Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Holy Cross Church, Daventry

Surprisingly, for a town with a population of around 26,000 souls, Daventry only has one C of E church, although it is home to several chapels. In truth, other than for special occasions, even this one is arguably too large. From a safe distance, in good light, it is quite attractive - but don't look too closely; the masonry of golden Jurassic sandstone is much defaced by graffiti and is badly eroding in places.
Holy Cross Church, Daventry. 28 February, 2017
The churchyard too has a generally tatty appearance, exacerbated by litter, and a walk through the area tends to be a depressing rather than a rewarding experience. So when I took a short cut through there earlier today I was not optimistic; coke cans and crisp bags may display all the colours of the rainbow but they are hardly spiritually uplifting.
Snowdrops in the grass. Holy Cross Church, Daventry,
28 February, 2017
Drifts of snowdrops were to be expected; they are currently everywhere and barely merit comment. A rather more unexpected sight was a lovely patch of cyclamens beneath the lime trees. Only a quick look at the leaves was needed to show that they were specimens of the Eastern Sowbread, Cyclamen coum, a native of the Turkish and Caucasus mountains as far east as Iran.

Cyclamen coum in the churchyard, Holy Cross Church, Daventry.
28 February, 2017
An earlier name for this species was Cyclamen orbiculatum and the rounded leaves, so different from the Common Sowbread, Cyclamen hederifolium, meant that the earlier name was much more appropriate. But the rules of botanical nomenclature must prevail...
The orbicular leaves of Cyclamen coum, Holy Cross churchyard, Daventry.
28 February, 2017
The Common Sowbread is widely naturalised in Great Britain and in fact John Hutchinson (British Wild Flowers, Penguin Books, 1955 edition) harboured a suspicion that it could be a British native. John Gerard, in his Herball or Generall Historie of Plants, published in 1597 is the first to mention it as occurring in Britain. Maps provided by The National Biological Network on their 'Gateway' site show 1485 records for naturalised Cyclamen hederifolium but only 139 for C. coum; understandably records for both these species are overwhelmingly in the south of Britain.
Cyclamen hederifolium. The specific name means 'ivy leaved'. Our garden at
Stefen Hill, Daventry. 28 February, 2017
The leaves of these two primrose relatives are very distinctive and, before leaving the churchyard another plant was displaying equally unmistakeable leaves. The purple-brown spots on the leaves of  Lords and Ladies explain the plant's Latin name of Arum maculatum and they are always among the first to appear in the spring - although they do not always bear spots.
Spotted leaves of Arum maculatum. Holy Cross churchyard, Daventry.
28 February, 2017
It is the flowers, arriving a couple of months later, that have given rise to so many vernacular names which are, as John Lewis -Stempel points out in his lovely book 'Meadowland', (Doubleday Books, 2014) 'are of an eye-winking Carry-on standard'. Most obliquely or more directly refer to the ithyphallic form of the spadix: some, such as Wake Robin and Cuckoo Pint, appear innocuous enough - until we remember that Robin was the medieval equivalent of  'Dick' and Pint is short for pintle, meaning penis (the word 'pint' as used here rhymes with 'mint'). How good it was to leave the saucy environs of the church and breathe in wholesome air! I arrived home to find that a gorgeous plant of Saxifraga oppositifolia was flowering in our sink garden. Now that was uplifting.
Saxifraga oppositifolia in our garden at Stefen Hill, Daventry.
28 February, 2017

