Monday, 31 December 2012

House Spiders

It was the late Gordon Osborn, a genial retired butcher from Olney, who first - inadvertently - guided me towards the study of spiders. His own interests were snails and fleas, and we noted that certain invertebrate groups were very neglected. I felt that spiders were much maligned and therefore given little attention, not realising that in the Northamptonshire village of Wadenhoe lived Eric Duffey, one of Europe's most distinguished arachnologists. He had, in 1956, discovered one of Britain's largest and rarest spiders, Dolomedes plantarius, at Redgrave Fen; but for Eric's efforts the spider would probably have become extinct there. When Eric retired to France I took over as Spider Recorder for Northants. However, I digress...

I do limited work on spiders nowadays but generally check out any which, for one reason or another, come to my attention. In our house in Byfield I have noted about a dozen species, of which four are "regulars". I mused on these matters when contemplating the imminent removal of the Christmas decorations for there, tucked away in the corner of our living room, was a large, untidy web of the Daddy Long-legs Spider Pholcus phalangioides. This species is rarely, if ever, found outside buildings in Britain, suggesting that it is not a native to this country but is a relatively recent arrival. People who dislike spiders may be pleased to learn that other spiders form a large part of the diet of Pholcus so arachnophobes have a dilemma: leave it to keep down the population of spiders in the house, or get rid of it. It does not need to be described in detail for no other house spider has this combination of long legs and a large tangled web. Incidentally phalangioides means "like a harvestman (Daddy Long-legs)".

The Mouse Spider Scotophaeus blackwalli is also more or less confined to houses, and turns up here from time to time. I'm afraid it is quickly dispatched as it has been known to ruin insect collections by chewing the specimens; I'm not going to expose my collection to this danger. It also has a rather nasty bite which can take a week or more to clear up. This species is 8-10 mm long with the females being generally larger than the males; it has a mouse-grey colour, giving this spider its common name, and is more or less nocturnal in habit.

From time to time, often on a late summer evening, a large, long-legged spider will emerge from behind an item of furniture and dash across the floor. This is the House Spider Eratigena atrica (=Tegenaria gigantea). Though most often found in buildings it does occur in hollow tree trunks, beneath overhanging banks, and so on. The females reach a body length of about 16 mm, justifying the specific epithet of 'gigantea' - and they will bite, although only under unusual circumstances. I once had a large female in a specimen tube and had mislaid the stopper, so I put my thumb over the tube while I rummaged around. Big mistake! However, the well-deserved bite was no worse than a wasp sting and the pain lasted less than 48 hours. The males are smaller than the females and it is males which are most often seen as they go out, reeking of Old Spice and carrying flowers (Now Tony, don't be silly!) in search of females.

The fourth, and most common spider in our house is Amaurobius similis, but you will be relieved to know that I'm leaving comments on this species until a later blog.



Saturday, 29 December 2012

Sand Dunes and Christmas Trees.

The sand dunes at Winterton on Sea (see previous blog) seemed in a pretty good condition, with the Marram Grass doing its vital job of stabilisation, but elsewhere along the coast I noticed worrying signs of erosion. In many places such as Formby and along the Essex coast Christmas trees are being strategically placed to augment the work of the Marram Grass and help in the job of re-establishing dunes. Most communities seem to arrange a post-Christmas collection (our local authority certainly does) and I'll be dragging our tree out and adding it to the heap shortly. 

The tree most commonly used for decoration purposes at Christmas is of course the Norway Spruce Picea abies. It is not native to Britain but where plantations have been established self-sown seedlings are common. This is not surprising as it certainly has been native to our islands during more recent interglacials, with the pollen sometimes being found in considerable quantities. So, although "alien" species are often unwelcome, we should perhaps not be too alarmed if the tree becomes a minor feature of suitable terrain. Furthermore it does support a number of interesting insects such as the Spruce-cone Bug Gastrodes abietum, the Great Spruce Bark Beetle Dendroctonus micans and a tortrix moth Cydia illutana - although it has to be said that some of these insects are not welcomed in plantations! A couple of fairly mature Norway Spruce are present in Byfield Pocket Park and I'll be monitoring them in the coming year.

