Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Kentle Wood - and a storm

A few days ago I discovered Kentle Wood, but was inadequately shod and unable to do it justice. Today I tried again. Wellington boots or walking boots? I decided on wellies and it was probably a wise decision.

Yuk! The top end of Browns Road becomes
 Browns Lane, Daventry, 28 January, 2015

The approach via Browns Lane is hardly inspiring. A large structure on the right is occupied by a firm called 'Earthworm'. Their mission in life is to convert waste into compost. The place is surrounded by security cameras; either compost has a greater street value than I'd realised - or the building is a front for the British arm of the C.I.A.

As I entered the wood a green woodpecker crossed the track, 'yaffling' its shrill alarm call. Clearly I had disturbed it but no, moments later a pair of sparrowhawks also swooped across the track. Surely they had caused the consternation. As far as I am aware, sparrowhawks only hunt singly - but the woodpecker was unlikely to stop and ask.

I was surprised to see a young tree, little more than a sapling, bearing a large growth. These are fairly common on old oaks but this was unusual.

Crown Gall on a young tree. Kentle Wood,
Daventry. 28 January, 2015

The growth - an example of Crown Gall caused by Agrobacterium tumefasciens - was as wide as the trunk itself. Crown Gall is imperfectly understood but may be the result of soil-inhabiting bacteria reaching the trunk and penetrating the tissue via some sort of wound. 

Looking west from Kentle Wood towards the village of
Flecknoe, Warwickshire. 28 January, 2015

As can be seen, the sky was blue and conditions excellent. Looking west there were fine views across the valley of the infant River Leam to the hills beyond. A few innocuous-looking clouds were present in the distance. The Leam forms the county boundary in this area so I was looking into Warwickshire.

I pressed on and eventually reached the furthest point of the wood, where it came up against the A45 Braunston Road.

I felt a few spots of rain on my face and saw that the sky was darkening. Within a couple of minutes the rain, flecked with some wet snow, was sheeting down. There was no shelter beneath the leafless trees and I had no choice but to press on. The wind steadily rose until it was howling through the woodland and soon I felt rain trickling down the inside of my wellies. Ugh! Time to draw deeply on my reserves of stoicism.

Large puddles rapidly formed across the track but then, almost as quickly as it had arrived, the rain eased up and the wind dropped.

Despite the heavy tread on my wellies I found myself slithering and sliding about and I was fortunate to remain upright. But I was feeling pleased, and even the huge, ugly Amazon warehouse looming upon my left failed to lower my spirits.

Trees top-heavy with ivy are vulnerable to high winds.
Kentle Wood, Daventry. 28 December, 2015
Another few hundred paces found me back on the original track. There where I had walked about twenty minutes earlier, a tree had come crashing down. As is often the case, it was top-heavy with ivy and the wind had been too much for it. Ideally it will be dragged to the side of the track and there allowed to decay.

So, I re-emerged from Kentle Wood. A glance at my pedometer showed that the distance around the perimeter track had been about 6,500 paces. Hard going today but it will be a fine walk in the summer months. 
Roll on!

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Punchwood and Birch

Punchwood and Birch. Sounds like a firm of solicitors!

In fact it was the trunks of these trees that caught my attention as I strolled into Daventry earlier today.

First, punchwood. As a child this is the name by which I knew the Coastal Redwood, Sequoia sempervirens. The reddish bark is soft and fibrous and my schoolteacher showed me how it can be punched without doing any damage to the fingers. This thick bark gives the tree some protection against wood-boring insects but it is more likely to have evolved as a protection against fires, for it is quite fire-resistant. An alternative name for the tree is Wellingtonia.

Coastal Redwood, aka 'Wellingtonia'
London Road, Daventry. 27 January, 2015

Four of these massive trees (this species produces the heaviest trees in the world) stand along the London Road in Daventry. Big though they are, they have a long way to go for their eventual height could be close on 100 metres. However, it is quite possible that they may have to be removed before then. I believe there were once more than four of these trees at this site but I can't confirm that.

