Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Battening down the hatches

My blogs have been few and far between recently, with a combination of inclement weather and, let's be honest, a certain degree if indolence, being to blame. Today I ventured out, wimpish thoughts banished, and made for Byfield Pocket Park. It was a grey and dismal place under a leaden sky with the breeze almost non-existent. 

Not a sound was to be heard beyond the distant traffic on the A361; the few remaining leaves stirred but slightly and no bird song was there to lift the spirits. It was as though nature had decided to batten down the hatches in preparation for the imminent winter.

The Common Lime. Tilia x vulgaris, of our parks and streets is a hybrid between Tilia platyphyllos and T. cordata. The cross has probably been made several times as the hybrid tree is very variable.

Some limes were in virtually full leaf.
Byfield, 25 November, 2015

Some specimens in the nearby Brightwell Park still bore plenty of green foliage but this was not always the case...

Some specimens were leafless.
Byfield, 25 November, 2015

...with immediately adjacent trees being quite leafless, adding weight to the idea that a number of several strains exist and suggesting different parentage.

The shape of Common Hornbeam is distinctive.
Byfield, 2015

The shape of the crown is clearly revealed once the leaves have fallen, with the very characteristic form of the Common Hornbeam, Carpinus betulus, being notable, its upsweeping branches reaching for the sky.

Oak was also devoid of leaves.
Byfield, 25 November, 2015

Oak was equally leafless but the branches are seen to be much wider spreading, often at or even below the horizontal. Both lime trees and oaks are frequently host to Mistletoe, Viscum album, best seen when the trees are leafless, but this has a largely southern and western distribution in Britain and is almost absent from our region.

Hogweed often carries late flowers.
Byfield Pocket Park, 25 November, 2015

Despite this not all species had shut down. Hogweed, Heracleum sphondylium, was flowering, showing quite remarkable optimism. Pink Campion and Common Mallow were also bearing flowers.

Lichens encrusted wooden fences.
Byfield Pocket Park. 25 November, 2015

And ever-reliable lichens were encrusting tree trunks, stonework and fences. Their growth may be slow but can, given clean air, continue in conditions where little else will flourish.

Evernia prunastri is common on logs and twigs.
Byfield, 25 November, 2015

This species is the common Evernia prunastri, with distinctively-shaped lobes to the thallus. Its favourite substrate seems to be logs or twigs but may occur elsewhere.

So, not the most exhilarating of walks, but I needed the exercise.

Thursday, 19 November 2015


This pretty village, with no school, no village shop, and no pub, is really no more than a hamlet, although it does boast a church. I'd not visited Dodford, situated just off the A45 near Weedon, for about eight years so Chris dropped me off on a dull but dry morning for a stroll around.

Dodford church, lichen encrustations obvious even at
a distance. 19 November, 2015
The church of St Mary the Virgin is rather small but probably quite adequate in these increasingly irreligious times. It was locked, telling us yet more about these times. The building is Grade 1 listed, and parts of it date back to the 12th Century, though it could be older. Dodford was mentioned, as Doddanford (the ford on the land of a man called Dodda), in a document dating from 944, but the church won't be quite that old.

Giant Redwood, but not yet the giant it may
 become. St Mary the Virgin church, Dodford.

It was dwarfed by a lofty redwood, the form of the cones showing that it was a Giant Redwood, Sequoiadendron giganteum. Despite backing up against the church wall my camera would not take in its full height, yet it may only be half grown. Although the church may be about nine hundred years old the tree could have been planted barely a century ago.

The distinctive foliage and cones of Giant Redwood.
Churchyard of St Mary the Virgin, Dodford.
 19 November, 2015

The leaves were flattened against the twigs (appressed) and the mature female cones were ovoid. These features are diagnostic for the species.


The next biggest tree was a largely-dead sycamore, sprouting a fine bracket fungus. I was unable to reach it for a close look but it appeared to be a specimen of Dryad's Saddle, Polyporus squamosus. It is this parasite which is almost certainly responsible for the moribund state of its host. 

Despite the late date the village gardens were still full of colour with dahlias and other tender perennials still in bloom. A couple of holly lookalikes also caught the eye.

Skimmia, looking like a smooth-leaved holly.
Dodford, Northants. 19 November, 2015
The first, with holly-like berries but smooth leaves, was a skimmia, Skimmia japonica to be precise. Most skimmias are dioecious, so a male and a female plant are required if berries are to be produced, but with the variety 'reevesiana', which is sometimes regarded as a true species, this problem does not exist.

