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‘Little White Jobs’ – The Art of Botanical Monitoring

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Posted: Thursday 27th July 2017 by WildBlog

By Emma Creasey,
an Avon Wildlife Trust volunteer and part of the botanical monitoring team

One of the problems with identifying plants is that an awful lot of them look very similar. Plants that have all adapted to the same environmental pressures over the millennia will often end up looking very much alike, even if they aren’t closely related. This process is called ‘convergent evolution’ and it occurs throughout the natural world.

In the case of plants that are growing out on an exposed grassland, facing challenges such as thin soil, extreme weather and temperature changes and regular grazing by sheep or rabbits, one common defence strategy is miniaturisation. Clinging close to the ground reduces the likelihood of being eaten, and tiny leaves don’t lose water too fast.

One familiar plant adopting the miniaturisation ‘life hack’ is the herb thyme. I often think I’ve found thyme, before realising it’s actually rock rose, mouse-ear, stitchwort or chickweed (and sometimes it is thyme after all)! In botanical monitoring we use a quadrat to closely examine what’s growing; a quadrat is a small area of habitat usually one square metre which acts as a sample for assessing the local distribution of plants or animals.

Even if the plant is flowering, it can still be difficult. If you like birdwatching, then you may know the term ‘LBJ’ or ‘Little Brown Job’, used for all the sparrow-sized, brownish birds that flit across your vision for a split second and are, frustratingly, gone by the time you focus your binoculars. On grasslands, I’m often wrong-footed by a number of ‘Little White Jobs’ – tiny white flowers, all around five millimetres across. The only thing for it is to assume the botanist’s position – nose to the ground, derrière to the air – and take a good look. Unlike birdwatchers, botanists have the advantage that their quarry will stay put while they get the book out.

Here are four of the Little White Jobs that we found on a recent visit to Dolebury Warren. If you’re visiting, why not try getting up close and personal with the turf and looking out for them? A word of warning; mind the cowpats!

 

Eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis)
A relatively easy one to start with, as it’s pretty distinct once you get a good look, with its three big lower petals, violet veining and yellow stripe. It used to be used in a poultice to treat eye complaints (NOT recommended!), but it’s still used in herbal medicine in tea or capsule form, and is said to help with sinus problems. For the conservationist, it’s important because it’s semi-parasitic on grass, and so helps to stop it taking over.

 

 

 

Thyme-leaved Sandwort (Arenaria serpyllifolia)
I love it when a plant’s name is properly descriptive – in this case in both common and scientific names. Yes, it’s another thyme lookalike (serpyllifolia also means ‘thyme-leaved’) and it often grows in sandy places (Arena means sand, derived from the sand-filled Roman arena). Note how the white petals are a bit shorter than the green sepals in between. The sepals are the part which cover the flower when it’s still growing.

 

 

 

Common Mouse-ear (Cerastium fontanum)
Named for its tiny, hairy leaves, this flower has double-lobed petals, with the green sepals in between the same length as the petals. So, an easy one – except that it’s a member of the Chickweed family, and a lot of them look the same…

 

 

 

 

Fairy flax (Linum catharticum)
A pretty plant with a pretty name – again with five petals but the sepals much smaller and not visible between them this time, and the leaves aren’t hairy.

 

 

To volunteer with Avon Wildlife Trust go to www.avonwildlifetrust/volunteer
 

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