Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Pole dancing

Now I've got your attention!

I had to invent a catchy title as nothing of great moment has come to my attention over the last 72 hours, but my readers - both of them - will be demanding a dose of my deathless prose.

A biting westerly greeted me as I got out of my car in Byfield. I had volunteered to deliver a batch of leaflets around the village. At least they gave me an excuse to visit a few gardens as I struggled to control the paperwork in the buffeting wind. 

Hebes were bravely flowering along Westhorpe Way. In the early years of the 20th century Hebes were all regarded as species of Veronica, but in 1929 the botanists Cockayne and Allen put the cat among the pigeons by arguing that the shrubby species, mostly hailing from New Zealand, should be placed in a separate genus as Hebe. Their arguments were generally accepted and they began to appear as Hebes in plant catalogues, etc. Unfortunately, a few years ago Prof. Garnock-Jones and colleagues at Victoria University used DNA and cladistic analysis to show that Hebes should probably be regarded as Veronicas after all. The problem still ferments and the return to Veronica is being resisted in many quarters.

Whatever we call them these shrubs are extremely valuable in the garden and with careful selection can provide colour for most months of the year.

If Hebe/Veronica shrubs are eye-catching then Pellitory-of-the-wall, Parietaria judaica, could hardly provide a greater contrast. 

Parietaria judaica at the base of a wall.
Byfield, Northants. 10 December, 2014
This herbaceous member of the Nettle Family (Urticaceae) is very appropriately named for it does indeed grow abundantly at the foot of walls almost everywhere except in the busiest of city centres. The generic name, Parietaria, actually means 'wall-dweller' and the name was bestowed upon the plant by Pliny. Its tiny flowers are open even at this time of the year. The fact that there are few insects around is of no consequence as the flowers are wind pollinated. One leaf (near bottom right) bears a dark blotch with a pale centre and is almost certainly the 'mine' of the fly Agromyza anthracina.  This is interesting as the mine, though recorded from the related stinging nettles, does not appear to have been previously recorded from Pellitory-of-the-wall.

Another wall-dweller, Kenilworth Ivy, aka Ivy-leaved Toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis) gallantly bore a few flower buds but conditions will need to change significantly if they are to open. The word 'muralis' means, 'of walls' and is therefore also quite appropriate.

Bittersweet, Solanum dulcamara.
Byfield, 10 December, 2014

Yet another appropriately-named plant was in fruit nearby. This is Woody Nightshade or Bittersweet. The Latin name is Solanum dulcamara, with 'dulcis amara' meaning sweet-bitter. The fruits are clearly intended to tempt birds but I've a feeling that they come some way down the thrush's list of "Berries I want for my Christmas Lunch". Although related to Deadly Nightshade it is only mildly poisonous - and obviously not toxic to birds.

It can pop up almost anywhere although the usual habitat is a hedgerow, as John Clare observed:

                                 And scrambling up the hawthorn's prickly bower,
                                 For ramping Woodbines and blue Bitter Sweet.

                                                                                     Village Minstrel, 1821

Also being ignored by birds - although a really cold snap will change things - were the fruits of Roast Beef Plant, Iris foetidissima

Iris foetidissima, The Twistle, Byfield.
10 December, 2014

Like the Bittersweet, this is almost certainly bird-sown. It is a native British plant but in Northamptonshire it is best regarded as a neophyte, i.e. a plant introduced and naturalised in the county since the year 1500. It occurs all around Byfield, so certainly the birds do eventually consume the berries, with the seeds of course passing undamaged through the gut.

Funaria hygrometrica on a wall-top.
The Twistle, Byfield, 10 December, 2014
And, as far as flowering plants were concerned, that was about it. I did pause to photograph a patch of the distinctive moss Funaria hygrometrica atop a wall. The spore-bearing capsules are a bit like a drooping pear and are unusually large for the size of the plant. They also tend to point in all directions. Very common, a patch of grit or gravel suits it and, oddly, it often seems to occupy the site of a former bonfire. It can also be a nuisance in garden centres where it often invades the pots of plants.

Leaflets safely delivered I set off home.

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