Osmanthus, looking like a berry-free holly.
Dodford, Northants. 19 November, 2015

A few feet away grew Osmanthus delavayi. Here we have no berries but rather holly-like leaves. The flowers are fragrant but when I have grown it the scent has not been obvious. Osmanthus fragrans has, as the name suggests, a far sweeter scent.

Dodford may be but a hamlet, with only the old school house suggesting livelier times, but it is convenient for the M1 and Northampton, so my guess is that house prices are high. It is really only a dormitory village and sadly the chances of a pub or a shop ever opening there are zilch. So, expensive it may be, but it is not everyone's cup of tea. I saw not a soul in the hour or so that I spent there.

Hogweed still in flower. Dodford, Northants
19 November, 2015

Departing the village I noted that Hogweed, Heracleum sphondylium, was still flowering vigorously but on this dull, chilly morning no insects were paying a visit. 
The distinctive leaf mines of Phytomyza spondylium.
Dodford, 19 November, 2015

But visitors there had been, albeit unwanted ones. Phytomyza spondylii had mined the lower leaves to leave its characteristic patterning with probably no real harm done.

The sky had taken on a bruised appearance, suggesting that rain was imminent but just as I reached the A45 a bus came into view and I thus avoided what would have been a chilly wait. Minutes later and I was dropped off in Daventry town centre just as rain began to fall. I managed the mile or so home before getting too wet but was glad to peel off a very damp coat.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Berried Treasure

One feature of autumn to which we all look forward is the display of berries. Ok, not all are true berries in the botanical sense but the general idea is clear. (Technically a berry is the fruit of a single flower in which the ovary wall becomes thickened and is - usually - more or less succulent, so a banana is a berry and strawberry isn't. But let's not bother!)

Dogwoods bore hundreds of fruit per bush. Kentle
Wood, Daventry. 9 November, 2015

I suppose it is fair to say that berries catch our attention when they are brightly coloured but in Kentle Wood recently it was the Dogwood, Thelycrania sanguinea (Cornus sanguinea), berries which caused me to pause; they were jet-black but their sheer profusion was striking. Again they are really drupes, but berry-feeding birds don't read many botany books.

Yew in Holy Cross churchyard, Byfield.
11 November, 2015

The fruits of Dogwood are technically edible but are best avoided; they are bitter and emetic. The 'berries' of Yew, Taxus baccata, are most definitely to be avoided although it is only the seed which has toxic properties, not the red fleshy surrounds. Birds eat the fruit with relish, the seed passing through the gut to be deposited elsewhere. 

Holly in a Byfield garden. Note the 7-spot ladybird.
11 November, 2015
Also toxic are the berries of Holly, Ilex aquifolium. A couple may be consumed with - usually - little harm, but twenty or so could prove fatal.

This species, in its many forms, is a very familiar shrub or small tree but there are some 300 species worldwide, several of which deserve to be used more widely. Quite a good collection is to be seen at Evenley Gardens, near Towcester.

Cotoneasters have such low toxicity that they may be regarded as safe - not that anyone goes around munching these mealy, insipid fruits.

The genus is not huge, somewhere between fifty and a hundred species, but they hybridise readily, making it tricky to sort them out. Something like 45 species and their hybrids are found naturalised around Britain although only one, Cotoneaster integerrimus, is a true native, being found wild on Great Orme's Head, near Llandudno.

This species, in a Byfield garden, is a case in point. Cotoneaster bullatus? It could be, but I would need to check the flowers and the partly ripened fruit to be certain. I do know, as the garden belongs to a friend, that seedlings pop up everywhere! Both birds and bees love it, so it is tolerated.

Cotoneasters are in the Rose Family, along with hawthorns, rowans, strawberries and raspberries - all bearing berry-like fruit. The viburnums are in a quite different family, the Caprifoliaceae (although recent research has led many botanists to place them in the Adoxaceae). Here Viburnum opulus, the Guelder Rose, bears its scarlet berries. These are mildly poisonous, causing gastric upsets, but again the birds take them with no ill-effects. It is closely related to the honeysuckles.

Berberis have edible berries and our native barberry, Berberis vulgaris, though sharply acid, is rich in vitamin C. It was once used quite widely for its fruit but it fell into disuse when it was found to be a host for wheat rust fungus, with the consequence that wild plants were grubbed out to the point now where it is distinctly uncommon. The plant shown, one of many garden-worthy species, is probably Berberis wilsoniae, but there are several similar species. A genus for the specialist.

And then there are raspberries. They are clearly not true berries and like their congeners, blackberries, (raspberries are Rubus idaeus and blackberries are R. fruticosus), the fruits are aggregates made up of numerous druplets. 

November 17, and my plants are still producing fruit. By now birds might have stripped the canes but an over-large population of cats hereabouts means the bird visitors are few.

