Nature Notes by Aidan Smith
Over the years I have acquired lots of knowledge about birds and insects, but when it comes to identifying flora my abilities to recognise even some of the commonest of species are sadly lacking.
The Wharfedale Naturalists Society runs a programme of events, for members, throughout the year. Our botany recorder, Bruce Brown, recently presented an evening titled ‘Conifers – Winter identification of these evergreen trees and shrubs,’ I took the opportunity to learn more. After a presentation about the species found locally, it was over to the participants to put their knowledge (in my case newly found) to the test. Laid out in front of us were a number trays containing the leaves, branches and cones from various conifer species. Our task was to identify them with the aid of a handy key. Pine cones can be distinctive in size and shape, but are often out of reach high in the tree. Amongst other characteristics to consider are the size and shape of each leaf, how the leaves are positioned and grouped, how branches lie, presence of berries, feel of the bark, bud shape, and, on occasion, scent.
The conifers evening was run as part of our microscope club programme for 2021/22. While not necessary for identification on this occasion, it was interesting to take a look at a pine needle under the microscope. To me, pine needles always look like such a dry leaf, but slicing a thin cross-section with a razor blade reveals the tissue types and structures found within including the resin canals that are located just in from edge, the walls of which secret resin. Resin canals vary in number depending on species and in many ways they help enable the plant to survive harsh conditions, like a cactus would. In addition, the distasteful resin deters animals and insects form eating the plant.
One cone I had seen before was that of the Bhutan pine (Pinus Wallichiana). Native to the Himalayas a small number of them, eight I believe, grow in my local woodland along with numerous other adventive species. Three or four years ago I chanced upon two pine cones at the base of these trees. They are inspirational at about the length of a size 8 shoe and have remained on my findings shelf at home since. I had never found one again, but that changed when storm Malik struck on 29th January. Its destructive power was evident both on the news and locally. Looking out the back, blue lights could be seen on the Pool Road and as dawn broke a new gap in the poplar trees that line this road was evident.
Walking my usual local loop was a little problematic to start. The gate had gone at the entrance to the wood, replaced by a much larger piece of pine timber blown down in the night. Being on the edge of the wood the tree had been susceptible to gusts. Further into the wood, cones littered the floor under the Bhutan Pines. I bagged up some and shook them in the hope of dislodging any remaining seeds (pictured). The seeds are similar in shape to a sycamore key, but with a more delicate and angular appearance. These trees rarely naturalise. I’m hoping with the seeds collected I might be able to grow a few for future generations so they can enjoy the cones as I have.