Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Michaelmas Daisies

Michaelmas is with us again, or at least it will be on 29 September, St Michael's Day (tomorrow). This is the third of the year's four Quarter Days, traditionally the days for collecting rent.

For gardeners and botanists it is, however, the time of the year when Michaelmas Daisies come into flower. Asters are at their finest around late September-early October - except that many of them are no longer asters; we must now refer to them as species of Symphotrichum. We now have, for example, Symphotrichum novi-belgii together with S. novae-angliae. Other "asters" are now placed with the Golden-rods in the genus Solidago,  some in the genus Senecio and so on. Literally hundreds of changes have been made in recent years but of course the genus Aster still exists. It consists of Aster amellus and about 100 other species. All this may seem very frustrating but is important to our understanding of taxonomy, and is important too for horticulturalists who wish to create new hybrids. To the non-botanist the details are tedious and I will dwell on them no further but refer anyone interested to the Internet where, Salome-like*, all is revealed.

So, what I bought as Aster novi-belgii Winston S. Churchill is now Symphotrichum novi-belgii Winston S. Churchill, and I must change the label.
Symphotrichum novi-belgii Winston S. Churchill in flower in our back
garden. at Stefen Hill, Daventry. 27 September, 2016

Named after a right-wing politician, it ought to be a distinctly blue colour; instead it is of a somewhat left-wing persuasion with a pinky-lilac hue - perhaps it is a Blairite. Most 'asters' are very good for attracting butterflies and other insects. Furthermore these 'New England' varieties are generally resistant to mildew, a problem which plagues many of its relatives.

Some years ago I recorded 'Aster lanceolatus' from Byfield Pocket Park and I must now amend my records to Symphotrichum lanceolatum. But has the species survived there? I visited the pocket park earlier today and eventually located it.
Symphotrichum lanceolatum in the pocket park at
Byfield, Northants. 28 September, 2016
However, it is struggling. It is situated beside a huge clump of Rose-bay Willow-herb, Chamerion angustifolium, and is steadily being overwhelmed. Memory can be fallible but I am sure that there is less of it than four years ago. Some will argue that its disappearance would be no great loss as it is an introduction, with small flowers only an inch or so across. I think it would be a pitybut in truth  the pocket park itself is now much neglected and many less robust plants will be eventually be crowded out. But that is another story...

* As readers will know, most of the stories attached to Salome, with her 'Dance of the Seven Veils', are apocryphal and based on fevered imaginations. And people don't like the facts to get in the way of a good story.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Garden developments

Many people have the  aim of having something in flower every month of the year. This is a perfectly laudable aim and certainly flowers can be a cheerful, uplifting sight in midwinter. But my aim is to attract insects to the garden so, in the coldest months of the year, when insects are few and far between, flowers are of little value.

We are moving into autumn and many flowers are now fading from the scene, but there is still much to enjoy. Cirsium atropurpureum flowered for several weeks during the summer but eventually I gave it the chop as it was becoming untidy.

A second season of bloom for Cirsium atropurpureum....

Surprise, surprise! It has now flowered again and is weaving its way through the Morning Glory.

... as it threads its way through Morning Glory.
 Stefen Hill, Daventry. 22 September, 2016

Beneath the Morning Glory grows the striking Salvia known as 'Hot Lips'. There is some dispute over its origin but is was apparently developed in the USA and is often regarded as a hybrid, Salvia x jamensis. But it may simply be a form of the variable shrub, Salvia microphylla. Hot Lips is regarded as being a slightly tender plant but I suspect it will be ok where it is. Nevertheless I'll take a few cuttings as insurance - and this is a good time to take cuttings anyway.
Salvia 'Hot Lips' is in full bloom. Stefen Hill, Daventry.
22 September, 2016

The genus Salvia includes our Sage of culinary use, Salvia officinalis, and I have found that the leaves of Hot Lips have the same pleasantly pungent odour. Even without the characteristic flower structure, this smell would have marked it out as a member of the Mint Family, Lamiaceae.