Just before closing this blog, I have suddenly recalled where I first saw the catchy term, 'Berried Treasure'. It is the title of a book by perhaps my favourite wildlife author, Frank Kingdon-Ward. Frank was a remarkable plant hunter, mostly exploring in the hills of northern Burma (now Myanmar). He wrote several books of his adventures; all are out of print and second-hand copies are expensive. He was responsible for... No, I must stop or I could ramble on for ages.

Monday, 16 November 2015

The garden in mid-November

Mid-November, and it is time to 'put the garden to bed', if it hasn't already been done.

For me that has involved tying things back, dead-heading plants, removing spent annuals and biennials plus a bit of weeding.

It sometimes pays to weed with care. Most weeds are obvious and, by definition, unwanted, but here and there a gem may be lurking. I put in a rare species of thrift this year and, as I removed some seedlings of Hairy Bitter-cress (what a nuisance that plant is!) I noticed that it had produced several seedlings.

Armeria pseudarmeria is still in flower.
Stefen Hill, Daventry. 16 November, 2015

The Thrift in question is Armeria pseudarmeria, an endangered species endemic to a small region of Portugal. Fortunately it is now common in cultivation and has given rise to several fine varieties. My plant began flowering in May and is still producing its crimson blooms, perhaps because I have kept dead-heading it.

The 'seedlings' may in fact have arisen from underground runners but, whatever their origin, they will be jealously guarded.

Only half a metre away is a hummock-shaped Mossy Saxifrage, Saxifraga bryoides. These can easily be bought at a couple of pounds each but I'll have no need to purchase any.

Seedlings of a mossy saxifrage. Stefen Hill, Daventry.
16 November, 2015

In the gravel around the parent plant are dozens of seedlings. Again these will be nurtured to see how they turn out. The parent bears pink flowers, but as for the seedlings - who knows?

And then there is a Sea Holly,  Eryngium 'Blue Hobbit'. This is a dwarf form of Eryngium planum, but is a neater and far more desirable plant.

This has produced at least two seedlings; one can be seen immediately above the main plant and the other is towards the top right corner. They may not be as attractive as the parent but, of course, they could be just as attractive, if different.

Heartsease-type pansies are popping up everywhere.
Stefen Hill, Daventry. 16 November, 2015

As for little 'Heartsease' pansies, there are dozens popping up, all from an unknown source. But although I didn't introduce them they are very welcome, even though careful weeding is required if they are not to become invasive. In the USA they are known as 'Johnny Jump-ups'

So, the moral is, remove 'weeds' judiciously.

A dark-leaved Aeonium, probably a form of Aeonium arborium, is waiting for the first frost. These succulents are native to the Canary Islands so are tender and ought to be over-wintered with care. Unfortunately I don't have the facilities for this so it is probably doomed.

The caterpillar of the Large Yellow Underwing is not
the prettiest of larvae! Stefen Hill. 16 November, 2015

While tweaking out weeds I unearthed a fat caterpillar. It is the Large Yellow Underwing, Noctua pronuba. This abundant moth is one of the 'cutworms', so-called because they will eat through the stem of a plant at the base and so cut it down. I left it where it was so it has two chances: quickly burrow back into the soil or fall prey to a blackbird or robin.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Bunkers Hill, Badby

With the sun shining from an almost cloudless sky I girded up my loins and set forth for the pretty village of Badby. The plan was to park the car and then walk to Badby Woods. That plan was quickly quashed when I realised that my welly boots were not in the car boot. 'Bless me!' I muttered.

I had parked near to the foot of Bunkers Hill and, as the footing was reasonably firm, I risked venturing up for a short distance.

Beds of nettles bordered the track. Normally I'd have passed them by but flies were basking on the leaves so I spent a while there.

A Hornet, Vespa crabro, was handled with caution.
Badby, Northants. 12 November, 2015

A Hornet, Vespa crabro, was among the sun worshippers; I netted it for a photograph and then released it. Though large and with a fearsome reputation, hornets tend to be docile but I opened my net cautiously as it may have objected to being captured. A bit tetchy, like.

Despite the sun the footpath was very wet and the plants were still drying out from the overnight dew. But remarkably there were plenty of flies and I netted fifty-six plus a couple of harvestmen. I had little doubt that all would prove to be commonplace species but there was always a chance...

Oddly enough, this fly with only 1.5 wings was quick enough to evade my net!

The Noon-fly is among the most distinctive of our insects.
Badby, Northants. 12 November, 2015

This Noon-fly, Mesembrina meridiana, with its distinctive orange wing bases was not quite so agile. Although it is an insect I tend to associate with mid-summer, it has a very long season.