Friday, 28 December 2012

A Winter's Day at Winterton

Chris and I decided, almost on the spur of the moment, to slip away and spend Christmas in the Norfolk Broads. The weather was remarkably good and the highlight was actually on Christmas Day, when we visited Winterton on Sea.

We had no idea of what to expect and were astonished to find a wonderful area of dunes and dune slacks. Most unusually the soil conditions were acid, with ling, gorse and birch being prominent. Predictably, the gorse was in flower (see blog for 8 December).

Some of the birches were really picturesque, with contorted trunks as shown in the second picture. This can possibly be explained by rabbits - of which there is a large population - nibbling away at seedlings to produce natural coppicing. Away from the trees there were large patches of Polypody (a fern mentioned in a previous blog) together with areas covered with a grey lichen. It was a species of Cladonia and could be Reindeer Moss (Cladonia rangiferina) but I am far from certain. Not surprisingly, the area is a National Nature Reserve.

The walk back along the beach was far less interesting but we were intrigued by a group of a dozen or so Common Sandpipers at the water's edge performing tiny hopping movements, perhaps to disturb small invertebrates. For this homeward walk we were blessed with bright sunlight, our bodies casting grotesquely long shadows across the sand. A Christmas Day to be remembered.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Jew's Ear Fungus

The common name of this fungus is seen as politically incorrect in the USA where the name Jelly Ear is being used as an alternative. Why I don't know:  Dicentra cucullaria is known as Dutchman's Breeches and we also have Hottentot Fig (Carpobrotus edulis), so where's the problem? Jew's Ear apparently gets its name from a belief that Judas Iscariot hanged himself from an Elder Tree. Depending on which legend you read he also hanged himself from a Judas Tree (Cercis siliquastrum) and a Hawthorn. He was obviously very thorough.


Anyway, it is a very common fungus which I have only ever found on Elder, although it apparently occurs on other trees. Its Latin name of Auricularia auricula-judaea is a direct translation of its common name. I spotted these specimens yesterday when out on a walk with my friend John Pimm near Charwelton. According to the usual books it is edible. I consulted Google and found a recipe for cooking Jew's Ears with sorrel and ginger. Call me conservative but I can't claim I'm tempted.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Earth Stars

A few days ago I noticed what appeared to be a group of small Puff-balls among dead leaves in the Pocket Park. I tentatively identified them as Lycoperdon pyriforme; I should have taken a closer look. Today I did indeed inspect one more closely and realised that it was an Earth Star, almost certainly Geastrum triplex. Wind and rain had exposed more of the fruit body.

As the fruiting bodies of Earth Stars mature the outer wall splits into the pointed rays which give these fungi their common name; my photograph shows six rays but these are not diagnostic as this species can have from 4 to 8 of these structures. We have several species of Earth Star native to Britain. Most are rare; none is excessively common but Geastrum triplex seems to be the most frequently encountered.

Moral: don't jump to conclusions, particularly with a group of organisms in which you have little expertise.

Cotoneasters

My friends Ann and John Pimm have a lovely Cotoneaster in their Charwelton garden. This is a difficult genus in terms of identification but I'm pretty certain that their specimen is Cotoneaster x watereri. Around Christmas time the scarlet berries of holly are much prized but this hybrid Cotoneaster is equally fine.

Birds enjoy the fruit and this alone is a good reason for the wildlife gardener to include a specimen - or there are hundreds of smaller alternatives available from this genus if space is at a premium.  However, this is not the only reason for including one of these in the garden; their creamy flowers attract very large numbers of insects, particularly Honey Bees. Your local bee-keepers will be ever in your debt!

Cotoneaster is a large genus of around 80 to 150 species (depending on the criteria used). Something like forty species are now naturalised in Britain, and are found on railway embankments, waste ground and so on. However one member of the genus is native to Britain. This is Cotoneaster integerrimus, a rare plant found only on Great Orme's Head, near Llandudno.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Two Notable Trees

Chris and I visited Helmdon, near Brackley,  earlier today. The pupils at the village school were attending a nativity service in the local church so, as our daughter Jacqui is the Head Teacher, we thought we'd show family support.

