Sunday, 31 December 2017

And, to end the year...

Today we saw the last of the ice and snow swept away in this area as we enjoyed a balmy, spring-like day. It won't last of course but let's enjoy it while we can. Gorse is in bloom but there is nothing noteworthy in that. It is rarely out of flower.
Gorse, almost perpetually in flower.  Daventry, 30 December, 2017
I confess that I pay insufficient attention to gorse (or furze, as it was more generally known in 19th century Northamptonshire). During 2018 I'll be surveying Matt Moser's land for invertebrates and the gorse on his land - and there are some large clumps - will be well worth examining, not least for the very interesting ladybird, Stethorus punctillum. It is a predator on the Gorse Mite, Tetranychus lintearius, for which I'll also be looking.
On a completely different issue, I visited Byfield earlier today to visit an old friend, Angela. She was out, but I took the opportunity to take a quick look at the fungus growing on a birch stump in her garden.
Lenzites betulina on a birch stump. Byfield. 30 December, 2017
Fungi are definitely not one of my strengths but I have little doubt that the species in question was Lenzites betulina, aka Trametes betulina, known as the Birch Mazegill. Whilst not confined to birches it is certainly most commonly found on these trees.

In our own garden the shoots of Iris reticulata are pushing through. This delightful and deservedly popular species is native to Russia and the Caucasus where it faces far colder conditions than ours.
Iris reticulata grows beside the succulent and glaucous stems of Euphorbia
myrsinites. These prostrate stems have been attractive all winter.
Stefen Hill, Daventry. 31 December, 2017
Poor drainage is its greatest enemy but ours seem to do well and we can look forward to flowers sometime in January.
Oh, and a Happy New Year everyone, including the 207 Russian(s) who, according to my stats, have viewed this blog!

Friday, 29 December 2017

A double whammy

I have long passed the age when I found snowfalls at all exciting. I thought of taking a few photographs and there was a choice of snow, icy puddles, icicles, frozen slush and frost. On top of those miserable options I've had a stinking cold. A double whammy. Roll on 2018!
We have kept the bird feeder topped up but there have been very few visitors. A mavis sits, sentinel-like, on the garden fence but is completely uninterested in the bird feeder. Mavis is, of course, the old country name for a Song Thrush and comes from the old French mauvis. The Song Thrush is not a particularly common species hereabouts so I was pleased to see it. I was also reminded of the old song, Ca' the yowes, surely one of the loveliest of Britain's folk songs:

                                    Hark the mavis' e'ening sang,
                                    Sounding Clauden's woods amang;
                                    Then a-faulding let us gang,
                                    My bonie dearie.

It was of course collected, and probably tweaked a little, by Robbie Burns. It has more than once been set to music, most notably by Vaughan Williams. Can folk songs be composed or written? I suppose all are written or at least taken down at some point although it would be nice to feel that they are somehow autochthonous and simply evolve in a particular region. Romantic nonsense of course and yet, listening to some of the extremely primitive tunes collected by Bela Bartok, one wonders, because they appear to date from a time when most people were illiterate and also had had no way of writing down musical notation.
Anyway, I seem to have drifted off the point - whatever that was, but in short there was little to write about in terms of wildlife, zoological or botanical and I am left with a thought. The Latin name for the Song Thrush is Turdus philomelos and there must be many a woman in Britain or North America who thanks the gods that she was called Mavis and not Turdus.