So, however you dress it up this was hardly an exciting day. Badby Woods will get get a visit from me before long but I suspect I'll be mainly looking for mosses, fungi and lichens.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Just taking the air

'Walk regularly,' the doctor told me at Oxford.

Today, being mild and dry, allowed me to follow this instruction and so off I went. The plan was just a stroll locally and I wasn't expecting any surprises. Along the grass verges beside Christchurch Road the 'usual suspects' were in flower.

Groundsel, ubiquitous and poisonous.
Christchurch Road, Daventry. 10 November, 2015

There is never a day when Groundsel. Senecio vulgaris. is not in flower. This ubiquitous weed is usually described as native, and yet it is only ever found on disturbed ground so one is entitled to have doubts. Poisonous to us, it is nevertheless the food-plant of the Cinnabar moth, whose yellow and black banded caterpillars are commonly found, often reducing the plant to a skeleton.

Dove's-foot Crane's-bill. Christchurch Road, Daventry.
10 November, 2015

Equally common on these verges is the Dove's-foot Crane's-bill, Geranium molle, with its softly hairy leaves. Its close relative, Geranium dissectum, has more deeply divided leaves. The tiny flowers deserve close scrutiny. The long 'beak' on the fruit capsule is said to resemble the bill of a crane.
Common Chickweed, Christchurch Road, Daventry.
10 November, 2015

Common Chickweed, Stellaria media, was also abundant. Its lush foliage makes a very good salad ingredient (so I am assured) but these verges are frequently visited by dogs, with the inevitable consequences, so I was not tempted. The hairy sepals may be clearly seen, together with the five petals, each deeply divided to give the impression of ten petals.

Moving on I took the short spur off Badby Road West towards the Daventry by-pass. This spur was truncated when the by-pass (the A45) was constructed and it now receives few visitors. In consequence it is quiet and peaceful.

Honey Bees were busy at the ivy flowers.
Badby Road West, Daventry. 10 November, 2015

Clumps of ivy are abundant and the sweet smell of their flowers was detectable from some distance. Honey Bees, Common Wasps, and various blowfly species were gorging themselves, with the bees busily stocking up for winter with pollen too.

 Calliphora vomitoria. Note how the reddish eyes almost
meet in the middle, showing it to be a male.
Badby Road West, Daventry. 10 November, 2015
Although the ivy nectar allows blowflies to put on fat for the winter, many get through the cold season as larvae. These are known to be remarkably tolerant of cold and experiments have shown that they can survive repeated spells of -6 degrees C for 12 hours at a time. This male Calliphora vomitoria will probably get through winter in a sheltered crevice but specimens are often seen basking on tree trunks or wooden fences on a sunny winter's day.
The Turtle Bug seems quite scarce in this region.
Badby Road West, Daventry. 10 November, 2015

Sweeping a patch of grass a short distance away I was delighted to find a specimen of the Turtle Bug, Podops inuncta. This is largely confined to the south east of Britain, being common in Kent and Sussex. Here in Northants it is approaching the edge of its range and may be a new record for the county. The photograph shows that, to our eyes, it is an unexciting insect, but it was a good find.

So, a short constitutional walk turned out to hold a surprise after all.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Autumn colours

It is odd, but I can clearly recall the first song our class was taught when I was a five-year old at Duston C of E Junior School, near Northampton, back in 1943:

                      The autumn winds begin to blow,
                      The trees all wave their branches so,
                      The autumn leaves come tumbling down,
                      Red and golden, yellow and brown.

I've never been able to trace the author and even the Internet seems unable to help, but I vaguely remember looking over my teacher's shoulder at the piano and seeing the name 'Gawthorne' on the music score.  'Gaffer' Gawthorne was our headmaster so perhaps this simple ditty was his work - or his version of several similar songs.

Seventy two years on and this lovely transformation is still a memorable autumn event. Yellows and oranges in small amounts have been present in the leaves throughout the summer but have been masked by the dominant green of chlorophyll. As the late summer daylight decreases the chlorophyll is gradually withdrawn. A little glucose remains and turns red under the influence of lowering temperatures whilst brown hues are the result of waste products being deposited in the leaves. 

But we don't need to concern ourselves with the chemistry behind these changes; we can just marvel. As Thomas Hardy said, in his poem, 'The Last Week in October':

            The trees are undressing, and fling in many places...

I began writing this blog on the last day day of October. Ten days have now elapsed. Ten times I have been poised to set out. Nine times it has started to rain. I began to feel that by the time I was able to get out and about the trees would be virtually naked.

