Sunday, 29 June 2014

A Cannock Wedding

Chris and I have lots of relatives in and around Cannock, Staffordshire and from time to time we get invited up there for a celebration. Weddings, Christenings, special anniversaries - any excuse for a 'do' - and why not?

This time it was a wedding. 

Our grand-nephew Stuart was marrying Hannah in the modest but attractive little church of St John's (or St John,s according to the sign), in Heath Hayes.

My blogs are littered with typos, most of which I notice and correct prior to publication. On paintwork it isn't as simple!

On the previous day (Friday), during our drive up to Cannock, the weather had been foul, with some torrential rain, and the weather for the wedding was forecast to be wet. As it happened the guests gathered in pleasant sunshine. The dry conditions were particularly welcome because, post-service, the bride and groom were going to the reception in a smart little open-top Morris. 

The rest of us were to travel in a lovely vintage Guy bus. Chris appears to be checking tickets.

As usual, a few passers-by had gathered to watch and a spider crept out of its retreat in a wall to get a better view.

It appears to be Nuctenea umbratica - a genuine surprise are this species tends to be crepuscular, constructing a very strong and sticky web and sitting tight until, in fading light, it ventures out to gather in the day's catch.

The caterpillar of a Vapourer Moth seemed more concerned about getting wet feet as it skirted a couple of rain drops, so it missed all the goings-on.

Anyway, we all trooped in and, after a suitable wait, the bride arrived, looking genuinely lovely. I, trapped at the end of a pew, couldn't muscle in for a photograph and had to wait until after the ceremony.

Left to right: Steve, Tracey, Hannah, Stuart, Jane and Clive

Big smiles all round as pen is put to paper.

The weather was still fine as we gathered outside and confetti was showered, regardless of expense. Sadly the weather deteriorated and the official photographer was forced to continue his work in the rain. I got on the bus!
Any more fares please?

Chris arrived a few moments later. She really wanted to be the conductor but we had been given our tickets beforehand. As we began out journey the rain eased off so we arrived at the reception in dry 

We arrived to find that, despite the rain, amazing hairstyles had survived without damage!

The meal was genuinely excellent. Alcohol flowed freely but, with a drive home to be faced, Chris and I just had enough for toasts. An early departure meant that we missed the disco but you can't have everything.

It was a good day, and for an old misery like me to say that, it had to be really good.


Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Garden pottering at Oliver's

If there is one thing more satisfying than pottering in your garden, it is pottering in someone else's garden.  Today I had the chance to stroll around the lovely garden of Oliver Tynan. 

It is generally very well maintained, so it is always encouraging to find that he too has problems.

He has a fine Bay Tree (Laurus nobilis) but it showed the characteristic thickened and rolled leaf edges of an attack by the Bay Sucker, Trioza alacris. Trioza is a genus of psyllids or Jumping Plant Lice, and they have become a significant problem in recent years.

On the plus side, adjacent to the Bay Tree is a bed of ordinary garden mint. A glint caught my eye and I found a couple of lovely specimens of the beetle Chrysolina herbacea. It is found on various members of the Lamiaceae family, but mostly on mint and usually in wet habitats. This was a rather dry raised area but the mint was flourishing and the beetles were happy.

He also grows Corncockle, Agrostemma githago. At the time of Druce's 1930 Flora of Northamptonshire it was described as 'locally common'. It is now extinct in the county and extremely rare elsewhere. To see it is always pleasing and Oliver is very proud of it: "It came from Highgrove, you know."  We gaze in hushed reverence.

Southern Marsh-orchid?  Garden in Byfield
24 June, 2014

He is even more proud of his orchids. They arrived naturally and he now has several flourishing clumps. All seem to be the Common Spotted-orchid, Dactylorhiza fuchsii but one plant may be a Southern Marsh-orchid, Dactylorhiza praetermissa. It would not be a surprise as the latter plant is known from Boddington Meadow and the old railway cutting at Woodford Halse. Oliver mows the area with great care, making sure not to damage them. I must take a closer look.

His garden will be open to the public during the coming weekend. I hope he gets lots of visitors and that they appreciate its many interesting features. He has certainly worked hard on it.


Friday, 20 June 2014

More garden pottering

The garden is currently very demanding. There is obviously a constant routine of weeding to be followed but dead-heading, pruning,checking for insect attack and so on.
It is during this latter process that interesting observations are often made. For example, numerous leaf miners are usually to be found.