Friday, 22 December 2017

Just a stroll down The Twistle

People walking south-west from Byfield towards Banbury along the A361 face an unpleasant quarter of a mile or so; traffic is generally heavy, fast and noisy, the roadside is featureless and it suffers badly from litter. It is a relief when a right hand turn can be made on to The Twistle and so into Byfield by the back door so to speak. Litter remains all too common and a considerable number of vehicles use this road but the noise of the A361 steadily recedes and relative peace prevails.
I was pleased to see that a long section of the hedgerow - perhaps three hundred yards or so - had been properly laid. Too often a heavy sort of flail is used to cut down hedges and, although the resultant scars heal, the immediate consequence is an ugly mess.
The Twistle, looking north towards Westhorpe. 22 December, 2017
Of course, laying a hedge by traditional methods means a temporary setback for wildlife (in this case a couple of fairly large ash trees had been removed) but the sunlight can get to the base of the hedge, promoting rapid development of the herb layer.  Aesthetically  too the result is far more pleasing. Nevertheless, at this time of the year there is little to get excited about.
Just before entering Byfield The Twistle crosses a cutting through which the Stratford-upon-Avon and Midland Junction Railway once ran. Access to this cutting has always been technically possible though made rather tricky by thick vegetation. But recently some shrubs seem to have been cleared allowing the cautious walker a way down.
Looking towards Byfield. The station would have been about 3/4 of a
mile away. 22 December, 2017
I have always had more than my fair share of reckless stupidity so I scrambled down the steep and slippery bank for a closer look.  To be honest it was barely worth the effort and yet I was pleased to have made it. With a degree of foresight this could have been developed as an attractive walk to Aston-le-Walls and beyond; now it is far too late.
Facing in the other direction was the bridge I had just left. The cutting beyond this point has been filled in (with household waste?) and is now farmland.
Looking west-south west towards Aston-le-Walls.
Puffing and blowing I regained the road and crossed the bridge. The parapets of this structure are showing their age with significant cracks developing and these will surely require attention before long.
Interestingly patches of calcite stand out starkly against the brickwork, showing where lime in the mortar has leached out as a solution in water only to precipitate and form these deposits (the same process as in the formation of stalagmites and stalactites). It may be that the rather acidic rainwater of recent decades has accelerated this process.
I pressed on and soon found myself entering Byfield via Westhorpe. Once a separate hamlet, the expansion of Byfield has led to the merging of these two settlements and it now forms one of the most attractive parts of the village. Mid-winter or not, flowers studded the carpets of Aubretia tumbling down south-facing walls.
Another plant, often overlooked, was a form of snowberry. The commonest Snowberry, Symphoricarpos albus, generally bears white berries, reminding me in colour and size of the mothballs of my childhood. This plant however differed in having smaller, pink berries; it is Symphoricarpos x chenaultii and may in fact be a form of S. orbicularis.
Symphoricarpos x chenaultii, Westhorpe Lane, Byfield.
22 December, 2017
As far as I am aware, all members of this genus are from North America. To be honest I regard these shrubs as rather lacking in interest but they have one redeeming feature: bees love the rather inconspicuous flowers for their copious nectar.
Winter Heliotrope, Petasites fragrans, was snaking through a wall at the corner of Westhorpe Lane. Like snowberry species, it is highly undistinguished (does that count as an oxymoron?) but, like true heliotrope (to which it is unrelated) it has a heavy fragrance, unfortunately not often obvious in cold and windy conditions. It is an invasive thug and is probably best avoided by gardeners.
Winter Heliotrope protrudes from a wall at the corner of
Westhorpe Lane, Byfield. 22 December, 2017
And that was about it. In midwinter botany may not throw up surprises but the fact that something is commonplace does not mean that it is lacking in interest.

Tony White. E-mail:




Thursday, 21 December 2017

Winter solstice

December the twenty-first, the Winter Solstice. It may be the shortest day of the year in terms of daylight, but this year it certainly isn't the coldest. In fact it is remarkably warm. Being at heart a pagan I would much prefer to celebrate this solstice than what, to me, is the far less believable Christmas. Indeed I could lapse into impressively long descriptions of various Celtic and Anglo-Saxon bacchanalia but by so doing I fear I would lose my corpus of readers - both of them.*
Did today's warm conditions cause buds to burst into flower and fill the air with the heady perfumes of Araby? Did they buggery! As I walked into Daventry today I noticed that even that illogically Mexican stalwart of winter, Choisya ternata, struggled to display a bloom. And why should it, I hear you ask? There would be no pollinators about. Surely no bee would have the foolishness for such a fatuous flight, fraught with...[Now really, Tony, we don't need all these 'f' words].
Choisya ternata in Oxford Street, Daventry. 21 December, 2017
In fact the only feature to cause pause as I skirted Stefen Leys Pocket Park was an ash tree. Common enough of course, but this specimen was surrounded, immured even, by what I at first took to be seedlings.
An Ash Tree, Fraxinus excelsior, surrounded by a forest of suckers.
Stefen Leys Pocket Park, Daventry. 21 December, 2017
They formed a near-perfect circle and are probably just suckers rather than saplings. A tree will sometimes throw up suckers like this as a response to a shortage of water and this may have been a consequence of this year's dry summer.
Matthew Moser called in to see me today. Matt is a farmer and very much one of the 'good guys'. His land extends from Dennett's garden centre south to include Newnham Hill Farm and west to take in Foxhill Farm. He is anxious to farm in as near a traditional manner as possible and asked if I would consider doing an insect survey of the area. This would provide a base line against which to monitor changes in the land's insect fauna. I readily agreed; it will provide an interesting project for 2018 and beyond.