Wall Rue was present in the mortar of a limestone wall in Church Street. About twenty plants were there but, as far as I could see, they were confined to this one location. The leaves of this fern look a little like the true Rue (Ruta graveolens), but there the resemblance ends. It is not an exciting plant!

There was time for a stroll around the churchyard and there I came upon quite an impressive Ash Tree. At some time the tree had been cut off at the base, i.e. it had been coppiced, and eight strong branches now grow from the stool. (My photograph appears to show only seven, but I counted eight.) It would be very sad if Ash Dieback led to its demise.

However, this tree was as nothing when compared with a Yew close to the church itself. I roughly measured its girth at head height and made it about ten metres. According to a notice in the church, following numerous calculations the conclusion had been reached that it was 1,700 years old. I have to say I'm very sceptical about such a date as it would mean that the tree predates the church; a medieval date would seem more likely. One interesting feature was that the tips of many hundreds of branches bore "Pineapple Galls". These are caused by a gall midge, Taxomyia taxa. It is not uncommon but I have never before seen a tree so infested. Strangely, several other Yews nearby showed no sign of galling. The lower photograph shows - not very clearly - a couple of affected shoots.

Trees of this age are often hosts to unusual invertebrates including spiders and false scorpions so I may try to return there next summer for a closer look.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Wall Plants

With the sun again shining brightly I set off for a brisk walk, confining myself to the village. There are dozens of old walls hereabouts, with at least one being a Grade 2 Listed Building, and I was struck by the number of plants finding a congenial home there. One of the commonest is Reflexed Stonecrop (Sedum rupestre), sometimes accompanied by its relative, Biting Stonecrop (Sedum acre). The former (top left) is an introduction from the southern part of Europe; the latter (second picture) is a native plant. If you have ever wondered how Biting Stonecrop gets its name, try nibbling one of its leaves, It has a distinct peppery taste, hence the specific name 'acre' (cf acrid - burning). Both these plants will have starry yellow flowers in the summer.

Aubretia - always called this despite its 'proper' name of Aubrieta - is common all around the village and several plants bore a few flowers, as in the example below, photographed today beside the main road. Common it may be but a tumbling purple or blue waterfall of this plant is a glorious sight - and is much appreciated by bees and butterflies. It is a native of south-east Europe but is more or less naturalised in places.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

A muddy miscellany

I set out this morning in an elated mood, Northampton Saints having confounded their critics by pulling off a remarkable victory against Ulster at their Ravenhill stronghold.

I headed for The Twistle (the road has a sharp twist towards its western end and this may account for the odd name) and crossed into Muddy Lane.

The more official name for this track is Pit Lane but few villagers call it that and, as my photograph shows, the unofficial name is very appropriate. I should emphasise that the lane usually looks like this at the height of summer! It is bordered by a variety of shrubs and trees but nothing of real note. Elm continues to throw up new growth every year but invariably dies off at about the height of two metres - Dutch Elm Disease is still very much with us. My photograph above shows the peculiar corky ridges which make Elm so easily recognised.

The sun was shining brightly but, as it is so low in the sky at this time of the year, it gave out little warmth. A few Winter Gnats danced in safety around some rose briars. I had badly torn my sweep net in a similar situation a few days previously so I made no attempt to catch any. I did make a desultory sweep over some dead grass heads but all I came up with was an immature Larinioides cornutus - a common orb-weaving spider and nothing to set the heart racing. A Robin watched my efforts; it will need more success than I enjoyed if it is not to go hungry. A Heron passed overhead from the direction of Boddington Reservoir where it had doubtless been for an early morning fishing session.

Not all walks produce noteworthy observations but, what did it matter...The Saints had won!


Saturday, 15 December 2012

Defying the odds

The very cold conditions of recent days have been brought to an end by heavy rain, so heavy in fact that several roads in this area were impassable by late evening yesterday.

I took a stroll over to Byfield allotments earlier today, but not before observing a group of about a dozen Long-tailed Tits working their way through a Hawthorn tree in our back garden. They at least have passed the first icy ordeal of winter. Many of the allotment plots, as shown in my photograph, were badly flooded. This is a frequent occurence on this low-lying land and, not for the first time, I was glad that I'd given up my own plot a couple of months ago. 

