Friday, 31 May 2013

Garden surprises

I have been suffering from Bloggers Block - a problem brought on by a combination of miserable weather and shortage of time. 

Yesterday I paid a visit to the Wildlife Trust at Boddington Meadow. It is only the second time I've been there - an odd situation as it is only about two miles away. It was a grey, breezy day and in the wet conditions my sweep net was soon wet too. In fact I secured a good haul of flies, but they were not a photogenic lot.

Forest Bug, Pentatoma rufipes. My garden in Byfield.
31 May, 2013
Today was much finer and I grabbed the chance to go into the garden and sow a few annual flower seeds where there were gaps in the borders. On one of the plants sat a Forest Bug, Pentatoma rufipes. Despite its name it is by no means confined to woodlands but is quite frequent in rural gardens. The triangular scutellum on this specimen is a clear yellow but normally it is maroon-brown with just a yellow tip. 

Rhingia rostrata in a Blakesley garden.
31 May, 2013
In the afternoon Chris and I met up with friends for a pub lunch in the pretty village of Blakesley. Later on we sat in a village garden nearby where I was pleased to see Rhingia rostrata visiting the flowers of Green Alkanet. In the morning, in my own garden, I had been watching Rhingia campestris, one of our commonest late spring-early summer hoverflies, visiting flowers but here was its far less common relative. Until a couple of decades ago it seemed to be largely confined to the west of Britain but has apparently moved east to establish a toehold in Northants. Both these species have a long snout but in rostrata it is slightly shorter and there is a clear black border to the tergites (the plates forming the upper surface of the abdomen). Although my photograph is a little fuzzy - I only had a small pocket camera with me - it can be seen that the black border is missing. 
Rhingia rostrata in a Blakesley garden.
30 May, 2013

There are several mysteries about Rhingia rostrata, with the needs of its larvae being unknown. The suggestion has been made that a connection exists between the larvae and badger latrines but, as far as I am aware, this connection has not been confirmed.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

St Mark's Flies

Many people will have seen the St Mark's Fly, Bibio marci. It is a moderately large, black, clumsy-looking insect, flying sluggishly over meadows around St Mark's Day, 25th April. Its legs, with strong spiny hairs, dangle beneath the body, giving it a rather odd appearance. Even the eyes are densely hairy, giving my photograph a rather fuzzy appearance.

St Mark's Fly, Bibio marci. Byfield Pocket Park
22 May, 2013

It has been on the wing in this area for about a week so, in common with many other organisms, it is later putting in an appearance than usual. Much smaller is Bibio johannis. Logically it ought to be called St John's Fly - but it never is. This is a more common insect but its small size means that it is generally overlooked. Closely related to Bibio is the genus Dilophus. One very common member of the group is Dilophus febrilis, known as the Fever Fly from a mistaken belief in Sweden that these insects would swarm around the homes of fever victims. All the insects mentioned so far are known from Byfield Pocket Park.

Nursery Web Spider, Pisaura mirabilis (female)
Byfield Pocket Park, 22 May, 2013
Having photographed the St Mark's Fly I was about to put my camera away when I saw a female Nursery Web Spider, Pisaura mirabilis, on an adjacent leaf. This is quite a large species with the females reaching 15mm or so in length. The female carries her cocoon of eggs around until they are about to hatch and then builds a tent-like web, placing the cocoon within the tent and then guarding it until the spiderlings hatch.

     The male is significantly smaller than the female so mating is therefore a risky business. He improves his chances by catching a fly, wrapping it up and then presenting it to the female. While she is enjoying her meal he craftily nips round the back to mate. The late Bill Bristowe told of a case when the male, having had his wicked way, stole the fly from the doubtless astonished female and made off with it. Thankfully human males never behave like that...

