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How to ID plants through DNA barcoding

It’s not just humans and animals that have DNA in their cells, plants and fungi do too.

In fact, DNA barcoding can be used to identify plants, detect invasive species and help conservation work, as our Senior Ecological Advisor Sarah Shuttleworth explains.

DNA barcoding course

Like all living organisms, plants and fungi have DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) in their cells. DNA is the genetic code, which is the blueprint for genes, which gives an organism its specific characteristics. Different species will have a different DNA blueprint (with small variations within that as well) and these can help us tell species apart and see which ones are closely related.

I was recently offered a place on an exciting course to learn all about DNA barcoding and how it can help my work as a botanist.

Sarah Shuttleworth at DNA barcoding course

So, what is a DNA barcode?

Put simply, we can compare different DNA blueprints by comparing just a small section of the DNA sequence. This small section is referred to as the DNA barcode. There is a reference library which contains information about many species with their corresponding barcode.

In order to compare DNA barcodes of different species, the shortened sequence (region) needs to be the same region of the comparison species. However, which region you select to shorten and use for comparison is different depending on which type of organism you have. For example, all organisms within the animal kingdom are identified using the same specific DNA region, whilst all plants are identified using a different region.

 

The DNA region used for barcoding differs between kingdoms:

  • In fungi, the most commonly used DNA barcode is the internal transcribed spacer (ITS) region. This is the specific part of the DNA sequence used for fungi.
  • There are several candidates for DNA barcoding in plants. The two gene targets recommended are maturase K (matK) and ribulose bisphosphate carboxylase (rbcL).

DNA barcoding relies on a region of DNA that varies significantly between different species to allow the different species to be identified.

Attendees at DNA barcoding course

How do you extract the DNA and barcode it?

First, we need to collect a tiny bit of plant and/or fungi samples for our study. We don’t need much, just a small amount to get the DNA. To get the DNA out, we cut really tiny pieces from the samples. Then, we put these pieces in a tube with a special liquid solution and smush them with a small tool to break the cells apart and release the DNA.

Next, we need to make lots of copies of the DNA which we do by using a special mix of certain chemicals (there are different special mixes for plants and fungi).

To check if we’ve done it right, we use a method called gel electrophoresis. This method is used to separate mixtures of DNA, RNA, or proteins to molecular size (you will see a nice clear line in the gel if it has been successful.) This helps us see if the DNA we extracted is good and whether we can send it to the lab. The lab will then send us the DNA sequence so it can be compared it to other sequences in a big database.

How can DNA barcoding help with plant conservation?

Using these DNA barcoding skills can help us in many ways, including identifying single species or a community of species.

  • Single species barcoding – is when you collect a sample from a plant, fungus or animal, extract DNA from the sample, amplify the DNA barcode and send the DNA barcode for sequencing. This can help us record species accurately and identify species we have on our reserves that are difficult to identify. (The International Barcode of Life (iBOL) project seeks to make DNA barcoding globally accessible for the discovery and identification of all multicellular life on Earth.)
  • Community barcoding or metabarcoding – is when a sample contains a mixture of species, so DNA is extracted, amplified and sequenced from all the species in the mix that are targeted by the DNA barcode used. An example of metabarcoding is identifying the fungal diversity in a soil sample.
  • Detection of invasive species – DNA sampled from the environment (eDNA) can be barcoded to monitor the presence of invasive species of concern.

It is quite a technical process but as local groups (mainly fungi recording organisations) are starting to invest in the kit, more people should be able to get involved in DNA barcoding.

Sarah Shuttleworth on a DNA barcoding course

I hadn’t had a chance to do anything like this since my first year at university and I was surprised about how much came flooding back to me. The course was a great opportunity to learn and refresh my skills, as well as meet other people with an interest in species identification and conservation.

After more practicing, we hope to use these skills to add to the genomic database and assist our own species recording accuracy.

In the future, perhaps Plantlife can utilise these skill sets for looking at species assemblages on our reserves or places we are hoping to maximise conservation efforts.

Volunteer biological recording group RoAM (Recorders of the Avalon Marshes) at Somerset Wetlands NNR (National Nature Reserve) organised the DNA barcoding course with funding from Natural England through the Natural Capital and Ecosystem Assessment Programme. I was offered a spot on this exciting course due to my work and contacts in a voluntary capacity with the North Somerset and Bristol Fungi Group.