The Passion Flowers continue to bloom vigorously even though the first of the fruits are still there. These are now fully ripe and have taken on a rich golden colour.

Passion Flowers are still in bloom. Stefen Hill, Daventry.
22 September, 2016

They look delicious even though, as I have remarked in an earlier blog, the taste leaves something to be desired.

Some fruit is now fully ripe. Stefen Hill, Daventry. 22 September, 2016
I'll have to face up to a problem within a month or so. The banana I bought about ten weeks ago has put on a great deal of growth. Of course you could justifiably argue that is not a true banana at all since true bananas belong to the genus Musa whereas this is an Ensete, to be precise, Ensete ventricosum. Nevertheless the plant is commonly called the Abyssinian Banana and indeed several botanists have placed in the Musa genus as, for example, Musa arnoldiana.

Whatever, it has waxed mightily in these ten weeks and, as it cannot stand the slightest touch of frost, I must formulate a plan to give it winter protection.

Ensete ventricosum at Stefen Hill, Daventry.
2 September, 2016
From a very large herb to something quite tiny, I have been delighted by the show put on in the front garden by Cyclamen hederifolium. The plant was already here when we arrived but all I found was one small tuber. (Incidentally, in the case of Cyclamen species this is often referred to, wrongly, as a corm.) Perhaps I overlooked one or two more but whatever the truth of the matter, there has been a lovely display over the last few days and I have been amazed at how many bees have paid the flowers a visit. Cyclamens are members of the Primrose Family, Primulaceae, so the insect visits should not be too much of a surprise.
The cyclamens have multiplied amazingly. Stefen Hill, Daventry.
22 September, 2016

An old name for this plant is Sowbread. The tubers are rich in starch and it would be reasonable for pigs to feed on these - but there is a problem. In Britain, even if this is a native plant (as is remotely possible) it would always have been extremely scarce and certainly not common enough for pigs to batten on it and for the plant to have so acquired a common name.

These are deep waters, Watson.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Welton Road Cemetery, Daventry

Today has not been particularly hot (about 21 degrees Celsius) but has been sticky and sultry. Not perhaps the best of days for a long walk but I resolved to go out and stretch my legs. I made Daventry's Welton Road Cemetery my target, having passed it many times but never entered.

A municipal cemetery tends to be well-maintained to the point where nature barely has a toehold, but there is generally something worthy of note. There are usually some odd things to be seen too. Some are quirky and deliberate:

Others are unfortunate, like this misspelling:

And then there was the case of someone apparently buried in a wheelbarrow:

Of course, my main objective was wildlife. The plant family Plasticaceae was well represented, with Polythenus vulgaris much in evidence. However as well as plastic creations there were some real flowers to be seen, including Platycodon grandiflorus.
Platcodon grandiflorus in flower at Welton Road Cemetery, Daventry.
21 September, 2016

This member of the Campanulaceae (and thus related to harebells, etc) is frequently called the Balloon Flower, on account of the inflated 'balloon' created by the unopened petals. Hailing from northern China and Japan, it has become a very familiar plant in our gardens.

The plant is often called the Balloon Flower.
The burial area is surrounded by conifers, principally Lawson's Cypress, Chamaecyparis lawsoniana. The Latin name seem inappropriate, as 'chamae' means 'low' and yet this tree will sometimes attain a height of 45 metres.  On virtually all the trees I examined there were specimens of Juniper Shieldbug, Cyphostethus tristriatus. The rapid spread of this bug and its change in status from a rarity largely confined to south east England to a very widespread insect is well known. Once it found that Lawson's Cypress was to its liking it soon, with its boomerang-shaped markings, became familiar to entomologists.

Juniper Shieldbug on Lawson's Cypress. Welton Road Cemetery,
 Daventry. 21 September, 2016
As the photograph shows, these amber markings on the forewings allow the bug - for it is a true bug - to blend in to its background remarkably well.

Cemeteries are hardly exciting places but I must say that this is a well- maintained site, compared with the dreadful condition prevailing in parts of Banbury's Southam Road Cemetery.


