Sunday, 31 January 2016

Parson in the Pulpit

Everyone is familiar with this plant even if they call it Wake Robin, Cuckoo Pint, Lords and Ladies or even Dogs' Dillies.

I was pleased to find its bright green leaves heralding spring when I visited Byfield earlier today. It will be some weeks yet before we see its curious flowers but it is nevertheless unmistakable.

Lords and Ladies at Byfield, Northants.
31 January, 2016

The specific part of its Latin name, Arum maculatum, refers to the spotted leaves, but as the photograph shows, they are frequently unspotted - immaculate one might say. As for the common name, there are dozens of vernacular variations, but most refer to the ithyphallic form of the spadix, which may be purple or cream.

It is a member of the huge Araceae Family which, with around 3,700 species, is one of the world's largest plant families. When I was in my teens the duckweeds were included within the family but botanists then created the Lemnaceae to accommodate them. I am pleased to note that duckweeds are now back in the Araceae. So in Amorphophallus titanum the family now contains the species with the largest unbranched inflorescence in the world (and always makes the newspapers when a foul-smelling specimen is about to flower) and the world's smallest vascular plant in Wolffia arrhiza. The last-named is a duckweed, and a rare British native, but I have never found an example. Specimens turned up in a cattle trough near Polebrook in 1984 but have since disappeared and the species now appears to be extinct in Northamptonshire.

Peace Lily at Danetre Hospital.
23 January, 2016

Many members of the family make good house plants and, in less than happy circumstances, I was able to photograph this Peace Lily, Spathiphyllum cochlearispathum in the waiting area of Danetre Hospital a few days ago. Its relationship to Lords and Ladies is very obvious.

Be assured, I will return to the Lords and Ladies plant when it flowers.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Litter bins and lichens

A curious topic, but in this area the litter bins in parks and other open spaces are made of some sort of black composite material and on several occasions I have noted that this substrate supports a rich lichen flora.

An exciting litter bin! Stefen Leys Pocket Park, Daventry.
30 January, 2016

As with certain types of masonry, particularly in graveyards, the lettering has been picked out by lichens.

Hardly room to breathe! Stefen Leys Pocket Park.
30 January, 2016

Parmelia sulcata, a very pollution-tolerant lichen, is prominent in the middle of the picture. It is sometimes called the Netted Shield Lichen and is extremely common in suburban areas.

Athelia arachnoidea was common. Stefen Leys
Pocket Park. 30 January, 2016

A circular patch of a pinkish species is, I believe, not a lichen at all but is Athelia arachnoidea, a fungus that is an aggressive pathogen of lichens. It is widespread across the English midlands.

The centre of the expanding circle is virtually devoid of lichens, these having been destroyed by this fungus. Several other patches were noted elsewhere.

The pink heads of Illosporiopsis christiansenii were
about 2 mm across

Smaller pink blobs were interesting (to me!). I brought home a specimen for closer examination and the species is almost certainly another fungus, Illosporiopsis christiansenii. Here it is growing with Physcia aipolia, a very common lichen, whose dark brown, white edged ascocarps are rather distinctive.

With several bins hereabouts I could probably find dozens of lichens - plus a few mosses - but, alas, I do not claim to have the expertise (or the time) to identify them all. Otherwise I could enthrall my readers with blog after blog of fascinating facts! (Do I detect a slight sigh of relief?)

There is, in fact, a thriving British Lichen Society, whose field trips take members to mountain, moorland, rocky shorelines and damp, species-rich woodlands.

My copy of the late Oliver Gilbert's book, 'The Lichen Hunters' is, to me, a fascinating read, with stirring details of these outings to remote places. Well, it takes all sorts...

Wednesday, 27 January 2016


Mistletoe is a rare plant in Northamptonshire. In fact its best-known site, in the grounds of Burghley House, is no longer in our county but is now in Cambridgeshire (and when I've a bit more time I may bore you by explaining why). A few plants exist in the Oundle area but perhaps the best colony is to be found in Kingsthorpe Recreation Ground, Northampton.

I happened to be passing that way earlier today so I took the chance to have a quick look around. There seemed to be 40-50 specimens in the lime trees there although other sources suggest there are nearer 70-80 plants.