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Fasciated Forsythias

All gardeners will, sooner or later, come across examples of fasciation. This is a condition where a stem becomes flattened - sometimes bizarrely so. A wide range of plants may be affected by this malformation with lilies and Forsythias particularly susceptible. 
Forsythia with fasciated stem from a
garden in Byfield. 19 May, 2013
I saw an example earlier today in a friend's garden and was glad to reassure her that the condition - a form of what are known as "disturbed growth phenomena" is harmless. The study of these abnormal growths is known as "teratology, and my old friend Sean Karley - the plant gall recorder for Northants - is of the opinion that these oddities should be mapped and recorded. He has a point.

The fasciation shown in my photograph is typical, with a flattened stem and fan-shaped leaf cluster. Sometimes a whole head of flowers may be affected, particularly among members of the Daisy Family, with remarkable consequences. By googling "fasciation" a range of these abnormalities may be viewed.

Various explanations for fasciation have been put forward with hormonal imbalance the most plausible suggestion but in fact a number of factors may be involved and research continues.

Bluebells...and not so blue bells

Bluebells are currently in flower all over Byfield, in gardens and by waysides - but none is the English Bluebell Hyacinthoides non-scripta. A large proportion of them are Spanish Bluebells Hyacinthoides hispanca but most are clearly hybrids between the two species - Hyacinthoides x massartiana. Whatever the species, all are readily visited by bees.

Bluebells, Hyacinthoides non-scripta
Titchmarsh Wod, Northants 17 May, 2013

These plants are quite variable in colour, thus there are blue specimens and white,  together with with some pink inbetweeners; all help to add interest. All are garden escapes of course. Much as I love our English Bluebells the Spanish Bluebells are probably a better garden plant, being more robust and, should one wish to cut some for a vase, less liable to droop. There is a down side: Spanish bluebells are very invasive and even the hybrids produce prolific quantities of seed to the point where they have become a nuisance in gardens.


A white form of the Spanish Bluebell.
Byfield 13 May, 2013

Pale pink-lilac "bluebells" in my garden.
Byfield 13 May, 2013

During our first spring in Byfield I was pleased to see another "white bluebell" flowering beside the stream. In truth it clearly wasn't a bluebell at all and furthermore it looked vaguely familiar. A closer look showed that it was Three-cornered Garlic, Allium triquetrum. The onion smell when the plant is bruised is a giveaway and the scape, with its triangular cross-section, confirms the species. I had become familiar with the plant almost fifty years ago when serving with the RAF in Gibraltar; there it is a common feature of roadsides and waste ground - as it is throughout much of the Mediterranean region. 
Allium triquetrum in my garden.
Byfield, 19 May, 2013

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Ne'er cast a clout...

Most people of an older generation will be familiar with the saying:

                       Ne'er cast a clout till May be out.

The word clout is unambiguous in this context, simply meaning a piece of cloth or clothing. So from a book, "Early English Miscellanies in Prose and Verse", dating from c.1485 we have:

                      He had not left an holle clowt,
                      Wherwith to hyde hys body abowte.

More problematic is the word "May". It may (sorry) refer to the month but I prefer to think that we are talking about the Hawthorn, otherwise known as May. It is abundant throughout most of Britain with its population probably having been augmented by its use as a hedging plant during enclosures, largely of the 18th and 19th centuries. Inevitably John Clare, whose life was much affected by these enclosures, refers to it many times in his poems (though not, to my knowledge. in a politico-historical context; it would not have gone down well with his well-heeled patrons):

                      There May blooms with its little threads
                      Still upon the thorny bowers,
                      And never forget those pinky heads,
                      Like fairy pins amid the flowers.
Hawthorn leaves (Common left, Midland right)
from Byfield Pocket Park. 15 May, 2013