Sticky Buds

Early March would be the time when, as children, we would gather the stout twigs of Horse Chestnut,  Aesculus hippocastanum, with their unmistakeable sticky buds, and bring them home. Placed on a sunny window ledge they would soon open up to reveal their lovely, palmately compound leaves. Of course this was long before the arrival, in 2002, of the Horse Chestnut Leaf Miner, Cameraria ohridella, the caterpillars of which now so disfigure 'Conker Trees' across Britain. (Speaking of which, I wonder whether other Aesculus species are so attacked. I have in mind the North American species, known as 'Buckeyes'. I must check.)
The resinous compound which gives the buds their sticky nature presumably affords a measure of protection from insect attack, and maybe birds too, perhaps not in Britain but probably in the tree's native home in the Balkans.
The sticky buds of Horse Chestnut, Norton Road, Daventry.
28 February, 2017
It has been known for some that this gummy coating is also put to use by honey bees. They will gather it and, blending it with saliva and honey, produce propolis. The function of this substance was long thought to be that of sealing unwanted cracks and crevices in the hive, not only keeping out draughts but preventing entry by ants or other unwanted insects. It may indeed be used by the bees for this but research has shown that it is employed in a variety of other ways, particularly as an anti-bacterial agent within the hive. Bees will use any suitable resins from, for example, birch, alder and beech  and also from conifers. Wild bees have been known  to enclose certain parts of the nest with a 'propolis envelope' and again this is assumed to prevent, or at least limit, bacterial infection. An interesting case involved the corpse of a mouse found within a hive. Obviously it was too heavy to move and the whole body had been coated with propolis.
I have avoided hesitation or repetition although perhaps I could be now accused of deviation from the subject of sticky buds, but I will return later in the spring to Horse Chestnut trees. You have been warned!

Monday, 27 February 2017

The darling buds of February

Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 reminds us that:
                                      Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May.

But in fact, what with storm Doris roaring in, February has been giving the buds a bit of a hard time. The winds were very fierce of course and once they had abated I went forth expecting to find that there had been significant damage but in fact no trees had been uprooted, perhaps because they have yet to put forth their leaves. Only on my own back garden did I find structural damage where a flimsy fence erected by my neighbour had come to grief. 'Fred's erections have never lasted long,' complained his wife.
Just missing our young Garrya! Storm Doris did little real
damage. 23 February, 2017
Other than that there was a good scattering of twigs and small branches littering the pavements and an estate agent's sign lay prone. Thankfully the property had already been sold.
The property market has crashed. Christchurch Road, Daventry.
23 February, 2017
But back to the buds...
Among the more advanced were those of Lilac, Syringa vulgaris. My grandmother, along with many of her generation, applied the name 'Syringa' to the unrelated Mock Orange, Philadelphus, but this example of botanical confusion seems not to have persisted. Perhaps the fact that the flowers of both are strongly fragrant led to the muddle. Incidentally it is said that the flowers of lilac are commonly visited by bees and butterflies. This has not been my experience and I must have a good look later in the year.
Lilac buds. Badby Road West, Daventry. 27 February, 2017
The buds of hawthorn are also now breaking, to reveal the bright green leaves. Already some of these are sufficiently developed to be eaten. Harking back again to my grandmother, she would refer to these fresh new leaves as 'bread and cheese'. Tasty they may be but filling they are not. Although some people recommend adding them to salad I am not tempted and even their alleged ability to lower cholesterol levels will not move me.
Hawthorn leaves are unfurling. Badby Road West, Daventry.
27 February, 2017
Going back to Shakespeare's 'darling buds', I was cheating a bit because he was probably referring to this tree rather than the month of May in his celebrated sonnet and to the flower buds rather than the leaf buds. In his day only one species of May (Crataegus) was recognised; why I mention that I've no idea because it is clearly irrelevant anyway.
Hawthorn leaves are unfurling but the blossom won't be here for a few weeks yet. On the other hand its relative, Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) should be flowering shortly although there is no sign of the leaves. Although unalike in so many ways both are members of the Rose family, Rosaceae, and the flower structures are broadly similar.
Flower buds of Blackthorn. Badby Road West, Daventry.
27 February, 2017
In 'The Hedgerow Handbook' the author, Adele Nozedar states that the fruit of the blackthorn, i.e. the sloes 'are the great grandmothers of our cultivated garden plums'. This is suspected but not proven. Our cultivated plums are Prunus domestica and, although other Prunus species, e.g. Prunus cerasifera, may be involved in some small way the genetics are so complex that the full history of our domestic plums may never be established. Adele Nozedar goes on to say, 'The flowers are edible and taste a bit like almonds' and she suggests they may be added to salads or used for cake decoration. True enough but the almond taste is due to the presence of cyanide so perhaps we shouldn't overdo it!
In this blog I really wanted to make reference to the sticky buds of Horse Chestnut but that must wait for another day.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Weeds? Sez who?