Natural England: EDNA (Environmental DNA) approaches to environmental monitoring are incredibly valuable to Natural England’s work, but recognise their limitations, not least that some groups of fungi, lichen and invertebrates are poorly represented in genomic databases. By helping to train our highly skilled taxonomic recorders with DNA barcoding means better records and more effective eDNA outputs.

 

This beautiful mountain plant, that once clung to the cliff edges in Eryri (Snowdonia) has successfully returned to the wild in Wales after becoming extinct in 1962. 

The trial reintroduction of Rosy Saxifrage Saxifraga rosacea, led by us, marks a special moment for nature recovery. The plants, which have been maintained in cultivation, have direct lineage to the 1962 specimens. 

It is now flowering at a location close to where it was last recorded in the wild – and there are plans in place to boost its numbers now the first trial has taken place.  

Why did it become extinct? 

The species was first recorded in Wales in 1796 by J.W.Griffith (Clark, 1900) and there are up to five records from the 19th century. In the 20th century, there are three records, all in Eryri. 

But, it is thought that Rosy Saxifrage slipped into extinction in Wales, primarily as a result of plant enthusiasts over collecting the species, particularly in the Victorian era. Atmospheric pollution is also considered to have played a role. Rosy Saxifrage is not a great competitor with stronger growing plants, so it was impacted by the nutrient enrichment of its favoured mountain habitat. 

The successful reintroduction has been led by our botanist Robbie Blackhall-Miles, Project Officer for the Tlysau Mynydd Eryri (Mountain Jewels of Eryri) conservation partnership project that aims to secure the futures of some of our rarest alpine plants and invertebrates in Wales. 

The outplanting took place on land cared for by the National Trust and in future months botanists will conduct surveys to establish places where it will be best to reintroduce the species fully to the wild.  

Read more about Rosy Saxifrage here. 

 

Photographs by: Llyr Hughes

On the high peaks of Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) and on the Glyderau there grows a forest that is little more than a foot high. A forest of Juniper Juniperus communis subsp. nana nestled among the rocks in the crags and crevices. They are everywhere, if you look in the right places, creeping through the thin turf and sprawling over rocks.

 

Where can you find Wales’ Juniper forests?

If you scramble over the jagged ridges of Crib Goch and Crib Y Ddisgl you will find them. On Esgair Felen they tumble down the cliffs and on the upper reaches of the Watkin Path you will be walking through the middle of this ‘coedwig fach’ (little forest). Y Lliwedd, one of the satellite peaks of Yr Wyddfa, holds the largest of these forests and here you can’t fail to notice them, although you may not realise they are trees.

Their twisted and gnarled trunks keep close to the ground, bonsaied by the cold and the wind in the exposed locations in which they grow. These small trees are glacial relics from a time between the ice ages, like many of our Arctic – Alpine species.

They are clinging on literally for dear life in the least accessible locations in our mountains where they find refuge from the goats and the sheep and the deep time history of clearance of our mountain woodlands.

These Juniper plants, alongside Dwarf Willown Salix repens, are the fragmented upper reaches of a special type of woodland that has almost disappeared from the mountains of Eryri.

A woodland of low growing scrubby willows, junipers and other ‘Krummholz’ trees and shrubs. ‘Krummholz’ is a German word that is used to describe dwarfed gnarled trees that push high into the mountains to eke out their existence in a tangled and contorted state.

 

Protecting the foot high forests

This scrubby, fairy woodland would have once spread from about 450 metres in altitude, the natural treeline, almost to the summits of Eryri. Elsewhere in Britain it is found in the Scottish Highlands and there are fragments of it in the Lake District. It still just about exists here in Wales on the edges and ledges where people and grazers have never ventured.

The trees of Eryri are under recorded, with limited records of trees in the high mountains, so there is still so much more to understand about these sky-high forests.

Recently, whilst out climbing, I discovered a tree species I was not expecting on a ledge, a Bird Cherry Prunus padus. The discovery of this cherry links our mountain woodlands even more directly to those of Scotland where Bird Cherry is a common feature.

Read more about the work Natur am Byth! is doing through the Tlysau Mynydd Eryri project to better understand these tiny but fascinating forests, alongside Bangor University.

The importance of the coedwig fach in Cymru

Restoration of this mosaic of alpine woodland comes with great benefits. This habitat is ecologically vital, for invertebrates’ montane trees and shrubs are particularly important and many of these woody species support high diversity of endemic ectomycorrhizal fungi. Additionally, mountain woodland habitat and willow scrub can provide protection against extreme weather for rare tall herb and alpine plant communities which would otherwise be exposed and struggle to persist in alpine environments.

