Saturday, 29 March 2014

Dog's Tooth Violets

Let's make one thing clear, they're not violets at all - in fact they're not even distantly related but are members of the Lily Family. Considering how beautiful they are I'm surprised that they aren't in every garden. I grow three species.

The most eye-catching of the genus is lovely Erythronium 'Pagoda'. It is hard to fault this plant although, as a keen entomologist, I have one small complaint: the plant is a hybrid (parentage not known for certain but it may be E. tuolumnense x E. californicum) and, as is often the case, the flowers have nothing to offer insects and they receive no visitors. On the other hand, as they are not pollinated the flowers last for rather longer than would otherwise be the case.

Erythronium 'Pagoda'. My garden in Byfield.
2 May, 2013

My clump of E. "Pagoda" is steadily spreading and is perfectly happy in a neutral loam with dappled sunlight. 

Another I grow is Erythronium californicum in a selected form called "White Beauty. As a species rather than a hybrid it may produce seed and, as it grows adjacent to "Pagoda", any offspring could be interesting.

Erythronium dens-canis in my garden.
29 March, 2014
The third one I grow is Erythronium dens-canis. This is the only European member of the genus and occurs in woodlands in southern Europe. It gets its odd name from the white bulbs, which resemble dogs' teeth. It is a short plant - not more than 2-3 inches in height - and therefore not as immediately eye-catching as the first two. However, its lovely delicate lilac blooms and striking mottled leaves make it my favourite and, fortunately, it too is spreading.

Other species are in cultivation, many from North America, and I'll be keeping my eyes open for them.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Attracting beetles

A Mrs Trellis of North Wales has written: 

"Dear Kate Humble, 
                            I have been trying to attract beetles into my garden with no success. Please advise."

Well Mrs Trellis, as it happens there is exciting news on this front. Working at Royal Holloway, University of London, Dr Deborah Harvey has found that powdered ginger can be of help.

The problem for Dr Harvey concerned Stag Beetles. In an attempt to attract this priority species a number of potential baits were used, and ginger turned out to be highly effective. Ginger contains alpha copaene, a chemical that will attract not just Stag Beetles but a range of interesting insects, including other beetle species.

I certainly intend to give it a try. Around Byfield it is very unlikely that Stag Beetles occur, but other beetles may turn up. Watch this space.

Female Stag Beetle photographed by me at
West Cowes, Isle of Wight. June, 2013


The introduction will be enigmatic for anyone not a fan of "Sorry, I haven't a clue".

Thursday, 27 March 2014


It was only the gentlest of thumps on our bedroom window. When I opened up and peered down on to the patio there it was - a Goldcrest.

No wonder it was such a gentle impact; it is Britain's smallest bird. In my childhood the farthing (1/4 penny) bore the image of a wren; Britain's smallest bird on Britain's smallest coin - or that was the theory. But the designers were wrong. At 4.5 to 7.0 grams the Goldcrest (Regulus regulus) is significantly lighter than the Wren (8 to 13 grams). Incidentally, in a poem by Charles Tennyson Turner the Goldcrest is called "the Gold-crested Wren.

A Goldcrest sits dazed on the doorstep.
27 March, 2014

I scurried downstairs and looked it it for a few seconds. Was it badly injured or just dazed?

At least its eyes were open.

I gently coaxed it on to my hand to look for obvious injuries: a drooping wing perhaps, or blood around the bill - not that I could have done much. It looked ok.

I wanted to withdraw as quickly as possible in order to avoid causing it further stress, but first I put it on to an old log where a cat would be less likely to spot it. It sat there for ten minutes or so then, after flicking its wings and turning its head to left and to right, it flitted off, first to perch in a nearby apple tree and then to resume normal activities, seeking insects with its delicate little bill.

A good start to the day.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Perfidious March!

With the sun warm on my face I set off to Byfield's pocket park. Long-tailed Tits flitted about in a Birch tree, reminding me what a mild winter we've had. These tiny birds are vulnerable in a harsh winter but they seem to have done well. 

A little further on a Hornbeam was heavy with catkins.