Sunday, 18 September 2016

Badby to Badby Woods - and a deer ked

Rather a long time ago - actually it was on 9 January, 2014 - I composed a blog in which I addressed the subject of Keck, as a Northamptonshire dialect word for Cow Parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris. It engendered quite a lot of correspondence: Celia Hart wrote that as a child in the Cambridgeshire Fens the word used was 'kecksies', whilst Mike Agg informed me that in the Cotswolds old men would refer to a reckless young driver as 'going round the bends with his yud [head] in the keck'. At the time I had mentioned that John Clare referred to the plant as 'kicksies'. I now find that a rhyme in the Cornish dialect speaks of 'the keggas in blowth' (Cow Parsleys in bloom).* Does the word have its origins in a Brythonic language, of which Cornish is an example? It seems unlikely, yet...

* quoted in Richard Dawkins' biography 'An Appetite for Wonder'

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Kentle Wood - mid September

It is the third in a succession of blisteringly hot days but lately I've been busy so, hot weather or not, I grabbed the chance to get out and stretch my legs - somewhere not too far.

So, Kentle Wood it was. Limited but convenient, and you never know...

Here and there an odd clump of hogweed, Heracleum sphondylium,  was in flower. Even on a dull day it will receive a few insect visitors but in these temperatures there was almost a queue forming, the commonest, by some distance being the hoverfly Syrphus ribesii, a very common wasp mimic.

The hoverfly Syrphus ribesii on hogweed. Kentle Wood,
Daventry. 15 September, 2016

Brambles are now heavy with fruit and as these 'berries' (each is really a cluster of drupelets) become over-ripe they too will be popular filling stations, especially for certain flesh flies. A fine comma butterfly, Polygonia c-album, was on bramble foliage, basking in the sun. Common they may be, but I am always pleased to see one.
Comma butterfly on bramble foliage, Kentle Wood, Daventry.
15 September, 2016

The comma-shaped mark is on the underside of the wing and a little further on I was able to find another specimen, this time on hazel foliage, showing not only this distinctive mark but the curiously ragged edges of the wing, giving the insect something of  a 'dead leaf' appearance.
Comma, showing the marking from which it gets its name.
Kentle Wood, Daventry, 15 September, 2016

I strolled on with the sun burning the back of my neck. In the planning of Kentle Wood the decision had been made to leave an area of grassland in a central position. A good idea, since flower-rich grassland is becoming an increasingly uncommon habitat but the planning has so far failed to deliver. A lack of management has allowed the area to become covered in rank grasses, primarily False Oat Grass, Arrenatherum elatius. This coarse grass is abundant all across Britain, with only the Scottish Grampians and a few similar mountainous areas free of it. It certainly does not need an area of potentially valuable land set aside for it.

A proper management scheme would involve several mowings, with the cut grass being taken away. This would remove much of the soil's fertility and coarse, aggressive plants would disappear. The area could then be seeded with a proper mix of meadowland flowers, plants able to survive in nutrient-poor conditions. Left as it is the land will gradually become invaded by shrubs such as hawthorn and the opportunity will have been lost.

I pushed on yet further, reaching the far end of the wood and beginning my return journey by a different route.

I idly lifted a couple of largish stones, finding nothing beyond a few woodlice and carefully replaced them, but then found a much bigger slab of ironstone. Would I be able to shift it? I did my Incredible Hulk bit and turned it over revealing a couple of specimens of Crested Newt, aka Warty Newt, Triturus cristatus, the largest of our three British newt species.  There is, as far as I am aware, no open water within a mile or so of the spot where I found them but they are known to travel overland for considerable distances.

Great Crested Newt at Kentle Wood, Daventry, Northants. 15 September, 2016

The crest at this stage is hardly spectacular. Once the creature has developed sufficiently to leave the water it will spend about four years on land and only return to its birthplace when sexually mature. It is only then that the crest develops. Until then it is represented only by a ridge along the back, clearly shown in the second specimen.

I was left with a problem. Should I risk rolling the stone back in place and risk crushing the newts? I decided to leave it, reasonably confident that they would creep under it later.

