Update on Southport Fernery

We don’t just have ferns in the Fernery – we have been given a range of flowering plants that are suited to life in the wall pockets – and we have already been enjoying the flowers. The Christmas cactus made a great splash of colour – and looked even better when the weeds had been removed! The Paphiopedilum given to us by Henry Folkard has been in flower for over a month now. Yesterday we were delighted to see the first hybrid Epiphyllum in flower – it is spectacular!

On 6th February we opened the Fernery for some important visitors – Margaret Carney, the CEO of Sefton Council, and Angela White of Sefton Council for Voluntary Service, so that they could see what progress has been made in the Fernery, and how we are helping members of the community. We were also delighted to welcome Lord and Lady Fearn of Southport.

Yesterday we introduced volunteers from the BGCA to the mysteries of propagation from spores. BGCA had their own selection of 20 packets of spores from the BPS Spore Exchange, which were sown by the volunteers. Then a few enthusiasts used some previously collected spores to sow ferns for outside the Fernery.

Rosie and Gary sowing ferns for outdoor use

Finally, we were very grateful that heating had been restored after the failure of the electrical system in the Fernery the previous week. Judging by the new croziers emerging, the ferns were grateful too!

Marsh Clubmoos (Lycopodiella inundata)

For an endangered and declining plant, Marsh Clubmoss has a lot of big numbers associated with it. For instance, clubmosses evolved some 400 million years ago and tree-sized clubmosses contributed to the coal swamps of the Carboniferous geological period. However, Marsh Clubmoss is quite small, usually just a few centimetres in height, and looks a bit like the tip nipped of the end of a conifer branch, and pokes upright in the ground. Each plant generally has two short creeping shoots arranged in a V, with an upright “club” arising from the join. In fact, clubmosses are neither moss nor of course conifer, but are closely allied to ferns. Like ferns, they have a two-stage life-cycle. The “clubs”, called strobili, produce 1000s of tiny spores. These spores germinate to produce the gametophyte stage of the plant, which produces eggs and sperm – but I’ve yet to meet anyone who has actually seen a Marsh Clubmoss gametophyte, and that is despite being lucky enough to see 1000s of plants this year! This is pretty amazing – Marsh Clubmoss can form sizeable colonies where it finds suitable conditions, but the gradual degradation of wet heath and valley mire, its preferred habitat, means that it has declined by (and here is an uncomfortably big number) 85% in the last 85 years and many colonies are tiny. Its classification as endangered is a reflection of the very real extinction risk it is facing in the wild.
So how was I fortunate enough to see so many plants? Well, Marsh Clubmoss is one of the 19 species whose fortunes we hope to reverse through Back from the Brink in Dorset. Firstly, we’ve been working with the Species Recovery Trust and our volunteer survey team to check all the known sites in Dorset, bringing records up to date and making a better assessment of how it’s doing and where conditions need improving for the species. Secondly, we are trying to create ideal conditions to allow it to spread.
In lowland England, Marsh Clubmoss is generally found on very open, peaty and often slightly compressed bare ground in wet heathland. This is often along the edges of tracks or livestock paths. It can also creep along the top of bog mosses out in wet valley mires. Low growing, it can’t tolerate being shaded out by other plants and is found where there is little by way of plant nutrients in the soil that would encourage the speedy growth of other plants. Marsh Clubmoss has a trick up its sleeve, because it has an association with a fungus called Mucoromycotina that it is thought may help it gain nutrients in these otherwise unfavourable conditions. In the past, bare ground was created on heathland by grazing livestock, cart tracks and also turf cutting for fuel, but grazing has declined and peat cutting no longer occurs.
So, building on the experience of the Species Recovery Trust and working with Alaska Ecological Contracting, we’ve taken the unusual approach of using some big kit to scrape back the surface vegetation and expose areas of bare peat. Our volunteer survey team will be keeping a sharp eye on these plots over the next few years to see whether clubmoss arrives. We’ve also been trying a more unusual technique at an existing colony where Marsh Clubmoss was first spotted after a tractor scuffed up the peaty substrate. This was one of the biggest colonies in Dorset, and we counted 3,000 plants in 2017 – an impressive sight. However, we were aware that the colony probably wouldn’t persist in the long term, as other vegetation gradually regenerated. So we took a big breath, and last winter we asked RSPB’s Ecological Services to drive up and down over the area while they were on site carrying out other habitat restoration work. The result – a four-fold increase resulting in the phenomenal sight of around 12,000 plants! Definitely my favourite big number for Marsh Clubmoss.
If you are local to Dorset and interested in volunteer surveys for Dorset’s Heathland Heart, do please get in touch.
Back from the Brink is one of the most ambitious conservation initiatives ever undertaken. This is the first time ever that so many conservation organisations have come together with one focus- to bring some of England’s most threatened animals, plants and fungi back from the brink of extinction. Natural England is working in Partnership with Rethink Nature, and the entire project is made possible thanks to funding from the National Lottery. Find out more about our work here;

Email: dorsetsheathlandheart@plantlife.org.uk
Online: naturebftb.co.uk
Facebook: @naturebftb
Twitter: @naturebftb

Article by Dr Sophie Lake – Dorset’s Heathland Heart Co-Project Manager

January at Harlow Carr

Greetings from a wintery cold Harlow Carr! Thankfully we are holding our annual spore sowing classes at the moment, which allows us to stay in the warmth inside! It’s that time of the year when spores are available to BPS members and each year I do a short demo for students. I learned a method from other fern enthusiasts where I can sow the spores in a setting that is not a sterile laboratory and can be done almost anywhere. With help from literature from the BPS we have had a few good batches, using materials such as small pots, well drained soil, boiling water, microwave and cling film.

I label each pot by writing directly on each one with a paint marker, as they sit for quite a long time and sometimes labels can fade.                      

I use a non-chemical method to sterilize our soil and pots, which I’ve had some success with by running boiling water over the soil and then also microwaving the pot with its soil in for a minute. This kills off any unwanted bacteria, moss, fungus and other elements, as well as providing the moisture they will need.

After a day of cooling we sow our spores by tipping out our perfectly folded envelopes from the BPS spore exchange onto the soil surface. Without touching the soil, we then wrap them in cling film to keep moisture in and keep out unwanted guests. These pots are then kept under a glasshouse bench, out of direct sunlight for between six months to a year, before a moss-like growth begins to appear, which are the first stages of fern growth cycle.

It’s quite some time before I prick any out, as I let them fill their pots and keep each other in good company before meddling with them and introduce any fungal spores, as well as waiting for a time when they are large enough for my big hands to handle them! I prick them out into groups or patches, and later, as they grow more, prick out the largest ones that survive.

Sowing spores has been a rewarding method to learn and practice, as well as being good fun, in that they can be done at home or in a setting that isn’t completely sterile, something which has encouraged me to experiment and realise you don’t always need professional equipment to take on a challenge. Witnessing the whole process of something that looks smaller than dust becoming a plant still retains that magic and wonder for me each time. The amount of sporelings you can get is also amazing, so for restoration projects it’s a valuable technique. Even more, seeing ferns like Adiantum or a Asplenium or a Cheilanthes (there are so many!) with their first true fronds in miniature, is actually very special and beautiful! So enjoy and have fun with your spores and sporlings!