Mistletoe in Common Lime. Kingsthorpe Recreation
Grounds, Northampton.  27 January, 2016
I can assure you that these are colour photographs, despite their black and white appearance. For much of the year the mistletoe is unnoticed among the lime foliage and winter offers the best opportunity to see them, but against a slate-grey sky their rather sickly green leaves cannot be distinguished - and they are all very high up. (Oddly enough mistletoe plants may reasonably be regarded as galls.)

Technically the plant is not a complete parasite as these leaves do produce a tiny amount of sugar via photosynthesis but in reality the mistletoe is completely reliant on its host. In our area that host is overwhelmingly Common Lime, Tilia x europaea, but I know of a False Acacia, Robinia pseudoacacia, in the Weston Favell area of the town which also bears a mistletoe plant. It seems a reasonable assumption that all these plants grew from chance berries used at Christmas. Apples and poplars are also frequent hosts in other parts of southern England.

Why do we kiss under mistletoe? Anyone seeing the sticky grey-white juice oozing from a berry will see why it was regarded as a fertility symbol but we are not only talking here about human fertility. As the photographs show, the plants form a roughly spherical mass of branches. Centuries ago one of these spheres was, at the appropriate time of the year, mixed with some hawthorn twigs and this bundle was then set on fire. While still burning this would be carried across twelve furrows of a ploughed field and, if the flames died before the furrows were crossed, this was a bad omen for the next year's crops.

In my youth Mistletoe, Viscum album, was regarded as a member of the Loranthaceae Family but is now included in the Sandalwood Family, Santalaceae. Recently a second species has been found growing in Britain. This is Loranthus europaeus but, to be honest, it was found growing on a shrub at Kew Gardens - and no-one seems to know how it got there!

Back to our true native species: the berries, looking like pearls, have occasionally been eaten, usually by children. These berries contain some nasty toxic alkaloids but fortunately recent cases have only involved the consumption of 4-5 berries; more could have been dangerous.

Well, I've not mentioned the Mistle Thrush, Turdus viscivorus, or the Mistletoe Marble Moth, Celypha woodiana, so I've been very restrained. I'll sign off before the urge to write about the several bugs which also live on this extraordinary plant, becomes unbearable. 

Monday, 25 January 2016

Kentle Wood in Late January

I would have liked the stile to be time-warped, fissured and encrusted with moss and lichen - but Kentle Wood, barely fifteen years old, isn't like that.  Fences and stiles are new and trees are young, and yet the Fumitory which grew beneath that entry stile has, being an annual, already died, hopefully leaving behind seeds to provide progeny on and on over the years.

Of course, just outside the woodland boundary tree trunks did bear a rich growth of lichens but they are taking a long time to colonise younger bark inside the surrounding fence.

Again, outside the wood, gate posts were capped with mosses. If I had found them within Kentle Wood I'd have taken a sample for identification. Another time perhaps.

At this time of the year annuals, by and large, provide what few flowers are present in or on the way to the woodland. Of course there are always buttercups and daisies, perennials both, to undermine my comments, but where ground is disturbed by trampling there we may find speedwells, chickweeds, and Nipplewort, Lapsana communis, with its little yellow dandelion-like flowers on wiry stems.This last-named plant can often be quite tall and I often wonder if it occasionally perennates, but I can find no evidence of this in the literature. It is a common and hardy plant, known in the Middle Ages as 'papillaris' from the Latin papilla - nipple; it was often used for treating sore or cracked nipples.

Groundsel, Senecio vulgaris,  hardly merits a mention of course, but I frequently bend down and examine a plant as it may be galled by several organisms, most of them fungi; many of us will have casually noted the bright orange encrustations of Puccinea lagenophorae. But at this time of the year there is rarely anything to be seen.

Shepherd's Purse, Capsella bursa-pastoris, occasionally crops up too. Even in the depths of winter some of its capsules were ripe enough to spill out little golden seed-coins. 

Where was I?

Oh yes. Beneath the stile the well-trodden ground was bare and free of fumitory. I arrived as a red-faced woman was clambering over hoping, I suspect, that I didn't notice the fart which escaped as she heaved her considerable bulk across the woodwork. I was tempted to comment on the birdsong but held my peace.

