Friday, 28 November 2014

Cacti - spiny curiosities

When in my early teens I had a small collection of cacti and for me they have always had a fascination, not least because of their flamboyant flowers. My theory is that cacti tend to grow in hostile environments where pollinating insects such as bees are uncommon, and to attract the chance visitor the flowers must be unmissable.

I already have a handful of specimens. Unless cacti are purchased from a specialist they tend to be unnamed and I haven't yet got around to positively identifying mine (and unless they flower it may be impossible).

This bowl sat precariously on a window ledge for a decent photograph to be obtained but was then quickly returned to a safer spot. I crushed some brick and used it as a dressing and am quite pleased with the effect.

I have tentaatively identified two ofthe plants. The specimen on the left appears to be Mammillaria huitipochtli and the central one may be Myrtillocactus geometrizans. As for the columnar species on the right, it would be a challenge for Alan Turing.

This specimen will need re-potting in the spring, but being root-bound suits many species and may encourage flowering.

Any road, wishing to increase my stock I sent for some seeds via Amazon. The last packet was slow to arrive and I was surprised, on receiving them, to find that they had been sent from China.

The instructions were interesting:

                 Latin name: Cactaceae


                 Succulents. the lower portion of the stem nearly woodiness, obovate
                 or ellipse with intensive thron. Dry resistance and dislike waterlogging,
                 likes enough sunshine with relaxed for soil.

I smiled of course, but have to admit that my Chinese - Mandarin or otherwise - isn't too hot. The seeds can't be sown yet, that will have to wait until the New Year. Apparently they germinate quite easily so I'm looking forward to having a go.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Of this and that...

In the high summer it is easy to assemble enough material to write a blog. Something on flowers? No problem; there are plenty about. Hoverflies? It wouldn't take long to get a few interesting species on camera. But late November...

Last night was the first real frost of the year and the car roofs wore a white crust. On the other hand there was barely a cloud in the sky and under the increasing warmth of the climbing sun the frost was fleeing.

I had to go into Daventry and the sunshine prompted me to walk. Where fence panels were facing the sun a thin cloud of steam was rising and on dry areas flies were gathering to dispel the torpidity brought on by the cold night.

Male Calliphora on a fence in Daventry.
 24 November, 2014
There were at least a dozen concentrated in a particularly favourable spot. All were Calliphora species, i.e. blow flies. I took a close look but didn't attempt to capture one. My best guess is Calliphora vicina; all but one were males. The photograph shows one of these males and it can be seen that the large red-brown compound eyes are almost touching.This is known as the holoptic situation.

A female, probably of the same species.
Same fence; same date

The second picture shows the only female I saw. Here it can be seen that there is a significant gap between the eyes. This is the dichoptic state. Given a spell of warm sunshine it is not unusual for these flies to be seen in the depths of winter. Not all flies have this form of sexual dimorphism but it is common among the 'higher' flies.

I was rather  surprised to see Viburnum rhytidophyllum in flower in a garden (and annoyed not to have taken more care with my photograph). Viburnum tinus is in flower everywhere but to find the so-called Wrinkled Viburnum to be in bloom was a surprise.

Its common name is well justified, for the leaves are very wrinkled, making identification easy. Despite its Chinese origins it finds the British climate to its liking and is sometimes found established in the wild.

Web of Amaurobius similis in a hedge. Daventry.
24 November, 2014
Nearby a neatly clipped hedge of 'Leylandii' (yes, it is a good hedging plant if kept under control) was covered in spider webs. Their grey appearance and the apparently haphazard construction showed that they were the work of Amaurobius similis. This very common spider has an almost identical sibling species called Amaurobius fenestralis. Now 'fenestralis' ought to be the one found around our window frames but perversely it is nearly always A.similis whereas A. fenestralis is usually found under loose bark in woodlands. Why can't nomenclature be appropriate! In both cases the spider's retreat is a tunnel-like structure near the middle of the web and it is clearly shown in the photograph.

Ivy in flower, Badby Road West, Daventry
24 November, 2014

Ivy, as is often the case, was in flower and in fruit on the same plant and, as the sun gathered it's strength, a few flies were imbibing the copious nectar.

