Great crested newts are our largest newt in the UK but their common name can be a little misleading – I have met many people who assume any newt with a crest is a great crested newt. This is not true – the smooth newt also has a crest but is a very different creature. The other old English name for great crested newt is the warty newt and this is a much better diagnostic tool for telling between the two species – the great crested newt has rough, bumpy skin whilst the smooth newt is as smooth as its name suggests. The great crested is also a much larger beast but the juveniles are very similar in size to a smooth newt and so it is important to know the characteristic differences to tell between the two at different life stages.
There is a third species – the palmate newt – which is similar to (although slightly smaller than) the smooth newt but the palmate has a smooth pink or yellow chin whilst the smooth newt has a blotchy patterned throat.
With a little practise, the smooth and the great crested newts are very easy to tell apart both in the hand and in the pond. On recent newt surveys, we came across males of both species and I have put together the two images below to show the key ID features for our two most frequently encountered newts.
Willows (Salix genus) are one of the earliest flowering tree species in the UK and are a fantastic nectar source for early pollinators such as bumblebees and butterflies. These trees are dioecious which means that there are separate male and female trees which can be distinguished by their flowers. Another more commonly known example of a dioecious tree would be the holly – only the female trees bear the red berries. One of the traditional names for willow flowers was ‘vegetable goslings’ which seems a perfect description to me!
The flowers are quite unusual when compared with a simple flower such as a buttercup which follows the classic textbook diagram. Willow flowers are catkins – these are spikes of numerous tiny flowers rather than each catkin representing a single flower. Each of the yellow-tipped spikes in the male flower is one of the stamens and there are generally two or more of these to each individual flower within the catkin – the number varies with species. The same is true, although less easily illustrated, for the female flowers which have two or more stigmas per flower.
The male and female flowers appear at the same time in order that the pollen from the male flowers is able to fertilise the female flowers. The flowers are quite different from one another in appearance and, side by side, it would be easy to assume that a male and a female willow tree were two different species.
The willow flowers are an excellent source of nectar for early pollinating species, such as queen bumblebees which have emerged from hibernation and are establishing nests, or the early Nymphalidae butterflies which hibernate through the winter.
Native bluebells are almost synonymous with English springtime, there is little more distinctive and evocative than the haze of blue they spread across a woodland floor. However the native English bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), is not the only bluebell we have. The Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica) was introduced as a garden flower and can produce fertile hybrids with the natives – indeed the true Spanish bluebell is relatively rarely encountered but many hybrid Spanish bluebells occur especially in and close to gardens. Below is a brief illustrative guide to help you tell the difference.
1. Look at the leaves
Native bluebells have relatively thin leaves, around 1-1.5cm wide. Spanish and hybrid-Spanish bluebells tend to have much thicker leaves, around 3cm wide. The leaves of the Spanish and hybrid-Spanish bluebell often have a fleshier feel to them.
2. Look at the flowers
Native bluebells are a distinctive deep-blue in colour, whereas Spanish and hybrid-Spanish bluebells are often lighter, more pale blue or pink. Look also at the shape of the flowers, the native bluebell flowers curl back at the petal tips whilst those of the Spanish and hybrid-Spanish bluebells are splayed. If you get down close, look at the colour of the anthers; these are cream in natives and tend to be a pale-blue colour in the Spanish and hybrid-Spanish, although they can be cream coloured in white or pink flowers.
3. Look at the architecture
Native bluebells have the flowers concentrated on just one side of the stem, giving them the distinctive nodding, drooping look. Spanish and hybrid-Spanish bluebell flowers are on all sides of the flower spike, giving the flower a much more upright appearance.
4. Sniff the flowers!
You should be able to pick up a sweet aroma from the flowers of the native bluebell whilst those of the Spanish and hybrid-Spanish bluebell are generally scentless.
5. Still unsure?
The two species hybridise, and can back-hybridise to create plants more like one of the two true species at either end than the ‘standard’ hybrid. This means there can be a wide variation in characteristics making a confident ID difficult at times – however distinguishing the native from non-native is usually fairly straightforward using the characteristics above. Hybridisation with native bluebells is one of the most significant threats that the Spanish bluebells pose to the natives.
I put together a crib which shows the key characteristics of the typical English bluebells below – hopefully this will provide an useful visual aid! However the detail provided in this blog by Cumbria Botany is perhaps the most comprehensive illustrations of the two species and the hybrids in between. The BSBI crib is also valuable, but the text and terminology doesn”t make it very accessible to a beginner!
Cowslips are a common sight in April and May – brightening up grasslands and motorway verges with their swathes of nodding yellow flower heads. When I first started out in botany, I spent a good while convincing myself that the cowslips were indeed cowslips and not oxlips – Rose’s wildflower key tells you that cowslip is like oxlip but the ‘leaves are more wrinkled and the stem is more gradually tapered to the base’ which requires a certain amount of experience to compare! Luckily the sniff test (cowslip flowers smell like apricots) saw me right!
One simple rule of thumb is location – true oxlips are a rare ancient woodland species restricted to the part of the country where the counties of Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Essex meet. Unless you are in a location like this, you are unlikely to be encountering oxlip. But to be on the safe side, here’s a few more pointers!
Cowslip – Primula veris
The flowers of cowslip, like those of oxlip, form a nodding head facing in a single direction. They can be long-stemmed – up to 25cm tall, but are often shorter where the nutrient levels are lower. The flowers are deep yellow with orange flecks in the centre.
You can find up to 30 flowers in a flower head, or sometimes just a few. Remember to take a sniff – the apricot aroma is quite distinctive in a fresh flower!
Oxlip – Primula elatior
Oxlip, as mentioned above, is a rare native found in ancient woodland in a restricted area of the country. If you are encountering the species on a roadside verge or in a meadow in Nottinghamshire, it’s probably not an oxlip. However the species can be bought as a plant, or grown from seed, so it is quite possible it can spring up in unexpected places if it escaped the confines of its sowing!
The oxlip is similar in structure and stature to the cowslip, in growing to ~25cm high and having 10-30 flowers on a head. As with the cowslip, all of the flowers will be nodding on the same side of the stem.
The oxlip flower is less bell-shaped than the cowslip, with more open spreading petals and a lighter, paler yellow. The centres of the flowers lack the orange spots usually found with cowslip.
False oxlip – Primula vulgaris x veris
Just to add to the confusion, there is another species which can be confused with both cowslip and oxlip and this is the false oxlip. The latin name is Primula vulgaris x veris reflecting the fact that a false oxlip is in fact a cross between a primrose and a cowslip, occuring where these two species are found in close proximity. If you find something which you suspect to be an oxlip outside of the correct habitat and geographical area, a false oxlip is your most likely suspect!
The flowers are more open and spreading, a little like an oxlip, but you can see the telltale orange flecks which indicate the cowslip parantage. Rather than nodding in a single direction, as a pure oxlip or cowslip would do, these flowers face in all directions. There is significant variability in the character or these hybrids, with some being closer to the primrose parent and some more strongly representing cowslip.