I grow Honeysuckle, Lonicera periclymenum. This is native to Northants and was often called Woodbine, but this name seems to have fallen out of use. In our garden it scrambles through a hawthorn and as I was giving it a general tidying up I noticed that a leaf miner had got to work on the leaves. The culprit was a small fly, Aulagromyza hendeliana, one of the group known as Agromyzidae. It is quite a common species and does little harm.

A very similar type of mine is common on Aquilegias. This is Phytomyza minuscula and, unsurprisingly, it is also the work of an agromyzid fly.

This third example is not on a cultivated plant but a weed, Sonchus oleraceus, aka Smooth Sow-thistle.  And again we are looking at the work of an agromyzid fly, Liriomyza strigata.

I cannot pretend that these leaf miners are exciting but I mention them to illustrate the wealth of wildlife in a garden - much of it simply overlooked.
Lacanobia oleracea (I think).
Garden in Byfield,  26 June, 2014

It was while I was pulling up a weed that I unearthed this caterpillar. I am reasonably sure it is a Bright-line Brown-eye, Lacanobia oleracea. Generally the caterpillar is bright green but brownish shades are not unusual. This species can be a pest for it seems inordinately fond of tomatoes although it feeds on the roots of quite a wide range of other plants

Grammoptera ruficornis on Rosa Gallica 'Versicolor'
Garden in Byfield. 16 June, 2014
Longhorn beetles are often quite large, as in the case of the Wasp Beetle discussed in my recent blog "To Catesby Tunnel", but here, on a petal of "Rosa Mundi" is a very tiny one, Grammoptera ruficornis. It is common but its diminutive size may lead to it being under-recorded.

Garden, Byfield. 17 June, 2014

Some rather more colourful insects make an appearance on a regular basis. This very smart hoverfly, Xanthogramma pedissequum, called in, paused on a leaf and departed. It is a fairly common species but may at a glance be taken for a wasp. It is surely another example of Batesian mimicry.

Our back garden more or less backs on to some fairly old pastureland. It is a good example of ridge and furrow, with these features still very clear, suggesting that it has rarely seen a plough. The farmer has not mown or grazed it this year and the grasses and forbs* stand a metre high, with insects abounding. I suspect many of these are making their way into our garden. They are welcome.

I grow a few clumps of Iris siberica and the flowers are proving very welcome to bumble bees. This is, I believe, Bombus hypnorum, first recorded in Britain in 2001 but now to be seen everywhere. 

Common Fan-foot. Garden shed in Byfield.
17 June, 201

Cheating a little, as this was on a shed, I also found a rather dull moth, a Fan-foot, Herminia tarsipennalis.  Its name comes from the tuft of hairs on the front foot of the males. It is widely distributed, as are its food plants of oak, beech, bramble, etc.

Verbascum thapsus beside the A431
Byfield, 20 June, 2014

Cheating again: at the roadside near our front door are a few plants of Great Mullein, Verbascum thapsus. On its woolly leaves I was pleased to see a lovely caterpillar and, as was anticipated, it was that of that of the Mullein Moth, Cucullia verbasci.

Mullein Moth, Byfield. 20 June, 2014
It is not uncommon and I frequently find it when checking a mullein plant. It will also feed on the related figworts but also, surprisingly, on Buddleja, although I have never found it there. It is one of those creatures that makes no effort to conceal its presence and one must therefore suspect that it is distasteful to birds.

As mentioned earlier, with our garden adjacent to open fields it is not surprising that insects normally found in meadows find their way in. I was therefore not exactly amazed to find this beetle on a dog rose by our fence. It is Oedemera nobilis and in this case is a male, shown by the very swollen rear femora (thighs).

In a few weeks we expect to be moving to a far more urban setting. The relative wealth of insects should make an interesting contrast.

Forb  A rather useful American word. It refers to any herbaceous plant which is not a grass, rush or sedge. It therefore covers buttercups, clovers, vetches, thistles and so on.


Sunday, 15 June 2014

Poppies great and small

Poppies can be very in-your-face plants. Some gardeners simply find them too brash; I love them. 

Oriental Poppies in my garden. 20 May, 2014

None is more brash than Papaver orientale, and I have several specimens in my garden. Breeders have produced other colours ranging from white to plum, but the original scarlet is surely unbeatable. It is not a native of the distant Orient but is found wild from Turkey to Iran.