Ivy (Hedera helix) does not describe a
helix as it climbs a tree. Byfield churchyard.
28 November, 2014

Regarding inappropriate names, Ivy is another case in point. Its Latin name is Hedera helix, and the specific name suggests that the plant describes a helix as it ascends a tree. I have never seen Ivy climbing in this way.

Harlequin Ladybird on ivy fruit. Badby Road West,
Daventry, 24 November, 2014

Anyway, back to ivy and its fruit. The berries were quite plump but some way short of being ripe. They will ripen through January and February, doing much to sustain birds through the winter. 

The ladybird, in this case a Harlequin  Ladybird,  Harmonia axyridis, was one of dozens out enjoying the sun and, worryingly, it was the only species I saw.

So, as I stated, a bit of this and that.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Northampton

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of Northampton's loveliest and most famous churches. My parents were married there. It is - or was - often called St Sepulchre's Church and from time to time a heated debate would break out in the 'Letters' page of the local paper regarding the usage of the word saint; could 'Saint Sepulchre's' possibly be right? Of course it can, since the words 'saint' and 'holy' are more or less synonymous.

Anyway, finding myself in Northampton with an hour to kill, and not withing to visit one more shop where a talentless singer was yelling or wailing a third-rate song (my word, you are grumpy today!) I decided to seek sanctuary in the church. It was locked! Instead I wandered around the churchyard, but was soon wondering, as I eyed dozens of discarded syringes, whether Marks & Spencer's might be a better bet after all.

Clematis vitalba scrambles across a wall near
Northampton town centre. 18 November, 2014
Approaching the church I had been agreeably surprised to find Traveller's Joy, Clematis vitalba, scrambling across a wall. 

The mine of the fly Phytomyza vitalbae on
 Clematis vitalba. 

Not only was it in flower but several leaves bore the mines of Phytomyza vitalbae. It is common but had probably not been recorded from the area before.

I therefore began to feel more optimistic as I began to stroll through the churchyard. In my childhood the grassy areas were kept under control by a flock of sheep. From time to time we would encounter the flock as it was being driven to or from the churchyard. Then only a little difficulty was created for the traffic, but nowadays...

Adjacent to a side entrance stood a lovely pine, with elegant branches spreading sideways to display the leaves, which were borne in groups of five.

The long, cylindrical cones confirmed that it was a Bhutan Pine, Pinus wallichiana. This tree, a native of the Himalayas, must be one of the most elegant of the genus.

I groaned as I realised that almost the whole of the churchyard was ringed by lime trees. Small bugs flitted from leaf to leaf.
Alnetoidea alneti on a lime leaf. St Sepulchre's
Churchyard, Northampton. 18 November, 2014

At 3 millimetres they were a challenge for my little camera but I managed to get a decent picture of one of the all-yellow insects. Under the microscope back home they proved to be Alnetoidea alneti, a very common member of a family called the Cicadellidae.

The gall of Taxomyia taxi. St Sepulchre's
churchyard, Northampton. 18 November, 2014

Another insect had been at work although I failed to find the culprit. Instead I found its gall on a yew tree. This distortion at the end of a branch is caused by Taxomyia taxi, one of the Cecidomyid flies.
These glands on the leaf petiole help to identify the tree as
a species of cherry

A few cherry trees were present. Many cherry species may be recognised by the thin and glossy outer bark, which peels off in strips round the trunk. In this case the bark was different but, as not all the leaves had fallen (and these were in the process of being shed), I could see that two glands were present where the leaf blade joined the petiole (leaf stem). This is diagnostic for cherries.

The pines, limes, yews and cherries made a good selection of trees, and a fastigiate ash was also present but parked cars (in the churchyard!) thwarted my attempts at a decent photo.
Grimmia pulvinata on a sandstone wall. St Sepulchre's
church. Northaampton. 18 November, 2014  

I turned my attention to the mosses on the church wall. The stone was a local Jurassic sandstone aand predictable species were present, most obviously the pretty but generally ignored Grimmia pulvinata. Known as the Grey-cushioned Grimmia it is generally abundant on walls, gravestones and so on.