But there is a slight complication to this situation, for in Northamptonshire - and over much of southern Britain - we have two species of Hawthorn. By far the most abundant is the Common Hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna; much less common, though by no means rare, is the Midland Hawthorn, Crataegus laevigata. These species differ in the structure of both flowers and fruit, but the leaves are also distinct and it is this feature which allowed me to note a solitary specimen of Midland Hawthorn in Byfield Pocket Park. The Common Hawthorn (on the left) has more lobes on the leaf; the Midland Hawthorn (on the right) has - usually - just three lobes. It was noticeable too that the flower buds on the Midland Hawthorn were on the point of opening; those of the Common Hawthorn were far less advanced. 
Midland Hawthorn in bud.
Byfield Pocket Park 15 May, 2013

If only the situation were that simple. Unfortunately the hybrid between the two species (Crataegus x media) is not infrequent and may cause a little head scratching.

In most years the nectar is bountiful - much to the delight of beekeepers - but sometimes the yield is poor. I don't know the reason for this variability. In good years many insects other than bees will visit the flowers. Also of interest is that more than a dozen kinds of insect or mite will feed on the leaves causing galls. Many caterpillars are also to be found on Hawthorn, all-in-all making it a very important plant for wildlife.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

New to the Pocket Park

I keep an eye on the flowers of Byfield Pocket Park, looking out for features of interest such as galls or insect visitors but also in the hope that new species may be found. Since last July the number of species recorded has stood at 123, so to add two species in a day is a surprise. 

To be honest the first of these additions wasn't really a surprise since I put the plants in myself. The species in question is Ramsons, Allium ursinum. This member of the onion genus is an important component of a few woodlands in Northamptonshire, often indicating that the woods are quite ancient. I have a patch in my garden so decided to introduce them. However, since planting the bulbs I had seen nothing and had more or less written them off, but today I saw about ten plants in flower.
Ramsons, Titchmarsh Wood
 Northants 17 May, 2013

Yellow Rocket, Barbarea vulgaris.
Byfield Pocket Park 14 May, 2013

The second new species wasn't really a surprise either. Where the ground has been disturbed by our working party in clearing brambles, nettles and thistles a plant of Yellow Rocket, Barbarea vulgaris, has appeared. Also known as Winter Cress, this is a common plant in such situations. It is abundant over much of Northamptonshire although in this far west part of the county records are relatively few.

The disturbed ground in question is well worth monitoring as several of these so-called casuals may appear.

Monday, 13 May 2013


This most attractive biennial plant is, perhaps surprisingly, a member of the Cabbage Family, Brassicaceae. I admire it for the lovely pinkish-purple flowers but it is also valued for the silvery, moon shaped fruits - to which the generic name "lunaria" (Latin, luna - the moon) refers. Another old name is Money Plant - presumably again a reference to the silvery coin-like fruit. (Technically it is just the septa of the fruit which have the silvery colour.)

Honesty at Canons Ashby 4 May, 2013
Honesty not native to Britain but comes from south-east Europe. It is nevertheless frequently seen at roadsides, etc, as a garden escape. As the new Northamptonshire flora* states, "it does not persist" but I find that, if competition is not too intense, it will linger for quite a few years. It is frequent at roadsides around Byfield.

It is accepted as a food plant by one of my favourite butterflies, the Orange-tip (Anthocaris cardamines), and other butterfly larvae will also make use of it, as will long-tongued bees - a good plant therefore for those who like to make their garden wildlife-friendly. It produces plentiful seed, making propagation simple. 

*Two days ago I received my copy of the new "Flora of Northamptonshire and the Soke of Peterborough" by Gill Gent and Rob Wilson.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Green Alkanet

All around Byfield, and many other villages too, the Green Alkanet, Pentaglottis sempervirens, is now in flower. It is not a native plant but is from south-east Europe, though it has been a popular cottage garden plant for over two centuries.

It is only during the last 70-80 years that it has "escaped" from gardens to become well naturalised, although is rarely found far from houses. (Such recently established plants are termed neophytes as distinct from archaeophytes such as the Greater Celandine - see blog for 2 May, 2013 - which are plants established in Britain prior to the 16th century.) In Druce's flora, published in 1930, it was described as "rare" but now it is very widespread.