* in fact my blog had 196 visitors yesterday. Hardly a Wayne Rooney tally but at least I'm not talking to myself.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Shades of grey

Yesterday was very cold, with fog mantling everything in a desolate shroud, devoid of any colour. The snow had gone from all but the most sheltered corners but as I picked my way through a belt of woodland beneath leafless trees I nevertheless felt the bleakness expressed in the Debussy prelude, Des pas sur la neige. The prelude which follows it is called Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest; certainly we could have done with a brisk westerly to sweep away all this chill.
The sun struggled to break through. Christchurch Road, Daventry.
18 December, 2017

Today Chris had an appointment at Northampton General Hospital for a further session of medication. She has made a full recovery and today's treatment is designed to make sure that there can be no return of her illness. The forecast had been for thick fog again but mercifully it had been swept away, not so much by Debussy's wild, swirling wind but by air moving in more stealthily overnight.
Rooks are among the earliest of British birds to nest but on the way to Northampton I was surprised to see great activity at the rookery adjacent to Junction 16 of the M1. Although their nests often seem precarious and exposed to winter gales today, in the lovely sunshine, nest-building was going on apace. Good egg!
Chris's treatment involves an infusion and this process can take over three hours. During this time, if she has a nap, I steal off to have a stroll around the hospital grounds or perhaps a little beyond. Today my walk took me through the grounds of the rather attractive St Giles, one of the towns larger churches.
The winter sun lit up Giles Church, Northampton. 19 December, 2017
It is very popular with local office workers but also vagrants and people who are damaged psychologically. It is right that the churchyard should be a refuge for them but the unfortunate consequence is a lot of litter involving bedding and so on. What is inexcusable is that other visitors of sound body and mind also leave a variety of rubbish including food scraps and this attracts a host of wild and feral creatures. Crows, jackdaws, rock doves (street pigeons) and, in the evening, rats, are the beneficiaries. But most people are happy to see grey squirrels there. Inevitably they have become very tame and will occasionally take food from the hand.
Grey Squirrels rummage through the leaf litter. St Giles churchyard,
Northampton. 19 December, 2017
I pushed on into the town centre. With shoppers scurrying around seeking gifts or laden with same, the streets were humming. Humming too was the gentleman behind whom I stood in the bank. He paid in a remarkably large amount of money but when he left a bank employee surreptitiously pulled out a deodorant and gave the area a few discreet sprays.
Back to the hospital where Opium Poppy, Papaver somniferum, was in bud. We may be near the winter solstice but Penstemon was fully in bloom; however, with the best will in the world there was little of interest to the botanist or gardener. Even if there had been areas ablaze with flowers nothing would have distracted the busy shoppers fired by Christmas spirit, a short-term oniomania.
Penstemons provided a splash of colour in flower borders.
Northampton, 19 December, 2017

Thursday, 14 December 2017

The Christmas Turkey

We'll be off to buy a Christmas turkey before long. Apparently at one time a turkey was a species of guinea-fowl, eaten in Turkey (although not a native bird of Turkey) during the days of the Ottoman Empire. For some reason the word was transferred to our present-day birds which looked vaguely similar but are, of course, from North America. Chris and I rarely eat turkey outside of Christmas but nowadays chickens, derived from a species of Indian Jungle Fowl, Gallus gallus, appear regularly in our diet and that of most people.
During my childhood turkeys were something of a novelty; a chicken was a luxury and was the bird for the Christmas lunch. It would arrive having been freshly killed and I was always allowed to pluck the bird of its feathers - an operation to perform with care lest stray feathers turned up days later in odd places. I would also watch, in morbid fascination, as Dad disembowelled the chicken - always referred to simply as a fowl - not put off by the rather smelly nature of the operation. Not all the viscera would be discarded; the heart and the liver were usually retained.
Often we would go to my maternal grandmother's for Christmas lunch. I frequently refer to her in my blogs, probably because I spent quite a lot of time with her when I was at an impressionable age. One Christmas lunch was especially memorable because, as we tucked into the fowl, we noticed something rather odd: there were half-digested grains of wheat in our food.
   'Mum,' wailed my mother, 'You've left the crop in the bird!'
   'It wun 'urt yer,' insisted Gran. 'You'll et a peck o' dirt before you die.'
Seventy years later and our poultry comes ready prepared and yet I still hear of people who have roasted a bird and then found that the little packet of giblets had been overlooked, sometimes not noticed until the outer meat has been stripped away.
Christmas dinners were a great occasion although today the fare on offer would be seen as very limited. The wishbone would be pulled with great ceremony and there were a predictable gale of laughter when reference was made to the 'parson's nose'. I would join in the laughter as a child but without understanding the reference. For readers unfamiliar with the term, the 'parson's nose' is the small nose-like lump of tissue from which the tail feathers grow. This 'nose' is just above the bird's arse, much as a parson's nose is just above mouth. We were an irreverent lot - but families and neighbours were generally very caring, without the need for religion and threats of eternal damnation to coerce us into helping others.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017


