Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Flowers of the Mani Peninsula: Part 1 - Orchids

Chris and I are just back from a week's rambling in the Mani peninsula, in Southern Greece. We have had almost twenty holidays with Ramblers but this must count as one of the most enjoyable: interesting walking in a lovely landscape, excellent weather and, above all, the companionship of a friendly and interesting group ably led by the excellent Julia Cooper.

The holiday was billed as "Flowers of the Peloponesse" but given the wealth of archaeological sites in the area it was not surprising that, for many, these were the main attraction. For flower-lovers the orchids were eagerly sought - and found in some abundance. 

The first species to be noted was a Tongue Orchid. I was a little disconcerted by this as there are about ten species to be found in the Mediterranean area - and they can be tricky.

Serapias vomeracea near Gythio, Greece
20 April, 2014

This, I am fairly certain, is the Long-lipped Serapias, Serapias vomeracea, a widespread species found from Spain through to Turkey (but see below*). It was growing beside a track overlooking Gythio. One really needs to collect a specimen for examination with a hand lens but, like most people, I am reluctant to pick these flowers. It was noted several more times during the week.

Pyramidal Orchid near Gythio, Greece
20 April, 2014

The Pyramidal Orchid, Anacamptis pyramidalis, was noted on a couple of occasions. It has a very widespread distribution, including Britain, and is found on a range of soils, including (obviously) the strongly alkaline soils of the Mani Peninsula. Often the flowers are of a deeper lilac shade.

Four-spotted Orchid,
Anavriti Gorge, Greece.

25 April, 2014

This dainty orchid was found towards the end of the week in Anavriti Gorge, where it was flowering in considerable numbers. Known as the Four-spotted Orchid, Orchis quadripunctata is usually found on limestone and can occur in a white form. It shuns too much shade and was blooming on open ground beside the track towards the top of the gorge.

Orchis italica. Anavriti Gorge, Greece.
25 April, 2014

Closely related, though looking strikingly different, is the Italian or Naked Man Orchid, Orchis italica. This photograph was also taken in Anavriti Gorge but the species was not plentiful, Despite its name it is widespread in the Mediterranean and in some areas is one of the commonest orchids.

I make no apology for including a second photograph showing a little more detail.

Man Orchid,  Orchis anthropophora.
Anavriti Gorge, Greece. 25 April, 2014

The gorge held further treasures. The Man Orchid, Orchis anthropophora (formerly Aceras anthropophorum) was represented by a number specimens which, for some unaccountable reason, I found very difficult to photograph. This curious species is widespread across south-east England but is threatened through loss of habitat and has Red Data Book (RDB) status. I was therefore delighted to find it flourishing in damp, semi-shaded spots. In my own county of Northamptonshire the species does occur but is very rare and I have never found it there.

Orchis anatolica. Anavriti Gorge, Greece
25 April, 2014

I freely admit that this next species has caused a deal of head-scratching. However I am fairly sure it is   Orchis anatolica. It is very similar to Orchis olbiensis but the latter is more likely to be found in the more westerly parts of the Mediterranean region.

Orchis anatolica near the top of
Anavriti Gorge, Greece. 25 April, 2014

A sort of confirmation came with the finding of this lovely white orchid. Orchis anatolica frequently occurs in this white form and some very good images are to be found on the internet. Anatolia is an ancient name for (roughly) modern Turkey, but the species is found from the islands of the Aegean through to Iran.


Now for the Ophrys species noted. The identification of species within this genus can be tricky and will often provoke intense debate. It appears likely that the genus is still evolving and therefore occasional specimens occur which seem "half way" towards evolving into a new species. Nevertheless, the plants seen by us on our rambles seem reasonably problem-free and can be matched confidently with written and illustrated descriptions available. For the record I have used: 

 "Mediterranean Wild Flowers" by Marjorie Blamey and Christoper Grey-Wilson

 "Field Guide to the Wild Flowers of Southern Europe"  by Paul Davies and Bob Gibbons

"Flowers of South-west Europe" by Oleg Polunin and B.E.Smythies (which, despite ostensibly being restricted to the flowers of Spain, Portugal and western France, proved quite useful).