On the roadside  adjacent to the allotments a clump of Perennial Cornflower was in flower, defying the elements.  This is not native to Britain but is widely naturalised on rough ground, having been thrown out from gardens, where it can become invasive. To me it is the cottage garden flower par excellence.
My walk took me back via the Pocket Park
where, even in miserable conditions, there is usually something of interest to be noted. Today my attention was caught by a leaf mine on a bramble. It was formed by the larva of a Glossy Bramble Pygmy Moth, a tiny moth with the inordinately long name of Stigmella splendidissimella. The windy conditions made photography awkward so I re-photographed the leaf at home.

Identification of these leaf miners can be tricky but the food plant, the shape and position of the mine and the distribution of the frass are all helpful.("Frass" is the name used by lepidopterists for the excrement of insects.) The insect egg has hatched towards the left of the leaf. The larva has then eaten its way towards the right - with the mine getting steadily wider as the larva grows - and has emerged at the leaf edge on the right-hand end of the leaf.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Fatsia japonica

My attention was first drawn to this plant some years ago when I saw it growing near to Temple tube station in the heart of London. It was not long before Christmas and the creamy flowers were attacting great numbers of insects. There and then I resolved to get one for my own garden.

It is not bone hardy and may get damaged in severe weather but it is tough enough to recover and mine is doing well in a fairly exposed spot. I wouldn't be without it and for entomologists it is a must, continuing to attracting insects as the ivy begins to falter. The two genera,  Hedera (ivy) and Fatsia, are very closely related and even the non-botanist can quickly spot the resemblance when comparing the flower heads. They are, in fact, so closely related that a bi-generic hybrid (x Fatshedera) exists and is popular as a house plant.
These thought came to mind when I visited Banbury yesterday  (13th December) and saw a specimen in full bloom but with its flowers thickly encrusted with frost. Will it bounce back? This is something to be checked out on my next visit. I must also check my own garden specimen, when hopefully the flowers will be more like those shown below.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Apples and Thrushes

Byfield Pocket Park is situated on land once occupied by our railway station, sadly closed to passenger trains in May,1948. Adjacent to the station was a small orchard and a few apple trees survive, some of considerable size. They still bear a decent crop of apples and, as no one harvests them, they eventually fall to the ground to be feasted on by blackbirds, fieldfares and the occasional redwing. All these birds are types of thrush, saddled with the unfortunate Latin name of Turdus - a fact which seems not to trouble them. 

A little earlier today I visited the garden of my next-door neighbour, Margaret. She unfortunately took a fall a few days ago, fracturing her hip, and I went around with a "Get Well Soon" card. Her apple tree still bore lots of fruit, and I wasn't the only one to have noted this for fieldfares and blackbirds were tucking in. There will soon be little remaining but, in ingesting the fruit they will also have swallowed some seeds. These may be voided at some distance from the parent plant to give another source of "crab apples" (see blog for 10th December).

Holly - a more serious blog

Over the next few days people will be gathering or buying holly for festive decorations. It is a plant so familiar to us in Northamptonshire that it is worth reminding ourselves that it may not be native to our county at all. George Claridge Druce, in his "Flora of Northamptonshire" (1930) is clearly very doubtful and states (page 47): I know of no native station in Northants. (My italics). Significantly too John Clare, whose poems are liberally scattered with references to our wild plants, fails to mention it. Two other points:

!. Holly was widely used as a fodder crop in the Middle Ages, when the trees would be pollarded to encourage tender young growth (a practice apparently continuing in parts of south-west Scotland). Such a valuable tree would surely have been mentioned in, for example, John Morton's monumental work, "The Natural History of Northamptonshire", published in 1712, but its pages are silent on the subject.

2. I know of no place-names in our county - and I am open to correction on this point - referring in any way to holly. All very strange.

It is not until 1842 that we first get a  reference to holly in Northants and it comes from from the Banbury Catalogue of Thomas Beesley, a "chemist and druggist" who, though living in Oxfordshire, recorded holly from the village of Thenford.

