Reports of past meetings

July 2021 Meeting Report

When will it flower?

Plants and Climate change

by Alistair Fitter

Alistair’s talk took place on Zoom on Saturday 10th July with thirteen members attending.

He began his talk by explaining that in the past the flowering of plants was like having a calendar. Snowdrops would flower in January, Primroses indicated the start of Spring, bluebells flower in April and there would be a sequence of flowering times. This is embedded in literature and Alistair quoted from Shakespeare, ‘A Winter’s Tale Act 4, Scene 4 and a Midsummers Night’s Dream Act 2, Scene 1.

However, that calendar is changing, and Alistair gave the example of the fritillaries he has in his garden. If you look in Floras in 1870, in Hooker: Student flora, fritillaries flowered in May/June, by 1952 it was April /May and in Alistair’s garden in York in 2020 they flowered in March/April. That is a big change.

According to the central England Temperature Record if the years 1960 – 1980 are classed as average temperature, then the years before were cooler than average but since they have been warmer with only one year being cooler. ( Plants now flower earlier. In the period 2001 – 2016, fifteen years, Hazel flowered 31 days earlier, Lesser celandine, 27 days earlier and the Bluebell, 21 days earlier.

Richard Fitter (1913 – 2005), Alistair’s father an active conservationist and naturalist, was also a maker of records, and kept records of the first flowering dates of over 600 species of plants from the mid 1950’s to 2000. When the data was analysed, most plants flowered earlier, although there were a few exceptions. Six days earlier was common; however, some plants were six to eight weeks earlier.

 Some plant’s first flowering date advanced 3.5 days per year.

By looking at the Flora’s, it can be seen that all native species were in flower by mid-June in the 20th century. Richard Fitter’s data from his own garden in Oxford records this as 10 days earlier and Alistair records, in his York garden, that this is a month earlier, despite York being 200 miles north of Oxford. This applies to both garden and native plants.

Alistair explained that there were several factors that influenced the flowering times. Firstly development and when the buds develop, secondly the day length and thirdly the temperature which can speed development and trigger flowering. He gave us the example of when the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society held their annual show. The date was determined by when the Tulips should be at their best and this in turn was determined by the temperature in March. For every degree warmer the show was brought forward by three days. In 1827 the show was held late May to June and by 2020 the show was held in early May.

The change in flowering time can have knock on effects for insects and birds which rely on certain flowers being present when they emerge or hatch. Pollinators that are specific to certain flowers such as the Fly Orchid and particular pollinating wasp and the Orange Tip butterfly which relies on the seeds of the Cuckoo Flower. Hybrids can be more or less likely depending on the flowering times between plants such as the red and white Campion.

Alistair summed up his talk by saying that there had always been warm winters and cool summers, but this was becoming more frequent and that flowering times were shown to be a good indicator of climate change.

After a short break there were a few questions and observations with Sue Baddeley asking if there was a particular book or literature on the subject suitable for a novice. Alistair said that the literature was complicated and there might be an opportunity for someone to write a book on the subject. It was noted that some species of plant were moving north/higher, for example alpines, but at some stage they will not be able to escape the warmer weather and probably become extinct. ‘Creeping normal’ was mentioned with the example of insects on the windscreen, a feature on cars on the 1970’s but not so much in the 2020’s. Anne Bebbington mentioned the lack of teaching on the subject in schools and that in universities it is now Plant Science and Biochemistry and not Botany that is studied. There are, however, some proposals for a GCSE in Rural studies that is being developed by the exam boards.

Thank you to Alistair for an excellent talk on an interesting and topical subject.

Wendy Harvey

May 2021 Meeting Report

Herbs and their medicinal uses

Ruth Austin

Sixteen members were able to attend this meeting on Zoom at which Ruth Austin gave us a fascinating presentation on herbal medicine. She is a medical herbalist with a B.Sc. in western herbal medicine and has been a registered herbal practitioner in Leicester (Hyde’s Herbal Clinic) for over 20 years. Ruth explained that the clinic is run like a GP surgery with patients from across the U.K. and further afield. Ruth works with an immunologist.

Herbal medicine is still the most widely used form of medicine in the world today: WHO estimates that 75–80% of medical treatment uses herbal medicine, especially in developing countries. Herbal medicine differs from orthodox medicine in that herbal medicine uses extracts from the whole plant rather than a specific part of the plant. Herbal medicine takes a more interactive approach with the patient and each formulation is made specific to the patient.

Ruth explained that preparations from a single plant are called simples and those prescriptions from several plants are called multiples. She then went on to tell us about some familiar phytochemicals in plants with therapeutic properties, for example morphine, digoxin, quinine, and aspirin, coming from poppies, foxglove, the cinchona tree, and willow bark, respectively. Ruth discussed different types of plant medicines and how they are prepared.