So, what is a weed? It is an old conundrum and I have no intention of re-visiting the arguments. It can be anything from a tree to a tiny grass but if it is felt to be in the wrong place, and displays some sort of aggressive behaviour then for someone it is a weed.
Outside the public library in Daventry stands a little flower-bed. A volunteer cares for it and pays regular visits to remove litter, trim off dead material and do the occasional bit of replanting. About six months ago I spotted a single leaf of Winter Heliotrope, Petasites fragrans, there, 'hiding in plain sight' as they say. Its specific name is the clue as to why this plant, a native of North Africa's Mediterranean areas, should have been introduced. The pale lilac flowers are rather unimpressive but their vanilla odour is powerful, attracting bees and other insects.
Winter Heliotrope, Daventry Town Centre.
21 February, 2017
If I see the gardener I intend to warn her of the dangers being placed on this little plot for, unless the Winter Heliotrope is quickly removed, it will take over. Indeed it may already be too late as the rhizomes are brittle and detached fragments will quickly re-grow. Perhaps this is one North African migrant which should be expelled!
Tristagma uniflorum, formerly known as Ipheion uniflorum, is a pretty little thing, introduced from South America in 1832. This relative of the onion (some varieties have an alliaceous smell) has lilac flowers but I have not detected any fragrance there.
Tristagma uniflorum in our front garden, Stefen Hill, Daventry.
22 February, 2017
In their impressive book 'Alien Plants (Collins, 2016)', the authors, Clive Stace and Michael Crawley give the plant no mention but the 'Gateway' maps provided by the National Biological Network show dozens of  records from south-east England, suggesting that it has escaped from gardens quite widely. The problem is that it will pop up in rock gardens and so on and is very difficult to eradicate. In desperation I resorted to using weed killer but this proved only a temporary setback and swathes of it now infest our front garden. How it got here in the first place is a mystery as I certainly didn't plant it.
Swathes of the Tristagma now invade the gravel in our front garden.
22 February, 2017
A similar problem affected our former garden at Byfield but there the culprit was the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis. It produced copious quantities of seed (despite 'rarely seeding' according to the 'New Flora of the British Isles', Clive Stace, 1992) and popped up everywhere so that in despair I completed dug out and restructured part of a rock garden, only for it to reappear the next year!
Snowdrops at the edge of The Green, Byfield. 22 February, 2017
This common plant has always been regarded, at least until recently as 'probably native' but is almost certainly an introduction, perhaps brought here by monks as far back as the Dark Ages and it is not too fanciful to imagine people deliberately planting it in suitable woodland areas.
One 'weed' I will not have impugned is our Common Daisy, Bellis perennis. I sympathise with green-keepers endeavouring to produce a baize-like surface for bowls players but for me a lawn without daisies would be like spotted dick without the - er - spotted dicks.
Daisies flowering at Stefen Hill, Daventry. 22 February, 2017

At the roadside hard by our house it has flowered sporadically throughout the winter; long may John Clare's 'starry daisies deck the green' .