Woodcock Orchid near Gythio, Greece.
20 April, 2014

The first to be seen was the Woodcock Orchid, Ophrys scolopax. It was growing beside a track near Gythio but was seen elsewhere later. The yellowish structures on the side of the flower, sweeping forward like a cow's horns, show it to be the subspecies cornuta. This is sometimes given full specific status as Ophrys cornuta.

Another Woodcock Orchid, showing subtle variations. If a variety like this becomes geographically isolated, perhaps in a ravine or on an island, it will be well on its way to evolving into a new species.

This not very good photograph shows the Eyed Bee Orchid, Ophrys argolica. It is apparently endemic to Greece and is quite rare, being found in an area estimated as no more than 500 km sq and on the UICN Red List of Threatened Species it is classed as "vulnerable", with threats listed as uncontrolled building work, crop spraying and tourist pressures. It has been seen by previous ramblers, being on the 1998 list provided by Julia. Blamey and Grey-Wilson suggest that it has a wider range, as far east as Turkey and including Cyprus, indicating the difficulties faced when dealing with Ophrys species.

Ophrys iricolor. Anavriti Gorge,
Greece  25 April, 2014

Next comes Ophrys iricolor, sometimes called the Rainbow Ophrys. It is close to the Sombre Bee Orchid, Ophrys fusca, and a degree of variation in flower shape creates identification problems. However, my photograph matches well with illustrations in books and on the internet.

Oddly enough it had never been my intention to search for orchids but the sharp eyes and enthusiasm of Julia coaxed me into giving them more attention. And very interesting it was!

* I now believe I was wrong. It is Serapias cordigera


Wednesday, 16 April 2014

At the foot of a wall...

Wayside weeds, so often ignored, are inevitably of interest ecologically. To cope with the unnatural conditions with which they live requires a rather special kind of toughness and adaptability. The late Sir Edward Salisbury made these plants his life's work and his classic book "Weeds and Aliens" still occupies an important place among my books even though it was published (in the famous Collins "New Naturalist" series) fifty years ago.

Even in towns and cities these tough characters may be found - in guttering, quiet side alleys and at the foot of walls. In a village like Byfield they are prolific and often very colorful.

Common Corn Salad. Bell Lane, Byfield, 14 April, 2014
Common Corn Salad, Valerianella locusta, was once a rather scarce plant in Northants but has become far more widespread in recent years and is frequent at the foot of walls in Byfield. At a quick glance it could easily be mistaken for a Forget-me-not but a closer look shows numerous differences. It was once gathered from cornfields and used as a salad plant. An alternative name is Lamb's Lettuce.

A closer look reveals dainty five-petalled flowers. As mentioned in an earlier blog, this member of the Valerianaceae is not often eaten nowadays, despite being easy to grow, but contains high levels of Vitamin C and iron.

Forget-me-nots (Myosotis species) occur in the village at the base of walls on the A361.

Myosotis sylvatica at the base of a wall in Byfield.
15 April, 2014

In this case the species is Wood Forget-me-not and here it is a garden escape. It is widely naturalised across the county and wider afield.

Procumbent Yellow-sorrel. Bell Lane, Byfield.
14 April, 2014

The Corn Salad was photographed at the foot of a wall in Bell Lane, Byfield, and only a metre or so away was another plant of interest. With its pretty yellow flowers the Procumbent Yellow-sorrel, Oxalis corniculata. is very attractive. Do not introduce it into your garden! It seeds prolifically and has become a real nuisance in borders, rock gardens and so on.

Greater Celandine, Chelidonium majus.
Bell Lane, Byfield. 14 April, 2014
Greater Celandine, the subject of a previous blog (2 May, 2013), is now in bloom. This is a member of the Poppy Family (and thus only distantly related to the common Lesser Celandine); it is common around Byfield but generally in a multi-petalled form as distinct from the four-petalled "wild" form. Pretty though the flowers are it is hardly a garden-worthy plant. It is one of those plant which has oily seeds, dispersed by ants.

As is quite clear, the base of walls provides a congenial  home for many plant species. Many are annuals, often seeding prolifically. A case in point is the Shining Crane's-bill. Geranium lucidum.