A closer look shows that the bark lacks the furrowing of say, the Sweet Chestnut or the smooth appearance of a beech; though superficially a sort of grey (pollution?) a reddish fibrous material is revealed where damage has been sustained. The Common Treecreeper, Certhia familiaris, is known to hollow out this soft bark to create a nesting site.

I was surprised to learn that the word 'punchwood' dates back to the year 1637. The Coastal Redwood was not discovered until the 1850's so originally the word clearly had a different meaning. It seems that punchwood was timber suitable for use as 'puncheons', i.e. pit props. 
Birch trees bearing witches brooms.
Daventry, 27 January, 2015

Moving on towards the centre of Daventry I entered a park where stood a line of birch, Betula pendula, trees. There were several fine specimens, some bearing a number of 'witches brooms'. I will not dwell on the nature of these strange growths as I have written about them in an earlier blog (9 January, 2013): I was more interested in the bark.

Branches break easily from birches and the 'rot holes'
may become breeding grounds for insects.
Daventry, 27 January, 2015

Young birch trees are well-known for their smooth, silvery bark, but as the tree ages the trunk develops deep fissures, splitting the bark. They are generally not long-lived trees; branches will break off allowing fungal spores enter the wound, leading to the inevitable death of the host. These various features mean that the birch can be a gnarled and very picturesque feature of the landscape. The hollows left where branches have broken off often fill with water and these rot holes may then be a breeding ground for some interesting insects.

Not far away were clumps of Ivy-leaved Cyclamen, Cyclamen hederifolium, in a more or less naturalised state. John Hutchinson (British Wild Flowers, 1955) allowed that it could be British, but referred to it as 'doubtfully native'. Nowadays botanists are happy to accept that it is introduced.

One old name for this plant is 'Sowbread' and apparently elsewhere in Europe the roots are eaten by wild boar. The flowers, with the reflexed petals giving it a very distinctive appearance, belie the fact that it is a close relative of the primrose. It has become naturalised in many areas particularly in Kent.

Protomyces macrosporus on a Cow Parsley leaf.
Daventry, 27 January, 2015

It was while I was bending down to take a photograph of the cyclamen that I noticed a gall on a cow parsley leaf. In fact there were lots of galls and I took a specimen home. Once it was under the microscope I could identify it as Protomyces macrosporus,  a widespread fungus which attacks not just cow parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris, but many other members of the carrot family. Wow!

Shortly afterwards I found myself in Daventry's main churchyard, where thousands of snowdrops were in bloom. But in fact I was far more interested in a bracket fungus.

Root Fomes, Heterobasidion annosum
. Holy Cross churchyard, 
 27 January, 2015

I couldn't reach it to take a sample for it was in a pit where a tree had fallen and the fungus was growing on what remained of the root system. This situation helped me to name it as (probably) Heterobasidion annosum. Known as Root Fomes it attacks the roots of both conifers (usually) and broad-leaved trees (occasionally).

Whilst not the prettiest of fungi it rounded off my walk nicely and, after collecting Chris from her voluntary job in a charity shop, it was off home.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Kentle Wood Daventry

A pleasantly bright and reasonably warm morning prodded me into taking a brisk walk. The intention was to discover what happens to Browns Road, in north-west Daventry, as it peters out and deteriorates into a muddy track. From then on it is known as Browns Lane. 

Stereum hirsutum on an old tree stump, Thames Road,
Daventry. 26 January, 2015

I paused several times en route to examine mosses, lichens and fungi without finding anything remarkable. A tree stump sported a colourful growth of Hairy Stereum, Stereum hirsutum, but this is a very widespread and common fungus.
Yellow lichen forming a crust on brickwork

Brickwork nearby was scabbed by a yellow lichen which appeared to be the abundant and ubiquitous Xanthoria parietina. And yet...
Xanthoria parietina on a brick pillar box. Thames Road
Daventry. 26 January, 2015

I had a niggly feeling that it was different but close examination of the ascocarps showed a pale margin and an egg-yolk centre. This, plus one or two other features with which I will not bore you, showed that my initial diagnosis was correct.