Monday, 20 February 2017

Walk: Byfield, West Farndon, Woodford Halse, Byfield

My friend Angela Weller led a group of about 14 on a walk today, starting at The Cross Tree pub in Byfield, and a very interesting walk it was too.
We set off in dry, breezy but quite mild conditions, trudging south-west along the A361 before turning south-east towards West Farndon. In the summer this is a moderately interesting walk but in late February its excitements were not obvious. The land is quite high and on this very clear day the views were excellent but, tempting though it was, I refrained from photographing the landscape; I would not be able to do it justice.
The soil is slightly acid in this area and molehills showed that soil was generally dark. The mole, Talpa europaea, has a host of vernacular names, one of my favourites being Mouldiwarp. This strange name is apparently derived from the Saxon words mold werp meaning 'earth mover'.
Our group now lost height as we approached the hamlet of West Farndon. The settlement only consists of about six houses and in bad weather the inhabitants must feel very isolated and yet until about the 1966 the Great Central Railway had a station within walking distance at Woodford Halse. It is an interesting area from my point of view and the summer brings lots of insect activity. Today I paused only to photograph a Rustyback in a wall crevice. The back of the fronds have a covering of brown scales, giving this little fern, Asplenium ceterach, its common name. In many works the name of Ceterach officinarum is preferred. Yer pays yer money...
Rustyback Fern in a wall at West Farndon, Northants.
20 February, 2017
We moved on, heading for Woodford Halse along a short stretch of the Jurassic Way, crossing and re-crossing the old trackbed of the Great Central. By now we had met up with the River Cherwell which, despite its spelling, is usually pronounced 'Charwell'. This is almost the spelling used by John Speed in his 1610 map of Oxford, in which he names it the Charwelle. A similar situation prevails with the names Hertford ('Hartford') and Berkshire ('Barkshire'). Anyway, as is so often the case, I find I am deviating. The river snakes its way across the flood plain at this point in a series of graceful meanders, bringing back memories of my days teaching geography.
River Cherwell. Meanders had cut deep into the alluvium of the flood plain.
20 February, 2017
River features I always regarded as interesting (although, sadly, students were often less enthusiastic). The bank had slumped at one point and this material will eventually be washed away leaving the meander even more sinuous.
Slumping is a regular event in the process of meander development.
River Cherwell near Woodford Halse, Northants. 20 February, 2017
Here and there were patches of Flote Grass, otherwise known as Floating Sweet-grass, Glyceria fluitans. There are several species of Glyceria in Britain and to be honest, as the grass was not in flower, I can only guess at the species.
Flote Grass, a Glyceria species. River Cherwell near Woodford Halse.
20 February, 2017
We brushed the edge of Woodford Halse before setting off on the last leg of our walk across rather featureless fields. Deer tracks showed up clearly on our path and, from the shape and size of the 'slots' were almost certainly those of muntjac or, to be pedantic, Reeve's Muntjac Deer, Muntiacus reevesi. It is, I suspect, the commonest deer in the area by some distance.
Muntjac deer used the same track as us. Near Byfield, Northants.
20 February, 2017
And so back to Byfield, for a glass of Cross Tree Ale and a fry-up. We reckoned that the walk had been one of four and a half miles. Enough.

Tony White  E-mail: diaea@yahoo.co.uk

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Goings-on in the February garden

St Valentine's Day is now behind us and the weather forecast is promising. But these forecasts can be deceitful; this is a stop-start time of the year and an all-too short string of sunny days can be brought to a shuddering halt by a sharp frost, and there is yet plenty of time for snow. I have been sowing foxgloves today, sprinkling seeds of a new variety that intrigues me - yet cautiously I'll be keeping them under glass. I have also sown Cleome spinosa, the Spider Flower as it is known. Recent DNA studies have concluded that Cleome species should be placed in their own family, the Cleomaceae.
Bright sunshine today has encouraged crocuses to show their wanton nature, gaping wide to flaunt their sex organs in the hope of enticing a passing bumble bee, but so far this year I've not been witness to any of this debauched coupling. Anyway, if seeds are produced I, like 99% of gardeners, will ignore them and rely on the multiplying corms.
Crocus sieberi are now in full flower in our front garden.
Stefen Hill, Daventry. 19 February, 2017
My general rule has been to plant blue or violet crocuses, feeling that yellow ones would have little impact; I need not have worried. Golden-brown the gravel may be but the yellow-flowered croci stand out well enough.
Crocus chrysanthus add to the show. This is a very popular variety called
'Zwanenburg Bronze'. Our garden, 19 February, 2017