Welsh Poppy in my garden.
1 June, 2014
By contrast the Welsh Poppy is, as its name suggests, native to these islands although, as a wild plant, it is confined to an area through Devon and Wales into Cumbria. For a century or so it was known as Meconopsis cambrica, but recent research into its genetics has confirmed that it is a true poppy and should now be called Papaver cambrica, thus reverting to the name originally given to it by Linnaeus. I'm afraid that in my garden it has the status of a lovely nuisance!

This lovely orange variation has recently cropped up in my garden.

The Greater Celandine is less obviously a member of the Poppy Family, Papaveraceae and, as Chelidonium majus, is placed in a separate genus. Around our village it thrives at the base of walls but, as the photo shows, it can survive in crevices.

Greater Celandine on a wall in Byfield.
3 May, 2014
Although not a Papaver species it shows its affinity in several ways, not least by the bright yellow juice which exudes from a broken stem. All members of the poppy family bleed juices and all seem to be laced with medically important alkaloids. In the case of Chelidonium majus, aka Greater Celandine, it has been used by herbalists over the centuries for a variety of ailments. Research continues.

Californian Poppy in the garden of my friend Sue Hamilton
in Hartwell. 4 July, 2014
The Californian Poppy, Eschscholzia californica, is a popular border plant. It rarely escapes but is naturalised in parts of Kent, where it finds quarries and railway embankments to its liking. When I was a child my mother often wore 'Californian Poppy' perfume. It was discontinued and therefore unavailable for many years but was relaunched in 1995 and is available from a few outlets.

The poppy "of Flanders' Fields" is Papaver rhoeas, once a major cornfield weed. The seeds are known to remain viable for up to eighty years and there is some anecdotal evidence for even longer periods. Herbicides have brought poppies under control but they will rapidly reassert themselves if given a chance. Certainly they were very common in John Clare's time and he wrote of:
                         "Corn Poppies, that in crimson dwell,
                          Call'd 'Head-ache' from their sickly smell."

                                                    Clare's Shepherd's Calendar, 1827

My maternal grandmother, an Earls Barton girl, also called them 'Head Aches' and frowned if I brought them into the house. In any case, the petals fell so quickly that they soon littered the area beneath a vase. In this specimen, photographed in Byfield Pocket Park, a petal dropped even as I stooped for a closer shot; four petals is the normal situation. The specific name 'rhoeas' may come from rhoea, the Greek word for a pomegranate; apparently the flower and fruit were thought to resemble pomegranates, but I find this idea unconvincing.

Sentiment makes Papaver rhoeas our best-known poppy but on the world stage it is far surpassed in importance by the Opium Poppy, Papaver somniferum, with somniferum meaning 'the bearer of sleep'. 

It is to be seen in a range of colours ranging from scarlet, through lilac to almost white. In this specimen the dark blotches at the base of the petals are very prominent; sometimes they are paler. It crops up in gardens everywhere around Byfield and I suspect that the seeds like those of cornfield poppies are able to lie in the ground for many years whilst remaining viable.

I once read of a theory that the word poppy comes from the word 'pap' - soft food given to infants - and that crushed poppy seeds were included in the pap to soothe crying babies! I am sceptical; the origins of the word poppy are obscure but I know of no solid evidence to link it with 'pap'.

Readers will know - or be disappointed to discover - that the amount of opium in the juice of the garden varieties is negligible. Certainly if an appropriate cut is made in the seed capsule a certain amount of juice oozes out but the active narcotic ingredients are lacking. I made a couple of cuts into what appeared a suitable seed capsule in our garden but the results were disappointing; I'll continue to make do with 'Night Nurse'.  Archaeologists have recovered Opium Poppy seeds at a Neolithic site near Raunds and it can be assumed that these were cultivated as an opium source. Has anyone in Britain ever been arrested or charged with growing these plants? Probably not. The case would be thrown out before reaching the courts. 

Several other species of poppy occur in Britain but I suspect there may be no strictly native species other than the Welsh Poppy and the Yellow Horned Poppy, Glaucium flavum. (This latter species is restricted to shingle beaches around our coasts and, as this blog generally concerns itself with Northamptonshire plants, is not discussed further.)  Our red-flowered species could all have arrived here as crop impurities in seed corn - but proof is lacking.

A potential nuisance they may be but I love to see them, these great survivors over the millennia.


Saturday, 14 June 2014

The Pocket Park in June

I don't grow many roses. Virtually all that we have in our garden have been gifts.

This one, "Golden Celebrations" was, as you might guess, bought by friends for our Golden Wedding. It is a handsome variety and very fragrant too. As can be seen, there is some fungal disease but nothing serious.