The increasing diversity enabled by these wooded upland communities has positive impacts for small mammals and birds such as Ring Ouzel. Succession in these wooded habitats builds soil organic matter through their leaf litter. These woodlands reduce erosion by building these soils and halt water runoff which reduces the impacts of flooding.

So, if you are planning a trip up Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) any time soon, keep an eye open for the forest you are walking through and take a moment to stop and think about what the mountains may have looked like before their woodlands almost disappeared, the other species that were lost with them and the way they could look again.

Our work in Wales

Rosy Saxifrage reintroduced into Wales after 62 years extinct 
person holding a plant with white flowers

Rosy Saxifrage reintroduced into Wales after 62 years extinct 

The beautiful mountain plant, Rosy Saxifrage, has returned to the wild in Wales after becoming extinct in 1962.  

Juniper on the Peaks: A Foot High Forest 

Juniper on the Peaks: A Foot High Forest 

Discover the gnarled woodlands on the wildest peaks in Wales, as Robbie Blackhall-Miles reveals the secrets of Eryri’s miniature but magical Juniper forests.

How to Grow a Wildflower Meadow
Wildflower meadow landscape with a variety of species near Cardiff, Wales

How to Grow a Wildflower Meadow

Whether it’s your back garden, local park, community field or lawn, wildflower meadows are amazing spaces with so much to offer.

The nodding yellow heads of spring-flowering daffodils are now our most recognisable symbol of St David’s Day; indeed, they’re a symbol of Wales itself. However, daffodils are relative newcomers to this scene, dating only to the 19th century as an emblem for the country. The Leek, however, has been a symbol of Wales for so long that its stories date back to St David himself, who is thought to have died in the year 589.

The History of the Wild Leek in Wales

Legend describes how Welsh soldiers were ordered to identify themselves by wearing a Leek on their helmet, as they fought the Saxons in the north of England and the Midlands, under the command of King Cadwaladr of Gwynedd.

As with all such oral histories so long and so widely told, there are many different variations of this legend; however, the long presence of the Leek across many centuries of Welsh history is undeniable.

Most of us now think of Leeks as the large, cultivated vegetable we see in supermarkets – not at all suitable for attaching to a helmet in battle! However their genus, Allium, also contains a number of species that are either native, or ancient introductions to Britain. These have a far lengthier heritage than the domesticated vegetable, and would have been growing in north Wales at the time of both King Cadawladr and St David.

One of these is Allium ampeloprasum var. ampleoprasum, a variety of the Wild Leek that still grows today in Anglesey. It is a large plant, growing up to 2m high, with a dense spherical flowerhead of pink-purple flowers. This would certainly have made a distinctive and plausible addition a soldier’s helmet. Could this be the real Leek of Welsh legend?

 

Has Wild Leek always been found in Wales?

Wild Leek isn’t actually native to Britain – but it’s one of the archaeophytes, meaning that it was introduced by humans long ago – perhaps by traders, hundreds of years before the time of St David. It’s likely that it would have been grown and valued by the people of north Wales for its nutritional and medical properties.

Wild Leek on Angelsey

Evidence for this can be found in The Red Book of Hergest (c. 1375-1425). This is one of the most important books ever written in Welsh, and it is a compilation of mythology, poetry, and chronicles of the time. It includes contemporary medical texts, which name Leeks in many recipes for treatments and cures.

The regular appearance of Leeks in other, later texts also suggests that the plants were quite readily available to the people of Wales. They must have been much more common than they are today.

The Future of the Wild Leek

Sadly, Wild Leek is now considered at risk of extinction in Wales, with small populations remaining only on Anglesey, and on Steep Holm and Flat Holm islands. However, a healthy population is held in cultivation by Plantlife Cymru’s Robbie Blackhall-Miles.

This will help to secure the long-term safety of this now rare species in Wales. Given its fascinating and long association with the communities of Wales, possibly even St David himself – this is surely to be celebrated- especially on St David’s Day.

More ways to learn about wild plants and fungi

How to ID plants through DNA barcoding
Sarah Shuttleworth at DNA barcoding course

How to ID plants through DNA barcoding

It’s not just animals that have DNA in their cells, plants and fungi do too – and understanding it can help us with hard to identify plants.

No Mow May: Can your garden be a carbon store?
Garden meadow by pond (c) Shuttleworth

No Mow May: Can your garden be a carbon store?

It’s not just trees that capture and store carbon – our meadows and grasslands can play an important role too.

The Wildlife in our Meadows
Duke of Burgundy butterfly on cowslip.