Catkins on Hornbeam approaching Byfield Pocket
Park. 26 March, 2014

In recent years the Hornbeam, Carpinus betulus, has been placed in the Birch Family, Betulaceae. Fifty years ago Clapham, Tutin and Warburg* had it in the Hazel Family, Corylaceae. Some classification systems even give it its own family, the Carpinaceae. Yer pays yer money...

Perfidious March! By now the sun was sulking behind clouds and conditions became chilly. I didn't linger in the pocket park but made my way to the churchyard.

Male cones on Lawson's Cypress.
Byfield churchyard, 26 March, 2014

Not for the first time I reflected on what a fine tree is Lawson's Cypress, Chamaecyparis lawsoniana. The bright pink male cones were a lovely sight and released a cloud of pollen as I swept the branches in a fruitless attempt to find a Juniper Shieldbug.

My return journey took me past the Blindle or Bell Brook, on the banks of which Marsh Marigolds were in bloom.

Marsh Marigolds beside the Blindle
Byfield, 26 March, 2014

Every year I vow to collect seeds from these Marsh Marigolds to sow beside the brook in my garden; every year I unfailingly forget! 

A not very obvious patch of Danish
Scurvy-grass.  Byfield,  26 March, 2014

I was about to cross Thomas Close when I noticed, along a scruffy roadside kerb, a mass of tiny white flowers. They belonged to Danish Scurvy-grass, Cochlearia danica. The story of this plant is well-known but deserves repeating. It is a halophyte, found on rocky and sandy banks beside the sea where it seems to enjoy the taste of salt. With the widespread use of a salt-grit mixture on winter roads it has found a new habitat and since the late 1980's has become a familiar sight as a white ribbon of flowers on roadsides, with the display often stretching for miles.

Eveywhere I looked today Daffodils were in flower. For several years I taught Year 6 pupils and, towards the end of the school year they took their SATs. Invariably the Science Test involved a question about flower structure. Other Year 6 staff would come to school bearing bunches of Daffodils for the children to examine - and by the end of the day teachers would be at their wits' end trying to explain which were the petals and which were the sepals. There is a papery bract beneath each flower and above that are what. Petals? Sepals? Botanists get around this by craftily referring to them as 'perianth segments' - not helpful for the pupils. As for the trumpet - botanists unhelpfully use the word 'corona'. 

A confusing and, imo, unattractive Narcissus beside
Byfield Playing Fields. 26 March, 2014

What would they have made of this specimen?

I always tried to take in some Wallflowers or, failing that, Anemones. With the latter there was a little confusion over the sepals/petals but a mini-problem compared with the daffodil's pitfalls.

Happy days! (But not so happy now. As I write weary teachers are on strike trying to get a deal which will reflect their dedication.)

* Clapham, Tutin and Warburg, "Flora of the British Isles (1962)

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Poplars in Parsons Spinney

Although I visited Parsons Spinney as recently as 11 March I decided to take another look. A very limited variety of plants occurs on the floor of the spinney, but these include stinging nettles and brambles and by high summer they make progress difficult without a machete!

Sallow, Salix caprea. Parsons Spinney.
19 March, 2014
A single plant of Goat Willow, aka Sallow (For us as children it was always Pussy Willow) was in bloom on the edge of the spinney. The most recent "Flora of Northamptonshire" (Gent & Wilson, 2012) states: 'Always a common tree in all parts of the county.' All I can say is that it isn't common in the Byfield area. Incidentally I haven't been able to establish the plant's association with goats but I suspect that the branches were fed to them.

Catkins of Grey(?) Poplar. Parsons' Spinney,
near Byfield. 19 March, 2014
I pushed on through the spinney and after 150 metres or so began to notice pink-red catkins littering the woodland floor. I looked up and saw that they were from Poplars. There were quite a lot of the trees, all of about the same height and girth, so were almost certainly planted. As they were not in leaf I wasn't sure of the species but were probably  Grey Poplar (Populus canescens). Whether deliberately planted or not, poplars in general are excellent trees for their wildlife value, with our native Black Poplar, Populus nigra, known to be used by over 100 insect species. Most of these insects feed on the foliage but a proportion are wood borers.