Today I finally got out, even though the sky was grey and the wind blustery. Chris accompanied me, still not confident that I would cope. Sure enough,thick layers of leaves carpeted the ground - food for a host of earthworms over the next few months. My destination was Kentle Wood, but in general the colours proved to be a disappointing range of browns.

Cherry trees had lost their leaves. Kentle Wood,
Daventry, Northants. 9 November, 2015

My main hope had been the cherries but, by and large, they were bare, particularly where the wind had been able to snatch away their leaves.

An old ash tree was also leafless. Kentle Wood.
November 9, 2015

Ash trees were leafless too, with this old specimen (clearly pre-dating the planting of this millennium wood) stark against the leaden sky.

Elsewhere the ash trees bore large bunches of
'keys'. Kentle Wood, Daventry. 9 November, 2015

Rather surprisingly it was devoid of its fruit - the bunches of 'keys' with which we are all familiar- but they were borne profusely on younger trees.

But the leaves of beech were clinging on. Kentle Wood.
9 November, 2015

The generally dull situation was saved by beech trees, whose leaves had taken on lovely golden tints. Unfortunately only a few of these have been planted, perhaps because the beech tree may not really be native to Northamptonshire. The dry leaves of beech often cling on into the following spring, long after the foliage of other species has gone.
The immature catkins are already evident.
Kentle Wood. 9 November, 2015

'But what of hazel?' I hear you cry. This shrub is certainly deciduous but most of the specimens at Kentle Wood were still green and, as the photograph shows, next spring's catkins are already very obvious.

And that was about it: no insects (they were present of course, but in the buffeting wind they were sensibly lying low), no flowers and very few birds. Indeed it may have been a flower free day but...

A rather unexpected Dwarf Mallow grew beside
 the track near Kentle Wood. 9 November, 2015

... shortly after leaving the wood, beside the track which segues into Browns Road, was a rather robust specimen of Dwarf Mallow, Malva neglecta, still bravely flowering but probably in vain. 

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Planting for posterity

We all know the old, presumably American, joke: 'Posterity never did nuthin' fer me'.  I was reminded of this when visiting our neighbourhood Tesco car park earlier today.

Lime trees stand leafless beside the Tesco
 car park in Daventry. 3 November, 2015

The Daventry store, like so many other supermarkets, is not a thing of beauty, and the car park is ... well, a car park. But some attempt has been made to soften the scene by the planting of trees. Some lime trees are present but these are quite old and clearly pre-date the development. Others are commonplace: ash, birch and rowan are dotted around. However, a little 'planting for posterity' is evident.

Understandably people, by and large, look for instant impact when putting in plants. Few are prepared to plant trees which may not flower until they have long shuffled off this mortal coil. The consequence is that many lovely trees go unplanted.

Dove Tree photographed at Hellidon, Northants.
8 June, 2015

One such tree is the Dove Tree, aka the Pocket Handkerchief Tree, Davidia involucrata.  It is not difficult to grow (although seed germination can be tricky) and once established will develop into quite a large tree. But it may take ten years before producing its first 'flowers' (what appear to be white petals are really bracts) and sometimes quite a bit longer.

Back to the supermarket...

I was strolling along when, peripherally, I noticed an oddly-shaped leaf and, looking up I realised I was standing beneath a Tulip Tree, Liriodendron tulipifera. Posterity planting!

Foliage of a Tulip Tree in Tesco car park, Daventry.
3 November, 2015

This member of the Magnolia family is native to the southern states of the U.S.A. The leaves are generally described as orbicular, but at both the base and apex they are truncated in a very characteristic manner.

Tulip Tree leaves can hardly be mistaken for any others.
Tesco car park, Daventry. 3 November, 2015

A downward glance showed that the pavement was littered with these leaves and no doubt, were Chris and I regular Tesco shoppers, we would have noticed them long ago.

The Tesco chain of supermarkets has not enjoyed a good press over recent years but my view of them became a little less sour when finding these Tulip Trees - of which there were several. The trees showed no sign of having flowered and, from seed germination, it may be twenty years before their lovely, goblet-shaped, pale yellow and orange blooms appear. (And, incidentally, the trees can top 150 feet in good conditions. Has anyone told Tesco of this possibility? But, hey, the wood is a valuable timber.)

I'm unlikely to change my shopping habits and become a Tesco customer, but I will try and visit the car park next summer to see if the blooms appear. They have probably been there for fifteen years, so maybe...

Finally I would mention that Tulip Trees - and indeed the whole Magnolia Family - evolved before bees evolved on earth and pollination is mainly carried out by beetles. I believe the seeds are rarely produced in Britain.