January 2018: Nature Watch

December 19 2017

Happy New Year to you all!

Happy New Year to you all! We have passed the solstice but it can still feel like the deep midwinter in dirty city weather. However, on a good day the low sun is more gently golden and some plants stand out much better than in the strong light of summer. 

It is the season to notice fern, moss and lichen – often called lower plants (though, as Beatrix Potter pointed out, lichens are actually a union of fungus and alga). They can be tricky to identify, so, to encourage the timid beginner (who shies away in fear from those scary scientific names) they have all acquired simple English ones. 

OK, I can see that ‘red beard-moss’ is less intimidating than ‘Bryoerythrophyllum recurvirostrum’ but I can’t say I prefer the slightly accusatory ‘false beard-moss’ to ‘Didymodon fallax’ –  a wonderfully characterful name.

Notice the leaning lime tree on Berkeley Road near the junction with Berkeley Avenue. On its trunk is a wide array of lower plants: cushions of velvety moss; pixie cups of fruiting lichen; minute leafy liverworts; and great rosettes of crustose lichen. 

There are elfin toadstools here too, in their season. You don’t need to know their names to appreciate their delicate beauty. Gaze at them long enough (just ignore the looks from passers-by) and you will begin to see them as the strange trees and shrubs of a magical miniature forest. 

These faery glens have their own microscopic fauna of wild animals, and most interesting and strange, (in other words, my personal favourites) are the tardigrades. 

Their whimsical English names include moss piglet and water bear. They’re not piglets or bears at all (don’t worry – you haven’t been THAT unobservant) but half-millimetre-long eight-legged creatures on the far side of the insects from where we’re standing. 

They do look a bit like piglets with their long rounded snouts, and a bit like those species of teddy bear that sit up and offer their arms for a hug. 

So, let’s go on a bear hunt! To see a tardigrade you take a tiny pinch of moss, put it on a saucer and wet it thoroughly. After a few hours squeeze out a drop or two of water and examine them under a microscope (sorry, but you will need a microscope). With a bit of patience, you should find a tardigrade bumbling slowly through the fragments of detritus, like an aged elephant wading through a swamp. 

If you don’t find them first time then try the same technique with something else, for example wet leaves from guttering or moss from a different location. Like many invertebrates, it can be hard to spot your first one but once you know what you’re looking for you will have no trouble finding more – it’s all a matter of looking carefully in the right place.  Happy hunting! 

A little New Year Quiz for you. Where can this fine display of maidenhair spleenwort be found? A bar of Divine chocolate to the first person to identify the site. 

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