Sunday, 30 June 2013

A Naturist on the Isle of Wight (with postscript)

No, there is not a typo in the title: a couple of weeks ago I was accompanying a group of school children on a walk from Helmdon to Sulgrave and on the way I was chatting to some of them about hedgerow flowers, caterpillars, plant galls and so on. After the walk one of the pupils said to a teacher, "Mr White is a real naturist". 

Well, I've just spent a few days with our very good friends, Ann and John Pimm, on the Isle of Wight and I have to say that at no time did I get my kit off. I didn't go with the intention of studying wildlife but inevitably a few interesting observations were made. (Correction: Some observations were made that I found interesting.) 

Our first full day included a visit to the splendid gardens of Northcourt, in the village of Shorwell. They are not regularly open to the public but we were lucky: a party had already made a booking for the afternoon so we were able to join them. There were many noteworthy plants there but inevitably some particularly caught the eye. The delightful grass, Briza maxima was clearly
Greater Quaking-grass, Briza maxima, at Northcourt,
Isle of Wight. 24 June, 2013 
happy, popping up in crevices over quite a wide area of of stone slabs. It is not native to Britain but has become naturalised in some open areas such as sunny banks. 

The mild conditions (not quite frost-free) allow the cultivation of the extraordinary, three metres tall Echium pininana. It is a native of the Canary Islands - La Palma to be precise - but clearly finds parts of the Isle of Wight to its liking. All Echiums, including our native Viper's Bugloss (and in fact all of the Borage Family, to which it belongs) seem to yield copious nectar; with this and other plants any local beekeepers are well served by the garden. Could it survive in Northamptonshire? Anyone possessing a tall, south-facing wall could take the chance but it would be quite a gamble. 
Echium pininana at Northcourt
24 June, 2013

A Cistus, C. parviflorus, at Northcourt
24 June, 2013
Among other plants putting on a fine show was a Cistus which the owner, John  Harrison,said was Cistus parviflorus. To me it looked like Cistus cobariensis but, whatever it was, it provided an eye-catching sight and was revelling in the mild micro-climate of the garden.
I have always liked the genus Cornus, and I had rarely seen Cornus kousa flowering so beautifully. It had creamy bracts, unlike the white form I had seen a few days before at Charlecote Park (blog for 22.6.2013). When questioned, the owner said that he had sampled the fruits - but wouldn't bother
Cornus kousa at Northcourt. 24 June, 2013
again. Much of the garden has a rather limy soil but the Cornus was flourishing in a deep loam which was probably more or less neutral. I coveted it. Not all plants were thriving: the hardy Japanese banana, Musa basjoo, had been hit hard by the cold spring and looked the worse for wear - but it will survive.

The hardy banana, Musa basjoo at
Northcourt. 24 June, 2013
  I left the garden with many fond memories. The owner and his wife have just a little help but largely manage the huge expanse by themselves; the air of benign neglect fitted in with my ideas of what gardening should be about.

What a contrast with the stiff, formal and unimaginative municipal flower beds I saw in Cowes the following day. I accept that these areas need to be low-maintenance but there was not an insect to be seen. Bright with colour they may have been, but to me they were an opportunity missed. To be fair much use was being made of the 'Torbay Palm', Cordyline australis. Most of the specimens were flowering profusely and they were clearly having a good year. Many were only a few metres from the shore and must be unaffected by salt-laden winds.
Cordyline australis on Cowes sea front.
26 June, 2013 
Female Stag beetle, Cowes, 26 June, 2013
The following day we were walking home when Ann and Chris drew my attention to a large beetle on the roadside. It was a female Stag Beetle, Lucanus cervus. This, Britain's largest beetle, has not been recorded from Northamptonshire so I was glad of the opportunity to see one. Not only was it in a vulnerable situation but it was on double yellow lines and thus liable to a fine. I moved it to a place of safety. 
Less fortunate but in the same road was a Slow Worm, Anguis fragilis. This legless lizard (unlike snakes, it has eyelids) bore no sign of injury but was in a moribund state, and a few hours later it was clearly dead.
Slow Worm. Cowes, 27 June, 2013
 Its coloration suggested it was a female. These are interesting creatures not least because they are live-bearing with the young being born in a thin, membranous sac, from which they free themselves almost immediately. The specific epithet 'fragilis' refers to the tail, which easily breaks off when seized by a predator.

Many other interesting creatures were observed during this break on the island but I will mention only one more - not because it is rare but, whenever I see it,
Wasp Beetle, Clytis arietes, near Niton.
25 June, 2013
I seem to be without a camera. This time I was properly equipped. The Wasp Beetle, Clytus arietes, is a wasp mimic and flaunts its warning colours to birds and any other would-be predators. It is common in Northamptonshire and I often spot one in Byfield's pocket park.


A couple of interesting plants were noted at St Catherine's Point. One was Common Broomrape, Orobanche minor. This is a parasite (hence the lack of green leaves) found usually - as in this case - on clover. It is, as the name suggests, common, but as a small plant with subdued coloration it is easily overlooked.
Common Broomrape, Orobanche minor at
St Catherine's Point, Isle of Wight.
25 June, 2013

Another plant found only a couple of metres away was Rock Sea-spurrey, Spergularia rupicola. This is a dainty plant confined to walls and rocky places near to the sea.The specimen I photographed was clinging to a boulder
Rock Sea-spurrey. St Catherine'sPoint,
Isle of Wight  25 June, 2013

The island break was not a long one but was packed with interest. There is an amazing range of habitats to be sampled and for the wildlife enthusiast it is one of Britain's most rewarding locations.

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