Churches and graveyards

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The second in a (hopefully) regular monthly blog by bryologists around the country: Sean O’Leary extols the virtues of churchyards for a pleasant day’s bryologising…

Churches and graveyards are always worth checking out for interesting bryophytes. As County Recorder for vc24 Buckinghamshire, I’m writing this from a particular point of view – I find them very hit and miss, in that you can look at ten churchyards and find the usual dreary stuff, but in the eleventh find some of the best and rarest bryophytes in the county. Whatever you find, you know that:

  1. There’ll be somewhere to park
  2. You don’t have to walk miles
  3. You’re in a nice restful location
  4. There’ll be a bench to sit on and have your sandwiches.
  5. You might meet some nice people genuinely interested in what you’re doing.

It’s important to be really systematic if you’re going to get the best out of the location. My routine is:

  1. Church walls – North, South, East and West will all be slightly different. Scrape around at the very base of each wall for grotty things like Eucladium verticillatum and Gyroweisia tenuis (north facing wall bases best). Hygrohypnum luridum might also lurk here.
  2. Any tiled roofs accessible? Here you might find exciting Grimmias and Racomitriums.
  3. Gravestones – thoroughness is rewarded. In Bucks, local rarities like Leucodon may grow on a single gravestone. Don’t miss the Rhynchostegiella tenella hidden away behind grassy bits at the base of gravestones.
  4. Boring looking lawns – don’t be fooled: Rhynchostegium megapolitanum can lurk here. How many times have you overlooked that one?
  5. Gravelly and tarmac paths – hands and knees search needed here, with good quality knee pads to avert bleeding knee stumps at the end of the day. Is that just Syntrichia montana or could it be virescens? Say hello to Scleropodium cespitans.
  6. Churchyard walls – lots of potential goodies here.

Your enemy is the over-zealous church warden who cleans the gravestones and church walls of their mossy decoration, so if you get asked what you are doing always explain that mosses and lichens don’t really do any harm to gravestones and in fact enhance their beauty. As for the church roof, although you’ll read dire accounts of evil mosses destroying the roofs of innocent householders, these are usually put out by people trying to flog you a cure. According to the National Federation of Roofing Contractors, moss does little harm to roofs and it is usually the guys power-washing your roof and spraying chemicals around that do the harm:

Other bryologists will mock me, I’m sure, but I sometimes spend a whole day in a good churchyard enjoying the location and getting some of the best moss records I’ve ever found in the county: Grimmia crinita, Grimmia decipiens, Leptobarbula berica, Racomitrium aciculare, fasciculare and obtusum, Didymodon australasiae – where else do you get those in Bucks? Let me know…

Sean O’Leary, October 2022

Published: 1 November 2022