Nearby a couple of shieldbugs were on foliage. The Woundwort Bug, Eysarcoris venustissima, is only 5-6 millimetres long but is a smart little insect. Common, but always nice to find.
Woundwort Shieldbug, Kentle Wood, Daventry. 15 September, 2016

The second bug was considerably larger. This was  Palomena prasina.  It is one of our most commonly recorded shieldbugs, not just because it is widespread but, at up to about 14 millimetres, it is quite large. Strangely, records suggest that it was quite uncommon in Victorian times, so it appears to have greatly increased its abundance.

How it gets it name of Green Shieldbug I have no idea!

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Killing Fields

A dramatic title, but when Chris and I drove to Rugby yesterday I was struck by the number of animal corpses at the roadside with perhaps only buzzards being the beneficiaries. The grey squirrel near Willoughby was no great loss and local farmers will perhaps not be too upset by the badger corpse (A landowner friend of ours has suggested that a number of these dead badgers would, upon investigation, be found to have been shot and dumped beside the road by local farmers). As for the birds, I only saw one pigeon so it could be argued that oilseed rape crops will be a tad safer (1 down, 8 million to go).

Given the opportunity I like to check the legs of dead birds for a ring but rarely do I find a ringed bird other than the occasional disoriented racing pigeon. Their scaly legs display the relationship of birds to reptiles and I am reminded of the old joke: A rather plain woman is walking down the road with a parrot on her shoulder. A man is passing by and she clutches his sleeve.

  'If you can tell me what this is on my shoulder you can have me.'
  The man looks bemused. 'Er...a crocodile?' he suggests.
 'That's close enough,' she says, and pounces on him.

Anyway, we went to a garden centre near Rugby for a climbing rose but there were none that met our requirements - and at £22 each I wasn't going to pay for something that wasn't just right. Instead we ended up buying a Garrya elliptica. At £7 that was considerably less painful.

My Garrya elliptica. Stefen Hill, Daventry. 13 September, 2016
Although this shrub may be grown as a standard it is usually seen trained against a wall or fence, where it generally does very well. It is rather a sombre shrub (or somber if you live in the U.S.A.) and not to everyone's liking but the catkins on the male plant are spectacular and will reach six inches in length, although those on my plant are currently only an inch long.

Botanically it is an interesting plant, belonging to a small family, the Garryaceae. The family consists of 37 species in two genera, the other genus being Aucuba, which includes the familiar Spotted Laurel, Aucuba japonica of our gardens. Like Garrya species, this also has male and female flowers on separate plants.
Spotted Laurel, Aucuba japonica. Stefen Hill, Daventry.
 13 September, 2016

Garrya elliptica is from the coastal lands of California, with its range extending into southern Oregon but, although much of the area is very mild, this species is pretty tough.

Speaking of wall plants, it's that time of the year when ivy, Hedera helix, is coming into bloom. Although it is only mid September I fully expect to find some flowers remaining in early December. Here it is, earlier today, in Daventry.

The hoverfly, Myathropa florea, visiting ivy blooms. Daventry town centre.
13 September, 2016
Already it is attracting hordes of insects including this hoverfly, Myathropa florea, but large numbers of its visitors were common wasps, plus a few bees. The steady procession of insects can be fascinating.

                                       He will watch from dawn to gloom
                                       The lake-reflected sun illume
                                       The yellow bees in the ivy-bloom
                                       Nor heed nor see, what things they be....

                                                                             Shelley, Prometheus Unbound

We currently have a large colony of wasps in our loft. They are causing no problems and the colony will die off in the winter, at which time I'll go up there and clear out the nest.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Passion Flowers

Perhaps my title should have been in the singular since only one species from this amazing family is at all hardy in the United Kingdom - although the inhabitants of the Isles of Scilly might argue otherwise.