The dwarf irises, Iris reticulata, are also now in flower but are rather more coy about the whole business, with the bases of the petals in this case forming an almost tubular structure concealing the pistil and the stamens.
Iris reticulata is now also flowering in our garden. Stefen Hill, Daventry.
19 February, 2017
The three lower petals - the falls - bear a 'signal' of golden-yellow leading a bee to the reproductive structures where it will receive its reward of nectar and depart with a dusting of pollen.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Harbinger of spring

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 (not the extinct Cornish language) 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?  These are dark waters, Watson. Anyway, the point is that fresh new foliage of the plant is now showing - and has been for some weeks - even though the winter is far from over.
Keck beside the car park. Byfield Village Hall. 28 January, 2017
In my childhood it was always exceedingly common but I feel that over the years it has become even more exuberant. It seems that my suspicions have a basis in fact, with surveys suggesting that Cow Parsley is indeed much more widespread beside roadsides than a few decades ago. One possible explanation concerns verge management: the mowing of grass verges leaves a mulch, encouraging the growth of robust species - hogweed, cow parsley, stinging nettle, etc. - which enjoy a nitrogen-rich soil. Unfortunately this means that smaller, more light-demanding species miss out and gradually disappear.
In his book , 'A Natural History of the Hedgerow' (Profile Books, 2016) the author, John Wright states: '...cow parsley is alive with spring insects and it is a favourite with bees, which are the main pollinators'. I must say that in over half a century I cannot recall ever seeing a bee on cow parsley although it does attract quite an array of  'small fry'; I suspect that bees do visit the flowers but only in small numbers - unless I have been very unlucky - but the amount of nectar available must be extremely limited.. However, the later-flowering and structurally similar Hogweed, Heracleum sphondylium, attracts bees in abundance and John Wright may have confused the two species.
It is related also to Hemlock, Conium maculatum. As children we would frequently use the hollow stems of Cow Parsley as peashooters; thank goodness we didn't confuse the two species!
* Quoted in Richard Dawkins' biography', 'An Appetite for Wonder'.


Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Allotment! (with postscript)

For some time Chris has been hankering after an allotment plot and a few weeks ago she had her name put on Daventry's waiting list. 'I'll do it all,' she said. Recently she heard that one was available and so on 9 February we went to have a look. Neither the site nor the sight gave encouragment and our first though was that it would be too much to take on but we could face a longish wait for an alternative.
Ouch! The plot when we first viewed it. 11 February, 2017
A closer look confirmed that there were no pernicious weeds but rather a tangle of coarse annuals and we are minded to take it on. If it turns out to be too big an undertaking we can always hand it back to DDC. I suspect that yours truly will end up doing the bulk of the digging. Perhaps a few interesting creepy-crawlies will turn up.
There's no question of planting or sowing at the moment as the soil is cold and wet; nothing is to be gained by trying to rush things, but the warmer conditions of the last couple of days have been helpful. In the meanwhile I'll start sowing a few crops at home.
There is a small hut which, oddly enough, is half-filled with hay. I have no plans for this material and although I suppose it might compost I decided to get rid of it, first checking it for mini-beasts. Once cleared the hut could be very handy.

The hut - after I had cleared out seven large bags of hay.
15 February, 2017
Amongst these mini-beasts were quite a few spiders and I managed to secure a decent sample. For the record they were: 

Amaurobius similis, Linyphia hortensis and Eratigena atrica  (some very big females of this large spider, one of Europe's biggest, once known as Tegenaria gigantea.) There was also a single harvestman - Platybunus triangularis. All disappointingly common species but I live in hope.