Green Alkanet, Pentaglottis sempervirens
10 May, 2013
It may seem odd that it is called Green Alkanet but even in the winter the plant will be showing green leaves and it is this feature, rather than the flower colour, that the popular name refers to. (The word sempervirens means 'evergreen'.)

It is a complicated story but... True Alkanet is Alkanna tinctoria, which, like Green Alkanet is a member of the Borage Family. As the word 'tinctoria' indicates it was - and is - used as a dye plant. It provides purple dyes and has also apparently been used as an alternative source of henna. The true Henna is Lawsonia inermis but the word 'alkanet' is derived from the Arabic al-henna - the henna. Green Alkanet apparently yields a red dye.

Whatever the plant may be used for elsewhere, I suspect it won't be gathered around Byfield for dyeing; here we will simply enjoy its brilliant azure flowers over the next few weeks.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Lily Beetle - I spoke too soon!

 Only a few days ago (30 April to be precise), I was rejoicing in the fact that so far this year I'd seen no Lily Beetles. Well, I still haven't seen any in my garden, but they are about.  I spotted one in a local garden only yesterday, furtively peeping out from between the leaves of a choice lily. It must have regretted its scarlet coloration, but it didn't live long to dwell on the matter.
Lily Beetle,Lilioceras lilii in a byfield garden.
8 May, 2013

Speaking of beetles, they are not a group to which I pay much attention but when one finished up in my sweep net in the Pocket Park yesterday I did check it out. It looked familiar and was clearly one of the longhorn beetles so it didn't take more than a few moments to confirm my suspicions. 

For such a tiny insect (body length only 4 mm) it has an inordinately long name: The Lesser Thorn-tipped Longhorn Beetle. For once the Latin name, Pogonochoerus hispidus, is less of a mouthful. It is hardly a striking insect and at first I though I had swept up a piece of bird poo. (In fact a number of moths genuinely do look like bird droppings, with obvious benefits; they are often referred to - with regrettable vulgarity - as bird crap moths.)
Lesser Thorn-tipped Longhorn Beetle
Byfield Pocket Park

This, plus a couple of other new insects for the Pocket Park, brought the total species count there to 440 so I was smugly pleased with my efforts.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Kenilworth Ivy

All around Byfield walls have been colonised by Kenilworth Ivy, Cymbalaria muralis*, more generally known as Ivy-leaved Toadflax. One assumes it grows on the walls of Kenilworth Castle although I have been unable to confirm this. Felicia Hemans' poem is not helpful:

                                  Heards't thou what the ivy sighed,
                                  Waving where all else has died?
                                  In this place of regal mirth
                                  Now this silent Kenilworth.

This obviously refers to the Common Ivy Hedera helix.

Be that as it may, it is certainly common throughout Northamptonshire. Its little purple snapdragon-like flowers are produced throughout the year and even on New Year's Day this year some blooms were present in Banbury Lane. 

The flowers initially face away from the wall on which the plant grows but, after pollination, they turn towards the wall so improving the chances of seed falling into a suitable crevice. If the plant's frequency is anything to go by this strategy is very successful because, since it was first recorded in Britain in 1640, this native of Southern Europe has gone on to colonise most of the British Isles. Although the blooms are much like those of a snapdragon the back of the flower is lengthened into a long tapering spur, a feature not found with true snapdragons (Antirrhinum species). 
Kenilworth Ivy, aka Ivy-leaved Toadflax.
On a wall in Byfield, 7 May, 2013

Ever since I first took an interest in flowers, Antirrhinum and Cymbalaria have been included in the Figwort Family, Scrophulariaceae. More recently however, DNA analysis has shown that they more properly belong with the plantains in the Plantaginaceae Family. By plantain I mean the small herbs of meadow and roadside in Britain, rather than the bananas also going by the same name. Changes such as this are coming thick and fast. Will I ever cope?