The majority of the trees appeared to be healthy but further on I found a number of specimens that had died. They were a loss to the landowner who had doubtless planted them as a long-term cash crop, but wildlife was still utilising it.

Woodpecker holes in Poplar.
Parsons Spinney. 19 March, 2014

Woodpeckers had been busy making large holes and, where trees had fallen, I was able to get a closer look at their work.

Close up of woodpecker hole
19 March, 2014

The edge of this hole has been worn smooth by adults making hundreds of visits to feed their young.

Daldinia concentrica on fallen Poplar. Parsons
Spinney, 19 March, 2014

In death these trees will still support a huge array of wildlife, particularly wood boring insects. Already fungi were at work with some fallen specimens bearing a rash of King Alfred's Cakes, Daldinia concentrica

High in the healthy trees a rather large rookery was very active, with dozens of birds wheeling around, the air loud with their excited calls.

Small Tortoiseshell  Aglais urticae at the edge of
Parsons Spinney  19 March, 2014

I left the dappled shade of the spinney and stepped out into bright sunshine. A Small Tortoiseshell butterfly was on a piece of plant stem, its wings spread as if to catch the warmth. It obligingly allowed me to get a photograph - unlike Brimstones over recent days which have take to the wing as I neared, no matter how stealthy my approach.

So, nothing dramatic today; just a pleasant walk to stretch the legs and get some fresh air. That'll do me.

Woodlice - for William

Woodlice are crustaceans, so they are close relatives of prawns and crabs. Most crustaceans live in the sea so they never dry out. Woodlice live on the land and have to be very careful not to get dry or they can quickly die. 

Armadillidium vulgare from beneath a stone.
Pit Lane, Byfield. 19 March, 2014

Some can roll up into a ball and this helps the delicate parts of their bodies to stay damp. The picture shows the common "Roly-poly" (it has lots of name) which I found under a stone, but this species will often come out in fairly bright sunshine.

They have no lungs, but if you turn a woodlouse upside down and look near its tail end you will see some white patches; these are little pads of tissue which can absorb oxygen and do the same job as lungs. These pads must stay damp because if they dry out they can't work, and the animal dies. This is why they stay under logs, stones or dead leaves.

The commonest woodlouse is Porcellio scaber or "scabby little pig". I wrote a bit more about this in my blog for 23 January, 2013 called "Roly-polies and Scabby little pigs".

I looked through my old photographs and found this picture of Porcellio scaber.  This species of woodlouse often gets into houses and I found this one in our kitchen! Oniscus asellus is similar but is bigger and rather shiny.

Sometimes, when you turn over a stone, you will find an ants' nest. Look carefully and you may find some strange little woodlice called Platyarthrus hoffmannseggi (sorry, this species doesn't have a common name). It is completely white and has no eyes. It lives all its life underground with the ants so it doesn't need eyes or body colour. It is common and even lives in my back garden.

Platyarthrus hoffamanseggi in my back garden.
17 March, 2014

It is rather small and I found it difficult to get a good photograph. In my garden it is living with black ants but it is more commonly found with yellow ants. 'Platyarthrus' comes from the Latin words for 'flat joint' (your Mum knows all about arthritis because she worked with patients who had joint problems).

Most woodlice are rather dull but if you are lucky you may find a lovely one called the Rosy Woodlouse. It is a bright pink species with a pair of yellow stripes down its back. It lives under damp leaves but for some reason I often find it under rather wet cardboard on waste ground. I haven't got a picture of it but there are plenty on the internet under its Latin name of Androniscus dentiger.

Keep looking, and good luck!

Monday, 17 March 2014

Buds are starting to break

The unfurling of buds is one of the most critical events on the wildlife year. Among the first to show its leaves is the elder, Sambucus nigra. 
Elder in early leaf. Byfield Pocket Park.
17 March, 2014

Despite the comments in my last blog (sorry about the dreadful pun) some elders are permitted to flourish and, indeed are welcome for their fruits, but their new leaves seem to attract no interest among browsers, miners or nibblers. This is hardly surprising as they are poisonous, containing some thoroughly unpleasant - and carcinogenic - glycosides. They thrive, uneaten, around rabbit burrows.