My garden: "Crown Princess Margareta"
13 June, 2014

A similar shade is to be seen in "Crown Princess Margareta" but here the flowers are quartered rather than cup shaped. It too is very fragrant and comes from the same breeder, David Austin.

"Rosa Mundi" in my garden.
13 June, 2014

One rose I did buy for myself is Rosa gallica "Versicolor", generally known as "Rosa Mundi". It certainly dates back to before 1581 and its name is apparently a reference to Rosamond Clifford, mistress of Henry II - the original Fair Rosamund. Apart from being very eye-catching it is pleasantly fragrant and disease-free. I wouldn't be without it.

I was reminded of all this when visiting the pocket park earlier today. It was my first visit for a couple of weeks and dog roses (Rosa canina) were in flower. Though not fragrant I love it for its simplicity.

Rosa canina in Byfield Pocket Park.
13 June, 2014

It must surely have been this species which Rupert Brooke had in mind when he wrote:

"Unkempt about those hedges blows
An English unofficial rose"

The Old Vicarage, Grantchester

Brambles were just coming into flower too. The Bramble is a very variable species and has been split into many micro-species. Gill Gent and Rob Wilson list 73 of these in their latest (2012) flora of our county. The study of the micro-species is called batology; for me they are simply lumped together as Rubus fruticosus agg (with 'agg' meaning aggregate). 

It does not require botanical studies to see the similarity between rose flowers and those of brambles and so it will come as no surprise to find that brambles are placed in the Rose family.

Quite a few insects were to be seen although as I was only making a short visit I made no serious effort to do any recording.

Sloe Bug in Byfield Pocket Park.
13 June, 2014

The Sloe Bug, Dolycoris baccarum, is a very attractive insect with its purplish forewings. Despite its name it has no particular association with sloes, i.e. blackthorn, but has been seen feeding on a wide range of plants. Here it is on a thistle.

A picture-winged fly on thistle.
13 June, 2014
Thistles are valuable for attracting insects although the species I was interested in, Circium arvense, is generally regarded as a weed. Known as the Creeping Thistle it spreads not only by seed but by long rhizomes (underground stems) and is rather a problem in the Pocket Park. I also have a problem: the insect shown is one of the picture-winged flies and appears to be Tephritis hyoscyami. The snag is that this insect is not associated with the 
Creeping Thistle but with thistles in the genus Carduus - of which there are none in the Pocket Park. Unfortunately I did not secure a specimen of the fly so I can't identify it with certainty. Further investigation is needed.

Chloromyia formosa in Byfield Pocket Park
13 June, 2014
A soldier fly was  loafing on a leaf. The species is the Broad Centurion, Chloromyia formosa, and it is common not only in the Pocket Park but generally. This rather handsome fly ('formosa' means 'beautiful') has a blue-green thorax in both sexes. The male has a bronze abdomen but the female (shown) has a blue one, unfortunately not revealed in this photograph. This variation between the sexes is known as sexual dimorphism and is quite frequent among soldier flies.

The only other insect I photographed was this bug, Calocoris (Grypocoris) stysi. It is a member of the Miridae and is both easily recognisable and common. The Miridae can be extremely tricky to identify but this one presents no problems. Adults, like the nymphs, feed on the catkins of nettles but the adults will also feed on aphids.

Last autumn a group of us from the village spent a lot of time cutting back nettles and thistles, replacing them with meadow flowers. Sadly few of these have survived, overwhelmed by coarse weeds, but I was heartened to see that some have hung on in there.

Yellow-rattle in Byfield Pocket Park
13 June, 2014

One of these was Yellow-rattle, Rhinanthus minor, about which I wrote in my "Boddington Reservoir" blog a week or so ago. Several plants have survived and with luck will become well established.

I went home in a cheerful mood.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

To Catesby Tunnel

I took a stroll today, 11 June, 2014, to the southern entrance of the Catesby Tunnel. My real objective was Steppington Spinney at SP533568 (see blog for 4 April) but I couldn't resist having a look at this famous railway feature.

Strictly speaking I was trespassing by going on the site of the old track but hey, live dangerously! In fact the interior of the tunnel may well be dangerous, but there was no chance of actually entering. As can be seen, the entrance is firmly secured and the scene is rather sad. It is difficult now to visualise a huge 2-10-0 freight locomotive, bursting from the tunnel in a cloud of steam, hauling its wagons of coal and heading on towards London.