*  "muralis" means "of walls" 

Farthinghoe Nature Reserve

Led by John Showers, a small group of entomologists met at this linear reserve to survey the diptera. Managed by Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust it does not, on entering the site, present a very exciting prospect but this is deceptive.  This stretch of disused railway track, covering some 4 hectares, opens up both to east and west to offer an interesting range of habitats.

The day had begun with wall-to-wall sunshine but by the time our group gathered the conditions were grey and rather cool. Undaunted we spread out along the old track bed and got to work. Cowslips and primroses brightened up the area but in the sunless conditions they were receiving few insect visitors.

Primrose, Primula vulgaris at Farthinghoe Reserve.
5 May, 2013

A little beyond mid morning the sun finally broke through and with it more insects put in an appearance. The Dark-edged Bee Fly, Bombylius major, was present in considerable numbers together with several species of hoverfly, including the  Tapered Drone-fly, Eristalis pertinax. (A number of attempts have been made to give common names to hoverflies but no consensus has been reached.) Seven species of Eristalis  occur in Britain but this is perhaps the commonest of them, often found even in urban gardens.

Eristalis pertinax at Farthinghoe Reserve,
5 May, 2013

Apart from diptera, insects from other groups were noted including shield bugs and beetles. Although vaguely beetle-like in appearance, these bugs have several major differences including mouth parts which form a "drinking straw" for tapping in to plant (and occasionally animal) fluids. Despite its cryptic coloration a Green Shieldbug, Palomena prasina, was spotted on a leaf. I have referred to this species in a previous blog dated 17 April, 2013.

Green Shieldbug, Palomena prasina, at
Farthinghoe Reserve. 5 May, 2013
Also present in considerable numbers was the Pied Shieldbug, Tritomegas bicolor. In all cases it was on its food plant, the White Deadnettle. With its black and white coloration it is a smart little insect and is found in Byfield Pocket Park where. last year, I estimated several hundreds to be present.
Pied Shieldbug Tritomegas bicolor at
Farthinghoe Reserve. 5 May, 2013

A leaf beetle, Chrysolina polita, was noted.
One of the Leaf Beetles,  Chrysolina polita
Farthinghoe Reserve, 5 May, 2013
It is a common species, tending to frequent damp places. It is quite variable in colour but the pronotum (the area behind the head) is generally a striking metallic bronze-green - a feature unfortunately not obvious in my photograph.

It will be several days before all the insects noted have been accurately identified but there is no doubt that the visit was well worthwhile.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Lamb's Lettuce

This is one of those plants which, though easily overlooked, merits a closer look. It is currently in flower at the foot of walls around Byfield, and is plentiful opposite the village school gates. It is hardly a spectacular plant but when examined under a hand-lens the flowers have a certain neatness. Otherwise known as Corn Salad the plant has been eaten all over Europe for many centuries under various names; in Germany it is known as 'rapunzel' and may have some association with the fairy tale. Its Latin name is Valerianella locusta. The generic name is easily explained as the plant is a relative of Common Valerian but the specific name 'locusta' leaves me puzzled; 'locusta' can refer to a grasshopper or a lobster - both equally problematic.
Corn Salad Valerienella locusta,
Bell Lane, Byfield 7 May, 2013

The plant is now commercially grown in some quantity but has yet to become popular in Britain. Books by Jamie Oliver or Delia Smith are silent on the matter; perhaps they should include it in a recipe or two. I could offer to gather some for use in a salad at home but I suspect Chris would give the plants a very frosty reception. (During World War Two my father once brought home a couple of dead rooks and put them in the kitchen - they were never seen again!)

Lamb's Lettuce is widespread throughout Britain but scarce in places, and is only patchily distributed in Northamptonshire. It is more common in Byfield than I have seen it anywhere, growing not only in Bell Lane but behaving as a weed in gardens in Boddington Road.  