The Wildlife in our Meadows

From bumblebees to birds and moths to mammals – meadows are micro-cities of wildlife. Here's what to spot in your wildflower meadow.

The Fen Orchid Liparis loeselii, is one of the most endangered wildflowers in Europe, but successful conservation efforts have given hope for its survival. The orchid is only found in two areas of the UK:

  • Sand dunes in South Wales
  • Fens of the Norfolk Broads.

We believe that the orchid could finally be removed from the Red Lists for both England  and Great Britain.

 

Conservation Efforts in England

After a decade of research and partnership work, the orchid has been re-discovered at former sites in the Broads, and the total population has estimated to have risen to over 15,000 plants through proper management.

The orchid has also been reintroduced to its former sites in Suffolk, and the signs are encouraging that it will become established in some of its old homes.

 

Conservation Efforts in Wales

In South Wales, the conservation effort to restore the fragile dune habitat at Kenfig and to rediscover the plant at former dune locations.

At Kenfig numbers had dropped from a conservative 21,000 at the end of the 1980s to just 400 when conservation work began.

After almost 10 years of work, over 4000 Fen Orchids have been counted, more than double the highest number seen in the last two decades.

The orchids once grew at eight dune sites along the south Wales coast, but a lack of active management led to their disappearance. The success at Kenfig gives hope for other dune sites like Whiteford and Pembrey, the former of which the plant has recently been re-found after searching.

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Rare Fungus spotted at Kenfig National Nature Reserve
Brown topped fungus with yellow gills in a green grassy area.

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Wild Cotoneaster

This is our only native species of Cotoneaster in Wales, Cotoneaster cambricus, and in the 1970s it was down to as few as only 6 plants in the wild, making it international critically endangered!

It’s only found in the Great Orme IPA near Llandudno, where our vascular plants officer, Robbie, works alongside the National Trust, Conwy County Borough Council, Natural Resources Wales, PONT, and the tenant farmer, Dan Jones, to graze the land in a way that benefits the species.

How we’re helping Wild Cotoneaster

This, paired with efforts to plant out young plants have been a resounding success, and we’ve gone from 6 to well over 70 plants. We are now working with research students, Dan and Treboth botanic garden to understand the impacts that changes to grazing practices have on this species, so that we can understand how best to manage for it in the future.

What we’re finding is that managing to support this species is having knock-on positive effects on other species on the Great Orme, which demonstrates how targeted species recovery work can have a cascading positive benefit beyond that species, out into the wider ecosystem.

Snowdon Hawkweed

Snowdon Hawkweed

This small, sunny Welsh plant, a member of the dandelion family, is internationally critically endangered. It makes its home on the most inaccessible mountain slopes of Eryri (Snowdonia), where it is safe from disruption.

However, due to the changing climate, even these sanctuaries are becoming inhospitable, it is both literally and figuratively out on the very edge.

Its preference for inaccessible places, makes it problematic (to say the least) to monitor. However, conservation and extreme sports aligned when Robbie, Alex Turner and Mike Raine went out on ropes to survey for this mountain treasure. Their efforts have revealed that the plant’s population has increased from 2 individuals, to 4!

While that is still terrifyingly few, it represents a doubling of the global population of this species, and gives us hope that with support, these populations can recover.

How we’re helping Snowdon Hawkweed

We are delighted to have received funding for Natur am Byth!, Wales’ flagship species recovery project which we are part of, along with nine other environmental charities. Robbie will be leading on the Tlysau Mynydd Eryri (Mountain Jewels of Snowdonia) to provide an invaluable lifeline to species like Snowdon Hawkweed.

Once the project begins in September we’re going to be working with the National Trust to manage the grazing of sheep and goats on the mountain, which will hopefully create more undisturbed habitat for this species to colonize.

Rosy Saxifrage - Robbie Blackhall-Miles

Rosy Saxifrage

This mountain jewel is part of a suite of species that was once widespread all across the UK and Europe, the Arctic-Alpines.

Following the last Ice Age it would have been found over a large extent of Britain, but colonisation of species from the south as temperatures have risen has saw it retreat to all but our highest mountain tops, where the annual temperatures are sufficiently cool.

How we’re helping Rosy Saxifrage

This species is classed as threatened on the UK level red list, even though globally it’s been assessed as Least Concern (it can be found across the alpine landscapes of Europe). Each species is really important part of our natural heritage and to lose a species native to a country represents a significant loss, not only culturally, but ecologically too.

