Rough hawkbit: the answer lies in the soil

I think it is very easy to get dismissive, jump to a conclusion and move on when you see a flower. I know I do it, I try not to but I still do. With rough hawkbit (Leontodon hispidus) it is so easy to just dismiss it as a dandelion when, in reality, in the right environment it can be far more numerous than dandelions will be in their preferred environment. Rough hawkbit and dandelions are closely related, they are both of the Leontodon genera, sub-species of the daisy family. They both have that classic yellow dandelion flower which turns in to a fluffy ‘clock’. They both have a basal rosette of leaves which are toothed (dandelion – dent de lion – lion’s teeth). However, there are differences if you look. Rough hawkbit has a hairy stem, the dandelion smooth. Rough hawkbit has a green stem, the dandelion often tinged purple or brown. Rough hawkbit has a smaller and much tidier flower as dandelions tend to have untidy sepals that turn down under the flower. There are other small differences too if you have a book with you to help you identify the two of them. Now here is the key for me, the answer lies in the soil! It is not possible to look at every low growing yellow-rayed flower to see if it is a dandelion or rough hawkbit. If you are on chalk or limestone grassland then expect rough hawkbit, if you are on heavier, more fertile soil (like my lawn) then think dandelion. I think I am right in saying that you are unlikely to find the two together so once you have identified one, the masses of others nearby will almost certainly be the same.

Graphocehala fenndui: the rhododendron leafhopper

The rhododendron leafhopper (Graphocehala fenndui) is described in my text book as having been introduced to Britain in the early 1900’s from the United States. It does not expand on this statement so it is unclear whether it was an intentional or accidental introduction. One source on the internet says the first record was from Chobham in Surrey in 1934 so it appears that the bug found its own way here on imported rhododendrons for garden planting. It is a large species for a leafhopper but still a pretty small insect being less than half an inch in length. It is primarily green with red streaks and in the United States it is known as the scarlet and green leafhopper; it is pretty much unmistakable. It lives exclusively on rhododendron from which it sucks sap from the plant. Often, several will be found together on one leaf. Although an alien species it is not considered invasive despite having done well here. As swathes of rhododendron are cleared from our countryside so the numbers of this little creature will decline too. It is thought to carry a fungus from one plant to another but between them, the insect and the fungus, they seem to have little impact on controlling rhododendron organically.

Marsh Ragwort: poisoned lies

I am pretty sure most of us know ragwort when we see it; it is both common and infamous as supposedly being the cause of death of thousands of animals a year! I am, of course, being facetious but I do find some of the unjustified things said about our native flora and fauna rather irksome and feel an inbuilt need to come to their defence. If you do know ragwort when you see it, can you tell the difference between common ragwort and marsh ragwort (Senecio aquaticus)? I ask this because in my days leading walks I found a general ‘ragwort is ragwort’ belief amongst those with me and when I pointed out marsh ragwort there was both surprise that there are different species of ragwort and that, although similar, they are different. Marsh ragwort is much shorter than common ragwort and more branched, common ragwort tends to be an upright plants whereas the branched marsh ragwort is somewhat more disparate. Whilst the individual flowers are similar they form a much looser cluster on marsh ragwort than the much tighter cluster on the common ragwort. Marsh ragwort has a reddish stem and the leaves are a darker green than its cousin so there are plenty of differences. If you are still in doubt then common ragwort grows in dry conditions whilst marsh ragwort likes damp meadows and grassy places. The question of toxicity is complex one and as I am not a chemist I am not going to comment but it seems marsh ragwort has similar chemical properties to common ragwort but, in general it, goats and pigs eat it with no ill effects, cows find it distasteful and horses and sheep refuse to touch it. On the other hand rabbits are fond of it, birds eat the seeds (and you can buy the seeds to feed to caged birds) and, of course, insects love it, especially the caterpillars of some moths which not only take pollen but eat the leaves. Studies show that a horse or a cow would need to eat 7% of their own body weight in ragwort before it would damage them. The case for the defence rests!