Be that as it may, it is now common in our hedgerows and woodlands, and numerous small specimens are thriving in Byfield Pocket Park. All the seed is likely to have come from gardens in the village, or perhaps from wreaths placed in the adjacent burial ground at Christmas time. Immigrant it may be (don't tell the Daily Mail!) but it is a very welcome one. Long may it continue to thrive.



Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Hard Times

There was a significant overnight frost leaving the trees glistening with ice crystals and the ground iron-hard. My maternal grandmother would have much approved; in a mild winter she would shake her head. "Green Christmas, fat churchyard", was her inevitable comment. This is a very old saying, going back many centuries. Did people feel that a hard winter would somehow purge the land of pestilence, so reducing the mortality rate?                

For many of our birds these are hard times, with conditions particularly serious for tiny species such as the Long-tailed Tit. If this cold weather is prolonged the mortality rate could be high. Our garden pond is frozen but the stream is still flowing well so water is not a problem.

Holly leaves bore long whiskers of frost and the carpet of dead leaves under my feet crunched as I made my way through the Pocket Park. In these conditions tiny invertebrates tend to go deeper and deeper into the leaf litter so, scraping away the icy top layer, I brought home a bag of unfrozen material for examination. Among the species found was the extremely common woodlouse Philoscia muscorum and the equally common Carabid Notiophilus biguttatus.  The latter - a ground beetle with bulging eyes - has surprisingly not been previously recorded for the Pocket Park so the invertebrate total creeps up to 432 species.



Mahonias in the Mist

We have a Mahonia in our back garden but it is situated in a patch of poor, stony soil and does not thrive. I was pleased therefore to chance across, and photograph, some fine specimens in Banbury yesterday morning (11th December). I suspect they were examples of that fine hybrid Mahonia x media 'Charity' and they brightened up the car park on a foggy morning. It is quite a fragrant plant too but the air would have needed to be a little warmer for this to be evident.

Mahonias, named after the gardener Bernard McMahon, are in the Barberry family and consist of about 70 shrubs and small trees. The first species I ever encountered was Mahonia aquifolium, known as Oregon Grape. It is an untidy, sprawling thing, and why it was awarded the Award of Gardening Merit back in 1930 is a mystery to me. Perhaps its chief merit is that it is a tough plant, coping with dry and shady conditions. It is widely naturalised in Northamptonshire and over much of Britain, having often been planted in en masse as ground cover for game. I often see it receive visits from bees and it is apparently also self-pollinated. It certainly produces lots of berries and these can be used for jam making, a fact unaccountably overlooked by Jamie Oliver and Delia Smith.

Mahonias are found down the western seaboard of North America and are the state flower of Oregon but are also found in south and east Asia. It is tempting to think that this odd distribution may be linked to continental drift.

Be that as it may, I must feed our struggling specimen this coming spring or I may find myself charged with neglect.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Confusing Crabs



                            When icicles hang by the wall...

As kids we had to learn extracts from "Love's Labour Lost" and I can still recall most of this famous poem. I was reminded of this on my walk earlier today when I saw some Crab Apples hanging from a branch.

                       When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl...

I always assumed that the setting was a cottage by the sea and the crabs were the familiar marine crustaceans; my teacher never explained that they were Crab Apples and for some years I remained in blissful ignorance. All very confusing. I would have been further puzzled had I been familiar with a line from John Clare:

And crabs sun-reddened with a tempting cheek. 

Even more confusing is the identification of these wayside specimens. The true Crab Apple, Malus sylvestris, is quite common but I suspect that many records may be in fact be examples of Malus domestica. Clive Stace, in his "New Flora of the British Isles" (1991) says [Malus sylvestris is] ... "much over-recorded for Malus domestica". These will have grown from apple cores casually flung aside by walkers. Crab Apples are usually - but not always - spiny; "domestic" apples never are.

I was pleased also to see several oak seedlings in a hedgerow forming one border of the Pocket Park. Earlier this year a group of us planted a "Jubilee Oak" in the P.P. so, in one way and another, there should be numerous oaks for future generations, compensating for the likely loss of many Ash trees.