Rosy saxifrage is one such species that we’ve lost, it is now extinct in the wild in Wales. But efforts are underway to reintroduce it to a trial site later this year. Fantastically, the plants that will be used are of Welsh provenance, saved from a cutting taken in the 1960s, meaning that our national genetic identity for this species will be preserved and allowed to repopulate our landscape one more.

Why do we even bother?

Wildflowers in pink, purple and yellow among grass in Cae Blaen-dyffryn.

Our species are the fundamental parts of biodiversity – the more species there are in a habitat, the more diverse that habitat is. It is this diversity that allows ecosystems to function healthily and be more resilient.

This means, when we lose species to extinction, it undermines our ecosystem’s ability to adapt and respond to climate change and other existential threats. This is the primary reason why recovering species is one of our priorities at Plantlife. With partners, we plan to recover 100 plant species, and move them out of high extinction risk categories, into lower risk categories.

We are proud supporters of the global Reverse the Red campaign – a movement dedicated to spotlighting all of the work that’s being done to try and stop extinctions and prevent further species decline.

Tune in across the month to find out more about the species that we and our partners are working on to Reverse the Red and fight back against extinction.

Rosy Saxifrage reintroduced into Wales after 62 years extinct 
person holding a plant with white flowers

Rosy Saxifrage reintroduced into Wales after 62 years extinct 

The beautiful mountain plant, Rosy Saxifrage, has returned to the wild in Wales after becoming extinct in 1962.  

Juniper on the Peaks: A Foot High Forest 

Juniper on the Peaks: A Foot High Forest 

Discover the gnarled woodlands on the wildest peaks in Wales, as Robbie Blackhall-Miles reveals the secrets of Eryri’s miniature but magical Juniper forests.

Why the Wild Leek is a Symbol of Wales

Why the Wild Leek is a Symbol of Wales

The Wild Leek has been a symbol of Wales for so long that its stories date back to St David himself.

Pink purplish Scottish Primrose flowers in a field of grass

Scottish Primrose

Primula scotica

The ultimate northerner in our flora, Scottish Primrose Primula scotica grows on coastal headlands on the north coast, including Dunnet Head, the northernmost tip of mainland – but is found nowhere else in the world. Low-growing and easily overlooked, this tiny flower which only grows a few centimetres tall – calls clifftops, mosaics of heath and machair, and rocky outcrops home.

The county flower of Caithness, Scottish Primrose can only reproduce through seeds and is known to flower twice a year, once in the early spring and again in the summer. It is easily distinguished from the common primrose by its blueish-purple petals.

Scottish Primroses greatest threat is inappropriate grazing, as it declined historically to cultural intensification. However, climate change poses just as great a challenge as it is a species that is sensitive to climate extremes.

How we’re helping Scottish Primrose

Incidentally, species that are found in such a small area will inevitably be in danger of becoming endangered. Unfortunately, long term trends show a steep decline in Scottish Primrose populations – that’s why the Species on the Edge project has identified it as one of its key species. Our North Coast team is focused on working to grow current populations, ensuring that this beautiful rarity is not lost.

Marsh Saxifrage flower

Marsh Saxifrage

Saxifraga hirculus

Every year in late summer, in a handful of scattered locations, constellations of one of our rarest flowers blink into life across the moors. Once much more widespread, Marsh Saxifrage Saxifraga hirculus in Scotland has now retreated to only six places, all of them remote, far-flung, and one of them on Plantlife’s Munsary Peatlands nature reserve in Caithness.

Favouring damp, nutrient-poor areas with good water flow, marsh saxifrage is an attractive plant with bright yellow flowers which appear through August and into mid-September. Where it does cling on, it can flower in great profusion, with over 1000 flowering shoots at Munsary in some years making this population the largest in Scotland.

Changes in land use, such as afforestation, over-grazing and the draining of moorland, have led to major losses of this beautiful plant. Its extinction in Austria, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands, and its dramatic decline in Britain and across Europe, led to its protection under the European Union’s EC Habitats Directive.

How we’re helping Marsh Saxifrage

Marsh Saxifrage can recover when conditions are right – the population at Munsary was only discovered in 2002. Plantlife has been involved in its conservation for a number of years, and it seems that this appearance was in response to a drop in grazing levels, with the plant having been hanging on undetected for many years.

Twinflower on the woodland floor with sunshine behind

Twinflower

Linnaea borealis

Growing almost exclusively in the native Caledonian pine forests of Scotland, Twinflower has suffered as these magnificent forests have been lost. Reduced to a handful of fragments, the pine forests are a shadow of their former selves, and are isolated from each other, scattered as small islands of woodland through the Highland landscape. 