I was just about to turn away when I noticed, just above head-height, something glistening.

It was a slime-mould and my first thought was Nostoc commune, but something wasn't quite right so I  am stumped. It is odd that in my previous blog, 'A dearth of fungi' I showed what I believe to be the fruiting stage of another slime-mould, Lycogala epidendrum. I should stress that the study of these organisms is a highly specialised pursuit and my identifications are speculative.

I could put off Christmas shopping no longer so it was back to the town where, to the strains of that festive favourite "Jingle tills", I made my way into the Grosvenor Centre.

Tony White:

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

A dearth of fungi?

No, not really. The fact that I haven't noted many fungi this autumn doesn't mean they aren't there. It is something to do with observational limitations: when I used to do a lot of birdwatching I was unlikely to be aware of wild flowers; if a person is looking for insects they are probably going to overlook mosses - and so on. There seems to be only so much that we can take in. The exception is when someone deliberately sets out to record everything within a small area. 

So, I have only looked at a few fungi recently and photographed even fewer. Some had been trodden on, some were decomposing, some were so lacking in obvious interest that I couldn't be bothered.

On a grassy bank in Byfield this toadstool was one of a loose cluster of similar specimens. I am annoyed with myself for not having examined it properly. I should have turned it over to look at the type and arrangement of the gills; I should have felt the surface of the cap to check whether it was slimy or not; a piece should have been broken off to see if it changed colour on exposure to the air and the smell should have been noted - all these things would have helped with identification. But it was raining. What a wimpy excuse! (But see footnote.)

Pleurotus ostreatus beneath a wooden structure.
Byfield, Northants. 11 November, 2014
A short distance away stood a wooden 'fort' for children to climb. I peered underneath (I keep an eye on the maintenance) and there was a fungal growth on the timber. It was, without doubt, the well-known Oyster Mushroom, Pleurotus ostreatus. Delicious it may be, but it isn't the sort of thing you want on structural timbers.

Coprinus micaceus beside the playing-fields
at Byfield, Northants. 14 November, 2014

A few days later my attention was drawn to a cluster of toadstools around an old tree stump. This is Glistening Ink-cap, Coprinus micaceus. It is another of those fungi which, though edible, no-one seems to bother with. It looked rather like a cluster of toadstools illustrated in a child's fairy-tale book.

A familiar fungus, looking like a discus lodged in a tree trunk, was present in Stefan Leys Pocket Park. It is Coriolus (or Trametes) versicolor. Sometimes the con-centric rings are more distinct, but these were neat specimens.

On this occasion I did the sensible thing and looked at the underside of the cap. Along with my shirt-sleeve it can be seen that, instead of the gills with which we are all familiar from common mushrooms, there is a mass of randomly distributed pores.

Lycogala epidendrum? Stefen Leys Pocket Park
Daventry, Northants. 8 November, 2014
Finally an oddity, for if I am right this is a species called Wolf's Milk Fungus, Lycogala epidendrum. It shouldn't be called a fungus at all for it is a slime mould, and the structure photographed shows its fruiting stage. It could be Lycogala terrestre but this tends to have a pinkish colour. On the assumption that it was a true fungus I wasted a long time going through my various books - until the penny dropped.

The world of fungi (and slime moulds) is a very strange one and mycology is a fascinating pursuit but you can be assured that I intend to spend very little time studying these organisms. It is just a bridge too far.

Footnote added 20 November   

On a further visit to Byfield I found further specimens and was able to do what I should have done earlier. Nevertheless, after examining the gills, sniffing, etc I am still not convinced. The best bet now is one of the so-called 'Cavalier' toadstools such as Melanoleuca grammopodia. To be honest I don't, and will probably never, know


Thursday, 13 November 2014

The autumn winds begin to blow

Perhaps the first song I was taught at my infants' school began:

                         The autumn winds begin to blow,
                         The trees all wave their branches so...

I was reminded of this today when walking back from Daventry. Real toupee-lifting weather it was. 