Helleborus foetidus on waste roadside ground. Thames
Road, Daventry. 26 January, 2015

A little further on and I was both pleased and a little surprised to find Stinking Hellebore, Helleborus foetidus, in flower. I should not have been surprised at it is one of our earliest native flowering plants to bloom but I was delighted nevertheless. The flowers, only about 15 millimetres across, are hardly spectacular but merit a closer look where it will be seen that the sepals, which perform the function of petals, are neatly edged with purple.

I pushed on, going up Browns Road to a point where the deteriorating surface showed that my walking shoes, though stout, were barely adequate. Nevertheless, adroitly avoiding puddles and mud patches, I continued - and got a surprise.

Kentle Wood is a recently planted (2000-2001) 30 acre site belonging to the Woodland Trust. It was planted by volunteers, including local school children, to celebrate the millennium - and I had been completely unaware of its existence!

Young ash trees, Fraxinus excelsior,  have been planted
in large numbers. Kentle Wood, Daventry.
26 January, 2015

Trees included cherry, willow, oak, hawthorn, hazel - and lots of ash. It sounds churlish to make any criticism of the project but ash is probably Northamptonshire's commonest tree yet hundreds have been planted compared with relatively few oaks. Having got that niggle off my chest I have to say that it has been a fine effort.

Currently the hazel catkins occupy centre stage. There is likely to be a heavy harvest of nuts in the autumn, yet I hope that they are largely left for the wildlife; hazel nuts are cheap enough in the shops.

Galls were present on the twigs of oak. These are the very familiar Marble Galls (often wrongly referred to as Oak Apples), caused by a cynipid wasp, Andricus kollari. These old galls can persist for years.

Beech leaves are also persistent and some of those still clinging bore the gall of a fly. It may be Phegomyia fagicola, a relatively uncommon cecidomyid fly but I will need to find fresh specimens to be certain.

A broad ride at Kentle Wood with a mature ash tree to the far right and,
 with rust-coloured leaves, a young beech tree. Kentle Wood,
26 January, 2015

Although it will be many decades before this woodland can be regarded as mature it is likely to receive many visits from me. A handful of mature trees of ash and oak are already present and over the years insects from these trees will move on to colonise younger specimens.

So, now a more knowledgeable man, I set off for home, only briefly detained by a patch of the lichen, Parmotrema perlatum, on a roadside tree.


Thursday, 22 January 2015

Byfield: winter draws on...

The end of January is in sight and I have almost stopped typing '2014' instead of '2015'. Despite a few sharp frost and a dusting of snow, it hasn't been too harsh a month - yet. Nevertheless there are only scant signs of spring. Patience Tony, patience.
A rosette of Teasel hugs the ground in Byfield Pocket Park,
Northants. 21 January, 2015

Yesterday, in a stroll around Byfield's pocket park I found rosettes of Teasel, Dipsacus fullonum, hugging the ground, avoiding the biting winter winds. The seed will have germinated last spring and slowly developed through the summer and early autumn. It will flower in June or July but, like me, it must be patient for now. Teasels grow well hereabouts; much of the soil is heavy clay but that seems to suit them.

Dotted Ribbon Lichen, Ramalina fastigiata.
Byfield Pocket Park. 21 January, 2015

Whatever the weather, cold or otherwise, lichens flourish - increasingly so as atmospheric pollution diminishes. A tuft of Ramalina fastigiata was doing well on a thin branch; other lichens were present but, as noted before, the number of species at the site is quite limited.