Shining Crane's-bill beside the A361.
Byfield, 15 April, 2014

With its shiny leaves (often red-tinged), reddish stems and neat pink flowers it is easily recognised. In Byfield it grows prolifically where New Terrace meets the A361, but is common generally.

Various members of the Mint Family are also to be found in a similar situation. Three are all closely related: Lamium album, Lamium purpureum and Lamium maculatum. This genus gives its name to the family, the Lamiaceae.

White Dead-nettle, Church Street, Byfield.
16 April, 2014
This close-up of White Dead-nettle, Lamium album, shows the characteristic structure of the flowers. Each flower has bilateral symmetry (botanists use the term zygomorphic) and is designed for pollination by bees. Although found in many natural-looking habitats it is generally regarded as an archaeophyte - a plant probably introduced by man but many centuries ago.

Red Dead-nettle at the foot of a wall.
Byfield, 16 April, 2014 

Red Dead-nettle, Lamium purpureum, is also an archaeophyte and I cannot recall ever seeing it in anything other than obviously man-made sites.  Like virtually all members of the Lamiaceae its leaves have a pungent odour when rubbed. (Lavender, sage and thyme are all in this large family.) Both this and the previous species may be found flowering in the depths of winter.

Lamium maculatum near Holy Cross Church.
Byfield, 16 April, 2014

The Spotted Dead-nettle, Lamium maculatum, is a neophyte, and is a garden escape not recorded in Northants prior to 1905. The common name is hardly appropriate as the leaves are generally striped rather than spotted. This native of central and southern Europe is very frequently seen in gardens but sometimes becomes a problem, spreading only too freely.

It will be noted that, with the exception of Shining Crane's-bill, all these plants are introductions, either from the distant past - when they may have been introduced by neolithic farmers as grain impurities - or relatively recent times. To quote Sir Edward Salisbury: "...many, and indeed perhaps most, weeds are either known to be introductions or are under suspicion of having been such."  Two obvious exceptions to this rule are Perennial Stinging Nettle and Blackberry Brambles, native plants which are thugs if not ruthlessly controlled. However, as they are not often found at the foot of walls they are of only parenthetic interest.

I have picked out just a handful of the more colorful weeds of Byfield's byways. In my self-indulgent way I may be moved to deal with more 'in the fullness of time'.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

The Buttercup Family. Part 2: mid-spring to mid-summer

With its first flowers opening around mid-March comes the Marsh-marigold, Caltha palustris. In their 1962 "Flora of the British Isles" the authors, Clapham, Tutin and Warburg state: 'The flower of Caltha palustris is perhaps the most "primitive" in the British flora'  - but that was over half a century ago and modern taxonomists would not necessarily agree. I will say little more about this species as it has been the subject of a previous blog (Horse-blobs and Bee-flies, 16 April, 2013). I am not an authority on Shakespeare but the following stanza from Cymbeline ( which I had unaccountably overlooked!) has come to my attention:

                      "Hark, hark! the lark at heaven's gate sings,
                       And Phoebus' gins arise,
                       His steeds to water at those springs
                       On chaliced flowers that lies:
                       And winking Mary-buds begin 
                       To ope their their golden eyes:
                       With every thing that pretty is,
                       My lady sweet arise:
                       Arise, arise."  

Kingcups, aka Marsh-marigolds
Byfield 26 March, 2014

Flowering near to Easter the flower apparently held religious significance, with 'Marigold' being a corruption of 'Mary's Gold'. Shakespeare's 'Mary-buds' is clearly a reference to the same flower.

Anemones, of which there are over 100 species, also begin to display their flowers from mid-March onwards.

Anemone blanda in my garden.
20 March, 2014

The lovely blue Anemone blanda, sometimes called the Balkan Anemone, is the first to bloom in this area. It is understandably a popular garden plant, being a very easy to obtain and grow. As it so widely cultivated, I presumed that it would be a frequent escapee and I was therefore surprised, having trawled through my various floras, that it is not often recorded outside gardens. A patch grows in our pocket park and, although it is persisting, it is not yet showing signs of spreading. 

