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Data detective

Annual knawel (c) Ian Boyd
Annual knawel (c) Ian Boyd,

Ever wondered what the oldest records are in the species dataset?  Much focus is on recent records, however, the partnership data also includes historic observations.

A quick query reveals that the oldest observations in the species dataset are 278 years old and have an interesting story!  These are two records for grid square TQ0591: annual knawel (Scleranthus annuus) and fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera), both observed in 1737 by J. Blackstone.  The survey data are from the London Natural History Society, so a little digging online revealed a lot more about the history of this interesting man and his botany records.

John Blackstone’s life and works are well documented in an article for Watsonia (Bowlt & Bowlt, 23: 29-46, 2000), archived here by the BSBI.

Reading this article, it becomes apparent that the oldest GiGL database records likely originate from Blackstone’s first published work Fasciculus Plantarum circa Harefield sponte nascentium (1737), as the date and location match.  An amateur botanist, Blackstone had an established correspondence with distinguished scientists at the time. It is possible to read, in his own words, about Blackstone’s botanical recording, in a letter to Dr Richard Richardson December 18th 1736:

…I have for these last three years been employ’d in making a collection of the native plants: and having an opportunity of going to see my friends pretty often, I made it my business to see as many of the adjacent places my time would permit, and to collect such plants as offer’d themselves in the course of my walks, without ever intending to publish anything on this subject. But, being detained last Summer by a long illness, near four months on the spot, I found so many rare plants that I thought it worthwhile to make a catalogue of them, and show it to some skillful persons in that science for thier approbation…

from E.M. & C. Bowlt, Watsonia, 23: 29-46, 2000

Blackstone’s Fasciculus Plantarum listed 464 vascular plant species growing in the parish of Harefield, now in the London Borough of Hillingdon.  Bowlt and Bowlt (2000) suggest that the list must have represented a majority of plants growing there at that time and, therefore, they could examine the local extinctions that occurred.  Their comparison with the plants recorded in the LNHS’s botanical survey 1965-1976 (Flora of the London Area, Burton, 1983) indicated that 26% of plants had become extinct in the intervening 240 years (18% if the additional surrounding 2Km is included).

Most of GiGL’s time is spent carrying out specific queries or maintenance of our datasets, but sometimes it’s fascinating, and useful, to explore the datasets themselves and do some detective work. This is something we also encourage others to do, if you have any ideas, please let us know!

Annual knawel (Scleranthus annuus) is featured in the photograph Taken on April 3, 2011 and kindly provided via creative commons, copywrite Ian Boyd. The photograph has been cropped, to see the full image visit the Flikr page.

 January 2015

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