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


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.

Butcher's Broom

A garden frontage in New Terrace, Byfield, boasts a dozen or so plants of Butcher's Broom, Ruscus aculeatus. "Boasts" is hardly an appropriate verb since they are rather scruffy little shrubs of limited garden merit.

Scruffy they may be, but this does not mean that they lack interest, for in fact they are very curious plants indeed. Despite their appearance they have no leaves; instead the work normally done by leaves, i.e. photosynthesis, is done by flattened stems called cladodes.
The plant is highly variable and the second  picture shows a form commonly used by florists (I found this piece on a pavement in Banbury, where it had clearly been dropped). Here the underside of the "leaves" show scars where the flower buds grew, yet flowers don't grow from the middle of leaves! Occasionally, if the flower has been pollinated, the cladode will bear a scarlet berry.
 Butcher's Broom is quite frequent in south east England but is not native to Northants. I  remember it well from when I served with the RAF in Gibraltar, for it was very common on "The Rock". In mediaeval times bunches of it were used to sweep the blood and gore from the floors of butchers' shops and its Latin name of Ruscus is simply the name used by the Romans for a butcher's broom.

According to my copy of Potter's Cyclopaedia a decoction of this plant "will be found of use in...female obstructions". Hmmm.

The Butcher's Broom is closely related to asparagus - another plant to bear cladodes instead of leaves.

Dead Nettles

Mention has already been made (20th November) of the Red Dead-nettle, Lamium purpureum. Its close relative, the White Dead-nettle Lamium album, is also flowering bravely - if a little pointlessly - in many places around the village. It may not be completely pointless as the flowers are visited by bumble bees, which may venture forth on a mild winter's day. My photograph is of a specimen beside the tennis courts.

Everyone is familiar with this species for it is extremely common. For the purposes of mapping, Northamptonshire is divided up into 131 x 5 km squares; the White Dead-nettle has been found in all 131 of these squares. As children we would remove the flowers and nibble the base of the corolla tube to taste the copious nectar. Well, sweets were rationed!  Tell kids that nowadays and they wouldn't believe you.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Silver Birch

Our pocket park in Byfield boasts several birch trees and they are particularly attractive at this time of the year. One of the first songs I learnt at school was a setting of a poem by Edith Nesbit:

  The silver birch is a dainty lady,
  She wears a satin gown...

Despite its delicate appearance the silver birch is as tough as old boots and, as the last ice age drew to a close in Britain, birches were among the first trees to move into the bleak landscape.

In terms of wildlife it is a valuable species. In summer I can depend on finding the bug Kleidocerys resedae on its branches. A noisy and smelly little insect, it is one of the first species to come to the attention of people interested in such creatures. The Birch Shieldbug Elasmostethus interstinctus is also common as is an aphid, Euceraphys betulae, whilst in a single birch catkin I found 14 galls caused by the fly, Semudobia betulae. I mention the Latin names, not only because some of these insects have no common name, but because the specific name "betulae" refers to the birch tree itself, Betula pendula.

My photograph shows the largest and probably the oldest birch tree in the pocket park but, although this tree is probably around 30 years old, birches are not long-lived. Fungi attack them from quite an early age and bracket fungi are often a sinister feature of their trunks.

Druce's 1930 Flora of Northamptonshire describes Silver Birch as "rare as a native tree" and, significantly, John Clare makes no mention of it. Most of our trees are probably deliberate plantings or are seedlings from garden specimens.

Sunday, 25 November 2012


Our house is not really vulnerable to flooding by the Bell Brook UNLESS the culverts downstream become blocked, so when I peeped out through the gardens at 7.20 this morning and saw much of the garden under water I knew there was a problem.

Armed with suitable tools I set off over to the village playing fields. The culvert which carries the Bell Brook under the fields is protected by iron grilles at each end and, sure enough, they were both blocked with debris. Upstream the water had backed up, and this was causing the problem in our garden.

At the culvert exit the water was forcing its way through the grille but only with difficulty. I got to work clearing masses of branches and twigs and began to make some impression on the debris but was relieved when a neighbour, John Russell, joined me. After about half an hour of pretty strenuous effort we got both grilles cleared and the water steadily began to recede. This situation mustn't be allowed to develop again.


