Sunday, 30 September 2012

Vanoise National Park

Baffled motorists
in front of Notre Dame de I'Iseran
Being my first visit to the Alps, my time in the Vanoise National Park this June was botanically rather overwhelming. I took  hundreds of pictures of plants that I can no more than assign to genera. I see little point in posting pictures about which I know so little, instead I'm mostly going to post those of species that also occur in the British Isles.

Our trip began in, what felt to my Welsh constitution, unbearable heat in Lyon. Our few days in the city unsurprisingly produced little in the way of plants. I saw two species I had not previously encountered; Impatiens parviflora and Senecio paludosus.

The former is a problematic invasive in Europe whose spread from botanic gardens is detailed in this paper. The latter grew abundantly up and down the banks of the SaƓne . This species is very rare in the British Isles and was long thought to be extinct. One population was rediscovered in Cambridgeshire in 1972 as detailed in this paper. Three subspecies of this taxon exist and a key to distinguish between them is to be found in this paper.

On arriving in our chalet in the on the edge of the pine forests above Peisey-Nancroix I quickly headed out to get a first look at the local flora. One of the first species I encountered was the doubtful British native, Homogyne alpina. This species ha only ever been found in one location in the UK and it is suspected that it may have been planted. On the continent it is quite common and I observed it everywhere in the pine forests of the Vanoise.

Homogyne alpina Peisey Nancroix June 2012

Nowhere near as frequent as the previous species was the elusive orchid Pseudorchis albida. I have unsuccessfully searched for this species at a number of sites where it has been recorded both in Ireland and Wales. On my previous searches for this species I had been hunched over searching for a tiny greenish plant but it was nowhere near as small and inconspicuous as I had expected it to be.

Pseudorchis albida Peisey Nancroix June 2012

Next a couple of species of northern pine forests. Lycopodium annotinum and Melampyrum sylvaticum  both occur in Scotland and both were frequent in the Vanoise.

Lycopodium annotinum 
Peisey Nancroix June 2012
Melampyrum sylvaticum Peisey Nancroix June 2012

Melampyrum sylvaticum is a species I have been concious of for a while as it described in the books as being very similar to Mpratense and could possibly still be found in new areas. However its small bent flowers make it appear quite different when actually encountered.

Differing somewhat from the generally northern species above is the structurally odd woodland plant Paris quadrifolia. Not a species I had expected to encounter in the Alps I saw it growing in scrubby woodland on the lower slopes of a valley. 

Paris quadrifolia Peisey Nancroix June 2012

Moving now from the woodlands of the lower slopes to the meadows, scree and snow above. A species that I am familiar with from Snowdonia but one that I have only ever seen as a single flower on an inaccessible crag. Gagea serotina, the Snowdon Lily grew abundantly among the short sward of grey-brown Festuca and harsh blue Gentiana near the Col de l'Iseran. 

Gagea serotina
Col de l'Iseran (27/06/12)

Alpine Chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus) chicks
in an old fort above Lac du Mont-Cenis (27/06/12)

Monday, 24 September 2012

Gorumna Island

Last day in Connemara today. Surveying a small coastal fringe of grassland on the edge of the boulder-strewn heathland that makes up the majority of Gorumna island. While the extent of the grassland habitat was very limited it was a nice example of the species rich neutral grassland that occurs in small pockets along the southern Connemara coast. The most interesting species recorded was Ophioglossum azoricum (found at L_9315_2232 or thereabouts). This small , rather un-fernlike, pteridophyte is almost entirely restricted to islands as can be seen from the BSBI on-line distribution map. It grows in short, damp sward on cliffs and rocky outcrops near the sea. This is the first time I have found it in Connemara but the third time I have observed it in Ireland. The two previous occasions being at Malin Head (C_3985_5969), Co. Donegal in 2010 and at Dooncarton (F_8010_3839), Co. Mayo in 2011. 

Ophioglossum azoricum  Dooncarton (F_8010_3839), Co. Mayo 2011 

A more frequent species in this area is the small orchid Spiranthes spiralis. Its English name, autumn lady's tresses, while evocative is slightly misleading as it had already gone over today. Having reached its peak about three weeks ago around the end of August. In Britain I have seen it only a handful of times and always on inland limestone grassland. In the west of Ireland however, it is frequent on machair and other base-rich coastal grassland types.       

Spiranthes spiralis
Belmullet, Co. Mayo
F_61790_19549) 2011
Another frequent species here is Gentianella campestris. This attractive species of un-improved grasslands is much decreased and now quite rare in the southern half of the UK but is still locally common in Connemara.

Gentianella campestris Roundstone, Co. Galway (L_715_386) 2011 

Finally, though not a species of grassland, Daboecia cantabrica is a classic Connemara species. Along with Erica cinerea and Ulex gallii it was still in flower today adding colour to a grey and drizzly day.  