Hazel leaves start to unfurl in Byfield
Pocket Park  17 March, 2014

Hazel, Corylus avellana, also breaks into leaf quite early. It is generally part of the shrub layer in deciduous woodland and so perhaps needs to get on with the task of photosynthesis before the canopy of oak, etc, closes above it to drastically reduce the sunlight. John Clare made the point when he wrote:

     'Neath Oxeye Hazel bowers
     As near Hazels I have stood
     In the gloomy hanging wood,
     Whence the sunbeams filtering small
     Freckling through the branches fall.

                           Clare's Village Minstrel, 1821

Trees such as birch tend to occupy more open ground and therefore leaf-bud opening can be delayed. It is a beautiful tree but, as spring advances...

                                 ... the birchen bud doth spring
                                 That makes the schoolboy cry.

                                        Beaumont and Fletcher: "The Knight of the Burning Pestle"

As a schoolboy I frequently made painful contact with bamboo canes, wielded by practised hands, but not, as far as I can recall, with a birch stick!

Silver Birch in the burial ground adjacent
to the pocket park.
Byfield, 17 March, 2014
The Silver Birch, Betula pendula, is indeed, "a dainty lady"; it is one of two species of birch found in our county. The second one, the Downy Birch, Betula pubescens, is rather uncommon and confined to acidic soils; I have yet to find a specimen. 

The Silver Birch is the usual source for anyone wishing to make birch sap syrup. Holes are drilled into the bark and the sap is tapped off into a suitable container. Once home the sap is gently heated to drive off up to 80-90% of the water and the resultant syrup may be used on pancakes, etc. There is plenty of information on the internet including an article from The Guardian which first brought this interesting product to my attention.

It is an excellent tree for supporting wildlife, with over 300 species of insect making use of birches in the UK. Watch out for the Bronze Birch Borer, Agrilus anxius, a beetle which apparently also relishes the sap. It is a recent American invader, capable of causing great damage and is currently a matter of concern in Britain.

I will monitor the whole process (of bud-break, not syrup production) because, with tender leaves come hungry caterpillars and bugs. Bring them on! 


Saturday, 15 March 2014

More work in Byfield Pocket Park

Fine weather greeted four of us  - Emma and Dave Marsh, Chris and myself - as we gathered to work in the pocket park. We had only the one objective for the day: planting a couple of dozen trees and shrubs. The selection included birch, field maple, blackthorn, cherry and wild rose. I also put in a plant of Daphne laureola. All have been chosen to improve the park's range of insects, birds and so on.

Chris clears a suitable spot

The pocket park stands on the site of Byfield's long-gone railway station, which itself was situated in a cutting. The cutting was subsequently filled with rubble, and creating planting holes in this material can be, and is, hard work.

Dave seems to be making progress.

Rubble-filled or not,  brambles enjoy the conditions and the area is smothered with them; secateurs were frequently brought into play. We were always taught to respect our elders - but lots of these have been pulled out too. (Ouch!) Even a pickaxe was needed for the more difficult areas.

Emma takes a well-earned breather.

The pocket park probably has as many trees and shrubs as it requires, the bulk of which have been planted by Dave and Emma, but we must accept that a proportion will die, with some simply being smothered by brambles. In between the stones the soil is surprisingly fertile and we have removed a lot of plant material from the site in the hope of reducing this fertility. 

Making the soil poorer seems an odd objective but in rich soil plant thugs such as nettles and brambles will thrive, crowding out many more desirable species. The brambles and nettles will have to be tolerated in the short term but eventually they will - hopefully - be tamed. 

Friday, 14 March 2014

A hotchpotch of a day.

A thick mist cut visibility down to little over 100 metres during the morning today, but the sun broke through in the afternoon and I sallied forth to investigate Wardenhill Covert, on the south flanks of Warden Hill. I had thought that a public right-of-way passed through it but I was wrong and had failed to study the O.S. map with sufficient care.

Being a stout-hearted and plucky Brit I was undaunted and resolved to strike south-west instead and take another look at Calves Close Spinney, entering it at SP506492. I had visited the site on three occasions last year but felt that another look could be productive. I was wrong!