The species generally grown in this country is Passiflora caerulea, and this species - in two colour forms - is the plant we grow in our back garden. The specific name of 'caerulea' is generally taken to mean 'sky blue' but apparently the Latin word caeruleus originally meant dark blue or green. The plant illustrated, clothing our garage wall, fails to display either of these colours but, as may be seen, has petals of a delicate pale green.

This plant has fruited prolifically and at the time of writing this blog, bears about twenty of these fruits, each the shape and size of a domestic chicken's egg. This is very pleasing since the plant has been in place for barely a year and is confined to a pot.

The fruits are beginning to ripen; they have reached a golden yellow stage and now look superficially like apricots (Passiflora incarnata is sometimes called Wild Apricot). They may be eaten but sadly they are quite insipid.

Our second specimen is more conventional with regard to colour and is probably in its normal wild form, but his has only produced a couple of fruit. To be fair, it is probably not situated in such a favourable position.

I used the word 'amazing' in the opening paragraph and this is not hyperbole. The passion flowers belong to the family Passifloraceae, of which there are seven recognised genera, but the genus Passiflora, with around five hundred species, is overwhelmingly the largest. I will not try my readers patience with an array of pictures; a survey of the internet will supply that, but I am frustrated that the British climate will not permit them to grow here. I'll restrict myself to one species:
Passiflora alata, the Winged Passion Flower

Back to Passiflora caerulea. It is found as a native plant in Argentina and southern Brazil where we presume, frosts are more or less unknown. They are obviously not the passion fruit sold by posh fruiterers but although, as I have said, they are insipid, they may be eaten. However they need to get beyond the 'apricot' stage or they could cause stomach upsets. I won't be tempted.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Oliver's Garden - September

My old friend Oliver (old in more ways than one - he is a very sprightly eighty eight) is having to spend a few days in Yorkshire with his daughter so he phoned me to ask if I would call in and check that all was well in the garden. I was more than happy to do so as there is invariably something of interest to note.

Looking from the patio across Oliver's garden. Byfield, 7 September, 2016

In one of the borders an interesting and not particularly common perennial from Japan is just coming into flower. This is Kirengeshoma palmata, sometimes called the Waxbell. It is a week or so short of its best but is already looking a fine plant with it primrose yellow flowers, which do indeed have a waxy texture, beginning to open.  It is placed in the Hydrangeaceae, although it requires a leap of the imagination to see any resemblance to the common hydrangeas of our gardens. Pronunciation? My first thought was Kiren GE shoma. I rolled it around my mouth and spat it out; it didn't seem right. What about Kirenge SHO ma? This felt better and a check in my book, 'Plant names simplified', confirmed that this was correct. What about the meaning? Wikipedia was unhelpful but a bit of delving in the internet came up with 'yellow lotus blossom hat'. Hmmm. Apparently the seed capsules are extraordinary; 'grotesque' was one description but, in the six years or so that I've known this plant, fruit have failed to appear.

Speaking of Japanese things, Oliver has several clumps of Japanese Anemone, Anemone hupehensis, in his borders. Despite its common name it is actually a native of China but has been cultivated in Japan for centuries and was at one time called Anemone japonica.

Oliver grows the original white form and although there are varieties in a range of pink shades this natural colour is hard to beat, somehow emphasising the simplicity of the lovely flower, showing off the boss of golden stamens.

Staying in China, albeit the south-west region, Leycesteria formosa has a prominent place on the edge of the patio. It is a very easy plant to grow and seedlings often pop up in adjacent borders. Indeed, in some parts of the world this member of the Honeysuckle Family, Caprifoliaceae, has become a serious weed. Its alternative names are Pheasant Berry and Flowering Nutmeg.

The first of these is easily explained: the berries borne by this plant are appreciated by birds (and incidentally the flowers are much visited by bees, making it a very good plant for the wildlife gardener). The second name is a problem: it is not related to nutmeg, Myristica fragrans, it does not look like nutmeg in any obvious way nor, as far as I know, is any part of the plant used as an alternative to nutmeg. A trawl of the internet offered no suggestions.