No two herbal medicines are the same: each medicine is individually prescribed and formulated for the specific patient and how the condition affects them. The medicines can be liquids or infusions, tablets, creams, lotions and even shampoos. Ruth and her colleagues make plant tinctures by hand in the clinic and each one is specific to a particular consultation. The herbal medication is always given together with diet and lifestyle advice.

Herbalists work holistically with the whole patient whereas modern medicine usually divides conditions into specialisms, for example rheumatology and gastroenterology. Herbal medicine does not stand up well to double blind randomized controlled trials so that evidence of results is much more empirical than in orthodox clinical trials. This arises because the circumstances and the person are different in every case.

In the past, plants were much more part of daily life and people were more comfortable with identifying them. Ruth told us that herbalists always refer to plants with their scientific or Latin names to ensure that the right plant is being used in any treatment, and she acknowledges how much more information there is in botanical illustrations compared to photographs.

She showed us some old drawings and some more modern botanical illustrations, pointing out obvious botanical characters which are important to herbalists to be sure they are using the correct plant, and not an ineffective or even poisonous alternative. She showed us some mediaeval illustrations and pointed out where these were not botanically accurate. She was also quite critical of some modern illustrations where the drawings are rather small and lacking detail because of the size of the publication, for example the Collins Wildflower Guide.

Where illustrations do not have enough detail and context, Ruth was concerned that these can lead to misidentification and even poisoning if plants are used by laypersons or amateur practitioners to treat themselves.

Ruth then discussed a number of specific plants and how they are used in herbal medicine. Some interesting questions were raised, including how the therapeutic constituents vary with soil conditions and possible applications of pesticide, and also differences in herbal properties arising in varieties and hybrids. Other questions Ruth answered were about the longevity of herbal medicines (they are quite long-lasting) and how to move from treatment with orthodox medicine to herbal medicine (this should be on an individual basis and the herbalist might work in consultation with the patient’s GP).

Alison Cutts

March 2021 Meeting Report

Ancient grassland, and the challenge of illustrating ecotypes within a species

 Martin Allen

This talk caught my interest because I had attended a talk by Dr Gary Mantle MBE on Transylvania at a Plantlife Meeting on 26th June 2016. Zalanpatak, in Romania, is a mosaic of woodland and meadow farmed in the old traditional ways.

Gary did a blog of this visit ( He concluded that “One of the challenges is finding ways to get the true importance of these landscapes recognised and valued. The rich variety of plants can provide a valuable source of biochemicals and pharmaceuticals which are still being explored. Within the area are many wild plants that are relatives of common crops and so provide an essential genetic resource.

Species rich grasslands are reported to store more carbon than monocultures, so doing their bit against climate change”. The Prince of Wales first visited Transylvania in 1998 and was “totally overwhelmed by its unique beauty and its extraordinarily rich heritage”. He saw the importance of this beautiful landscape, rich in meadows, with flora that is extremely rare and vulnerable to changes in farming methods. He suggested it should be recorded in the form of a florilegium: Martin was invited to contribute some illustrations and went out to Romania.  The Transylvanian Florilegium was published in 2018 ( transylvania-florilegium).

Martin gave a scenario of a typical medieval village along a wide, untarmacked “road”. Each house had a long garden—effectively individual farmsteads with orchard and grazing sheep. Animals (cows and goats) were taken out to pastures every day. There were no hedges so there was free movement of herb seeds to and from the pastures and road verges.

Back at home he had noticed saw-wort (Serratula tinctoria) growing on a small area of grass verge near a local village, Long Newton. Using archival maps and a Lidar base map he was able to demonstrate how the land use had changed from 1600s to the present day ( 3/medieval-grassland-on-road-verges-and-where-tofind-it). There was a remarkable similarity in the layout of Long Newton and medieval villages in Romania. More than that, he confirmed that the verge supporting the saw-wort had probably never been disturbed or treated with chemicals.

A lot of work has been done on defining and protecting Ancient Woodland but there isn’t a definition of Ancient Grassland or an inventory of it. As Martin states in his article, Ancient grasslands in England—a summary (Inside Ecology 23rd April 2018), “Ancient grassland indicators for MG5 are mentioned in the outstandingly good Natural England Technical Information Note TIN147 as “probable indicators of long continuity of ‘traditional’ management (i.e. no phase of land use change such as ploughing and conversion to crops, woodland establishment etc)” ( 6626052). Martin is hoping to redress this by writing a book based on his area using road verge surveys and the presence and absence of species.