This loss of the forests means the loss of the Twinflower. Its populations have become so fragmented and isolated from each other that the distances are too great for its pollinators, which it relies on to produce viable seed. As a result, the remaining populations have become vulnerable to extinctions, with none of the genetic resilience that pollination can bring.  

This genetic isolation makes the remaining plants susceptible to disease and changing environmental conditions. In the long-term, if it can’t reproduce, the species will be lost from Scotland.

How we’re helping Twinflower

Plantlife is working on the Cairngorms Rare Plants and Wild Connections project with partners to restore the forests and help the Twinflower re-establish itself. To achieve this, we are undertaking translocations of genetically different patches of the flower to areas near to each other to allow pollination to occur. This is being done with the help of volunteers and in partnership with landowners across the national park.

 

Why are we doing this work?

A waxcap mushroom growing in the grass, with mountains in the background

Our species are the fundamental parts of biodiversity – the more species there are in a habitat, the more diverse that habitat is. It is this diversity that allows ecosystems to function healthily and be more resilient.

This means, when we lose species to extinction, it undermines our ecosystem’s ability to adapt and respond to climate change and other existential threats. This is the primary reason why recovering species is one of our priorities at Plantlife. With partners, Plantlife plan to recover 100 plant species, and move them out of high extinction risk categories, into lower risk categories.

We are proud supporters of the global Reverse the Red campaign – a movement dedicated to spotlighting all of the work that’s being done to try and stop extinctions and prevent further species decline.

Tune in across the month to find out more about the species that we and our partners are working on to Reverse the Red and fight back against extinction.

Rosy Saxifrage reintroduced into Wales after 62 years extinct 
person holding a plant with white flowers

Rosy Saxifrage reintroduced into Wales after 62 years extinct 

The beautiful mountain plant, Rosy Saxifrage, has returned to the wild in Wales after becoming extinct in 1962.  

Juniper on the Peaks: A Foot High Forest 

Juniper on the Peaks: A Foot High Forest 

Discover the gnarled woodlands on the wildest peaks in Wales, as Robbie Blackhall-Miles reveals the secrets of Eryri’s miniature but magical Juniper forests.

Why the Wild Leek is a Symbol of Wales

Why the Wild Leek is a Symbol of Wales

The Wild Leek has been a symbol of Wales for so long that its stories date back to St David himself.

I’ve been spending a lot of time reading what little information there is on One-flowered Wintergreen, Moneses uniflora, during site visits, and chatting with other experts. I’ve been trying to figure out what has caused its sharp decline in abundance and distribution globally, and how we can help prevent it here in Scotland.  

The uncomfortable answer I’ve come to is that we still don’t really know all that well. Around 10% of the Scottish population is in the Cairngorms, the rest distributed sparsely across the Highlands. In the last 50 years, I estimate that we’ve lost half of our populations, and of those remaining, only a few are stable or improving. We may soon lose all One-flowered Wintergreen in the UK without intervention. 

Why is One-flowered Wintergreen in trouble? 

One-flowered Wintergreen is the only member of its genus Moneses, closely related to Pyrola, a group containing the other wintergreens, such as Intermediate Wintergreen (Pyrola media). Sadly, all are rare and in decline.  

True wintergreens are partial-mycoheterotrophs, which means that they have an alternative to photosynthesis for acquiring their energy to grow. They can parasitically take sugars and other minerals from fungus in woodland soils.

This ability to uptake energy from the soil as a supplement to their photosynthesis is likely part of why they are so challenging to understand and to propagate in captivity. There have also been suggestions that the presence of specific fungi is necessary for the tiny powder like seeds to germinate. 

What have we learnt?

One-flowered Wintergreen does not seem to have an easily definable niche. It is very rare, only occurring at specific sites, and often isolated to an area a few tens of metres across in a large and apparently suitable woodland.

Recently, we have had some breakthroughs helping us to understand this plant better. Trials of cattle grazing in woodland have yielded rapid recovery in a One-flowered Wintergreen population. Another site was heavily trampled and disturbed in the process of Rhododendron removal, again yielding rapid recovery of Wintergreen. These plants all seem to recover on sites where bare ground, trampled wood, and organic material are present.  

On forestry sites, One-flowered Wintergreen appears to grow only along forestry tracks and where the ground has been historically disturbed. A picture is starting to emerge of this species favouring periodic heavy disturbance of woodland soils.