I am quite happy in supermarkets, their anonymity somehow comforting, particularly in Daventry. Of course I frequently meet friends walking up the aisles as it were, but they never put one on the spot. In Northampton things can take an awkward turn as a stranger, usually someone in early middle age, comes up to me and says, 'It's Mr White, isn't it?' I hurriedly plaster a smile on my face, hopefully hiding the alarm I feel as I grope for a name. It is an ex-pupil, who will reassure me that I 'haven't changed a bit'. It is of course not at all comforting to know that I have always looked like an elderly git, but the anonymous pupil means well. I make an anodyne comment and, if this person is a woman, she will come up with a helpful clue: 'Of course I was Alison Smith then, before I married.'
'Yes, of course!' I respond, allowing a hopefully illuminating smile to light up my fizzog*. We exchange a few pleasantries and move on in search of Shreddies ('Unlocking Morning Energy') or whatever. I feel a slight sense of relief that this person has survived the year or so spent with me and developed into an apparently stable adult.
There are former teachers - my friend Ann Pimm for example - who can recall former pupils in extraordinary detail. I do not share this gift and feel a sense of inadequacy; it is surely not right that I can recall the name, Bryum argenteum, of the moss that grew in the corner of the classroom windows, but not those children who should have been the centre of my attention.
Anyway, I ventured into Waitrose today and did indeed meet a friend, the ever-amiable Pom Boddington. With purchases rapidly completed there was time for a stroll around Daventry.
I have heard good reports of our local Turkish restaurant and I went there with a view to picking up a menu. In the event I was so taken with an olive tree, heavy with fruit, beside the front entrance that I took a picture and moved on, remembering only later that I'd forgotten to get the menu. 'Bless me,' I muttered.
An olive tree bears a good crop of fruit. High Street, Daventry.
12 December, 2017
As I passed the town's churchyard a Chilean Pine, aka Monkey Puzzle, Araucaria araucana wore a crown of snow. The Chilean Pine is a curious species and it is not really a pine at all. It does however hail from Chile where it must frequently encounter snow.
A Monkey Puzzle bears a crown of snow. Holy Cross churchyard,
Daventry. 12 December, 2017
It is rarely self sown in this country although a few seedlings have been reported from southern counties. That it produces seed at all is surprising as, like holly, it is dioecious, meaning that a male and a female tree need to be in reasonably close proximity.
Hard by Daventry's Leisure Centre I passed some alders, Alnus sp. They were probably Italian Alders, Alnus cordata, but I foolishly failed to take a close look. Much of the foliage was still green and intact but the recent cold weather had caused a significant leaf fall. My attention was focused on some of the fallen leaves for they were clearly affected by a rust.
Alder tree leaves attacked by a rust. Daventry, 12 December, 2017
The culprit may be Melampsoridium hiratsukanum but these rusts are not really my field. A closer view does not help to resolve the issue.
A close-up is not at all helpful.
These rusts are nevertheless important as in some cases their attacks can have significant consequences, with Hollyhock Rust, Puccinia malvacearum being an example. More seriously a virulent strain of Wheat Rust, Puccinia triticana, is currently devastating crops in India.
'Tis the season to be jolly!

* Fizzog was a favourite word of my grandmother's. 'What are you bin up to? You've got a crafty smile on your fizzog.' I assume the word is a corruption of physiognomy.

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Monday, 11 December 2017

Venturing out

I have not been out for two days now. Let me amend that by saying that I visited the bird table at the back but the front garden has not been graced by my presence. The only marks on the otherwise virginal snow are those left by a cat, seeking open ground for lavatorial purposes. One local cat is a regular, so much so that I refer to the chosen part of the front garden as 'cat crap corner'. Its feline visitations are vexing in the extreme and lead to blood-curdling descriptions of what I'd do should I catch it. All nonsense of course since I have a soft spot for cats.
Anyway, summoning up my courage I finally ventured out and in the event found I was one of a group of residents disinterring our cars (perhaps unwisely as their snowy blanket formed a protection against the sharp frost forecast for tonight) and then furiously shovelling snow from a to b, another questionable decision as the resultant heaps will take many days to melt. 'It's quite deep for snow,' a neighbour remarked. I agreed yet at the same time was puzzled by his comment. Would it have been the right depth for, say, blancmange?
Cacti take their chances. Stefen Hill, Daventry. 11 December, 2017

Interestingly the corner where I have planted a small group of cacti has remained largely clear of snow. Will they survive?
Whilst I was well wrapped up I took the opportunity to take out some recycling and dutifully put plastics, bottles and cans into one retainer, dropping paper and cardboard into another. Why do I bother? The bin men - and one bin woman - dump it all together into the lorry, mixing it up and thus rendering my efforts pointless. I wrote sixteen days ago to Daventry District Council regarding this but have yet to receive a reply. I won't let the matter rest.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Significant snow