I remained uneasy about the allotment. We have yet to sign a contract or pay any rent so Chris and I decided to have a second look. As I approached the hut it dawned on me that a huge pile of cans, plastic bottles and so on, which I presumed was on the neighbouring plot, was in fact on ours. I re-entered the hut for a further check on its remaining contents - and the floor promptly gave way! It would be a straightforward job to put a sheet of plywood or mdf in place but the rubbish was a different matter. Chris rang Daventry District Council and explained that we would be prepared to take on the plot if the rubbish was cleared first. We were told that we would have to deal with that ourselves so the upshot was that we said no. We remain on the waiting list.
Not  wishing to miss an opportunity I gathered a few more mini-beasts and was both pleased and surprised to find that I had captured a pirate spider, so-called because under the microscope it can be seen to have a wooden leg and a patch over one eye. [Ed. You do talk rubbish at times!] Three species are known from Britain and my specimen turned out to be a female Ero cambridgei. Pirate spiders seem to prey exclusively on other spiders. They invade the web of the victim and bite it on a leg. The venom must be very powerful as the prey is paralysed and the pirate spider then sucks it dry, usually through the legs. I also took a far commoner spider, Diplostyla concolor, and a millipede, the equally common White-legged Snake Millipede, Tachypodoiulus niger. So, not a totally wasted journey.
Tony White: diaea@yahoo.co.uk

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

More exploration

Chris spends a couple of hours on Tuesdays volunteering in one of Daventry's two Air Ambulance shops. I usually drop her off and then pick her up later. However, today's weather was glorious and I continued my exploration of this unassuming and, to my mind, under-rated town.
In these circumstances I tend to follow a meandering course and the subsequent blog has no real theme; it is just an aide-memoire of my observations.
My walk initially took me through a small park, looking rather tatty at this time of the year, in which stands an enormous willow, coppiced long ago and now the haunt of wood pigeons and carrion crows.
A very large coppiced willow was quite impressive.
Daventry, 7 February, 2017
Nearby were oaks and Lombardy Poplars, the latter being known to botanists as Populus nigra var italica. This fastigiated form of Black Poplar is very familiar but only the male is grown, all specimens being clones of the original.
Oak and 'Lombardy' Poplar. Daventry, 7 February, 2017
My walk continued through an underpass, leading to the Ashby Road. In an earlier blog I featured another underpass, the walls of which had been used for paintings of locomotives ('Tombs and Trains', 1 December, 2016) but here the theme seemed to be coastal fishing ports.
Murals in a Daventry underpass. 7 February, 2017
To my mind the quality was very decent and clearly discouraged the obscene and illiterate graffiti defacing similar underpasses. With the awkward lighting conditions my photographs fail to do them justice.
I emerged into the sunlight and was soon striding up Ashby Road, turning to the left at Falconers Hill Infant School on to a footpath. Here and there Elephant's Ears, probably Bergenia crassifolia (there are a couple of other possibilities) were in bloom. I don't deny that its pink blooms of this saxifrage relative are welcome at this time of the year but its large leaves can look very tatty for many months as they get chewed by various creatures.
This year there have been reports of large numbers of Waxwings, Bombycilla garrulous, across the midlands. They have moved in from the north of Europe in search of the berries of rowan, pyracantha and the like.
Wall Cotoneaster, sometimes referred to as Fishbone Cotoneaster.
Daventry, 7 February, 2017
My fingers were crossed but although suitable berries, such as those of the Fishbone or Wall Cotoneaster, Cotoneaster horizontalis, were available they were attracting little or no interest. This is a good wildlife plant as the birds will eventually take the berries, and later in the year their flowers will prove very attractive to bees, but it can be a very invasive plant and has colonised some large areas of hillside in the Cotswolds.
Although my walk had not taken me far from the town centre the trunks and branches were festooned with almost as many mosses and lichens as would have been found in neighbouring woodlands. Inevitably all were commonplace, even predictable species.
Tree branches bore numerous epiphytes. Daventry, 7 February, 2017

Hypogymnia physodes? Daventry, 7 February, 2017
Something like half a dozen lichens were casually noted, with (probably) Hypogymnia physodes common on the trunks of roadside cherry trees. This is quite a variable species so my identification is not as firm as I would like.
It was often sharing a tree trunk with what I suspect is Physcia tenella but, as is so often the case, I failed to take a portion for examination at home. Lichens can be fascinating - but frustrating.

