New Year Plant Hunt – off to a good start for a year of citizen science

A collage of 9 photos of plants in flower
Our ‘loot’ from the New Year’s Plant Hunt (from top left) – Dandelion, Common Ragwort, Red Dead Nettle, Daisy, Pineapple Weed, Shepherd’s Purse, Annual Meadow Grass

It was a spur of the moment decision. I saw the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland’s call to join their annual New Year Plant Hunt (NYPH) in my Twitter feed on New Year’s Day. As a somewhat lapsed botanist, I could not think of a better way to welcome in the year than rummaging around for wildflowers in the dead of winter!

By a lucky coincidence, the last day of the survey, 4th of January, fell on Wednesday – the first open session at the Tayport Community Garden this year. So I unashamedly roped in our Community Gardener, Peter, to help with plant identification, and Jessie and Jenny lent their eagle eyes to the ‘sweep’ of the Garden site and surrounding area.

To be honest, I did not expect to find much at this time of year but our 30 minute search quickly revealed 6 sneaky and miserable looking flowerers: Dandelion (Taraxacum sp.), Ragwort (Senecio jacobea), Red Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum), Daisy (Bellis perennis), Pineapple Weed (Matricaria discoidea), Shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris). I added another 3 on my walk between the Garden and my house near the harbour and the path along the Tay: Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris), Annual Meadow Grass (Poa annua), Sea Mayweed (Tripleurospermum maritimum). Thanks to the new NYPH mobile phone app it was really easy to record and submit these observations, including their location and photos. It was rather exciting to see our list immediately appearing alongside others on the special plant hunt progress website – you can see it for yourself here (it’s the only one in Tayport;). None of our finds were particularly exotic – 7 of them happened to be in the top 20 of recorded species this year, with the other 2 not far behind according to the preliminary summary.

It was all great fun but why would you even look for midwinter flowers? Normally, a meagre 20 to 30 native or naturalised species are expected to be in flower at this time of the year (a bit of a surprise to me, having grown up in a frosty continental climate of central Europe – where you would not expect anything to be poking its silly head through the snow!). And yet, the Plant Hunt organisers were stunned to find 621 species in flower in 2016 – and the results are shaping up to be similar this year. Dr Walker, speaking to the Independent last January, explained:

[…] the mass out-of-time flowering is suggestive of a substantial climatic shift. It is what might be expected with climate change.

The numbers are indeed less surprising when you take into consideration that due to climate change the last three years have been the warmest on record globally, with December getting undeniably milder in the UK. This seems to have had an effect of allowing late flowering for many species, as well as encouraging a few spring flowers to come out early. In our case, four of the species belong to the late category (Red Dead Nettle, Common Ragwort, Mayweed, Pineapple Weed) with others flowering on time according the BSBI 2016 report (PDF) (this year’s report is due out at the end of the month – you can keep an eye out for it via BSBI blog).

So the New Year Plant Hunt is not just a fun way to mess about with botany and citizen science, but it looks like “a valuable tool for measuring environmental change, in the same way that the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch and Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count are already showing changes in their respective areas”.

We are hoping to get Tayport Community Garden involved in many more citizen science projects this year – and we would be delighted if you join us! Our next outing will be for the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch on Sunday, 29th of January. Keep an eye out for details closer to the date here and on PLANT Facebook page.

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