To end with slightly off-topic memory: I recall some years ago a fierce argument raged about the word  'myristicivorous'. Should it be included in the latest Chambers' Dictionary? As far as I know the word was rejected and sank without trace. It actually refers to a small but select group of insects which feed on wild nutmegs.

Now there's a useful nugget of information should the word appear in a pub quiz!

Stop Press Treated myself to a new 'Chambers' recently and find that the word has been included. So there is now no excuse for this word not to be in everyday usage.

Friday, 2 September 2016

September ... and Morning Glories (with postscript)

Weeding and dead-heading in the garden. It was a dull day weatherwise but that didn't prevent conditions from being warm and sticky. I flopped down in a chair to gather myself: was it to be a line of Bolivian marching powder or a cup of tea? I opted for the latter, being a bit short of the B.m.p.

Yesterday, whilst in Byfield, I photographed the white bindweed, Calystegia sepium. I used to puzzle about the specific epithet of 'sepium'. Surely sepia is a black-brown dye made from cuttlefish ink? This is where yawning voids in my education become apparent. We didn't do Latin (we barely did English) or I would have known that sepes is Latin for hedgerow.

Calystegia sepium. Muddy Lane (Pit Lane), Byfield.
2 September, 2016
I mention Hedge Bindweed because today Morning Glory, Ipomoea purpurea, has just come into flower in our back garden. I could accuse it of being tardy but, to be fair, I was late planting it out. The briefest of glances shows that the two plants are closely related, both being members of the Convolvulaceae Family. Indeed, Linnaeus placed both species in the genus Convolvulus (or was it simply Volvulus?)

Morning Glory - flowering at last. Stefen Hill, Daventry.
2 September, 2016
Another member of the family is the Sweet Potato, Ipomoea batatas. It too has very attractive flowers, usually some shade of pink with a deep carmine throat. Next year I may try growing some as a curiosity.

Aeons ago I did a couple of tours with the R.A.F. in Aden (now part of the Republic of Yemen. Sporadic fighting over various issues continues 55 years later). A very common plant there was the Camel's Foot Vine, Ipomoea pes-caprae. It was reputed to have hallucinatory properties and one or two of my colleagues professed a temptation to crunch up a few leaves or seeds. It is as well that they didn't for, like several other (most?) species of Ipomoea, it does indeed cause hallucinations, but has some nasty side effects. The genus is the subject of considerable research by the pharmaceutical industry and in universities.

Anyway, the Morning Glory is currently providing a lovely splash of colour and hopefully will do so until the first frost. Clumps of Sedum spectabile are also just coming into flower and Ivy-leaved Cyclamens, Cyclamen hederifolium, are now adding their colour. The late John Hutchinson, a distinguished Kew botanist, suspected that the latter plant is a British native but there is little evidence to back this view.
Cyclamen hederifolium. The leaves have yet to appear. Stefen Hill,
Daventry. 2 September, 2016

Of course, other flowers are coming to an end. The yellow Achillea tomentosa is responding to dead-heading but can't go on much longer. This plant may look rather like a member of the Carrot Family, Apiaceae, but is in the Asteraceae (Daisy) Family. With its woolly (tomentose) leaves and neat corymbs of lemon-yellow flowers it is valuable in the rock garden but I find it is rather vigorous and needs to be curbed. I must consider propagating the plants; it is perhaps a little late for cuttings but I may be able to collect seed.
Achillea tomentosum still in flower at Stefen Hill, Daventry.
2 September, 2016

Speaking of seed, I am reminded that the plant with which I opened this blog, Hedge Bindweed, only rarely produces seed. Plants are self-incompatible and most seem to belong to one clone. Indeed, in sixty years of botanising I cannot recall finding a seed capsule. Instead fragments of underground stem (rhizomes) are readily taken from garden to garden where it can become a noxious weed, difficult to eradicate. I have sometimes wondered if it is truly native, but it was certainly well-known to John Clare:

                            Round fields and hedges, flowers in full glory twine,
                            Large Bindweed bells, wild hop and sweet woodbine.

                                               Clare's Shepherd's Calendar, 1827

So, native or an archaeophyte? We may never know.