Wednesday 24 June 2020

Perfoliate alexanders

Early on in lockdown a lady phoned to ask if I could help to identify a plant from some photos. I recognised the odd-looking yellow-green umbellifers as perfoliate alexanders (spelled here with a low case A despite the name coming from the Egyptian port of Alexandria).
Perfoliate alexanders, Norwich, 25 April 2020 (Roger Jones)

Perfoliate alexanders is a flower I hadn’t seen in the form shown here, though it is similar to a flower I know from Crete. More of that later.

The photos had been taken by Roger Jones, and I know Roger & Jenny well. They live not far away and often come on the guided walks at NWT Thorpe Marshes, contributing their knowledge and enthusiasm there and, like me, on the NWT’s blog and elsewhere.

Roger had photographed the perfoliate alexanders near the River Wensum in central Norwich, not far from picturesque Pull’s Ferry. Armed with a name, he quickly tracked some other records by experience botanists in a national database. One of those noted that the plants had been removed. I expect that is because this species is classed as a potentially invasive alien. Perfoliate alexanders (Smyrnium perfoliatum) is on Schedule 9 part 2 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981: plants that should not be allowed to be released into the wild. It’s there alongside better-known ‘baddies’ such as Himalayan balsam, Hottentot fig, giant hogweed and several water-weeds.

Rosa rugosa, NWT Thorpe Marshes, 17 June 2020.
Is there a risk? The best answer is ‘don’t know’. There are many escaped plants that are ‘occasional’ or fairly established that don’t really seem to matter, in terms of their ecological impact, and arguably add interest to life. However, in general, if it’s on Schedule 9, that’s for a reason and caution is called for. I saw a well-informed botanist mention that perfoliate alexanders is said to be a concern on some wildlife sites in London, and that it would be a pity to risk the same in the Broads.
I was interested to see that there are two plants from Schedule 9 part 2 that can be found on my local patch of the NWT Thorpe Marshes. Neither, yet anyway, are a problem. One is few-flowered leek Allium paradoxum, isolated plants on a bank. The second is Japanese rose Rosa rugosa, a single shrub on the riverbank. This rose can be invasive on coastal dunes.

Perfoliate alexanders, Norwich, 30 May 2020, well past its best.
As the name suggests, perfoliate alexanders is very closed related, the same genus, as (common) alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum). Opinions vary on this plant: it is a distinctive feature of Norfolk roadside verges especially near the coast and it was a candidate for Norfolk’s county flower. Others might regard it as an invasive non-native, though as it is said to have been introduced from the Mediterranean by the Romans, it’s generally accepted as part of our flora now.

It took me far too long – where does the time go in lockdown? – to see my first perfoliate alexanders for myself, by which time it was past its best and the riverside park was uncomfortably busy on my weekend visit by bike.

The form of perfoliate alexanders from Crete is Smyrnium (perfoliatum) rotundifolium, meaning round-leaved. The brackets indicate that some consider it a subspecies of the flower I saw in Norwich. It’s more often treated as a different species, albeit the same English name. It makes a distinctive show along some roadsides north of Plakias and at the wonderful orchid-rich Kedros foothills, better known as ‘Spili Bumps’.

Perfoliate alexanders (rotundifolium) Crete, April 2017.

Thursday 11 June 2020

Bee orchids bonus in lockdown

I admit to being less optimistic than usual when I looked for bee orchids by Big Yellow Self Storage on Canary Way in central Norwich. This year is the 12th season that I’ve kept tabs on this at first sight rather unpromising piece of rough grassland opposite Norwich City FC’s football ground.

Pessimism soon turned to delight. There they were, and after several attempts to count them I can confirm 19 flowering spikes of bee orchids showing on 11th June 2020. That’s not as many as last year but more than the year before.
Bee orchid by Big Yellow Self Storage in Norwich
My initial doubts were for two reasons. One is that I’d noticed that the grass and flowers had been cut around the end of April and again more recently. It turns out this was an oversight during lockdown. The second thing was this year’s unusual weather – the sunniest and driest May on record for England. Bee orchids can often be a bit hit and miss, and in dry conditions far fewer blooms are likely.

The original group of bee orchids were on the south side of Big Yellow’s warehouse, opposite the football ground. This year, there were none there at all. Instead, all were growing from a much greener patch of vegetation on the west side, towards the railway station. Recent rain must have helped, and it was damp enough here for moss and a single spike of ragged robin, a marshland plant.
Bee orchid, close up: Norwich City FC is in the distance.
In general, the supporting cast of flowers this year is less than usual – no sheet of ox-eye daisies, for example. Nonetheless there was a good sprinkling of common catsear, a yellow flower like a long-stalked dandelion. Composites – the daisy and dandelion family – are valuable for insects needing pollen and nectar, and I photographed a hoverfly and a red-tailed bumblebee making good use of the flowers. These are both common species, but they were plainly there having been attracted by the flowers. It’s an idea – not to mow – that can be applied to any roadside verge or lawn, benefiting flowers and insects.

I called in to see Big Yellow’s staff, coping well in lockdown, and had a chat with manager Rob Harley. A later rummage in the archives found a picture of Rob with a bee orchid in the Eastern Daily Press in 2012. Rob told me that his managers ask after the bee orchids, which is encouraging and bodes well for this little patch of nature in the city.

The bee orchids are in flower now and some have buds. If you know where to look, they should be on show for another week or 10 days. Lockdown has brought pressure for all of us and many people have discovered the value of nature close to home. Seeing at first hand is ideal, but if that’s not possible it can still be comforting to know that nature is there.
Hoverfly, probably Eupeodes luniger, on common catsear.
Red-tailed bumblebee on a 'Big Yellow' catsear.
Previous blogs on Big Yellow’s bee orchids:

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