Calves Close Spinney  looking south

The spinney always looks inviting from a distance, with a few fine oaks being obvious, but I had forgotten just how limited it is in terms of ground flora and variety of trees. I quickly changed my mind and retraced my steps. The return journey was quite useful. It seemed the kind of day when 'money spiders' would be ballooning and my net secured quite a few. In suitable conditions spiders will climb a grass stem and release a long strand of silk. The wind catches the silk and the spider is borne aloft and, with luck, will be carried for a considerable distance to a new site. Ballooning spiders have been caught at a height of several kilometres. I secured about twenty spiders; all but one were females and all were very common species. 

Also swept up was the very common planthopper, Stenocranus minutus.

I pressed on to the lakes mentioned briefly in my recent blog, 'Root Spinney' (26 February). These lakes are apparently unnamed. Things were very quiet and no water birds were seen apart from a pair of unwelcome Canada Geese.

Why I bothered photographing these I do not know. They were introduced as ornamental waterfowl from North America but some quickly escaped and have since become a pest species. We now have a large resident population but in North America this is a migratory species, and some British specimens have apparently redeveloped their migratory habits.  

Coltsfoot flowers beside a lake at SP517509
13 March, 2014

On the lakeside were coltsfoot plants, now fully in flower. Despite the bright sunshine temperatures were on the cool side and and I saw no insect visitors at the flowers.

The Coltsfoot belongs to the Daisy Family, Asteraceae and each 'flower' is, of course, composed of an aggregate of tiny flowers in a cluster known as a capitulum. (The older, very appropriate name for the family was the Compositae.)

I recall that when I first began studying botany much time was spent pulling the flower heads apart and trying to understand the structures and their names. The family is a large and tricky one and when on mainland Europe I confess to often being stumped.

Also with composite flower heads are Typha species. These were well established around the lake edge, the species involved being the Greater Reedmace, Typha latifolia.

The bursting heads of Typha latifolia
13 March, 2014
Bulrush or Reedmace? Historically there is little doubt that Reedmace is the older name but either is now accepted. The confusion is often - unfairly - attributed to the great Victorian painter Alma-Tadema. In his painting of 'Moses in the Bulrushes' he unmistakably depicts Reedmace but the confusion considerably pre-dates this work. 

The composite flower of Coltsfoot is, as I have said, technically a capitulum; the flower head of the Bulrush consists of tiny flowers crowded together as a spadix. The spadices burst to release the wind-borne fruits and this has led to the species rapidly colonising flooded gravel pits and so on across the county and, indeed, throughout Britain.

I met the local landowner on today's walk and I expressed my delight at the very broad field margins he had retained, with their wild flowers and insect life. He had also been responsible for creating the lakes. If only some of his farming neighbours would follow suit. 

I could name one farmer in the area who ploughs so close to the hedgerows that the roots are ripped up or exposed! 'Times they are a-changin' claimed Bob Dylan. I only hope they change for the better hereabouts.


Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Bread and Cheese and Scarlet Elves

I set out an an overcast but warm morning, destination Parsons Spinney. Sweet Violets were flowering beside Banbury Lane - spring was steadily advancing. As Robert Herrick wrote in his poem "To Violets": 

                         Welcome Maids of Honour,
                         You doe bring
                         In the Spring:
                         And wait upon her.

Sweet Violets, Banbury Lane, Byfield
11 March, 2014

The flowers on the Sweet Violets were fragrant, but only fleetingly so. A largish bunch would need to be gathered for a real impact. They are very common hereabouts in both violet and cream-white forms and are probably paid only scant attention by passers-by. Perhaps this has always been so. It would account for the wistful last lines of Herrick's poem:

                        Yet though thus respected,
                        By and by
                        Ye doe lie,
                        Poore girls, neglected.

Blistered leaves on Firethorn caused by the
Pyracantha Leaf Miner. Byfield,  11 March, 2014

The leaves on a Firethorn bush along The Twistle were ravaged by the Pyracantha Leaf Miner, Phyllonorycter leucographella. This micro-moth was first recorded in Britain in 1989 and has subsequently spread rapidly, Fortunately the blisters caused by the larvae, though unsightly, appear to do no lasting damage.