    In early January, about five years ago, I took some mistletoe berries and pushed them into crevices on our apple tree. Only one germinated but is now growing strongly. It is a hemiparasite; its green leaves do function but their photosynthetic activities are  not adequate to support the plant, hence the need to "tap into" a host. The best-known host of mistletoe is apple, but here in Northamptonshire (where it is rare and only known from about ten locations), it is usually found on lime trees, although I have noted some on False Acacia in Northampton.
Mistletoe's Latin name is Viscum album and the generic name refers to the viscous nature of the seeds. They are extremely sticky and will adhere to the beak of a bird such as a Mistle Thrush, which will then go to a nearby branch are wipe them off. With luck the branch will be that of a suitable host plant. The specific epithet 'album' refers of course to the white berries. Some of its relatives from warmer countries have red fruit and one highly speculative idea is that the story of 'Moses and the Burning Bush' in the Bible (Exodus 3, 1-15) refers to a bush covered in scarlet mistletoe berries.

We would wait in vain for berries because, like holly, mistletoe is normally dioecious so we would need a male and a female plant. 

Friday, 23 November 2012

Of Foliose Lichens and Sheep.

Following yesterday's deluge (22 November) the sun really got to work today and I couldn't resist the temptation to visit the Pocket Park. Quite a number of insects were about, with winter gnats being prominent, plus a number of Calliphorids ("blow flies"). However my attention was caught by a neat lichen on a hawthorn twig. It was a specimen of Ramalina farinacea, a species I recorded from the same site about four years ago.

Continuing my stroll, I paused to examine a greenbottle fly on a fence, and soon found that I had an audience. Perhaps the ram had heard me mutter the word Ramalina to myself (Don't be silly, Tony). The sheep were on a piece of land adjacent to the burial ground, making a very good job of controlling the vegetation...and their poo may attract interesting beetles too

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Winter-flowering Jasmine

Walking up Doll's Hill earlier today I was heartened by the sight of a Winter Jasmine, Jasminum nudiflorum, flowering abundantly. Though its flowers are clearly designed for insect pollination I have never seen it receive a visit from a bee, hoverfly or whatever.
It comes, of course, from China and in its native land it may get numerous visitors. (For some reason I am reminded of the lady actor of advancing years who said, "I may be on the shelf dear, but I'm taken down  regularly and given a good dusting.")

Jasmine is a member of the Olive Family, Oleaceae. It is thus related to Forsythia, Lilac and Privet, and under a hand lens the structure of the flowers clearly shows their relationship. However, it is also in the same family as Ash trees and there the resemblance is far less obvious. 

Hart's Tongue Fern

A few years ago, when Chris and I moved into this property, the garden was...well, let's say it needed a little t.l.c. As the clearance work got under way I was pleased to find a solitary Hart's Tongue Fern Phyllitis scolopendrium (= Asplenium scolopendrium) in a crevice. Now, some 7-8 years later, there must be a dozen along the banks of the stream - the Bell Brook - which forms one border of the garden. Unfortunately, following prolonged and heavy rain yesterday, during which time the stream rose by over two feet, most of the plants are now under water!

When George Claridge Druce wrote "The Flora of Northamptonshire" back in 1930 he described this fern as 'local and decreasing'. He did record it from Eydon but nowhere else in this area. It is now frequent to common around here, including the pocket park. How nice to be able to record a native plant that is flourishing.
My photograph clearly shows the brown stripes on the back of the fronds; these are the sori, producing the plant's spores. The stripey effect resembles the legs of certain centipedes and indeed this plant's specific name, scololopendrium, comes from the Greek skolopendra - a centipede.

In my 1923 copy of "Potter's Cyclopaedia of Botanical Drugs" recommends a preparation of this plant for 'removing gravelly deposits in the bladder'; I'll bear that source in mind. It will save a trip to Travis Perkins.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Winter Gnats

On mild winter days dancing clouds of these insects are a common sight, but in fact they are present all the year around. Technically known as Trichoceridae, they are closely related to Craneflies (aka Daddy-Longlegs). I have recorded two species from Byfield Pocket Park. Back in July I found Diazosma hirtipenne and more recently (29 October) I took Trichocera hiemalis from almost the same spot. This second species took the total of insects and spiders recorded there to 426 species. I mention this as a reminder of how valuable our pocket park is to wildlife.  And I have yet to make a serious study of the ants, beetles and moths of the site; what the final total could be is anyone's guess.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Leaf Miners

A cut-through exists in Byfield between the A361 and Thomas Close. Red Dead-nettle was bravely flowering there today (20th November) but I was more interested in a mine on one of the leaves. It proved to be that of a fly, Liriomyza strigata (no common name); it appears on my picture as pale lines on a couple of the leaves. This is a very widespread insect, but is not often recorded; let's be honest, not many people look for them! Leaf mines are interesting features on plants, and can be important to gardeners since the insects responsible could carry viruses from plant to plant.