All anemones have an acrid taste and, containing the narcotic and toxic compound anemonin, are dangerous to cattle. Whilst not as dangerous as the related Monkshood, human fatalities have been recorded from ingesting our native Wood Anemone.

Wood Anemone or Windflower, Anemone nemorosa, (Greek: anemos - wind) is one of the daintiest members of our native flora. Presently, thanks to careful management of reserves, it is "probably more common now than for any time in the last sixty years" (Gent and Wilson, 2012, "The Flora of Northamptonshire"). In the Byfield area it is to be found in Root Spinney (blog for 26 February, 2014).

Wood Anemones in a Byfield garden.
31 March, 2014

The Wood Anemone is occasionally to be found in gardens. Those pictured are flourishing in the border of a Byfield garden. It usually has 6-7 "petals", compared with the far greater number (up to 20) of Anemone blanda.

Pasque Flower in my garden. The silky edges
 to the tepals can be seen. 10 April, 2014
Our native Pasque flower was named Anemone pulsatilla by Linnaeus and the name was retained until around 1960 when the name Pulsatilla vulgaris became preferred. The word 'pulsatilla' also has connections with the wind, deriving from a Latin word meaning beaten about or buffeted - as on a windy day. Again, it is a plant about which I have previously written (blog: 'Pasque Flowers' 24 April, 2013). In Northamptonshire it is well known around Barnack (see footnote), and John Clare must have been familiar with it. Strange, then, that he seems to make no mention of it in his poems.

Pasque Flowers in my garden.
Byfield, 3 June, 2014

Of course, Pulsatillas have a second season of attraction, their feathery fruits having a beauty of their own, particularly after light rain, when the silky styles glisten in the sun. The fruits are technicakky achenes; the "feathers" are the greatly elongated styles.

Anemone coronaria 'Bordeaux' in Angela Tiffin's garden.
Byfield. 7 March, 2014

For gardeners, one of the most familiar Anemone species must be Anemone coronaria. The species photographed is Anemone coronaria 'Bordeaux'. Does this lovely variety have any Anemone pavonina in its genetic make-up? Certainly breeders have played around a lot with the Anemone genus, and this is such a striking colour...

At this point I must mention the Globe Flower, Trollius europaeus. This lovely plant is native to Brtain but is largely confined to wet hill pastures in the north of England, together with Wales and Scotland. I have seen meadows bright with it in Austria. It is a plant I have never grown although a close relative, Trollius chinensis was, until two years ago, a feature of one of my garden borders, only to have been carelessly lost during a reorganisation. It is yet another genus in which the sepals perform the function of petals and all the plants so far mentioned clearly share a common ancestor.

Clematis is a large genus of around 300 species which are familiar to us as woody climbers although quite a few are more or less herbaceous.

Clematis armandii in Bell Lane, Byfield.
19 March, 2014

We generally associate Clematis with the summer but some open quite early in the spring. Clematis armandii, a native of China, begins to bloom here in Byfield in mid-March but is not completely hardy. Being evergreen I use it to help hide an ugly fence. Some species such as Clematis tangutica have feathery styles, showing their relationship to Pasque flowers.

I am not a huge fan of the large-flowered Clematis hybrids, colourful though they undoubtedly are. They attract very few insects and the variety shown was purchased by me to disguise an ugly chain-link fence. It failed.

Aquilegias are favourite garden plants. As Columbines they have been popular for centuries and my maternal grandmother called them Curly-headed Boys - a reference to the curving, horn-like spur at the base of the petals. This vaguely resembles an eagle'sbeak, thus giving it its scientific name (Latin: aquila - an eagle). it has to be said that their membership of the buttercup family is not obvious to the non-botanist.

There are some 50-60 species of Aquilegia around the northern hemisphere and crossing them has produced some lovely hybrids such as this example in my back garden. One species, Aquilegia vulgaris, is native to Britain including Northamptonshire. 