I followed her a few safe moments later and set off down the main ride. I had no particular reason to be visiting Kentle Wood but, no claustrophiliac I, this was simply an opportunity to stride out and get some fresh air into my lungs. Just as well, for there was little to see; although conditions were mild it is still winter.

After a few minutes I realised that, despite the lengthening days, I was losing the light.

Several daisies, on my outward journey had been fully open.

Now they were closing, shutting up shop as it were, and explaining their original name of 'day's eyes'. Like groundsel, I often have a closer look as this species too is galled, in this case by about four species, often overlooked, This species sometimes exhibits teratology - abnormal growth - often in the form of fasciation (flattened stems) and fan-shaped flowers. Causes are not fully understood but probably involve hormonal imbalances in the cells. 

As I say, the light was fading and I'd had my jaunt. Home.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

The Ash Tree

This tree, with its graceful, pinnate leaves, is familiar to us all. Even in the depths of winter its soot-black buds are unmistakable and, after oak, it was probably the first tree I learned to recognise as a child.

Back then, some seventy years ago, our little front garden was separated from the footpath by a neat little privet hedge; I didn't discover until many years later that Ash, Fraxinus excelsior, and Privet, Ligustrum ovalifolium, were closely related, both being members of the Olive Family, Oleaceae. (The privet of our gardens is different from the Wild Privet, Ligustrum vulgare, the latter having leaves much more slender than the former, which is a native of Japan.)

Ash is a bit of a curiosity because although the flowers of its relatives are generally insect pollinated (Lilac is also in the Olive family) and even its congener, the Manna Ash (Fraxinus ornus) is insect pollinated, the ash is wind pollinated. The flowers are polygamous - there can be male, female or hermaphrodite flowers on the same plant - but often they are strictly dioecious.

Ash trees near the foot of Newnham Hill, near Daventry.
19 January, 2016

I was reminded of this on yesterday's (19 January) visit to Newnham Hill. A pair of ash trees stood side by side. The one to the left bore a heavy crop of 'keys' (technically winged capsules) and was clearly therefore a female; the tree to the right was bare. I strolled over to confirm this and, sure enough, not a fruit was to be seen. This situation is common enough and a check of other specimens in the vicinity showed that they too were unisexual, but I cannot recall this being demonstrated more starkly.

That our ash trees are in danger is a widely-known fact. Chalara disease was first reported in 2012 when cases were reported from Norfolk and Suffolk. Caused by the fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, it is usually fatal, and unfortunately I have detected cases near here in Kentle Wood. There is a glimmer of hope. I understand that chalara-tolerant strains of ash have now been identified and, if trials are successful, we may expect specimens to eventually be planted on a mass scale. I learn that 'the branches are...easily bent into various shapes...and are employed for the making of handles and framework of trug baskets'. So without ash trees where would we be!

Tuesday, 19 January 2016


It was off to Daventry in the morning. The brilliant sun gave spring-like conditions - but it was deceptive. True, the snow had disappeared except for small heaps - all that remained of snowmen (or snow-women) - but the air was still crisp and noses were red.

In grassy areas the rosettes of Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, were edged with frost. Their specific name means 'thousand-leaved' (its other old name is Milfoil) but, as the picture shows, each rosette consists of only half a dozen leaves. Each one is twice- or even thrice-pinnate to form thousands of leaflets in a fern-like manner. 

Yarrow rosettes were edged with frost.
Daventry. 19 January, 2016

Legend tells us that it was applied to Achilles' injured heel after the Battle of Troy. It was obviously ineffective (how do you heal a heel?) but it is still employed by herbalists - often blended with Echinacea - for reducing swelling. According to my old herbal half to one drachm (sic) 'opens the pores freely and purifies the blood'. 

The plant is common right across Europe and western Asia and forms with red or yellow flowers are popular in gardens.

Cotoneasters were apparently untouched.
Daventry, 19 January, 2016

At the roadside the cotoneaster shrubs were still heavy with berries. Either the heart of Daventry has a very small population of fructivorous birds or they have not yet been driven by hunger to feed on them.