Daboecia cantabrica
Doonloughan, Co. Galway 2011

Saturday, 22 September 2012


Connemara ponies graze in a species rich coastal grassland
with the The Twelve Bens in the background  

Over the last couple of weeks I have been working in Connemara, the westermost region of Co. Galway. This is the second summer during which my work has involved forays to this botanically fascinating area. 

Connemara has a long history of botanical visitors drawn by a suite of local specialities. The first of these being the Welsh botanist Edward Llwyd who visited in the late 17th century. Incidentally this is the Llwyd whose namesake Lloydia serotina has recently been rather unfeelingly reassigned to the genus Gagea. Since then pretty much no corner of Connemara has gone un-botanised. This is demonstrated by the thorough, if somewhat dated 1983 flora by David Webb and Mary Scannell. Despite its age it is remarkable in its accuracy. Most times one finds a plant in the region the exact location will be found to be noted in the flora.   

The most recent plant of interest I came across is not one I had associated with the region. The yellow bartsia, Parentucellia viscosa. I found it abundantly around about Roundstone in Juncus effusus flushes on the north facing slopes of the small hill Errisbeg (L_69430_39137). Sure enough on consulting Webb and Scannell I learnt that the species was first recorded in the region in 1909 by Praeger from a location within a stones throw of where I had found the plant. Another, somewhat less exciting but also unexpected species in the same area was Stachys arvensis found growing around a rock in an intensively sheep grazed semi-improved acid grassland (L_69379_39286). This species, normally found in arable situations, is listed as 'very rare' in the region by Webb and Scannell and no recent dots are shown in the Atlas.        
Parentucellia viscosa near Roundstone 12/09/12
Moving now to a famous location and a pair of species for Connemara is well known. On the other side of Errisbeg lies Roundstone bog a large expanse of lowland blanket bog punctuated by small oligotrophic loughs. This is the classic location of the Connemara speciality Erica mackaiana, Mackay's heath. E. mackaiana was first discovered in Ireland in 1835 on Roundstone bog and has been visited in this location by botanists ever since. By far the most difficult to identify of the three Irish heathers this species hybridises with the common Erica tetralix and even pure specimens appear very similar without close examination. Having been based for a number of years on the west coast of Ireland in both Mayo and Donegal I had been on the lookout for this species in some of its other stations but had not been able to convince myself with certainty that I was not simply looking at variation within Erica tetralix. However, on Roundstone bog last year I was able to study plentiful pure plants as well as a number of intermediates that I presume to be the aforementioned hybrid (E. X stuartii). 

Erica mackaiana with Pedicularis sylvatica subsp. hibernica
Roundstone Bog, Co. Galway 03/08/11

The second species is the subtly beautiful Eriocaulon aquaticum, Pipewort. This aquatic species is frequent in some parts of the west of Ireland but, apart from a few stations in Scotland, is unknown form the rest of Europe. It is one of a handful of species that have their headquarters in North America with outposts in the west of the British Isles. The nubs of peppered white flowers are found protruding from small acidic loughs. On Roundstone bog scattered plants grow in deep bog pools with their roots attached to other submerged vegetation rather than to the substrate. The picture below is of a much more impressive colony growing on gravely substrate in shallow water by a small lough in Co. Mayo.  

Eriocaulon aquaticum small lough near Currane,
Co. Mayo (
L 76433 92563)
The carnivorous plant Utricularia minor
growing in a bog pool.
Roundstone Bog, Co. Galway. 03/08/11 

Moving now from the Roundstone to the eastern edge of Connemara. The area around the western edges of Lough Mask and Lough Corrib is host to two other species with similar distributions to that of Eriocaulon aquaticum. The first of these, Hypericum canadense is doubtfully native. Outside of this area it is known from Cork and North America. It grows with some abundance in roadside ditches as well as in boggy flushes away from the road. 

Hypericum canadense 
growing in a track-side ditch near
Shanvallycahill (M 05017 62236) 01/08/11

The second species is the elegant little orchid Spiranthes romanzoffiana. It is well know from the shores of Lough Corrib though I myself saw it in Co. Mayo near Rinakilleen. It is found on gravely lake shores often among Molinia. Being somewhat small and inconspicuous it is quite possibly still to be discovered in a number of places. Given its current distribution in the UK (Dartmoor, Ireland and Scotland) I have often wondered if it may someday be found in Wales. 

Spiranthes romanzoffiana 
near Rinakilleen, Co. Mayo 16/08/2011

The final Connemara species for my blog today is not a speciality of the west of Ireland but is quite an enigmatic and strange little fern. Pilularia globulifera is a small aquatic, grass like plant that is only revealed as a pteridophyte by its coiled croziers (see picture). It is a local and decreasing species that I had not seen in the wild before. So I was pleased to find it in some abundance on swampy low-lying ground near the shore of one of the 'fingers' of Lough Mask near Finny (M_01780_58241).    

Pilularia globulifera 
near Finny (M_01780_58241)  03/07/11