Very few creatures feed on the tough, leathery leaves of holly but one insect mine is extremely common and I cannot recall examining a holly bush without finding one. It is caused by a small fly, Phytomyza ilicis, known (rather unsurprisingly) as the Holly Leaf Miner; this photograph was taken on 19th November in my back garden. The two genera - Phytomyza and Liriomyza - are closely related.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Of Moss and Men

I have recently cleared out the guttering at the front of our house. Moss had slipped down from the roof above and 'bunged up the works'. Several mosses are present but the main culprit is Grimmia pulvinata, sometimes called Ostrich Moss for its habit of burying its little capsules among the foliage. It is common but well worth examining with a lens to reveal its attractive leaves.


Flies were out in force yesterday in the Pocket Park, congregating on sun-warmed tree trunks and fence posts. Around half of them were Callophorids, commonly known as blowflies, and a large percentage of those ending up in my net proved to be Calliphora vicina. The specimen shown is a male, recognisable because its eyes are holoptic, i.e. they almost meet in the middle.

We generally dislike blowflies - with good reason, since they frequently visit faeces or carrion. But it is for this reason that they are important as their maggots help in the task of decomposition, ridding us of corpses and poo. The larval cases of another Calliphorid, Protophormia terraenovae, have been found in Shropshire in association with the remains of Woolly Mammoth. The insect still occurs in Britain but I have yet to find it in Northamptonshire. Perhaps there aren't enough mammoths around.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Herb Robert

There was a sharp frost overnight, but brilliant  sunshine soon got to work to give a lovely morning. The Lime trees in the park were a fine sight.
The adjacent Lombardy Poplars have lost their leaves but their slender silhouette is still attractive. I have occasionally found Poplar Hawk-moth caterpillars on their foliage and last year I found the adult moth.

                                 Poplar Hawk-moth, Byfield

A few plants were in bloom including Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum). Its leaves are covered in glands which produce an unpleasant odour when bruised. The seems to deter most creatures but at least one mite, Aceria geranii, will feed on its leaves. The Barred Carpet Moth may also feed on the flowers but little firm evidence for this exists.

A fence in the Pocket Park was home to a neat lichen. It is probably Physcia aipola but must wait for fruits to be produced before I can be certain; they will look like tiny blackcurrant tarts.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

A log blog

I am no mycologist but this autumn seems to be an exceptionally good one for fungi. A log at the edge of the Brightwell playing fields is displaying two interesting species: sprouting from the end of the log are the pale branches of the Candle-snuff Fungus Xylaria hypoxylon and a little further along are the brackets of Ischnoderma resinosum.


In three to four years little of the log will remain; fungi, aided by woodlice, millipedes and beetle grubs, will have reduced it to a crumbling heap  - but the biggest agent of decay will have been micro-organisms such as bacteria.


Stinging Nettles

For obvious reasons the Stinging Nettle is one of the first plants we learn to recognise in childhood. Their Latin name is Urtica and David Bellamy would jokingly claim that "They're called Urtica because they 'urt you". There are two species native to Britain but by far the best-known is Urtica dioica. Both are armed with stinging cells but these do not seem to greatly deter animals from eating the highly nutritious leaves. A specimen I photographed near to the Village Club had been attacked by two different species of insect. The pale 'blobs' in the centre are galls caused by the fly Dasineura urticae; the grey patch on the lowest leaf is a mine caused by another fly, Agromyza anthracina. Both are common and widespread insects but the adults, being tiny, are not often noticed.

Nettles often colonise waste ground, apparently because the soil is rich in nitrates. Abandoned gardens are such a site:

                    "Yon nettles where they're left to spread
                     There once a garden smiled."

                                                    John Clare's Poems 17, 1820

Books on wildlife-friendly gardening often suggest leaving a patch of nettles in a corner of the garden, but there really is no point. The plant is abundant everywhere and our gardens can be put to better use. I warmly recommend a book, "No Nettles Required" by Ken Thompson (Eden Project Books), which looks at the subject in a balanced way and comes up with far better ideas.


Friday, 16 November 2012

Season of mists...

The grey misty conditions of the last couple of days prevail but so far there have been no significant frosts. The year in general has been very wet and mushrooms and toadstools have flourished. I am often asked for the difference between the two; all I can say is that the word 'toadstool' comes from the German tod = 'death', and stuhl = 'stool', i.e the stool of death. By that definition any poisonous, stool-shaped fungus is a toadstool.
Earlier today (16 November) I photographed a specimen of the Shaggy Parasol Lepiota rhacodes beneath shrubs in the Pocket Park. My books say "Edible but may cause gastric upsets..."  I think I'll give it a miss.