Grey-bloomed Berberis berries mingled with scarlet
Cotoneaster fruit. Daventry. 19 January, 2016

I suspect the latter. Berberis berries with their grey bloom were also untouched; their seeds will not get dispersed via bird droppings. Garden bird-feeders are perhaps more tempting and could be having a significant effect on the distribution of berry-bearing plants.

The sun remained bright through the afternoon and I ventured to Newnham Hill, a mile or so south of Daventry. At 201 metres it would hardly be noticed in Wales or Scotland but here, where the Cotswolds are petering out, it is significant. And we were away from any warming influence of the town.

Snow lingered on Newnham Hill, south of Daventry.
19 December, 2016

Snow lingered and, as the sun was beginning to sink in the western sky, it will probably remain until tomorrow. Nevertheless the soil was not frozen and my footholds were slippery as I plodded up to the top.

Daventry looking north from Newnham Hill.
19 January, 2016

'Tis distance lends enchantment to the view' as Mark Twain wrote, and even Daventry to the north did present a fine picture.

...with Newnham Hall and Badby Woods to the south.
19 January, 2016

To the south the views were even better with a gentle haze softening 'those blue remembered hills' (first Mark Twain, now A.E.Housman - they're all getting a look in today. But Housman was surely referring to heather rather than haze). In the middle distance Newnham Hall was built of white Lego blocks with Badby Woods forming a backdrop.

It is a rare day indeed when gorse bears no flowers.
Newnham Hill. 19 January, 2016

On the acid hilltop Gorse blazed with gold, its flowers brazenly trying to tempt a winter bee. There has been much in the press lately about these occasional out-of- season visits and numerous correspondents have contacted The Guardian to tell of sightings, but on this exposed site there was nothing to be seen except clouds of dancing midges.

I turned on my heel. Shadows were lengthening and when the sun dipped below the horizon the temperatures would dip too. Home!

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Suddenly we have snow

We awoke to the first significant snow of the winter, a south-east wind having brought about an inch of the stuff. The growth of early Crocus, Narcissus and Irises has been brought to a shuddering halt. Birds have had it easy through December and early January but suddenly they are having to be extra diligent in their search for food. I must restock our bird feeders.

Our plans for tea and cakes in the back garden later have been put on hold.

 Even a 'leylandii' cypress has been rendered tolerably  attractive...

... and banks of Lawson's Cypress, Chamaecyparis lawsoniana, are positively picturesque. The prefix 'chamae' means 'low' and I always feel it is rather odd for a tree that is able to tower to 150 feet (45 metres) high.

Well, some may like the snow. Groups of excited children were lugging toboggans along the roadside, seeking in vain for a suitable slope. They have a long walk: I could just make out groups hurtling down the steep sides of Big Hill between Daventry and Newnham - too far for little legs to manage.

As for me - a few minutes out there sufficed and I trudged home to seek the sanctuary of central heating.

Now, about those bird feeders...

Friday, 15 January 2016

Daventry: the Marches

This morning we rose to the coldest morning of the winter so far. A light dusting of snow had followed a sharp frost, leaving the pavements white.

The coldest night of 2016 so far.
Daventry, 15 January, 2016

My grandmother always pronounced the word 'frost' as frorst and, following this rule, pronounced 'cross' as crorse. This means that the old nursery rhyme, 'Ride a cock horse', really did rhyme:

                          Ride a cock horse
                          To Banbury Crorse...

Anyway, it was distinctly chilly and I wrapped up well before setting out for a walk.
My last jaunt had taken me to Drayton; today I visited the less salubrious area around what I call The Marches: Long March, South March, Broad March and High March. I am assuming that, in this context, the word 'march' is derived from the Old English mearc meaning a border area between two regions. Anyway, this part of Daventry is an area of perfectly good houses but they have been squeezed together to create an almost claustrophobic situation.  Space for cars is at a premium and, as a consequence, many front gardens have been concreted over. Potentially bright gardens have been replaced by drabness.

Bergenias were in flower. Daventry. 15 January, 2016

I grow a few saxifrages in small containers and it is odd to consider that Bergenias are members of the same family. Here and there a few were flowering and, at this time of the year, they certainly introduce a splash of colour into a garden, but for the next eleven months...