Quite a few flies were on the wing along a south-facing line of shrubs. Most were Anthomyids, commonly known as...er...Anthomyids. They are very tricky to identify; I can't do it, and I don't know many people who can. I had more success with a Tachinid fly, Macquartia grisea. This species is parasitic on certain beetles and is not uncommon. However I was very surprised to take a specimen so late in the year. [For the enthusiast this fly has: a dusting of hairs on its face on either side of the antennae; bright yellow calypters and halteres; hairs on the radio-cubital node and crossed apical hairs on the scutellum.] For the non-enthusiast it is a very ordinary-looking fly superficially like a House Fly - but it pleased me! It was the 431st insect/spider I've now recorded from the Pocket Park; to be still adding species in mid-December is very gratifying. 

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Paperbark Maple

About four days ago I visited our churchyard here in Byfield to photograph some of the effects of snow which had fallen during the night. Instead, however, my interest was caught by the lovely bark of a Paperback Maple, Acer griseum.

When I first came to Byfield I'm fairly sure there was a commemorative plaque at the base of this tree but it isn't there now; perhaps it was of value as scrap metal! Whatever the cause of its disappearance it is a pity, as it would have indicated the age of the tree. 


The flowers of maples are not their main attraction (unless you are an insect on the look out for nectar); it is the leaves and bark which make some species garden worthy with the Paperbark Maple vying with the Snakebark Maple, Acer rufinerve, for beautiful bark.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Polypody

This being  a lovely day Chris and I took a stroll around both Upper and Lower Wardington. Overall it is a most attractive village, with Upper Wardington being quite lovely. The manor house is very fine and growing from the wall were several plants of Polypody Polypodium vulgare, which I was able to photograph by standing on tiptoe. This is a moderately common fern in this part of Britain, with old walls being a favoured habitat.

Its common name is based on Late Latin and means "many feet" but, although the rhizome and branches are said to resemble little feet, I just can't see it. The backs of the leaves are covered with brown spots; these are the reproductive structures (sori) which produce spores. I recall (more years ago than I care to remember) an edition of "Gardeners' Question Time", when an anxious member of the audience complained about a 'disease' causing spots on the leaves of his ferns. The panel members soon put his mind at rest. 

Caper Spurge and Gorse

To Daventry earlier today (7th December). Passing through Charwelton I noticed rooks fussing around their nests but they will not start breeding yet as the first clutches of eggs aren't normally laid until March. A nearby field harboured a number of Fieldfares - maybe 40-50 - but their close relatives, Redwings, did not appear to be present. Both these species of thrush arrive in considerable numbers from northern Europe and will stay with us until March/April.

On the Daventry bypass there are several gorse bushes. It may be approaching mid-December but their yellow flowers were in evidence:



                      Kissing's in season when the gorse is in bloom.



Alternatively:

                      When gorse is out of blossom,
                      Kissing's out of fashion.

There are several variations on this, all recognising the fact that gorse is always in bloom. Oddly, although John Clare makes several references to it in his poems, he fails to mention this ever-flowering habit.

Near to Daventry library the unmistakeable Caper Spurge, Euphorbia lathyrus, was present in a flower border.
                                     
With its oddly stiff habit it somehow looks alien - and indeed it may not be a native to Britain - but it is widespread and familiar to gardeners (indeed, my excuse for including it here is that it is present in my Byfield garden). Its fruits look vaguely like culinary capers but all spurges are poisonous, some dangerously so. If it has a use it is only as a mole repellant, but evidence that it is at all effective is hard to find.


* The spelling 'lathyris' is sometimes used.


Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Spindle and Hawthorn

There are a couple of Spindle (Euonymus europaeus) bushes in the Pocket Park. It is a shrub native to Northamptonshire but in the south-west of the county it is far from common and our specimens have been planted. Druce's 'Flora of Northamptonshire', published in 1930, includes a record of it from Charwelton and I recall seeing it between there and Woodford Halse earlier this year. Its distinctive fruits are generally described in books as 'sealing-wax pink' and I couldn't argue with that.



One of the two shrubs has been stripped of its fruits by birds but, as my second photograph shows, the other specimen still has plenty on offer.