Remarkably, Hogweed Heracleum sphondylium was also flowering well (better than the focusing of my picture!) and, given a spot of warm sunshine, will doubtless attract a few insects.

Tarmac colonists

My morning's walk today took me along Becketts Close and I was surprised to note the extent to which lichens have colonised the tarmac there. The species involved appears to be Lecanora campestris, a very common lichen which thrives in this situation. I have identified about 20 lichen species around Byfield but crustose lichens such as the one in question can be very tricky to identify. (A further examination showed this species to be Lecanora muralis.) Light trampling appears not to bother it and in fact small fragments of the thallus may be broken off and help with the colonisation process. I must bring home a sample and try to obtain a positive identification

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Lawson's Cypress

On a foggy 15th November I took a stroll through Byfield Churchyard to gather some twigs from a yew tree (don't ask - it's too complicated!). A row of rather fine Lawson's Cypress trees line the western edge. This species often supports quite a lot of wildlife, unlike its notorious relative "Leylandii", and with this in mind I shook a couple of branches and was rewarded with a specimen of Juniper Shieldbug, Cyphostethus tristriatus.

In the 1950's this discovery would have been met with considerable surprise; Juniper Shieldbug was then a distinctly uncommon insect, being confined - as the name suggests - to juniper bushes, mostly in southern counties such as Surrey. Then, at some time in the 1960's, it "discovered" Lawson's Cypress and it's subsequent spread has been rapid.
My photograph, taken a couple of hours later, clearly shows the distinctive pair of brown, boomerang-shaped marks on the insect's back.

Autumn leaf colours

Leaf coloration is unpredictable. Last year the Witch Hazels (Hamamelis species) in my garden turned a brilliant scarlet in late October; this year they were disappointingly drab.
In the USA the maples of Vermont and Maine are famous for their autumnal brilliance and here in Byfield their relatives are putting on a good show. The falling leaves of the Field Maple Acer campestre had, on 14th November, spread a golden carpet across the edge of the cricket pitch. Sadly the leaves of its close relative, Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), are disfigured with the aptly-named Tar Spot.

Sycamore  affected by Tar Spot

  This is caused by a fungus Rhytisma      acerinum and affects all sycamores hereabouts. It seems to do little harm to the tree but some horse deaths have been attributed to eating the affected leaves.

Field Maple is undoubtedly native to Britain whereas Sycamore has always been scorned as an alien. However, Ted Green, in an excellent article in British Wildlife (Vol. 16, part 2), casts doubt on this assumption. Pollen in ancient peat deposits is often used to establish the presence of a particular plant but it seems that Sycamore pollen and that of Field Maple are virtually impossible to tell apart, so perhaps it has been here all along. If so we should afford it more respect.

Naturally John Clare got in his six penn'orth:

                             In massy foliage of a summer green
                             The splendid Sycamore adorns the spring
                                                 Clare's Rural Muse 1835

Clare is buried under a Sycamore at Helpston.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Lords and Ladies

                                            Arum italicum in my garden

Here and there around Byfield, particularly in hedgerows, the scarlet berries of Lords and Ladies Arum maculatum are now to be seen. In many local gardens, including mine, its close relative Arum italicum is frequent. It can be distinguished by its orange - rather than red - berries and pale leaf veins.

The plant has the reputation of being poisonous and many cases are reported from A and E departments annually but in his monologue "Lords and Ladies" the late Cecil Prime could find no authenticated records of actual deaths. Nevertheless I don't plan to sample the fruit!

It has many old vernacular names - many of them earthy - usually referring to the ithyphallic shape of the spadix. One of the names, Cuckoo Pint, sounds innocuous enough but it rhymes with 'mint' and comes from the Old English word "pintle", meaning a penis. Inevitably John Clare refers to it:

         And hooded Arum early sprouting up,
         Unclos'd the Arum leaves, and turn into view
         The ear-like spindling flowers their cases burst
         Betinged with yellowish-white or lusty hue.

Our John wasn't perhaps the greatest of poets but he was a heck of a good naturalist!

A further visit to the Pocket Park

I took a stroll over to the Pocket Park earlier today. Conditions were damp but very mild and once again there were plenty of  insects about including the Common Dung-fly Scathophaga stercoraria. These are the yellow flies often seen on fresh cow pats. (Its generic name was originally Scatophaga meaning "eater of dung" and some books still use this spelling). A jay called but I couldn't spot it. Considering how brightly coloured this member of the crow family is, it can be very difficult to find in the tree tops.