Alder catkins tossed in a biting wind.
Daventry, 15 January, 2016

Hazel catkins have been open for a few weeks now and today I found the first alder catkins of the year. They appeared to be our native Alnus glutinosa; most of the trees at the roadside appeared to be Grey Alders, Alnus incana, but as they were devoid of leaves or flowers I couldn't be certain.

Wayside apple bushes were probably complex hybrids.
Daventry, 15 January, 2016

Apples hung on a small tree beside Long March; they were clearly not our native Crab Apples, Malus sylvestris, but doubtless came from a discarded apple core. The blossom will please the human eye and also be a magnet - hopefully - for various bees. 

I employ the word 'hopefully' because I have grave concerns about the government's attitude towards neonicotinoids, reinforced by a letter I received earlier today from my M.P. Chris Heaton-Harris. Previously I had expressed to him my misgivings about these powerful pesticides, particularly one marketed as Sulfoxaflor; this was assessed by the European Food Safety Authority as 'highly toxic to bees'. I learn via my M.P. that the government is going ahead with authorising its use - albeit in a limited manner - even though research has also shown that neonicotinoids persist in soil for at least six years. In the U.S.A. a federal court has struck down a permit for the use of Sulfoxaflor, again because of serious misgivings about its toxicity. Worrying!

Moving on. Groundsel, Sow Thistles and White Dead-nettles were all in flower. These ruderals can be relied upon to add a little interest to the winter scene but there was nothing out of the ordinary to get excited about; I had to again console myself with the thought that I'd at least had a brisk bit of exercise.  


Wednesday, 13 January 2016


In the northwest corner of Daventry lies Drayton and, with a spare hour available earlier today I decided to have a quick look around. It was formerly a separate settlement and, although it has been subsumed by the more vigorously-growing Daventry, it retains some of its old features.

Eyre and Jeffery's map, dating from 1791, shows it as a hamlet detached from Daventry, and even in modern references it is still described as a hamlet, but the open land once separating the two settlements is now fully built over. Locally it seems to be regarded as one of the more 'select' areas of the town.

Buildings in School Street, Drayton, Daventry
13 January, 2016

Several old buildings remain from early Victorian times or before, invariably built utilising Jurassic sandstone, no doubt from local quarries.

A brilliant sapphire sky was deceptive - it was a cold day!
Drayton, Daventry. 13 January, 2016

Some are well-constructed buildings, clearly in a good state of repair and doubtless much sought after. Fossils abound in the stonework, notably belemnites and bivalves.

Most modern daffodils are complex hybrids.
Drayton, Daventry. 13 January, 2016

A welcoming sight was daffodils en masse at the corner of Holden Grove. These modern daffodils are hybrids of species within the 'Ajax' group, such as our native Narcissus pseudonarcissus. They will attract the occasional early bumble bee but have limited wildlife value. However, there is no denying their cheerful appearance.

More significant was a plant of our native Spurge Laurel, Daphne laureola. It was in a garden but had almost certainly not been planted, and further investigation would doubtless have revealed more specimens.

The flowers of Spurge Laurel would easily be overlooked
but for their fragrance. Drayton, Daventry. 13 January, 201

The flowers seem to depend upon their fragrance rather than bright coloration to attract pollinators. An article appeared in The Guardian newspaper earlier this week from a correspondent surprised at having seen a bumble bee on the wing, but I replied pointing out that these winter-flowering shrubs must rely on visits from these equally early insects for cross pollination to occur.  Certainly they always seem to bear a good crop of their black - and highly poisonous - berries.

Rosemary bore a few flowers.
Drayton, Daventry. 13 January, 2016

Also in flower was Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis. Their Latin generic name of Rosa marinus - 'Rose of the Sea' - may seem odd, but when I have seen this species growing on hillsides in southern Europe, it has never been far from the sea. Their zygomorphic (the botanical term for bilaterally symmetrical) flowers are designed for insect pollination but, at this time of the year, a bit of luck is required.