9 December 
Over the last twenty-four  hours we've received the first significant snow of the winter. Unfortunately, as far as plants are concerned, it is perhaps of the worst kind; not a protective blanket which would protect bulbs and ground-hugging species from icy blasts but a thin coating of barely a centimetre. On the other hand birds should not be too inconvenienced, finding areas with barely any snow, and as for those heavy falls which can break branches on conifers, we haven't experienced anything like that for years hereabouts. I must keep the bird feeder topped up.
I briefly visited Byfield. At one point I looked up and a Red Kite, Milvus milvus, drifting over. Many years ago I frequently saw kites in Aden (Yemen) but they were Black Kites, Milvus migrans. They often visited refuse dumps and we - rough soldiery* - always referred to them as Shite Hawks; for some unaccountable reason I suddenly thought of Boris Johnson. But a Red Kite performs a useful role.
10 December
Whoops! What was I saying yesterday? By ten o'clock we had received seven inches (20 centimetres) of snow and it was still falling heavily. 
Hardly the stuff of lyric poems. All interest concealed by snow.
Stefen Hill, Daventry. 10 December, 2017
I have kept an eye on the bird feeder but apart from a few blue tits there have been no visitors. I must move it to a more prominent position. A lone song thrush sat on a neighbour's fence for the best part of an hour, motionless. I could say that it brought to mind 'The Darkling Thrush' by Thomas Hardy, but I would be lying; far from being 'frail, gaunt and small' this bird seemed in excellent health, and the 'land's sharp features' of Hardy's landscape were no more than the gable ends of neighbouring houses. No, the scene from my suburban window was hardly the stuff of lyric poems.
Tomorrow I'll get suitably dressed and brave the elements. Borough Hill - or would that too much of an ordeal?

* In fact I was in the Royal Air Force, but piffling pedantry seems pretty pointless..

Thursday, 7 December 2017

More of the same

Anyone reading through my blogs of recent days could accuse me of banging on a bit about plants flowering out of season - and I would have to plead guilty. The fact is, I have been walking a lot recently and, to keep up my interest, I have been trying to observe and record these phenomena.
Today Chris dropped me off (she's always going somewhere) at the entrance to Daventry Golf Club on the Long Buckby road. I suppose it gave me a walk - with diversions - of about three miles. Not a lot I agree but it helps to maintain my svelte figure. [Ed: I trust you are joking!]
I had walked no more than a couple of hundred metres when I came to a small group of larches, Larix decidua.
Larch, showing the slender, pendulous branches. Eastern Way, Daventry.
7 December, 2017
We take these trees for granted yet for sheer grace they are surely a must for large scale landscape gardening. They are deciduous of course but their golden-brown leaves can linger for quite a long time. I was surprised to see that one particular cone (the cones can linger for several years) was glistening with a blob of resinous material, and even more intrigued to find on closer examination that the 'resin' turned out to be a group of ladybirds. One might reasonably expect these beetles to hide themselves under dead leaves or in crevices, and as a rule they do (all but one, her name was Ann and she crept under a pudding-pan).
'Resin' turned out, as I got closer, to be a group of ladybirds on a cone.

Yet here they were, at the mercy of the elements, some four metres above ground. Incidentally, despite the obvious variations, all were Harlequin Ladybirds, Harmonia axyridis; perhaps this recent arrival in Britain is hardier than our native species.
I pressed on, rather wishing that I'd accepted the gloves proffered by Chris as I had set out.
As I got further into Daventry I noticed a scattering of leaves of Pin Oak, Quercus palustris.
Leaves of Pin Oaks were scattered on the ground in Golding Close,
Daventry. 7 December, 2017
This North American species is widely planted but I would nevertheless have liked to trace the tree from whence (lovely word, whence) these leaves had come. I searched for a few minutes but failed miserably.
Rather predictably Hogweed, Heracleum sphondylium, was in flower; its inflorescences may persist throughout the winter. Whether there is nectar enough to attract the occasional visitor during our coldest months I just don't know.
Hogweed was flowering bravely but insects were there none. Edge of
Daventry Country Park. 7 December, 2017

Less predictable was an Escallonia, sporting bright carmine-pink flowers. Escallonias were, until fairly recently, placed in the Grossulariaceae Family, i.e. the Gooseberry Family, but are now given their own family, the Escalloniaceae. I didn't gather flowers for checking but the plant was most likely to be Escallonia rubra, a native of Chile. 
Escallonia rubra had no business to be in flower. Golding Close,
Daventry. 7 December, 2017
It is often sold under its synonym of Escallonia microphylla but, whatever its name, it should have ceased flowering by mid-autumn.  I was now approaching the middle of Daventry, where a very similar colour was to be seen in a rose along Church Walk.
A rambling rose persists in flowering. Church Walk, Daventry.
7 December, 2017
I could rabbit on about Mahonias and yet another Fatsia (see yesterday's blog) but will leave with the dangling catkins of Hazel, Corylus avellana, intriguing because judging by appearances they had already been shedding pollen for some days. Remarkable - and just like pairs of socks drying on a washing line!
Hazel catkins near Golding Close, Daventry. 7 December, 2017



Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Fat-headed Lizzie's parents

Visiting a friend in Byfield earlier today I had a surprise. My route took me down an alley (or jitty in Northamptonshire) connecting High Street and Church Street, a thoroughfare I use only occasionally. The surprise consisted of a fine specimen of Fatsia japonica. I must have passed it several times over the years but this, being a winter flowering shrub, had been overlooked. There is really no excuse for it has fine, attractive foliage, which can help to create a sub-tropical effect in the garden.
Fatsia japonica scrambles over a fence. Byfield, Northants.
6 December, 2017
The flowers of this plant, native to Japan, are rich in nectar and even in winter, given a spell of fine weather, they will attract a remarkably large number of flies. It is reasonably hardy and seems unfussy about soils. Unsurprisingly the Royal Horticultural Society awarded it a First Class Certificate in 1966.
If, on closer examination, it appears to resemble ivy, that is no surprise, for both plants belong to the same family, the Araliaceae.
Fatsia flowers are in globose panicles and are rich in nectar.
Sure enough, not more than twenty metres away, I encountered an Ivy, Hedera helix, and was able to note the similarities. In both plants the flowers are borne in globose panicles and although the leaf shapes are different both consist of evergreen, glossy and rather leathery foliage. You may, like me, be surprised that the two plants are placed in different genera, particularly as they will hybridise.
Ivy grew a short distance away. The inflorescences are similar.
Byfield, 6 December, 2017
Generally speaking plants only readily hybridise if they are in the same genus. Thus our two native oaks, Quercus robur and Q. petraea will form a hybrid, Quercus x rosacea, with characteristics intermediate between the two. The x, denoting a hybrid, is placed between the generic and specific names. Where hybrids occur between two different genera a different situation prevails. The cross between Hedera helix and Fatsia japonica is such an intergeneric hybrid and is called x Fatshedera lizei; here the x appears before the full name. The cross was first made in France in 1912 but has since been achieved on a number of occasions, each time with a slightly different result.
The relative ease by which these hybrids are produced seems to me to be an argument for placing the parents in the same genus - but then, I am not a botanist. Perhaps it is that one, ivy, is a climber and the other is not.
Unsurprisingly this hybrid is known, in the U.S.A. at least, as Fat-headed Lizzie.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

A grave matter

With time to kill I wandered around the depressing scene that is the churchyard of Holy Cross Church, Daventry. 'Well what do you expect?' I hear you say, 'It is December.'
True, but the snag is, it is always depressing. Is it the discarded coke cans that litter the ground? Is it old polythene bags snagged on the bushes? Yes, these are disfiguring and a sad indictment of our throwaway society, but it is more than that. It is the general neglect and decay of the graves, their headstones and memorials so neglected, shattered and forlorn. Rather absurdly Shelley's poem 'Ozymandias' came to mind:
                                      'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
                                       Look on my works ye mighty and despair'

Yes, as I say, absurd. These were for the most part ordinary citizens - plebeians, living for the most part undistinguished lives, yet at their burial each was, for a short while, the central thought in the mind of sad mourners. Close relatives would vow, if only to themselves, to keep the burial site clean and not allow neglect to overtake the area. And yet...
So important that they were surrounded by cast-iron railings - but who
were they? Daventry, 5 December, 2017
...all about me was decay. Relatives died, forgot, or were simply too busy with their own lives to bother.
What lies under this mound of ivy? It is probably quite a grand piece of masonry in memory of someone who, for a brief moment in time, was a local Ozymandias. Now it would take a considerable effort to discover who he or she was.
Ivy completely hides a rather grand memorial. Daventry, 5 December, 2017
Rather oddly, several of the graves now sported an elder tree. Elder or Bourtree, Sambucus nigra, perhaps has more folklore associated with it than any other plant. In a sense it guarded burial sites and in Scandinavia the tree was under the protection of a dryad called Hylde-Moer, the elder mother. Woe betide anyone who cut it down to make some furniture; Hylde-Moer would be sure to hunt you down and haunt you. It will make a small tree but is usually found as little more than a shrub:

                             Bour-tree, bour tree, crookit rung,
                             Never straight and never strong,
                             Ever bush and never tree
                             Since our Lord was nailed t'ye'.