                         
As I approached the Pocket Park a number of Fieldfares flew off with a peevish 'chak-chak'. These winter visitors from Scandinavia and eastern Europe were feeding on hawthorn but the resident Blackbirds will account for most of the fruit. There is a decent drop of haws but they have not been as plentiful as last year, when the bushes were heavily laden. My third picture, from 2011, shows Common Hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna, but the Pocket Park has one specimen of Midland Hawthorn, Crataegus laevigata.
                                                                   



Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Winter-flowering Heather

My friend, Tony Pearson, has a patch of winter-flowering heather brightening up his front garden. Years ago (when I were nowt but a lad) this plant was known as Erica carnea - a perfectly sensible name for a something with flesh-pink flowers (Latin carnis - flesh). Then some bright spark pointed out that the first name given to this plant was Erica herbacea, and that by internationally accepted rules this must be its legitimate name. This decision caused an outcry, not only because 'herbacea' is inappropriate (the plant is not herbaceous, it is woody) but because gardeners and nurserymen had been using the name Erica carnea for generations.

At a meeting of the International Botanical Congress in 1999 the name Erica carnea was formally accepted - and there the matter stands.                                       
My top photograph was taken yesterday (4th December) but the plants will remain in flower until we are well into spring, by which time it will be attracting numerous insects. Tony's plants include several cultivars: this pink specimen attracted a Comma butterfly earlier in the year and bumble bees such as Bombus hortorum also appreciate the early supply of nectar made available.


As wild plants, members of the Erica genus are extremely rare in Northamptonshire, simply because the acid soil they require is so uncommon within the county. The closely related genus Calluna is represented by Ling, Calluna vulgaris. This is also rare but I noticed a patch in a disused railway cutting near Charwelton some four or five years ago; I must check to see if it is still there.

As so often, I'll leave the last words to John Clare:


                           Still keeps the Ling its darksome green
                           Thick set with little flowers.

                                                 Shepherd's Calendar, 1827

Monday, 3 December 2012

Teasels

With a little human encouragement we now have quite a few teasel plants in our pocket park. Flocks of goldfinches frequently pass through and with their delicate bills they are adept at tweaking the seeds from the teasel seedheads. This year however they have missed some seeds and in the wet conditions a number of them have germinated before becoming detached from the plants, forming what botanists refer to as proliferous seedlings.  My photograph, taken earlier today, shows one such seedhead, but a number were similarly affected.    
     
Some plants such as the Alpine Meadow-grass Poa alpina depend almost entirely on this ploy to produce new plants; in other species it is a less frequent occurrence. In theory some of these teasel seedlings will drop to the ground and root but the odds are surely stacked against this happening. What a contrast this autumn has been to the baking conditions described by John Clare in his poem Noon, written in 1820:


                   By the hot relentless sun
                   E'en the dew is parched up
                   From the teasel's jointed cup.
                   Oh poor birds where must ye fly,
                   Now your water pots are dry?


He refers here to the paired leaves of the teasel which form a water-holding structure but I have never seen birds making use of these tiny reservoirs. The jointed leaves are apparent on the plant in the foreground of the picture below - a photograph taken earlier in the year.



The teasel, Dipsacus fullonum, gets its name from past use by fullers, who would make a brush from the prickly seed heads and so tease the surface of cloth to produce a nap. It was once regularly used to raise a nap on snooker tables. In most situations teasel heads have been replaced by other devices but for very fine cloth - including, I believe, the uniforms of the Household Cavalry - it is still used. 

Spurge Laurel

This native evergreen shrub is frequent around Byfield, occupying waste ground and neglected corners of gardens. Despite its name it is neither a spurge nor a laurel but a Daphne, Daphne laureola. I write about it now because its flower buds are becoming quite plump and may burst into bloom within the next few weeks. If John Clare is correct -and he was an excellent observer of all countryside things - it may even bloom in autumn:

                    While Dark Spurge Laurel on the banks below
                    In stubborn bloom the Autumn blight defies.

                                                    Clare's Shepherd's Calender, 1827

In our village it begins to in flower in January and I photographed it early this year in Lovett Road. To our limited olfactory systems its fragrance is light; to that of a bee it may be far stronger. Certainly flowering in mid-winter it needs all the fragrance it can muster if it is to attract any insects for the flowers are quite inconspicuous. Somehow pollination is achieved because the shrub usually bears plenty of oval black berries later in the year.


