Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Winter fare and Bittersweet

Warm air moved in overnight and, mixing with and replacing chilly air, brought fog. This soon cleared leaving mild, but grey and damp, conditions.

Divers jobs took me into Daventry, 'Athens of the North', as it is never called. Around Stefen Hill many rowan trees have been planted but their crop of fruit had been cleared by birds as soon as it ripened. In the centre of Daventry berries have lingered on, especially on the Pyracantha, Pyracantha coccinea, shrubs.

Pyracantha bushes are a reliable source of food for
many birds. Daventry, 15 December, 2015

These scarlet fruits are untouched so far but, as winter tightens its grip, hunger will outweigh caution and birds will begin to feed on them. Redwings, and their close relatives fieldfares, are likely to be among the diners and, with luck, a few waxwings will move in as food in their Scandinavian homelands becomes scarce.

The yellow-berried forms seem less attractive to birds.
Daventry, 15 December, 2015

Although 'coccinea' means 'bright red' there are yellow-berried forms too but, in my experience, these will be untouched until most of the red berries have gone. Is it the colour or the taste? I'm not sure but I suspect it is the former. Regarding their relatives, the rowans, red fruits are preferred to the yellow, and as for white berried forms such as Sorbus hupehensis, they are generally pretty safe.
In some places ivy berries are already ripe.
Daventry, 15 December, 2015

Around neglected fringes of car parks ivy is, in places, abundant. The berries of ivy tend to ripen over several weeks, making it a particularly valuable source of food for birds. In some cases the fruits were already ripe and should soon be consumed.
...elsewhere berries are still green

Elsewhere there is a little way to go. Ivy can, in a favourable year, keep birds going until well into February. Although it is, with its nectar-rich flowers as well as fruit, a very valuable wildlife species, I would not allow it into my garden; it is ubiquitous in the countryside so, like the equally valuable Stinging Nettle, there is no need.

This last point is made in a very useful book which I would commend to wildlife gardeners. Many books cover much the same ground but this is not a glossy, coffee table book, it is a very well-written and thoughtful account of the topic and must count as one of my more sensible purchases.

Now, where was I? 

The berries of Woody Nightshade.
Daventry, 15 December, 2015
Just as I was about to get into my car I noticed more berries gleaming brightly among other weeds. They were those of Woody Nightshade, Solanum dulcamara, a close relative of the potato. The berries have a foetid, off-putting smell, but what do they taste like? The plant's other common name is Bittersweet and, of course, 'dulcamara' means 'sweet bitter' (dulce, sweet and amara, bitter) but I suspect that we would find the fruit most unpleasant - as well as being mildly poisonous. Thrushes are known to eat them but they also may regard the berries as something of a last resort.

The plant has a place in homeopathic medicine where, over the centuries it has been used for the treatment of a range of conditions with, one suspects, little efficacy. (One recalls the quack Dulcamara in Donizetti's opera L'elisir d'amore). Its relative Deadly Nightshade, Atropa belladonna, is still widely used but is rare hereabouts.

So, at the moment there is food a-plenty for birds. It will be interesting to review the situation in two months time.

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