The challenge of dandelion-a-likes

Guy Edwardes/2020VISION

Botanist-in-learning Amanda Tuke navigates her way through the identification of wildflower look-a-likes.
Hawkweed flower from above

© Amanda Tuke

Visiting my patch, Sydenham Hill Wood, at least once a week and often more means I notice and can really enjoy the progression of flowering plants.

For a botanist in learning, the yellow dandelion-like flowers in the Daisy family can be particularly difficult to identify. But when I find a plant I don’t know flowering in the woods it’s time to bite the bullet.

I sit in the woodland clearing with my hand lens and flower identification book and start methodically noting the plant’s features, trying to use the poetic language of botany. So it has “involucre bracts”, a ruff of green leaf-like structures under the flower, and the flowers grouped in a “loose umbel” or a number of flowers arising from the same point on the stalk. Through the hand lens I can see that the “achene” or fruit is dark brown and ridged and the “pappus” or crown of hairs on the achene are light brown, brittle and vary in length.

These and other features suggest my mystery plant is a Hawkweed, as opposed to the other dandelion-a-likes of Hawkbits, Mouse-ear- hawkweeds, Cat’s-ears, Hawk’s-beards and Sow-thistles. I don’t try and narrow down which Hawkweed it is because my book tells me there are up to 260 microspecies in the British Isles.

But why does it matter what this plant is? Couldn’t we just call them all dandelions? Well it matters to insects. If we take moths for example, my moth and butterfly book tells me that Hawk’s Beard species are the food plants of Marbled Clover, Shaded Pug and Shark, whereas Hawkweeds only support the Sharks.

I don’t think there can be any apps or shortcuts to learning to identify species within this group of flowers, I just need to put the hours in.

Later the same day I’m pleased when my plant is confirmed as Umbellate Hawkweed by a reputable Twitter botanist and feel my confidence expand by a miniscule amount. Small steps!