The return of the delicate flapwort

The following piece appeared as a guest post on the Guardian’s GrrlScientist blog on 28th October 2013. It was a follow-up to my earlier post, In search of the delicate flapwort—and why we need tricorders.

I love the Internet. A couple of months ago, I wrote about my clueless, fruitless search for an elusive plant, the delicate flapwort (Solenostoma caespiticium), in Blake Dean, a local beauty spot in West Yorkshire. The plant, which is a species of liverwort, was last seen in Blake Dean in 1978 by the bryologist T.L. Blockeel. It’s only been seen a handful of times in the whole of England since then—and only, as far as I can tell, by Tom Blockeel.

Imagine my delight when, six weeks after my piece appeared online, I receive an email out of the blue from a local botanist and ecologist, Johnny Turner, who’s spent the last year looking for exactly the same plant, in exactly the same place that I looked for it. And the wonderful news is that he, accompanied by none other than Tom Blockeel, has just been back to Blake Dean that very day, and has finally located the long-lost delicate flapwort!

In his email, Johnny goes on to explain, in case I hadn’t already guessed, that I never really stood a chance of finding the plant, as ‘it’s only really visible in the autumn and winter … and is really, really tiny’. He asks if I’d like to see it, and maybe some other species. Of course I leap at the chance!

A few days later, I meet Johnny and his border collie, Betty (Canis lupus familiaris), at the car park in Hardcastle Crags, another local beauty spot just downstream from Blake Dean. Our plan is to walk through the National Trust woodland, along the banks of Hebden Water, examining the mosses, liverworts and fungi, and eventually making our way up into Blake Dean to photograph our flapwort. The weather forecast is abysmal, but, as Johnny points out, it’s great weather for bryophytes—that’s mosses and liverworts, to you and me.

We walk through the woods, telling each other a bit about ourselves. It turns out we’re both Yorkshire offcumdens, having both moved to Hebden Bridge over a decade ago. We’ve never bumped into each other before, even though we live at different ends of the same road.

In no time at all, Johnny has taken a short detour off the path so show me a locally rare liverwort. It’s at the foot of a small waterfall feeding into the river: Miss Hutchins’ hollywort (Jubula hutchinsiae), discovered by, and named in honour of, the gifted Irish amateur botanist Ellen Hutchins (1785–1815). Johnny explains that this plant (which nowadays usually goes by the shorter, non-gender-specific name Hutchins’ hollywort) requires mild, frost-free, humid conditions, and is typically found in Atlantic ravines in West Wales and Scotland, being considerably rarer away from those areas. He goes on to explain that the plant was found on this very spot in 1896 by local bryologist James Needham (1849–1913), and has been growing happily here ever since.

Hutchins’ hollywort.
Hutchins’ hollywort.

We continue along the river to Gibson Mill, an early cotton mill. It’s self-sufficient in energy these days, having a convenient forest and millpond to provide heat and electricity for the National Trust café inside. The air is a lot cleaner around here since the local mills closed down—and since the passing of the 1956 Clean Air Act. Johnny says the bryologists who documented the flora of the Hardcastle Crags in the old days would be astonished at the change in mosses on the trees, from sulphur-dioxide-tolerant species to those found here today.

We take a brief mycological break to admire and photograph the autumnal profusion of fungi.

Honey fungus.
Dead man’s fingers.

Then we’re off into wilder parts, as Hedben Dale becomes more rugged and gorge-like. Johnny keeps stopping to scrutinise minuscule patches of green through his 20x hand-lens, muttering away to himself excitedly in Linnean Latin, then apologising for his enthusiasm. He loans me his spare lens, and I am astonished: up close, these totally indistinguishable clumps of green look very different from each other—and rather wonderful.

Bank Haircap Moss.

We head off up a track I’ve never noticed before, stopping every hundred yards or so to admire some new mossy thing with an unpronounceable Latin name. Then suddenly we’re out of the trees and entering Blake Dean. We clamber over rocks at the side of the river, terrifying the local dippers, and find ourselves at the foot of the same landslide where I looked for the delicate flapwort a little over six weeks ago. Johnny has already told me that my instincts had been correct, and that this was an excellent place to look for the plant, which doesn’t like competition, preferring recently disturbed soils. He clambers up the landslide in search of new colonies of flapworts. I make myself useful by throwing sticks for Betty.

No joy. There are no delicate flapworts at the landslide—which makes me feel slightly less useless for not having found them last time. But Johnny tells me the ones he saw last week aren’t far away. Unfortunately, they’re on the other side of river. I waded through the river twice last time, but that was on a sunny August day, the river was considerably lower, and I was wearing shorts. So we plough on through the dying bracken, up the slope to the road, cross the river by the road bridge, and head back downstream on the far side.

And then we’re there. Half-way up a flight of steps at the side of the river, Johnny suddenly crouches down and points at a patch of compacted soil just above the path. ‘There it is!’ he says.

I look closely. There’s nothing there. It’s just bare earth. I scan my eyes back and forth. He’s having me on! There’s just a few broken heather stalks and a tiny smudge of green—some sort of algae, I guess. But Johnny is now down on his knees, admiring the smudge through his hand-lens. Then I have a go.

Stone me, it’s the delicate flapwort!

Delicate flapwort (green smudge, top-right).

The plant is way too small even for my SLR camera’s whizz-bang macro lens. So I improvise, borrowing Johnny’s far more powerful hand-lens and taking photos through it with my mobile phone:

Delicate flapwort.

I must have walked within a foot of the plant, the last time I was here. But, even if it had been showing at the time, I would never have spotted it. Johnny was right: the delicate flapwort is really, really tiny.

Delicate flapwort. Photo © Johnny Turner.

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