Armed with this information we are providing advice to current land managers. We are also investigating options for a small-scale trial translocation of One-flowered Wintergreen, as much to aid in our learning of the needs of this rare flower, as to aid the genetic resilience of a small and struggling population.  

Saving One-flowered Wintergreen

Thousands of years ago, before significant human alteration to the landscape of Britain, perhaps One-flowered Wintergreen existed in a particular niche. It may have relied on the bare ground made by a wild boar digging for roots in the woodland, or the wood pulp made by a beaver chopping a tree, or the trampled ground under the hoof a mighty Auroch. 

In the modern world humans create this niche for them more than animals, and sadly, our modern management of pine woods has favoured it less. Through research and collaboration, we will be able to manage woodlands holistically, providing a mosaic of habitat for One-flowered Wintergreen in Scottish pinewoods, as well as other rare native species. 

Spotlight on Plantlife’s Cairngorms Volunteers

Spotlight on Plantlife's Cairngorms Volunteers

Discover the activities and work that our volunteers in the Cairngorms do with Sam Jones of the Rare Plants and Wild Connections Project. 

Munsary Nature Reserve’s Road to UNESCO World Heritage Site

Munsary Nature Reserve’s Road to UNESCO World Heritage Site

Learn about why our Munsary Peatlands reserve is being put forward for inscription as the world’s first peatland UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A Botanical Art Journey of Plantlife’s Reserves

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Plantlife’s Artist in Residence, shares her summer journey across our reserves and some top tips for aspiring botanical artists.

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Several purple Early Marsh Orchids in the grassland

What are orchids? 

Orchids are part of the largest and most highly evolved family of flowering plants on earth. They are usually highly specialised to a specific habitat, with equally specialised relationships with pollinators, and fungi which live in the soil. 

What makes them so rare?

The majority of species reproduce via tiny seeds that are known as ‘dust seeds’ which need perfect conditions to germinate – with some species even relying on specific types of fungi in the soil for them to grow. This means that conditions in the soil and habitat need to be exactly right for an orchid species to thrive, hence why we don’t encounter them all the time. 

One UK orchid has gained huge notoriety for its rarity, the Ghost Orchid Epipogium aphyllum. This species is currently regarded as extinct but with hopes for its re-discovery. Occurring in Beech woodlands in deep leaf litter where gets its energy from decaying matter, it’s appropriately named for its pinkish white ghostly appearance rising from dead leaves.   

Where can you find orchids in the UK?

Although orchids are not the most common plant you will find, they do occur in a huge variety of habitats. Traditional hay meadows and pastures can host several species, the most common of these are

  • Common Spotted Dactylorhiza fuchsii
  • Marsh Orchids Dactylorhiza sp
  • Bee Orchid Ophrys apifera and
  • Common Twayblade Listera ovata

Many orchids also specialise in woodlands, for example Early Purple Orchid Orchis mascula, Helleborines Epipactus sp and Bird’s-nest Orchid Neottia nidus-avis (pictured), a fascinating yellow orchid without any chlorophyll that depends entirely on getting its food from decaying material in the leaf litter. There are also species that grow in fens and bogs, pine forests, heathlands and dunes.  

The majority of the time due to the specific requirements for growth, orchids tend to be associated with long established habitats, that haven’t had lots of disturbance. Therefore, a nature reserve can often be a useful place to look.  

How to spot orchids in the wild?

The best time of year to look for orchids tends to be late spring and early summer. Quite a few UK orchids have spotted leaves, making them even more distinctive and easy to spot. 

They are perennial plants, and in the UK are formed of a spike of flowers on a single stem. They all share a similar flower structure, despite the huge variety in their appearance. There are 3 sepals (outer protective petal-like parts) and 3 main petals, with one that usually forms a lower lip known as the labellum. This lip is often the largest and most distinctive ‘petal’ structure of the flower. 

Often their intricate design and some species astonishing mimicry to tempt pollinators is one of the most intriguing features of these plants. With Bee and Fly Orchids imitating these insects to attract them to land on the flower, mistaking them for a potential mate, and thereby pollinating the flower. 

How to tell them apart?

The key features of orchids for identification other than habitat, are the leaves (shape and markings) and the lower lip of the flower (labellum). The easiest species to start with are Early Purple Orchid, Common Spotted Orchid, Bee Orchid and Common Twayblade. This is because they are relatively more common than other species and most can occur in grassland and woodland habitats. 