1. Barnack is now in Cambridgeshire but is still in Northants as far as biological recorders are concerned. In 1852 H.C.Watson introduced the concept of the vice-county (VC) and for well over a century his county boundaries were accepted and widely used for recording purposes. At that time Barnack was in the Soke of Peterborough, and included in Northamptonshire (VC32). The system is gradually falling out if use in favour of grid-based recording.

2. There should have been a Part 3 but we moved house in late summer so life got in the way a bit. 


Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Pocket Park safari

Last month we had a false spring, and I was grumbling about 'perfidious March'. Today was sunny and warm and I couldn't help feeling that this was the real thing. As Thomas Nashe put it:

                                    Spring, the sweet spring, is the year's pleasant king;
                                    Then blooms each thing, then maids dance in a ring,
                                    Cold doth not sting. the pretty birds do sing...

But this poem was a 16th century job. For us birds and flowers are far less abundant; things to be studied - and cherished.

I strolled over to our pocket park, with as much spring in my step as a 75-year old could muster. The drumming of a Great Spotted Woodpecker was immediately apparent but it was coy and I struggled to get a photograph.

Great Spotted Woodpecker.
Byfield Pocket Park. 9 April, 2014

This was the best I could manage. I was just lining up for a better shot when a heavy tractor passed nearby, with predictable results. A few minutes later it was drumming again - but much too far away.

I pressed on, keen to see whether any of the meadow flowers, planted so laboriously about eighteen months ago, had survived. I was not optimistic as the area had subsequently been overwhelmed with nettles and Rose-bay Willow Herb. But...

Cuckoo Flower, Cardamine pratensis
Byfield Pocket Park.  9 April, 2014

Pink Campion was flourishing, with flower-buds fattening up nicely and Cuckoo Flower, aka Lady's Smock had miraculously survived too. The faint lines on the petals are nectar guides, leading an insect to the nectaries at the centre of the flower. The lines are faint to us but radiate light in the ultra-violet spectrum, visible to many insects. The leaves can apparently be used as an alternative to its close relative, Water Cress but the Cuckoo Flower is also an important food-plant for Orange-tip butterflies. I'll leave it for them.


Female Melanostoma scalare, a very common hoverfly.
Byfield Pocket Park. 

As I watched hoverflies and other insects were calling in for re-fuelling. This specimen ended up under my microscope as it had some of the features of Melanostoma dubium
(a species normally of high ground) but I decided after close examination that it was the exceedingly common Melanostoma scalare.

The plants seemed happy though the species generally prefers wet meadows, as John Clare was well aware:

               And wan-hued Lady's Smocks that love to spring
               Side the swamp margin of some plashy pond.

                                                          Clare's Village Minstrel, 1821

Ground Ivy, a creeping plant of the Mint Family.
Byfield Pocket Park.  9 April, 2014

Ground Ivy, Glechoma hederacea, was also flourishing, attracting numerous bees. This charming species had not been planted by our working party and is abundant hereabouts. It is usually passed by without a glance, but the flowers merit closer examination.

Pied Shieldbug, Sehirus bicolor, poses on a stone.
Byfield Pocket Park.  9 April, 2014

White Dead-nettle is a close relative of Ground Ivy, both species being members of the Mint Family, Lamiaceae. It too was abundant and was attracting Pied Shieldbugs, Sehirus bicolor

Another shieldbug, the Forest Bug Pentatoma rufipes was also present but refused to pose for the camera.

Green Shieldbug on a fence post.
Byfield Pocket Park. 9 April, 2014

Less shy, basking on a fence post, was a Green Shieldbug, Palomina prasina.  It is, with little doubt, Britain's commonest shieldbug although today it was outnumbered by Pied Shieldbugs. It will have overwintered in a drab brown hue but the arrival of spring has prompted the green colour to develop.

Fence posts are always worth examining for insects. Wood warms up quickly in the morning sunshine and various flies will be observed basking.

A female Common House Fly basks on a fence post.
Byfield Pocket Park. 9 April, 2014

The Common House Fly, Musca domestica, is often - as in this case - found well away from buildings. It breeds in excrement and decaying vegetable matter. We learn from Peter Marren and Richard Mabey's book, 'Bugs Britannica' that "it is suspected of transmitting some 65 diseases, among them cholera, typhoid, dysentery, anthrax and leprosy".