Legend claims that Christ's cross was made from elder. Myths and legends aside, the churchyard boasts a healthy population of blackbirds and the elder seeds are probably distributed via bird poo.
An elder occupies a grave site. Daventry Holy Cross churchyard.
5 December, 2017
Elder is usually found on soil enriched by organic matter, often neglected former agricultural land. It will grow prolifically around rabbit warrens where the ground is manured by the droppings but for the rabbits the plant is uneatable.
Another elder guarded a wreck of a grave site.
Daventry, 5 December, 2017
Here and there daffodil bulbs were just pushing their shoots though the ground. Someone with a philosophical bent would make some sort of pithy comment about the renewal of life. Not I.
Narcissi push through at another grave. 5 December, 2017
I left the churchyard in need of cheering up! Less than fifty yards away, on the edge of Abbey Square, a bush of Lavatera was a mass of bloom. Not so long ago I would have casually referred to it as Lavatera olbia but in fact the genera Malva, Olbia, Lavatera and Althaea are in such a taxonomic mess that only a brave person attempts to put a name to a particular taxon. I'm keeping shtum.

Smothered in bloom a Lavatera brightens up Abbey Square, Daventry.
5 December, 2017
Anyway, putting these ruminations aside, the flowers were lovely and I had to remind myself that it was December. They made a fitting vision with which to end a blog.
Each petal bears honey guides but there will be few visitors now.
5 December, 2017

Monday, 4 December 2017

The year draws to a close - almost

It is time to get to work with the secateurs because, as I said in my last blog, the Dahlias have gorn. Their blackened leaves and stems are a sad sight and will be removed, to live once more - via the compost heap - as plants on our allotment.
Our Dahlias are now a sad sight. Stefen Hill, Daventry.
4 December, 2017
The Hylotelephium spectabile plants will also have their stems removed, not just because of the frost damage sustained by the leaves but they have done their job and are now simply unsightly. This plant is still generally known as Sedum spectabile and it may be some years before its new name achieves common usage. Native of China and Korea it has always been included in the same genus as our native stonecrops (Sedum acre, etc) but its general form is quite different and in retrospect it seems surprising that it was not separated from them long ago. 
...and our 'Sedum' plants are only marginally better. 4 December, 2017
The top growth may have suffered but at ground level a cluster of healthy buds holds promise of fresh growth in 2018 and fortunately I have never known them to sustain slug damage.
A cluster of buds at ground level on the Hylotelephium augurs well for 2017
Stefen Hill, Daventry. 4 December, 2017
Elsewhere there is still colour to be seen, with Salvia x jamensis 'Hot Lips' maintaining a brave display. As I have pointed out before, it hails from broadly the same area (Mexico, south-western U.S.A.) as our Dahlias, but it clearly copes far better with the cold. I ought to have cut it back by now but I haven't the heart. The petals bear a few blemishes but what the heck!
Our 'Hot Lips' continues to flower and there are even unopened buds
to be seen. 4 December, 2017
Perhaps the greatest surprise has been the performance of Hesperantha coccinea (formerly Schizostylis coccinea). This native of South Africa is not reckoned to be frost-hardy but so far, so good. It is a shame the name had to be changed for the split in the style which gave the plant its generic epithet is quite distinctive. In truth the plant has flowered for such a long time that the stems (or, strictly speaking, scapes) are now, like 'Hot Lips', getting leggy and a bit on the untidy side.
The Crimson Flag Lily continues to confound us with yet more flowers.
4 December, 2017
It can't go on of course but we know that just below the surface changes are occurring in bulbs and in a month or so the first new tips will be showing.


Friday, 1 December 2017

Brrr. Snow on the way?

White rabbits! White rabbits! White rabbits!  It's the first day of the month and I get a severe reprimand from Chris if I forget to chant this mantra. We had planned today to walk the canalside near to Braunston but we chickened out. Far too cold. Yesterday we had travelled to Staffordshire and we met flurries of snow on the way back. Is there more to come?  In any case, we had jobs to do in Daventry so we contented ourselves with strolling through parts of Southbrook and Daventry Country Park.
Laurustinus, Viburnum tinus, was in flower in many areas but received barely a glance. It is a good shrub in so many ways but is so commonplace that it is virtually ignored. 
Laurustinus in flower beside a Daventry car park.
1 December, 2017
One or two examples of its close relative, the Leatherleaf Viburnum, Viburnum rhytidophyllum, were noted on our walk, generally in municipal shrubberies. It is not in flower yet of course, its blossoms will not appear until May, but its slightly glossy leaves, best described as corrugated, are attractive in themselves. It is another plant introduced by Ernest 'Chinese' Wilson from, unsurprisingly, Western China. It didn't arrive in Britain until 1900 but such was its value in the garden that it quickly (1907) received a First Class Certificate from the R.H.S.
The foliage of Viburnum rhytidophyllum is attractive in its own right.
Daventry. 1 December, 2017
It was no warmer than three or four degrees but the sunlight was brilliant. Nevertheless, sunny or not, we didn't linger to examine plants but kept on the move. Most of the trees have now lost their leaves and stood out starkly against the blue sky. This is a good time of the year to practise recognising silhouettes and keeping a look out for mistletoe. Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust is keen to receive records of this semiparasite but I know of none other than those in well-known locations such as the Abington area of Northampton (where it grows on False Acacia) and Kingsthorpe, also in Northampton, where it is abundant on Common Lime. Here in Daventry we have plenty of False Acacia around the car park adjoining the Aldi supermarket but I have looked there in vain.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Winter begins