A raven drifted overhead as I neared the end of my stroll. Their gutteral, far-carrying calls are becoming ever-more common as their spread across central England continues. At the other end of the scale a party of long-tailed tits flitted through the trees, the air constantly pierced by their contact calls. But otherwise things were quiet on the avian front, with only the ever-present blackbirds working their way across grassy patches. Time to move on.

Today we awoke to a frost-free and pleasantly sunny morning. Once the day's chores had been dealt with I decided to visit our local pocket park here in Daventry.

Ivy clambered up trees and spread across the ground. Its flowers next autumn will be confined to those parts well above ground level; on the ground only vegetative growth will be present.

A dead tree stump was encrusted with Many-zoned Polypore, Coriolus versicolor. Not only is it very common, it is also very variable, leading some experts to believe that several closely related species are involved.

Coriolus versicolor on a dead stump. Stefen Leys
Pocket Park, Daventry. 22 January, 2015

A closer look shows how suitable is the term 'many-zoned'. There are other vaguely similar fungi but the presence of a white margin allows a reasonably certain identification.

As I said in the opening paragraph, there are as yet only scant signs of spring but, on the last leg of my walk I chanced upon a drift of Snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, to raise my spirits. Not that I was feeling low, far from it, but it was rather uplifting.

The blooms of Snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, were just
opening. Stefen Leys Pocket Park, Daventry.
22 January, 2015

Most of the flowers were still in bud but a few had braved the conditions and were opening up in the faint hope of attracting a passing insect. Fat chance - but in a few weeks these blooms will attract honey bees.

I set off home with a little more spring in my step. We're getting there.

Tony White:

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Well, it is still January

A bitingly cold morning but, casting aside pusillanimous thoughts, I donned scarf and gloves and set off for a walk (I hasten to add that I wore other clothing too).

Green Hellebore, Helleborus viridis, in a garden.
Christchurch Drive, Daventry. 20 January, 2015

The hard overnight frost had left plants encrusted with frost. The flower buds on a Green Hellebore, Helleborus viridis, were not far from opening but will now be in a state of suspended animation until conditions ameliorate.

Where the bright morning sun was making its presence felt Winter Jasminum, Jasminum nudiflorum, was in flower. I can see its attraction although I have never been moved to grow it. In the midst of winter it attracts no insects and, unlike many other Jasmines, it lacks scent. But it cannot be denied that this Chinese introduction provides a splash of colour in these winter conditions.

Bunches of fruit hand from an Ash tree.
Daventry, Northants. 20 January, 2015

It may surprise many to learn that our common Ash trees are in the same family as Jasmine, both being members of the Olive Family, Oleaceae. Here the 'keys' - technically achenes - hang listlessly in the cold, still, slightly misty air. Apparently bullfinches will feed on these, but I have never observed this.

In countries of southern Europe grows the Manna Ash, Fraxinus ornus. With its masses of creamy flowers the relationship with others in the Olive Family is a little clearer. (The Manna Ash is occasionally grown as a street tree in Britain. It is both beautiful and hardy; why isn't it grown more often?) As for Jasmine, in a good year I have found them bearing small, black berries and these are not unlike little olives. Somehow it all ties together.

Monday, 19 January 2015

The Silver Birch

Brrr...  Several successive night of temperatures at or below freezing point appear to have brought nature to a shuddering halt - but of course that is a completely false impression. Birds were out and about in our local pocket park earlier today, with crows, magpies, blue tits, great tits, long tailed tits, robins and wrens noted, plus the gulls ever wheeling overheard. These were noted quite casually as I strode along but no doubt other species would have been seen had I stopped and stood quietly for a while.

In fact I did break stride for a while to look at the delicate tracery of a birch tree's branches and twigs against the background of a brilliant blue sky.

A closer look reveals the female cones from last autumn together with the male catkins seemingly ready to scatter their pollen to the four winds. The seeds within the cones form an important source of food for finches, with goldfinches in particular being regularly seen suspended from the twigs as they feed.