A common wasp, Vespula vulgaris, was taking shelter from the wind in a window frame of Wheatsheaf Court. Formerly the Wheatsheaf Hotel, a small notice on the wall informs us that King Charles I stayed there in 1610 before the Battle of Naseby. I suspect that the royal connection had no bearing on the wasp's choice of refuge.

Conditions were also tricky for the taking of photographs but I was not to be thwarted and, as flowers are getting a little harder to find, I took pictures of plants I might normally have ignored.

Weigela florida in a Daventry garden.
13 November, 2014

Weigela, Weigela florida, was still putting on a good show in gardens nearby. This is a member of the Honeysuckle Family, Caprifoliaceae. The links between Weigela and Honeysuckles (Lonicera species) are not immediately obvious until one looks at plants such as Lonicera sempervirens, where the similarities become much clearer.
Weigela florida flowering in a Daventry garden
13 November, 2014

A short distance away Laurustinus, Viburnum tinus, was coming into flower. This has to be one of the most valuable of our winter-flowering shrubs. Varieties can be planted to give flowers from October until June and when I found it flowering a couple of years ago in the hills above Avignon it was late spring. Until recently it was, with Weigela, included in the Honeysuckle family but has now been placed, along with Elder, in the hitherto obscure Adoxaceae family.

Gorse floweing on Yeomanry Way, Daventry.
13 November, 2014
The odd thing about Gorse, Ulex europaeus is not that it was in flower - it almost always is - but that large shrubs of this plant were growing at the roadside only a three minutes walk from Daventry town centre. In Druce's 1930 'Flora of Northamptonshire' he describes it as 'ericetal', by which he means growing, like erica (heather), in acid, heathy conditions. This is true up to a point, but my observations suggest that it will happily grow in neutral or even slightly alkaline soils IF the drainage is good.

Two centuries ago it would appear that, in Northamptonshire, gorse was far more likely to have been referred to as furze. When John Clare wrote:

                                     And yonder, mingling o'er the heath,
                                     The furze delights to dwell,
                                     Whose blossoms steal the summer's breath
                                     And shed a sultry smell

... he was quite possibly referring to Wittering Heath, not a million miles from where he lived in Helpston. Much of Wittering Heath is now occupied by an airfield, RAF Wittering; having served there for a couple of years I can attest to the fact that the soil is not acid. I recorded Autumn Lady's-tresses, Spiranthes spiranthis, there in 1958 and this dainty orchid is definitely a species of alkaline ground. Incidentally this orchid may possibly be extinct in our county.

Anyway, I digress.

Also coming splendidly into flower in recent weeks are plants of Mahonia. These lovely shrubs are the state flower of Oregon in the USA. It is true that some Mahonia species are native to Oregon and adjacent states but the shrub photographed is probably Mahonia x media 'Charity'. Its parents are Mahonia lomariifolia and Mahonia japonica, the former hailing from N.W. China and nearby regions and the latter coming from Taiwan - not Japan as its name might suggest. Whatever, the shrub is not only beautiful but is very fragrant and, given some sunshine, it may get a few insect visitors. Search the internet and Mahonia 'Charity' is constantly referred to as Oregon Grape. Sorry, but from Oregon it ain't. (Tony, stop being pedantic!)

Mahonias and Viburnums will provide flower throughout the winter, taking us through to the crocuses, daffodils, snowdrops and (unfortunately) Forsythias in the new year.

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Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The Strawberry Tree

Many years ago, when I was serving with the RAF in Gibraltar, there was considerable poverty in Southern Spain, the tourism boom on the Costa del Sol having barely started. Children, keen to earn a few pesetas, would sell to unwary visitors dishes of fruit from the strawberry trees which were common locally. The customers would take one bite and then discard the remainder; the plant thus lived up to its Latin name of Arbutus unedo, for "unedo" means "eat once". It is not that the fruits are poisonous, they are just very insipid (and apparently, if consumed in large quantities, slightly narcotic).
Arbutus unedo growing in a garden, Gythio,
Greece. 27 April, 2014

The Strawberry Tree makes a good garden plant, forming a small tree with attractive glossy bark. It bears flowers rather like Lily of the Valley (though sadly unscented) followed by the bright red fruit. It is unusual among the Heather Family, Ericaceae, in being happy on limy soil. In fact, wherever I have seen it growing wild - in Majorca, Spain, Italy and Portugal - it has always been growing where limestone rocks are in evidence. 

