. I've not come across Marchantia polymorpha, it's an interesting plant isn't it? I do like White Campion.

  7. Hi Linda, I've learned an amazing amount over the last couple of years from reading other bloggers' posts - it's a bit like a daily meeting of a virtual natural history society! One of the things I like about urban botany is the way that you find plants growing together that would never be closely associated in the wider countryside.

  8. Marchantia often turns up on the surface of container grown plants in garden centres Toffeeapple - espcially if they've been generously watered and have remained unsold for a while. White campion makes a good wildlife garden plant - easy to grow from seed too.


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