It is always exciting to find any kind of orchid, and worthy of a photo! Just remember to be careful not to tread on any nearby orchids that are just coming up. Share the photos with friends, as you never known who doesn’t know that our wonderful UK orchid species even exist.  

Further reading 

FSC Orchid Guide

The Orchid Hunter by Leif Bersweden  

Britain’s Orchids A Field Guide to the Orchids of Great Britain and Ireland by Sean Cole, Michael Waller and Sarah Stribbling  

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New things are always exciting, right? The first time something in your garden flowers, a new patch of Bee Orchids in an unmown lawn, a new record of something rare on your NPMS patch? How about a whole new plant species for your country?

That’s exactly what happened to me in the summer of 2021 – but first, some background.

Discovering Welsh clubmosses

Clubmosses are a group of plants that really excite me. They are a group of plants that have been around in one form or another since the Silurian period (that’s over 430 million years ago). We have five species here in Eryri: Alpine, Marsh, Fir, Lesser and Stag’s Horn. We had another, Interrupted Clubmoss Lycopodium annotinum, until the late 1830’s when William Wilson last saw it above Llyn Y Cwn (The lake of the Dogs) high above Cwm Idwal. By 1894 J.E. Griffith had declared Interrupted Clubmoss extinct in Wales in his ‘Flora of Anglesey and Carnarvonshire’. I have hunted for Interrupted Clubmoss now for years to no avail – I won’t give up.

A good day out in the mountains for me is a ‘four clubmoss day’. A ‘five clubmoss day’ will take me past just a couple of very specific points where I would see Marsh Clubmoss Lycopodiella inundata as well, and would force me on to a longer and circuitous route to get to the places to see the other four.

Hares Foot Clubmoss in it's habitat

When I botanise abroad, the Clubmosses feature as high points in my adventures and I was particularly pleased to find one of our own indigenous species, Stags Horn Clubmoss Lycopodium clavatum growing high in the mountains of South Africa when I was there in 2017.

Seeing these plants, that have remained little changed for such a long time that still exist in our anthropogenic world, really excites me. I always look out for them whether they be tiny plants of Lesser Clubmoss Selaginella selaginoides growing in Calcium rich seepages or fens, or huge sprawling mats of Alpine Clubmoss Diphasiastrum alpinum that grow high on our most exposed sheep grazed mountain slopes.

Discovering the Hares Foot Clubmoss

And so it was that one day in 2021 whilst walking a path that I rarely use, I spotted a clubmoss that really stood out to me. This clubmoss bore a resemblance to Stags Horn Clubmoss, but its growth habit was remarkably upright and the majority of its cones being solitary at the end of its stems (peduncles) rather than in twos or threes on the end of short stems (pedicels) at the apex of the peduncles. In the back of my mind, I remembered another species of clubmoss that had quite recently been confirmed as being present in the UK. So, using the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland’s Code of Conduct I collected a small sample and took lots and lots of photographs.

On returning home that day I contacted a friend, David Hill, to see what he thought of the find – we were both a little confused and unhappy to declare what we thought it may be. You see, Hares Foot Clubmoss Lycopodium lagopus hadn’t been found further south than Scotland in the UK, and was considered rare there. The confusion for us was that L. lagopus and L. clavatum are very closely related and share a lot of characteristics.

A close up of Hares Foot Clubmoss

The conversation continued between us for almost a year before I was able to go back to the site and see the plants with fresh cones. This time I carefully collected another sample and even more photographs and took them with me to the BSBI Botanical Conference at the Natural History Museum in London, where I thought I would be guaranteed to bump into Dr. Fred Rumsey – the man who wrote ‘the paper’ on Hares Foot Clubmoss as a UK species.

Sure enough, Fred was happy to declare this to have all the characteristics of Lycopodium lagopus and thus a new member of the Welsh flora.

A new species for Wales

Seeing our Welsh Clubmosses is exciting, finding a brand spanking new one is REALLY exciting. I had bottled up my excitement at finding this ‘something new’ for an awfully long time. The specimens had sat on my desk for nearly two years before Dr Rumsey had managed to see them. So, I am really pleased to tell you about it now.

We have six species of Clubmoss in Wales again, but not with the one we thought we may rediscover. To see them all in one walk would be a very long walk indeed so a ‘four clubmoss day’ will remain a good day in the mountains, a ‘five clubmoss day’ is still exceptional and a ‘six clubmoss day’, I am afraid, is just exhausting. One day I may be able to have a ‘seven clubmoss day’- that Interrupted Clubmoss may yet still survive somewhere in the mountains of Eryri.

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