Saturday, 25 October 2014

The Good, The Bad and the Unusual


Henbane. Photo: Wikipedia

In July, Frank Cottrell and Elaine Mills were walking along the new cycle track at Burton Marshes, when they came across a spectacular and unusual plant. Elaine suspected Henbane, but since this had not been recorded locally for years, she asked for someone to confirm. Expert local botanist Eric Greenwood paid a visit and reported:

"I usually have a trip to Burton Point so I was intrigued by the possible record of Henbane. It was a surprise to find that there is indeed a nice colony of henbane up against the sandstone wall. I also found one young plant on the marsh side of the road near by. Also in the field there was a magnificent display of Musk Thistle (Carduus nutans). Both were new to me at these localities. De Tabley (Flora of Cheshire 1899) records Henbane at Burton Point where he says 20 or 30 plants are scattered over say a hundred yards of beach. For Musk Thistle he says "in an excavation whence gravel has been taken for the embankment, about half a mile to the north of Burton Point, some half dozen plants, doubtfully native". This was not De Tabley's own record but he adds a footnote saying that after further investigation he thinks it is native. Today the plants in the field looked well established and the field does not look as if it has been ploughed in the past.Also at Burton Point there are a few plants of Carduus tenuiflorus (slender thistle), which I don't think I know elsewhere on Wirral."

Henbane has only been recorded in Cheshire a handful of times since de Tabley, none of the records at this location. Musk thustle and slender thistle are both very uncommon, with only about 30 finds recorded by RECORD, the Cheshire biological record centre ( and very few in Newton's Flora of Cheshire (1971, 1990). So the new cycle track is obviously a good place to go plant-hunting.

But if you find the Henbane - look but do not touch. All parts of the plant are highly poisonous.

Japanese Knotweed

Japanese knotweed. Photo: Wikipedia

I regularly get asked about Japanese Knotweed on public land and where to report it. The answer if you live in Wirral Borough is "to Streetscene" - email or telephone 0151 606 2004. Wirral Borough Council is, of course, very short of money, but at least it can go on the list for eventual treatment.  I know of patches in Walker Park, Prenton and at Poulton Lancelyn that are being tackled. At present, the only way to get rid of it is a 3-year programme of herbicide treatment. A biological control agent (a weevil) is being trialled, but that takes some time to make sure it is safe to release into the wild. 

Japanese Knotweed can push out all native vegetation, so CWT is busy controlling it in our nature reserve Intake Wood, Dibbinsdale. "JK" does not seed in this country (thank goodness) but does spread from root and stem fragments. The patches in our wild areas are mostly from people illegally tipping garden rubbish, but it is spread down streams when winter floods erode the banks.

Wirral Horsetail

Wirral horsetail.
Photo: Wildflowers of the British Isles

Readers may remember an article about the rare hybrid horsetail that grows at Red Rocks. This plant, easily overlooked, has recently been re-identified as Equisetum x meridionale by Peter Jepson and colleagues. We now have his permission to call it "Wirral Horsetail". It is known from a few places in continental Europe, but the only occurrences in Great Britain are on Wirral and Anglesey. The main Wirral populations are at Red Rocks, along the southern half of the boardwalk and in places on the yellow dunes. It stays green all year, so can be spotted on a winter walk, in between watching the birds feeding on the Dee Estuary.  However, it also grows at Roman Road, Meols, on Wallasey Golf course, and a few other places across north Wirral. This year it was spotted in Dunraven Road, West Kirby, by Mathilde Baker-Schommer, and at Hoylake Court by Eric Greenwood. So, residents and visitors to north Wirral who  have sandy gardens - please keep an eye open for more sites! I do not advocate planting in any garden, though - like all horsetails, it can take over. One day, it will probably double its chromosomes and become a proper species - but horsetails take their time. They have been around for 300 million years already. Meanwhile, while doing a botanical survey of Red Rocks this year, we found the main colony has expanded all the way down the boardwalk to the base of the steps. A rare plant but abundant where it likes the conditions!

Hilary Ash

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