A brilliant red form of Japanese Quince.
Drayton, Daventry. 13 January, 2016

Yet a third shrub in bloom was Japanese Quince, Chaenomeles japonica. A few days ago a friend gave us a pot of quince jelly, which she admitted came from this species rather than a true quince. I may be giving the impression that Drayton was a kaleidoscope of flowers but the truth is that these needed to be hunted out among the drab browns and greys.

A bank was covered in Yellow Archangel.
Drayton, Daventry. 13 January, 2016

The variegated form of Yellow Archangel, Lamiastrum galeobdolon, var argentatum, was tumbling down a bank. It is a very distinctive plant which is sometimes regarded as a distinct species, Galeobdolom argentatum. Whatever its true status, it is another of those thugs, pretty enough, introduced into many a garden by the unwary and cursed ever after.

As usual recently, nothing dramatic, but for me Drayton turned out to be rather interesting and goes down as one of those (countless) places I should return to this summer.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

A wet Sunday in Daventry

Sunday afternoon in Daventry, Not a place to visit if excitement is what you are after, in fact my only reason for being there was a visit to the library. I wanted a copy of Laurie Lee's book, 'As I walked out one Midsummer Morning'. No luck, but to be fair, there was plenty of Mills & Boon material. (Tony, aren't you being just a little bit of a snob? Actually, for two years I really was a snob, this being an 18th century term for a shoemaker.) Anyway, moving on...

The shower that had dampened me a little earlier had cleared up. Time for a brisk stroll around the town to get the legs working. Would I see any wildlife? Answer: not a lot.

Normally busy streets were remarkably quiet. A blackbird scolded me as I passed a cotoneaster hedge. What was I a-playing at, disturbing respectable birds of a Sunday afternoon! A wren flitted quickly from on shrub to another, hoping not to be noticed.

Iris foetidissima has a host of common names
 such as Roast Beef Plant. 
Daventry, 10 January, 2016

Fruit on these bushes had been thinned out a little by birds, but the scarlet berries of Stinking Gladdon, Iris foetidissima, appeared to be untouched. Clearly they are the avian equivalent of brussels sprouts and only eaten under sufferance.

The popular but highly poisonous Stag's Horn Sumach.
Daventry, 10 January, 2016
Stag's Horn Sumach, Rhus typhina, was infesting a border, growing from the suckers of a plant in a nearby garden. It is quite a pretty tree but its suckering habit makes it a real nuisance and I would think twice before introducing one to my garden. It has a couple of other drawbacks too: it has no value whatever for wildlife, and all parts of the plant are extremely poisonous. This toxicity is not surprising as, being a member of the Anacardiaceae, it is related to the Poison Ivy of North America. 

Oddly enough, this family also includes cashew nuts and the mango. In this sense it resembles the Solanaceae, which includes dangerously toxic plants such as Deadly Nightshade, Tobacco and Henbane but also includes potatoes, tomatoes and aubergines.

Old Man's Beard wreathes its way through shrubs.
Daventry, 10 January, 2016

Old Man's Beard, Clematis vitalba, threaded its way through roadside shrubs. This relative of buttercups has, as in Northampton, found a congenial home on waste ground. As far as I as concerned it is very welcome.

A brick wall, probably the best part of a century old, looked promising. Surely, I thought, ferns will have colonised the partly-crumbling mortar. No such luck - but there were several plants clinging on there, such as Kenilworth Ivy, aka Ivy-leaved Toadflax.

Buddleia, Buddleja davidii, was predictable, a tiny sapling rooted among the mosses. It will need to be removed soon of the mortar is not to be badly damaged.

Yellow Corydalis enjoys the crevices in old brickwork.
Daventry, 10 January, 2016

Slightly less predictable was Rock Fumewort, Pseudocorydalis lutea. In the summer this area will be brightened up by its canary-yellow flowers. Some of its close relatives (Fumitory species) have grey, finely cut leaves which can have a vaguely smoke-like appearance, hence the odd common name. But in truth an even commoner name is simply Yellow Corydalis.  It is not a British native but is from the foothills of the Alps in southern Europe.

A few gulls swooped and screamed overhead. They could have been laughing at my largely fruitless efforts in tracking down wildlife - but I'd had a brisk walk. Job done!