The southern entrance to Catesby Tunnel.
11 June, 2014

The statistics for the construction are staggering:  the tunnel was 2997 yards long and involved the removal of 290,000 cubic yards of material; 30 million bricks were used - all to placate the local landowner, a Mr Attenborough, who didn't want his peace disturbed. The quality of the engineering was apparently superb. The tunnel was built for the Great Central Railway, the last major line to be constructed out of London. 

The last train to use the tunnel passed through on 3 September, 1966, but since then schemes have been put forward to re-open the line. In 1997 the Chiltern Railways Evergreen project looked at the feasibility of the whole thing but nothing came of it.

Many sections of the old line now form a fine range of wildlife habitats, with the cuttings being particularly rich in insects and other invertebrates. By the time I reached Steppington Spinney, just to the west of the tunnel entrance, I had used up nearly all my time, having been sidetracked by interesting species.

I swished my net through the lower branches of an oak tree and almost immediately caught the whiff of a bug. An investigation showed that it was a Forest Bug, Pentatoma rufipes. In fact the tree yielded several of these insects but I replaced them on the foliage as carefully as possible. Most true bugs release a pungent odour when alarmed; it is instantly recognisable!

Final instar Forest Bug swept from oak near Charwelton.
11 June, 2014

The adult Forest Bug is a rather attractive creature, but what I had caught was a last-instar nymph. Bugs, like some other insects, pass through several stages, known as instars, before a final moult reveals the adult with the sexual equipment to mate. The instars are not as visually pleasing.

Nettle Weevils were abundant approaching
Steppington Spinney.  11 June, 2014

Nettles bore dozens of specimens of the Nettle Weevil, Phyllobius pomaceus. After mating the females lay their eggs in such a way that the emerging larvae can feed on the roots and rhizomes (underground stems) of the nettle. This is a pretty beetle but after a while the scales which give it the blue-green coloration rub off, leaving almost black patches.

A Field Rose being visited by a couple of pollen beetles.
11 June, 2014

Some lovely roses were blooming beside the old railway track. Most were Field Roses, Rosa arvensis although a few Dog Roses, Rosa canina, were also present. The flowers were attracting a number of insects.

Clytus arietus  near Steppington Spinney
11 June 2014

A Wasp beetle, Clytus arietis, seemed to be investigating something on a thistle. This handsome species is one of the commoner of the Longhorn Beetles. Not only does it look wasp-like but it moves in a jerky manner, again reminiscent of a wasp. It is reasonable to assume that these factors afford it a measure of protection - a classic example of Batesian mimicry.

Speckled Wood in a railway cutting north of Charwelton
11 June, 2014

Disappointingly few butterflies were about but a Speckled Wood, Pararge aegeria, paused to allow me a photograph. This is, of course, a common and widespread insect and they frequently wander into my garden. As the caterpillars feed on various common grasses it has plenty of choice.

Silver-ground Carpet near Steppington Spinney
11 June, 2014

Chris saw a Cinnabar on the wing yesterday so I was on the lookout for one but although its food-plant, Ragwort, was plentiful I was out of luck. A Silver-ground Carpet, Xanthorhoe montanata, posed for me but there was little else on the wing in the blustery conditions.

Cattle had churned up the ground forcing me to watch my footing. I had prudently donned welly boots but creeping up on an insect was a challenge; wellies are not built for stealth.

 Tenthredo arcuata near Steppington
Spinney.  11 June, 2014

Sawflies are generally very tricky but a few can be recognised without too much difficulty. This one is the common Tenthredo arcuata. Sawflies are related to bees, wasps and ants, but are generally regarded as being more primitive. The genus Tenthredo gives its name to the Family Tenthredinidae (I bet you really wanted to know that!).

Yellow-spot Tortrix on the edge of Steppington
Spinney. 11 June, 2014

This micro-moth, Pseudargyrotoza conwagana is common, perhaps reflecting the fact that its food-plant, Ash, is also common. It has been given the name of Yellow-spot Tortrix; I think I can see why. It sat very nicely but, being very small, was a challenge for my camera. It is another case of a very long name for a very tiny insect.

Pyrochroa serraticornis, Common Cardinal Beetle
on the edge of Steppington
Spinney. 11 June, 2014

Over recent days the Red-headed or Common Cardinal Beetle, Pyrochroa serraticornis, has kept catching my attention. Being bright red it is obvious to birds so it must surely have a means of deterring them; a foul taste perhaps. I had just reached Steppington Spinney but has dawdled to such an extent that I didn't enter the woodland. Another time perhaps.