Mention of Spain and Portugal raises another point: western Spain together with modern Portugal formed the Roman province of Lusitania, and the Strawberry Tree is a member of the so-called Lusitanian flora of the British Isles. This is a group of fifteen or so plants found in the south and west of Ireland and almost nowhere else in Britain. They include St Dabeoc's Heath, Daboecia cantabrica (see footnote) and Mackay's Heath, Erica mackaiana, both also members of the Heather Family. A very useful contribution to the debate appears in the journal British Wildlife for April, 2014. In this article the author, Trevor Beebee, points out that the Lusitanian element of our wildlife also includes the Kerry Slug, the Burren Green Moth and the Pyrenean Glass Snail. Curiouser and curiouser!

All are native to parts of Spain or Portugal and, although various explanations have been offered for their presence in Ireland, none is fully satisfactory. The Strawberry Tree has also become naturalised in several parts of southern England, having probably been bird-sown, but is borderline hardy further north. I grew it in Northampton but the trunk was split from top to bottom in a particularly hard frost and the plant failed to survive.

Having recently moved into a new house I am likely to have another bash at growing this charming plant. There are in fact 14 species of Arbutus but only about three are likely to be seen in cultivation. I could try a North American species, Arbutus menziesii, or the Greek Strawberry Tree, A. andrachne, but I'm likely to stick with A. unedo.

Footnote  The genus Daboecia was established by David Don, a Scottish botanist. The name seems to have been a reference to an obscure Irish saint, St Dabeoc, but there is clearly some confusion over the spelling. St Dabeoc, patron saint of Lough Derg in County Donegal, was sometimes referred to as St Beoc but never, as far as I have been able to establish, as St Daboec.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Lime Trees

Every so often I have a rant about lime trees. This is one of those occasions.

Two species of lime are found wild in Northamptonshire. One is the Large-leaved Lime, Tilia platyphyllos and the second is Small-leaved Lime, Tilia cordata. The former is native in some parts of Britain, but in Northants it is probably an introduction. The latter is a far more interesting plant as, though quite uncommon, it is undoubtedly a native.

Most of our native trees such as oak, birch, alder, beech, willow and pine are wind pollinated and produce vast quantities of pollen grains to allow for the huge odds against them reaching the stigma of the female flower. The outer 'casing' of these grains is tough and very resistant to decay and, as a consequence, the pollen is found in copious amounts in ancient deposits. We therefore know these trees were native and widespread. Lime trees are insect pollinated. They produce pollen in far more limited amounts and the grains are sticky in order better to cling to insects. This pollen is much less common in these ancient deposits, and for a long time it seems to have been thought that limes were relatively uncommon. We now know that the Small-leaved Lime was a major component of woodland at around 5000 years B.P. (before present) but declined through a complex set of circumstances involving human activity and climate change.

Common Lime, Tilia x vulgaris, still in leaf
on Byfield's playing fields. 9 November, 2014

Of course, the lime with which most of us are familiar is Tilia x vulgaristhe Common Lime, planted on a huge scale in streets and parks the length and breadth of Britain. It is a hybrid between our two native species and occasionally occurs in the wild. The Common Lime will sometimes produce viable seed but, like most hybrids, it is generally sterile. The flowers are fragrant, with the perfume being stronger in some years than others, but beyond this limes have, imo, little to be said for them.

Leaf of Common Lime bearing three galls of the mite,
Eriophyes tiliae. Byfield, 9 November, 2014
All three limes (which incidentally are not at all related to the citrus fruit) are valuable for wildlife, with the Lime Hawkmoth (Orthops cervinus), the bugs Orthotylus nassatus, Lygocoris viridis and Phytocoris tiliae and many mites, being particularly associated with these trees. In Northampton and elsewhere limes are frequently a host to Mistletoe, Viscum album. As a wildlife enthusiast I always approach a lime tree with anticipation.