 Now, it is worth pausing to look at Martin’s credentials. He is well qualified and situated to tackle such a task: he has a BSc (Hons) in Environmental Horticulture. He works with Tees Valley Wildlife Trust on local native plant surveys here in the UK. And he also works as a botanical artist: he is Emeritus Fellow of the Chelsea Physic Garden Florilegium Society and member of the group that won a Gold Medal when they exhibited at the RHS. As he says: “As a botanical artist I feel our work has an important role to play in portraying biodiversity. Images are a powerful means of communication”. Martin was not restricted in how he portrayed his saw-wort contribution to an exhibition in Poland ( Colour leached out to either side of the inflorescence as if to say “this is part of Ancient Grassland, don’t let these sites fade away”.

When tackling a study of a plant we are encouraged to look at several plants and select representative, typical specimens. Martin showed examples of wild flower identification books. But there is genetic diversity within a species. An ecotype describes a genetically distinct geographical variety, population or race within a species, which is genotypically adapted to specific environmental conditions. They may look different but are capable of interbreeding.

A classic example is of the early-flowering common knapweed of floodplain meadows. Martin recorded clumps on a local flood plain site, with few inflorescences flowering on 16th July; and was able to collect seed by the beginning of August. The same species, on a site (not a flood plain) which had been pasture historically and grazed, was more branched and in full flower in September.

The book British Knapweeds (Marsden-Jones & Turrill 1954) shows the variation in flower types, pages of photos of phyllaries, and mentions an early-flowering floodplain meadow ecotype of common knapweed. (The phyllaries are the involucral bracts around the base of the capitulum (the “flower”) of plants in the Compositae (Asteraceae) family.)

Martin then showed two photographs of birdsfoot trefoil, Lotus corniculatus. There seems to be an east/west and north/south distribution: the ecotype with light-keeled flowers more prevalent in the warmer, south-west of Britain; the other, dark-keeled ecotype in the colder, north-east of Britain (more details here

 There are other examples. Bulbous buttercup has variants that grow on chalks, sands and clays. Jim Egginton suggested that grasses too can show ecotype variation—just look at how Stace 4 separates the red fescue aggregate where there is a huge genetic variation and salt tolerance. And what about the many microspecies of dandelions? It is estimated that 217 species exhibit flower colour variation in the British flora (Warren & Mackenzie 2001), and there are many examples of variants occurring for other traits, e.g. flower structure, leaf shape, seed coat and sex.

Lawrence Hill did comparative studies of fritillaries and exhibited a large work “Fritillaria Icones” at Kew’s Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art in 2014. This piece was a sequence of photographs showing “both currently accepted diagnostic characters and other morphological and physiological elements” of ecotypes of fritillaries. The order in which Lawrence put the images was based on the most up-to-date genetic research from Kew’s Jodrell Laboratory.

 Illustrating these ecotypes is certainly a challenge! It may not be possible to work from live specimens. If photographs are taken, is it preferable to paint from the photographs or present the photographs as illustrations? For some ecotypes the variation may not have been scientifically described yet, or they may all be visually similar but grow in different soils or perhaps have different fungal root associations which might be difficult to show visually.

Joyce Barrus and Martin Allen

Blogs by Dr Gary Mantle MBE (

Lidar maps. National Library of Scotland ( 2.18910&layers=10&right=LIDAR_DTM_2m).

Book of interest. Akeroyd, J. 2006. The Historic Countryside of the Saxon Villages of Southern Transylvania. (Published in Romania.) Warren, J. & Mackenzie, S. 2001.

Why are all colour combinations not equally represented as flower-colour polymorphisms? New Phytologist 151: 237–241.

Martin Allen has added further links which may be of interest.

Information on Laurence Hill’s work.

Exploring the Future of Botanical Image Making by Laurence Hill ( Q18).

Laurence’s website ( and his art exhibitions ( html).

Martin Hammond wrote an excellent book on the history of the Ouse Floodplain Meadows (floodplain meadows were the first meadows;

And he gave a couple of excellent talks—this on how to understand the landscape of the past in terms of habitats ( UM). This talk on using historical floras to understand how best to undertake future conservation work ( Q)

January 2021 Meeting Report

Annual general meeting, and quiz

After a business-like formal meeting, nineteen members were treated to a light-hearted quiz. This was compiled by quizmaster Roger Reynolds, who taxed our brains with some interesting questions.

 The first part was a page of twenty five Latin words for colours, and we had to identify each one. The first albus was easy, but as the list went on the words became more complicated. My favourite was pavonius—I now know it means peacock blue.

Roger then produced three pages, in the style of TV quiz Only Connect, of common plant names for us to sort into categories. This was very entertaining, and good for the grey matter.

The final part of the quiz was matching pictures of winter twigs to their leaves. The twig images had already been sent by attachment to save time. This was not so easy, as many leaves are similar. However, some members did well, and identified many correctly.

Unfortunately, no prizes, but I think everyone that took part enjoyed themselves.

Meg Tebbs