Spurge Laurel is one of two laurel species once found in Northamptonshire. The other is - or was - Daphne mezereum, known commonly as Mezereon. It is thinly scattered in light woodland on limestone throughout southern England, but the last specimen known from our county was dug up from a wood at Evenley, near Brackley, in 1909. There is a good case to be made for planting a specimen or two in our village pocket park although there is reason to believe that the specimens known from Evenley Wood were garden escapes.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Fossils and the Church Fete

On Saturday Chris and I called in at the Church Fete. It gave me an opportunity to study some fossils. I refer not to the senior citizens thronging the church aisles - or I would have to include myself - but to those visible in the church masonry. Byfield's Holy Cross Church, which is a fine Grade 1 Listed building, is built entirely from Jurassic stone, much of which came from quarries at Helmdon. Where the stone is rich in iron few fossils are to be seen but, where the lime content is higher, they are frequent.

 

                                                                 
On the left of the picture a belemnite can be clearly seen; a less obvious one is present in the top right hand corner. Belemnites - squid-like marine creatures - must have been extremely common in Jurassic seas. Certainly they are common in stone of this type but the two shown are not particularly good examples. Here and there around the village ammonites are also to be seen but the provenance of the stone is not always known.


Many lichens are present on the masonry but I doubt I'll ever get around to dealing with them all. The obvious white crusts are patches of Diploicia canescens, an extremely common lichen in this kind of situation.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Of Ferns and Muntjac

'Twas a very cold morning following a hard overnight frost. Not to be daunted I girded my loins and, summoning the courage of my Viking ancestors*, set forth for the Pocket Park. A stream runs alongside the park and its banks are becoming well colonised by ferns. So far I have only noted one species, the Male Fern Dryopteris filix-mas.
 
I am no expert but this species is Northamptonshire's commonest fern, so in this instance I feel fairly confident. Of this fern Druce remarks: "Rather common...but suffering from the rapacity of vagrants."
Along the banks of the stream I frequently see a Munjac Deer, Muntiacus reevesi, often browsing and not seemingly perturbed by my presence. It wasn't there today but there were faint hoof-marks (known as 'slots') in the damp soil. The bark had also been nibbled on a fallen branch nearby.
 
* I have mild Dupuytren's Contracture. It is a condition caused by a faulty gene and is said to have been brought to Britain by the Vikings. I trot out this highly significant piece of information at random times.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Tamarisk

Tamarisks must be among my favourite garden shrubs, with their delicate, feathery branches and little "bottle brushes" of pink or white flowers. They are very common around Mediterranean coasts but one species, Tamarix gallica is well naturalised along the southern coast of Britain. On continental holidays I have often tried to identify the plants I see but there are about 75 species of Tamarisk and I'm not sure I often get it right!

My picture shows a fine specimen in Bell Lane, Byfield, where, even in late November, it remains attractive. The genus gives its name to the Tamaricaceae family.

Two tiny bugs, Tuponia brevirostris and T. mixticolor, have been found in the UK feeding on Tamarisk. Both are recent arrivals to these shores. So far the former has only been found in the vicinity of London beside the banks of the Thames but I'll keep an eye open for it, after all, our local watercourses all feed into the Thames so you never know...

The Roast Beef Plant

Common around Byfield are specimens of the Roast Beef Plant.  It is in fact an iris, Iris foetidissima, and its peculiar vernacular name refers to the odd smell of its bruised leaves. Another, more commonly used name is Stinking Gladdon. G. Claridge Druce, writing in 1930, knew it from just two sites in Northants and described it as "very rare". Gill Gent's more recent work, "The Flora of Northamptonshire", published in 1995, only gives eleven locations for the plant. Its frequency around Byfield is therefore a bit of a mystery but it is likely that birds help to distribute the seeds.


I photographed the plant yesterday beside the Village Club, where its bright red seeds, revealed when the fruits split open, caught my attention. These are a more attractive feature than the flowers, which are rather small and of a wishy-washy dull purple colour.