15 November 2010
Smuts are microscopic fungi that occur inside living host plants. They are usually only noticed when they hijack parts of developing flowers or fruits and replace pollen or seeds with dark brown masses of spores. The distribution of Bird’s-eye primrose smut is tied to that of its host, the pink-flowered Bird’s-eye primrose, a nationally scarce plant of the northern Pennines. The very few known British records of this smut ceased in 1904 and it was regarded as extinct until its rediscovery in 2010.
Latin name: Urocystis primulicola
Two hours of primrose survey in 2010 revealed half a dozen infected plants at one site. Other known sites for the plant remain to be surveyed.
Where to see and when:
The brief 2010 survey of a small part of Sunbiggin Tarn & Moors and Little Asby Scar SSSI was undertaken in early September when the primrose seed capsules were mature. Timing is important because the smut infects the plant’s ovaries and surveying involves squeezing the ovaries to reveal the contents. Healthy mature capsules split to reveal a yellowish interior with seeds at the base whereas “smutted” capsules have seeds replaced by a blackish spore mass.
What’s being done:
Conservationists are publicising this species in an effort to encourage field botanists and other naturalists who visit Bird’s-eye Primrose sites when seed is mature (Aug-Sept) to spend a little time detecting smut by squeezing ovaries. Only through such wider involvement can we build up an accurate picture of the current distribution of this neglected fungus and assess its conservation status.
Vánky K. 1994. European Smut Fungi p.302. Gustav Fischer Verlag, Stuttgart.