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Cup of Camellia anyone?

We have one Camellia plant in the back garden.  It was given to us as a present and I was a little worried about planting it since it can be unhappy in a limy soil of the type we have. Nevertheless it has flourished but late frosts this year meant that it failed to produce its attractive display of pink flowers.
Tea, Camellia sinensis

Camellia sinensis  has lovely white flowers with a boss of yellow stamens; we know it as tea and the family is known as the Theaceae. As far as I am aware no wild tea plants have ever been found but there is a continuing search as any specimens would increase the gene pool available to breeders. It is not fully hardy but, with climate warming now well established, tea plantations have been established in the milder parts of England, with Cornwall's Tregothnan Estate being a well-known example. 
Semi-double variety of Camellia japonica at
Canons Ashby House. 4 May, 2013

Many of the Camellia plants available for sale have completely double flowers so, from my point of view, their garden value is limited. They will attract no insects and therefore deny the the garden of a vital dimension. Nevertheless there is no denying their beauty as this semi-double variety of Camellia japonica demonstrates. It enjoys the benefit of a south-west facing wall so its flowers survived the fate of my own specimen.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Greater Celandine

In several places around Byfield - in Bell Lane, Banbury Lane, etc -  the Greater Celandine, Chelidoniun majus, is now coming into flower. Despite its common name it is not very closely related to the Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) and is placed in the Poppy Family, Papaveraceae. Both have yellow flowers, but have little else in common.
Greater Celandine in Bell Lane, Byfield.
1 May, 2013

One easy way to identify the plant is to break off a leaf; the wound will bleed a bright orange juice. The whole plant is toxic and the juice contains about a dozen alkaloids of considerable medical interest. Unsurprisingly, given that it is related to the Opium Poppy, Greater Celandine is said to be mildly narcotic. It was much used by herbalists over the centuries and my 1923 copy of 'Potter's Cyclopaedia of Botanical Drugs and Preparations'  states: 'The fresh juice makes an excellent application for corns and warts'. It also suggests that it may be used 'in jaundice, scrofulous diseases, eczema,&c'. A trawl through the internet  reveals many other odd facts.
Greater Celandine, Bell Lane, Byfield, showing
more flower detail. 1 May, 2013

The plant may be native to Britain or it could have been introduced centuries ago by herbalists. Certainly I have only ever found it associated with human habitation but in this type of situation it is found throughout Northamptonshire. The flowers are normally 4-petalled but the plants around Byfield often have six or more - see photograph.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Flowering Currants

Every gardener knows the currant, Ribes sanguineum, and if they are fortunate they will be growing the lovely variety 'Pulborough Scarlet'. There are some pale, wishy-washy varieties also in cultivation, but even these are attractive - both to humans and to bees. It is a native of western North America, introduced to Britain in 1826 by David Douglas (of Douglas Fir fame) but occasionally escapes to become semi-naturalised here in Britain. It has been recorded from Thoroughsale Wood, near Corby. 

Ribes sanguineum. My garden in Byfield
1 May, 2013
Other species of Ribes are cultivated for their flowers*. One of the more familiar is the Buffalo Currant, Ribes odoratum. As one would surmise from the specific name, the flowers are fragrant, with a clove scent. With its bright yellow flowers this species, also from North America, perhaps deserves to be more widely grown. One specimen does grow in Byfield, sprawling across a wall to overhanging the stream, creating an attractive feature.

Occasionally a leaf of Flowering Currant is found with a bright yellow raised area. This is caused by a fungus, Puccinia caricina. Gooseberries are commonly afflicted with swollen buds, generally called 'big bud' but so far the mites involved have not been recorded from Flowering Currant. Nevertheless, I'll keep an eye open.
Buffalo Currant, Ribes odoratum. Byfield 1 May, 2013

* Several Ribes species are cultivated for their fruit, including blackcurrants, redcurrants and gooseberries.