I pressed on down Pit Lane ("Muddy Lane" to all the villagers) and, after about 400 yards turned right off the public right-of-way on to the track bed of the old S.M.J. Railway.

The local land owner has made it abundantly clear that no right-of-way exists. I sympathise with farmers whose land is strewn with litter from passers-by but in this case my sympathy is diluted by the fact that much of the dumped material along the track is clearly of farm origin - old fertiliser bags, rusting bales of barbed wire and so on.

Rose thorns should be called prickles as they are formed
from the epidermis of the stem and contain no
vascular bundles.

I passed through the gate on to the well-used track-bed to face other obstacles - viciously thorned branches of Wild Rose. These were easily avoided and I was able to press on. A smart Nuthatch was making its way, head first as usual, down the trunk of an Ash Tree. I attempted to photograph it but as soon as I raised my camera it sidled coquettishly around to the other side of the trunk. It was the first of its species I've seen this year.

Opening leaf-buds of Hawthorn. 11 March, 2014

Hawthorn buds were breaking into leaf in sheltered sunny spots. The old name for these tender leaves is "Bread and Cheese". We are assured by writers such as Richard Mabey that these shoots are very tasty and I ought to sample them some time. Incidentally the Hawthorn bears true thorns, containing vascular tissue*.

In the gloomy interior of Parsons Spinney there were few signs of spring. The woodland floor is very wet and all around were fallen branches in various stages of decay. As the trees break into leaf even less sunlight will filter through and, other than mosses, the woodland floor will have little to offer to a botanist. Some fairly ruthless management would be required to bring flowers back but there are compensations - fungi.

Scarlet Elf Cup. Parsons Spinney, near Byfield.
11 March, 2014

A bright splash of colour caught my eye and I sloshed through the mire for a closer examination. The fungus responsible was the Scarlet Elf Cup, Sarcoscypha coccinea. This species is more frequent in the west of Britain but here it was doing well, with a short stroll revealing more specimens. All were on dead branches. 

Following previous visits to Parsons Spinney I had planned to gather more mosses but time was pressing on and I turned for home. And predictably the sun broke though, promising a fine afternoon.

*Vascular bundles. If you snap a stick of celery, the stringy bits are the plant vessels, forming bundles of vascular tissue.

Monday, 10 March 2014

And now for something completely different...

This blog site was initially launched to chat about the gardens and wildlife in the Byfield area. That remains its raison d'etre (raisins for eating) but occasionally some other topic forces itself on to the site.

On Saturday, 8 April I was fortunate enough to get an invitation from Lynda and Damien Moran to attend a performance by Boldwood, a folk group for whom their daughter Kate plays fiddle. The venue was in the chapel of The Queen's College, Oxford (the queen in question being Queen Philippa of Hainault). This genre of music is outside my usual range, with only the arrangements by Percy Grainger and Ralph Vaughan Williams being familiar to me, i.e pretty mainstream stuff. Boldwood have blown the dust from little-known and almost forgotten 17th and 18th centuries scores - and the material was delightful. As I say, I can speak with no expertise whatsoever, but the performances struck me as being of a very high standard.

The chapel is approached via a simple but most attractive quadrangle... 
See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.   Left to right:
Chris, Ann and Lynda.

... peopled by learned historical figures engaged in animated and recondite conversation regarding Virgil's epic work "Marcus et Spensius".

The interior of the chapel, dating from 1819, is beautiful and seemed to have very good acoustics. I was much taken by the stained glass windows. As is usual they depicted biblical scenes - but with some whimsical touches.

Bother! Just when you need it,
there isn't a wishbone.

It seemed clear, for example, that the main course for the Last Supper was a nice, plump dog.

"Lord, you've forgotten your sandals."

The ascension into heaven was unexpectedly rapid, giving little time to pack...

Boldwood. 8 March, 2014

The interior was a little gloomy and I didn't want to employ flash.

All in all, a delightful day, with wall-to-wall sunshine throughout.