So, what is my rant? 

Of all the trees available for planting in our streets, the Common Lime must be one of the worst choices, with one of the problems being directly related to its attractiveness to wildlife.

Problem 1

Lime trees are often infested with aphids. The aphid I most frequently take is Patchiella reaumuri but perhaps Eucallipterus tiliae is the more problematic. Both secrete honeydew but Eucallipterus produces such copious amounts that it will fall as a steady and sticky rain on any cars parked beneath. The honeydew also covers the leaves and nourishes sooty moulds, blackening the surfaces. Lewis Carroll would have called it a process of uglification.

Problem 2

Being deciduous, limes lose their leaves in late autumn. Perhaps I am wrong but these leaves, when wet, seem to form a particularly messy and slippery layer on pavements and roads. How often these have been a factor in accidents I don't know, but I suspect they are frequently culpable.

Problem 3  
Suckers around a Common Lime.
Byfield, 9 November, 2014

Here is the most serious issue. Limes, especially the Common Lime, have a propensity to produce a thicket of suckers from the base of the trunk. 

In open countryside this is not particularly a problem, but on street trees they are a real nuisance. In the autumn there must be a small army of local authority workers out and about dealing with these suckers and the overall cost must be enormous.

Base of Common Lime with chopped off suckers.
Daventry, 9 November, 2014

The results are tidy but ugly - and in twelve months time the whole wasteful process must be repeated!

How long will it be before town planners see sense? Rowans and whitebeams. hornbeams, alders, birches and even oaks are all native trees, largely without the problems associated with limes. A few heads need knocking together!


Saturday, 1 November 2014

Bits and Bobs from Byfield

Chris and I are still attached to Byfield by an invisible elastic band and we are pulled back there two or three times a week. Today it was the village's "Big Breakfast" so we were there tucking in and chatting to old friends.

Even so, being a nosy individual, and wearing my lucky socks, I still found time to stroll around for a few minutes "to see what was about" as bird-watchers say.

Medicago arabica in Byfield, Northants.
1 November, 2014

Our breakfast was in the Village Hall and against the wall was a clump of the very distinctive Spotted Medick, Medicago arabica. Although a British native, Gent and Wilson, in their 1995 "Flora of Northamptonshire & the Soke of Peterborough", describe its status in the county as "very rare" but it appears to be slowly spreading. 

Episyrphus balteatus on cypress. Byfield, Northants.
1 Novermber, 2014

On a cypress a hoverfly was enjoying the sunshine. Episyrphus balteatus is one of the few hoverflies to have a common name, being known as the Marmalade Fly. The acquisition of a popular name is one indication of how abundant this species is, being recorded throughout Britain. Large - sometimes vast - numbers of this fly annually migrate to Britain from the near continent but some specimens may over-winter here.

Stigmella anomalella mining garden rose.
Byfield, Northants, 1 November, 2014

A rose leaf in Mary and Paul Avison's garden had been mined, almost certainly by Stigmella anomalella. Known as the Rose Leaf Miner, the work of this tiny moth has featured in my blogs previously.
Choisya ternata in full bloom in the garden of
Lynda and Damien Moran. Byfield. 1 November, 2014

Finally, a "dog in the night" problem. For those who know their Sherlock Holmes, you will recall that the dog failed to bark, leading Holmes to suspect that it was someone familiar to the canine sentinel. Here is a plant of Mexican Orange Blossom, Choisya ternata in full bloom. (Incidentally it is a member of the Orange Family, Rutaceae). The flowers are clearly designed to tempt visitors and indeed a few insects do call in, but largely the flowers fail to attract any more than the odd fly or bee. Why?

There is a group of flowers which I would group with Choisya: Lilac, Forsythia and Winter Jasmine, Jasminum nudiflorum are examples. They have flowers clearly designed for insect pollination but anyone watching for visitors will generally watch in vain. None is native to Britain and it may be that in their own land they do get callers. But Buddleia, Buddleja davidii, isn't native either, and we all know how much of a magnet it is for insects. Perhaps, like the dog in "The Hound of the Baskervilles", there is a simple explanation. I don't know.