Pelvetia canaliculata: the channelled wrack

Whilst bladder wrack is the best known of the wrack seaweeds the one most often seen is actually the channelled wrack (Pelvetia canaliculata). Growing freely near the high water line it is adapted to withstand long periods of exposure to the air without drying out. The weed that is out of the water the longest is usually blacker than the paler colour of that which is covered for longer. It does not have bladders for flotation as it rarely needs to float.  It may appear to have bladders at the ends of its fronds but the swellings are not full of air, they contain a jelly substance and are the fruiting body of the seaweed. Channelled wrack grows in large masses and can be seen on sea walls, quays and piers as well as the upper reaches of rocky shorelines but each plant only grows to about 18 inches long due to the amount of time it is our of water. It is common around British shores and Dorset is no exception to that. In Scotland it has been used as cattle fodder but I was surprised to read on the ‘justaseaweed’ website that this is considered to be a super healthy food and by far our most popular sea vegetable. It apparently looks fantastic on a plate and is very quick to prepare needing only a few seconds of boiling. The culinary possibilities of this seaweed are limitless. I am sure they are right but as they are selling it I might try it with a pinch of salt!

Common Figwort: skin deep

Figworts are the prime members of the family scrophulariaceae which also includes toadflaxes, better known perhaps as snap-dragons! This relationship to snap-dragons gives a clue as the flowers you will find on figworts which bear a family resemblance. There are five figworts in my field guide but only two would you expect to encounter in Dorset, water figwort and the common figwort (Scrophularia nodosa). As you would expect from the name the water figwort occurs in damp places such as ditches, stream sides and damp meadows so if you find a figwort in woodlands, hedgerows and shady dry places then it is going to be common figwort, easy really. Far more common than water figwort, common figwort is a tall plant growing to at least a metre tall on a strong, square, hairless stem which branches at the top and each branch bears a small, brownish-purple flower. It has quite large, pointed leaves with a serrated edge. It flowers from May until August and in the autumn the rounded seed heads are very visible. Figwort has a bitter, unpleasant taste but it contains many chemicals and has long been used for medicinal purposes and it is considered, even today, as a cleansing and detoxification agent and is used externally to treat skin problems such as eczema, psoriasis and haemorrhoids. A jolly useful plant to have around!

Crepidula fornicata: slipper limpet

I learn a lot by doing my nature notes and knowing virtually nothing about sea shells and the creatures that live in them this particular area has been an eye opener! This particular shell is one often found on Studland beach but I had no idea what it is (was?). As far as I can establish, based in the shelf that seems to cover the open section, this is the slipper limpet (Crepidula fornicata). It is an invasive species that came to our shores in the nineteenth century and has become abundant around the south, west and east coast of England. It is prolific and can form large reefs of shells, usually beyond the tidal zone and so are constantly under water. They grow in towers with the females at the bottom of the tower and the males at the top with those in between progressively becoming less female and more male as they go up the tower. It is a complex and strange process which, even having read about it, I cannot understand nor explain so if you are interest you will need to look it up in a book or on the internet! It is an edible shell fish and is described as being different in taste to most other shellfish. It is considered ‘versatile’ and can be used as a meal on its own, as an appetiser when used in small quantities or it can be combined with other foods to make a mixed meal.

Field Rose the trailing rose

Given that the common dog-rose can often occur in white it would be wrong to say the the easiest way to identify the field rose (Rosa arvensis) is to look for a white wild rose! Quite often white roses in the countryside will be field rose and it is a good start but it is not enough on its own to be sure. When in flower the recognised botanical way of separating them is to look at the centre of the flower amongst the orange stamens and there is a column longer than the stamens (this is the style) then it is field rose. Less scientific methods can be used, however, as, whilst similar, they are not the same! The field rose tends to be a low, sprawling bush growing to little more than three feet tall as it has quite weak stems and this leads to its other common name, the trailing rose. The dog-rose, on the other hand, is a much stronger plant that produces long, prickly runners. At a closer level the leaves of field rose are  a dull green where are dog-rose is a much stronger dark green on the top and a greyish green below. Field rose is also less prickly than the dog rose.There are many other small differences if you feel inclined to examine the two species with a good book at your side. Whilst both occur in hedgerows the dog-rose is the better climber. Both can also be found in woodland or scrub habitats.