The cones are, of course, structurally quite different from those of conifers such as pines or larches. The seeds within conifer cones are naked in that they are not enclosed within an ovary. The seeds of birch are contained within an ovary and strictly speaking the 'cones' are simply short, broad catkins.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of birch for wildlife. It is Britain's second most common broadleaf tree (only oak being commoner) and, apart from its value to birds, the birch supports over 300 species of insect. It seems probable that the status of birch owes much to amenity planting; it is fast-growing, reasonably tolerant of urban pollution and, of course, is one of the loveliest of our trees. Its delicate grace belies the fact that it is as tough as old boots and, as the last Ice Age retreated, birch was one of the pioneer tree species which moved in to colonise the newly available areas.

It seems that, in Northamptonshire, its familiarity is almost entirely due to amenity planting. As far as I can establish, John Clare makes no mention of it in his writings, suggesting that in his day it was quite a rare - or at least uncommon - tree.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Walking to fitness

"LACK OF EXERCISE A MORE SERIOUS PROBLEM THAN OBESITY" trumpeted today's newspapers. As one who firmly takes to heart any proclamations from The Sun or Daily Mail I grabbed a pair of stout shoes and set off for a walk, determined to keep the Grim Reaper at bay.

After two minutes I stopped to get my breath back and then pushed on. 

Only a few days ago I weighed myself and turned the scales at 12 stones 4 pounds. I ate frugally for the next 24 hours and put in a brisk 3 miles walk. I reweighed myself and found that I had put on a pound. 'Oh dear me,' I said. (Chris says that my words were more colourful, but I can't believe I said what she claims.)

Today's walk was planned to visit areas of Daventry not yet explored; what wonders awaited me on my journey?  [Er - this is Daventry...]

The gall of Psylla buxi on Box. Christchurch Road,
Daventry. 15 January, 2015. Small clusters
of flower buds can be seen.
Box, Buxus sempervirens, is widely planted to form a neat and dense hedge. It does the job very well but really is a dull shrub. It is already carrying tiny flower buds but they will not open for quite a long time. Of more interest are the terminal buds on twigs; they are very commonly thickened and curled inwards to form a cup-shaped structure. This is the work of a psyllid bug, Psylla buxi (formerly Spanioneura buxi), and I noted today that it is abundant hereabouts. 

The flower buds of Prunus laurocerasus were swelling
nicely. Stefen Hill, Daventry. 15 January, 2015

On another evergreen, Cherry Laurel, flower buds were fattening nicely. This is Prunus laurocerasus and despite its thick, leathery, evergreen leaves it is a true member of the Prunus (cherry) genus. It looks superficially so different that many botanists once referred to it as Laurocerasus officinalis but placing it in a different genus is not, it seems, justified.

The biting westerly wind that has been with us for about three days now was still a problem as I strode out west towards Staverton. The bare fields bore a scattering of flint and igneous rocks -  mini-erratics left behind as an ancient glacier melted - but fundamentally the soil is a sticky clay. This is slow to warm up and it could be weeks before plant growth really gets going. I was glad to change direction and head back to Daventry with the wind behind my back.

A tree stump in Thames Road was steadily decaying and bore a large crop of toadstools. They were easily recognised as Honey Fungus, Armillaria mellea.

Honey Fungus, Armillaria mellea, in Thames Road,
Daventry.  15 January, 2015

This is a very variable fungus and some authorities now feel that several species have been lumped together under the general name of Honey Fungus. I'm not qualified to comment further.

I can only hope that my walk was beneficial to health because it sure didn't create much in the way of excitement!

Comments? E-mail Tony at:

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Early blooms

An annual event in the calendar of the Botanical Society of the British Isles is a New Year's Day count of wild flowers in bloom. A figure of 30-40 species is about the norm; this year it was an astonishing 368.

Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, still in flower. Christchurch
Road,  Daventry. 13 January, 2015
With this in mind I kept my eyes open yesterday (13 January) for plants in bloom locally, ignoring garden plants of course. Chickweed (Stellaria media), Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris), Shepherd's Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) and Annual Meadow-grass (Poa annua) were all flowering. These are ubiquitous annuals and are rarely out of bloom, so this was no surprise. Perennials included White Dead-nettle (Lamium album), Keck (Anthriscus sylvestris) and Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), plus the lawn weeds Dandelion (Taraxacum officinaleand Daisy (Bellis perennis) whilst among the shrubs in flower were Gorse (Ulex europaea) and Hazel (Corylus avellana). 

Rather a paltry figure, I felt, so today I have tried to add to the total.  Chris dropped me off in Badby on a very cold morning. Snow lingered on where rays of the bright early sun had not yet reached and a biting north-west wind stung my ears; Dame Weather was in one of her more vexatious moods.

Mossy footpath in Badby, Northants.
14 January, 2015

Little-used footpaths in Badby had developed quite a growth of moss, of a bright yellowish-green.

Tortula muralis on a footpath at Badby, Northants
14 January, 2015

A close look showed that all the moss appeared to be Wall Screw-moss, Tortula muralis. The presence of the moss had allowed a thin layer of soil to develop giving a rooting opportunity to small annual 'higher' plants.

One of these small annuals was in flower. Petty Spurge, Euphorbia peplus, is a very common plant in this, and in other ruderal situations. A number of specimens were present and I uprooted one in order to get a better photograph.

White Dead-nettle in flower near Badby,
Northants. 14 January, 2015

Again, defying the weather, White Dead-nettle was in bloom. The structure of the flowers show that they are designed for insect pollination - not much chance in these conditions!

To refer back to the first paragraph of this blog, the BSBI has members over the length and breadth of Britain, covering very mild areas such as Cornwall and Pembrokeshire (yes, I know that Pembrokeshire no longer officially exists). Other records may have come from central London with its unnaturally warm conditions. Inevitably my observations cannot hope to match these very favourable areas...but keeping an eye open adds interest to a walk.

I know my tiny survey ruled out garden plants but I couldn't resist just one - a Hebe.

The variety, almost certainly 'Nicola's Blush', was represented by one shrub beside the village hall car park in Badby. The plant was covered in hundreds of semi-rounded little racemes of flowers. A lovely sight.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Garden make-over

Our front garden in late August
When, in the middle of August, we moved into Trinity Close, the garden appeared reasonably tidy. But appearances can be deceptive; a rather large cypress was destined to become far too big - or would have done had we allowed it. A disproportionately large clump of pampas grass dominated the lawn. As for the lawn itself, grass was fighting a losing battle with weeds. It wouldn't do.

Out came the pampas grass and the cypress bit the dust (well, clay actually) and the lawn was painstakingly removed, spadeful by spadeful. It left us with a tabula rasa - a blank canvas on which we could work, putting our own stamp on the front garden.

The next step was the sinking of stones - local sandstone scavenged from various sources - in order to try and create the impression of a rocky outcrop in the form of a double ridge. I must admit that it doesn't look very convincing at the moment.

The same garden in mid-January.
Then came the delivery of 1.5 tonnes of gravel which was spread over the vacant ground to a depth of about 3 cms; I'm afraid that the front garden wasn't going to be wildlife friendly. A visit to a garden centre produced three hefty lumps of stone to be randomly placed about. A handful of dwarf conifers, carefully selected to remain small after ten or so years, were planted in an equally random manner.

At the moment there is little in the way of colour. Lavender will bloom and I hope to include some smallish shrubs such as Euryops acraeus and, perhaps, some cushion-forming relatives of broom and rosemary, from the pea family and the mint family. In March/April a good selection of alpines should become available from specialist nurseries. These will go into crevices in the stone 'outcrops' and give splashes of yellows, reds and blues. Hopefully.

Watch this space.