It couldn't last. The meteorological start of winter is the first of December, three days away yet, but the wildlife doesn't check the calendar; there have now been four or five frosts - at least one of them very sharp - and the dahlias are no more. Hive bees are probably now tucked in for the winter but there are still a few flowers such as ivy and white dead-nettle for any bumblebees with the temerity to set forth and forage.
I also set forth today, with no particular objective in mind other than a vague idea of making myself familiar with as-yet unknown areas of Daventry; for a small town it has lots of little surprises.
About three months ago I discovered a Foxglove Tree, Paulownia tomentosa, in the heart of Daventry. Its huge leaves have now fallen but this has exposed the curious fruits. The flower buds are already present but will remain dormant through the coldest months, to open in the spring - providing they have not been killed off by a harsh winter.
Brilliant blue sky, but it was very cold. The fruits of a Foxglove Tree
stand out clearly. Daventry, 28 November, 2017
My walk, in bitingly cold conditions, took me into the Southbrook area, passing tangles of Traveller's Joy, Clematis vitalba, on the way. This member of the Buttercup Family, Ranunculaceae, may appear quite different from our idea of buttercups until one remembers the similar feathery styles of the related Pasque Flower, Pulsatilla vulgaris.
The tangled silky styles of Traveller's Joy scrambled through shrubs.
Daventry, 28 November, 2017

Bearing in mind my comments about bees in the opening paragraph I kept an eye open for nectar or pollen sources but, other than Laurustinus and various forms of Mahonia there was little to be seen. There was one plant producing pollen in plenty but of no interest to bees. I refer to the Common Nettle, Urtica dioica, surprisingly still in flower. The flowers are either male or female, usually on separate plants, i.e. dioecious, and the male plants produce wind-blown pollen of no interest to bees.
Common Nettle in flower, Southbrook, Daventry.
28 November, 2017
The foliage is highly nutritious, attracting numerous phytophagous insects, including the caterpillars of Peacock, Red Admiral and Small Tortoiseshell butterflies, during the warmer months. Many books have been written on the subject and some horticultural writers encourage people to spare an odd corner of the garden for a clump of nettles but the general abundance of the plant renders this quite unnecessary.

'Insects on Nettles' by B.N.K. Davis, a useful introduction to the
invertebrate fauna of nettles.
There may have been a general lack of flowers but there was plenty of colour, not least from the Acers in gardens and at the wayside. This Field Maple, Acer campestre, with primrose-yellow foliage, was quite arresting. It is our only certain native maple (Sycamore, Acer pseudoplatanus is probably alien) and I am told that it can be distinguished from exotic maples by a milky exudation from a damaged leaf, but I have never observed this. The wood is exceptionally hard and is used for veneers and fine wood-turning. Apparently harps are also constructed from this material and it was used in mediaeval times for carved drinking bowls called 'mazers'.
Field Maple, lovely in its late autumn foliage. Southbrook, Daventry.
28 November, 2017
A quite different foliage is to be seen on Magnolia grandiflora and I mention this because today I saw a particularly fine specimen of this tree from the southern U.S.A. completely filling a garden along Norton Road.
A fine example of Magnolia grandiflora, aka Evergreen Magnolia or
Bull Bay. Southbrook, Daventry. 28 November, 2017
The leathery evergreen leaves have a glossy upper surface and an orange, rather downy lower surface. I suppose there would be a deep shade cast upon the house in question but I for one would be loth to remove this handsome tree. 
The underside of the leaves are a rusty orange.

I have had more exciting days but I arrived back in Daventry's town centre well satisfied with my morning's jaunt, feeling that I had earned a hot chocolate in a local café.

Finally, an apology. I had intended to publish this blog 24 hours earlier but, overcome with joy at the news of the royal engagement, I had to wait until the trembling in my fingers had subsided. (Oddly enough, just 21 minutes after the news broke of the engagement, the government announced that benefits would be frozen for the next 12 months. Now there's a coincidence.)