I was pleased to see a Field Pansy Viola arvensis in flower; it is a common cornfield weed and seeds had doubtless come from adjacent farmland. This is the 123rd species of flowering plant I've now recorded in the Pocket Park. Most floras regard it as native to Britain but it tempting to believe that, like our scarlet poppies, it was introduced to this country by Neolithic farmers.

The Sickly Elder

I strolled over to Byfield Pocket Park yesterday and spent a couple of minutes pulling out some saplings of Elder. A few trees of Elder are fine, but they can become  'too much of a good thing'.

It is an odd plant, whose unpleasantly smelling leaves seem unpalatable to most creatures. The bark is a different matter. I suspect it is rich in nutrients as it is usually crowded with many lichens, with the bright orange-yellow Xanthoria parietina being particularly prominent. Of course the fruit are much loved by blackbirds, whose droppings are often stained purple with the juices. And many people still make elderberry wine, as they have done for centuries. The Northamptonshire poet, John Clare, wrote:

            Around the Elder-skirted copse
            The village dames, as they get ripe and fine,
            Gather the branches for their Elder wine. 

                                      Clare's Shepherd's Calender. 1827

Elsewhere Clare refers to it as "The sickly Elder", presumably a reference to the leaves.

Since long before Clare's time it has been regarded as a member of the Honeysuckle Family (Caprifoliaceae) but the flowers appear quite different. As with poppies, geneticists have been looking closely at Elder and concluded that it should be placed (together with Viburnums) in the hitherto obscure Adoxaceae Family. I suppose I'll eventually come to terms with this.


                                      Xanthoria parietina on elder, Byfield Pocket Park

Monday, 12 November 2012

Even on a miserable day...

Awoke to a dismal, wet morning. A small cranefly drifted in at the back door as I opened up. Its size, together with speckled wings, made me suspect that it was Limonia nubeculosa; this was confirmed when, under the microscope, three black rings were revealed on the back legs. It is a common insect but - let's be honest - only of interest if you are a real anorak with regards to flies.

Sunday, 11 November 2012


Remembrance Sunday, and poppies are still in flower in my neighbour's garden - not however the scarlet Papaver rhoeas of Flanders' fields, but the golden-yellow Welsh Poppy. Linnaeus called it Papaver cambricum but later botanists disagreed and it became Meconopsis cambrica. In the last 2-3 years there has been much research into the genetics of the plant and it is clear that the Welsh Poppy cannot justifiably be regarded as a Meconopsis and it has reverted to Papaver cambricum. So, 234 years after his death, Linnaeus has been vindicated! 

At this time of the year these poppies are unlikely to receive any insect visitors as they offers little or no nectar. In the summer bees and hoverflies will feed on the protein-rich pollen but what insects are looking for, in these chillier days, is nectar to provide the energy to survive the winter.

In Byfield the Welsh Poppy is a frequent garden escape and, here and there, an orange coloured variant appears which, to my mind, is a more attractive plant.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Flies of an Indian Summer

The last three or four days have been remarkably bright and dry so, despite a chill in the air, I sallied forth to investigate local patches of ivy for diptera -plus whatever else might be about.

In fact rather low temperatures had not deterred insects to any obvious extent. Along one south-facing hedgerow in Byfield Pocket Park (SP518529) the ivy flowers were being visited by specimens of the Common Wasp Vespula vulgaris and even Honey Bees Apis mellifera. There were also a couple of specimens of the Green Shield Bug Palomena prasina, though these were on the foliage and not interested in the nectar riches. The shield bugs were already turning from their bright green summer coloration to a dingy brown and, with this camouflage to provide protection, they will creep beneath dead leaves to overwinter. These bugs have few predators - their foul taste deters most creatures - but one pretty tachinid fly, Subclytia rotundiventris, is known to parasitise them. Another group of tachinids, Phasia species, are also known to be parasites of shieldbugs but most records are from continental Europe.

The ivy flowers were besieged by diptera; my specimens will stay in the fridge to be dealt with later. However, on November 5th one instantly recognisable fly was represented by at least three specimens; this was the Noon Fly Mesembrina meridiana, an insect which I associate with high summer. With its glossy black body and bright orange wing-bases this must be one of our smartest insects. According to D'Assis Fonseca it occurs up to September, so this is a remarkably late record.

So, it isn't just winter gnats providing interest through the winter months. There may yet be surprises.