Pisaura mirabilis on a dock leaf.
Byfield Pocket Park. 9 April, 2014

Numbers of flies were also basking on leaves. I crouched very still, camera in hand, to photograph a small group on a dock leaf. Suddenly they were gone: a spider had crept on to the leaf. It was a Nursery Web Spider, Pisaura mirabilis, very distinct with the yellow stripe on the 'head' (technically the cephalothorax) and the dark flanks to the abdomen.

I have been disparaging in the past regarding daffodils and their role in supporting wildlife. Certainly a few bees will pay a visit and today a Green Lacewing was present on a 'petal'.

Close examination confirmed that it was the very common Chrysoperla carnea. It is a valuable insect in the garden, where the female lays its eggs on suitable leaves. When a larva hatches it will begin feeding on aphids (greenflies). A lacewing may lay up to 300 eggs and each larva may consume up to 10,000 aphids. Valuable indeed.

Numerous other insects were present, generally of interest only to the enthusiast. I'll be spending the next few hours crouched over a microscope.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014


Let me start by clarifying the topic. Charming and interesting though Fritillary butterflies are, I am referring to the flowers.

Like Dog's Tooth Violets, to which I referred a few blogs ago (29 March), Fritillaries are members of the Lily Family. The genus Fritillaria consists of about 130 species, most of which are found in Europe and Asia plus a few (about 20 species) in North America. I am very fond of this genus and have, over the years, grown - with only partial success - Fritillaria uva-vulpis, F persica and F. michaelovskii. Vexingly, the least attractive of these, F. uva-vulpis, is still with me, but does not really flourish.

We have only one native Fritillary in Britain but it is a very attractive one - the Snake's Head Fritillary, Fritillaria meleagris. In his 1930 "Flora of Northamptonshire" George Claridge Druce gives five locations for the species, although the precise sites are not clear. Much more recently the 2012 "Flora of Northamptonshire and the Soke of Peterborough", by Gill Gent and Rob Wilson is able to add further locations but all are, to some extent, under suspicion of being deliberate introductions. I have seen a colony occupying a natural-looking setting in grassland beside Pitsford Reservoir; again they are suspect. The species is still to be found as a genuinely wild plant at a number of locations in southern England as far north as Staffordshire, favouring damp pasture and meadowland. My friend Oliver Tynan has a flourishing colony in a suitably damp lawn. Strange therefore that when I grew it successfully in Northampton it was on a south facing slope in stony ground, parched in the summer; it produced copious seed every year and spread steadily.

Fritillaria meleagris in Oliver Tynan's garden.
Byfield, 8 April, 2014
...and the white form.

Snake's Head Fritillaries generally have a chequered purple coloration. A white form is also very common but often bears a trace of purple staining.

Now for the annoying species - the Crown Imperial, Fritillaria imperialis. I have, three time in recent years, planted bulbs of this gorgeous species in what I felt were suitable positions in my back garden. However, they were under constant attack from Lily Beetle, Lilioceris lilii and, after a couple of years, succumbed. For my friend Russ Mallace they flourish wonderfully in a back garden where, he cheerfully admits, they receive no attention. 

The yellow form of Crown Imperial in a hedgerow,
The Twistle, Byfield. 7 April, 2014

Most trying of all, a hedgerow along The Twistle, on the edge of Byfield, hosts a fine colony from what appear to have been bulbs or plants simply thrown out, unwanted! But do I whinge? You bet I do!

...and a closer look

Like the Snake's Head Fritillary, the Crown Imperial comes in two colour forms, a rust-orange and a clear primrose yellow. If they have a fault (apart from being irresistible to Lily Beetles) it is the odd, foxy smell of their flowers - which bothers me not at all.

I find that there is a species called Fritillaria byfieldii which, as an inhabitant of Byfield, caught my interest. It is apparently a rare Turkish species and a trawl of the internet failed to produce any images. (There is also an orchid, Lepanthes byfieldii, named after the Jamaican forestry worker who discovered it. It may not be in cultivation - unsurprising as the flowers are only 5 mm long and usually borne only one at a time.)