Physcia tenella? Daventry, 7 February, 2017

I had now covered a couple of miles and had yet to begin my return journey so, keeping the distinctive spire of Daventry's main church in view I began the return journey. Amazingly Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, was still in flower at the edge of a car park and, given the time of the year, one can forgive its rather scruffy appearance. My poor photograph is less forgivable.

Monday, 6 February 2017


I made a visit to Byfield today and I was struck, not for the first time, by the hardiness and persistence of Groundsel, Senecio vulgaris. Although this annual flowers throughout the winter and rarely receives an insect visitor in these cold months it matters not, as it is self-fertile and one of the plants examined by me was happily producing its fluffy heads of seeds (strictly speaking, fruits).
Groundsel with (top right) fluffy seed-heads
The word 'groundsel' is derived from the Old English gund pus and swelgan to swallow, because it was apparently used in poultices for boils, etc. In Victorian times it was regarded as a useful diuretic (increasing the flow of urine) and diaphoretic (inducing sweating). Like its close relative Ragwort, Senecio jacobaea, it contains a number of potentially dangerous alkaloids but not in quantities likely to cause harm. It is often found that an apparently scruffy and unattractive plant has, when closely examined, rather pretty flowers. Sadly groundsel does not fit into that category, with only disc florets present.  In fact a specimen is occasionally found also bearing ray florets but the aesthetic nature of the flowers is little enhanced!
Groundsel is generally regarded as an archaeophyte, a plant which originated as an alien species but has been naturalised here since before 1500 CE. Its origins perhaps lie in Western Asia or North Africa and it may have come to this country as a crop impurity, but that can only be speculation.
The word 'Senecio' is derived from the Latin senex, an old man, and alludes to the grey and hoary seed pappus.
Until recently the genus Senecio was a huge and unwieldy group of around 2000 species but the geneticists have been hard at work and the genus is being broken up. Senecio vulgaris retains its name but Ragwort, Senecio jacobaea, is henceforth to be known as Jacobaea vulgaris; this comes with divers other changes of no direct relevance to this blog.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Bread and toadstools

Yesterday much of Northamptonshire endured torrential rain but today dawned bright and clear. No overnight frost had been forecast so I'd uncovered my Abyssinian Banana, Ensete ventricosum, in order to let it dry out: of course it was a frosty night.
Anyway, given the fine morning and the fact that we needed bread, I took a walk to a nearby shop. I had no intention of being distracted en route by fish or fowl but my route took me past Stefen Leys Pocket Park, where drifts of snowdrops were hard to ignore.
Snowdrops in Stefen Lays Pocket Park, Daventry. 4 February, 2017
They weren't fully open but another couple of hours would probably expose enough of the innards to tempt Honey Bees (snowdrops provide the bees with both nectar and pollen). The status of snowdrops in Britain has been much discussed and is still not fully understood and the problem is complicated by the fact that five species are now known to be naturalised in the British Isles together with a couple of hybrids.
The snowdrops I photographed certainly seem to be Galanthus nivalis, by far the commonest species. A fact not widely known beyond the gardening fraternity is that an autumn-flowering snowdrop exists. Galanthus reginae-olgae is naturalised here and there and its blooming prompts excited letters to newspapers proclaiming that 'winter has arrived early'. (A similar situation occurs with regard to insects, when the bee-mimicking hoverfly, Eristalis tenax, may be seen on a sunny winter's day, provoking a flurry of letters regarding 'early honey bees'.)
I was about to resume my bread quest when my eye was caught by fungi on a nearby tree stump. The species was surely a Ganoderma but really I should have taken home a portion for a closer examination.
Bracket fungi can be tricky to identify. Stefen Leys Pocket Park.
Daventry, 4 February, 2017
I did photograph the under side but this was less useful than I had hoped. The Artist's Bracket, Ganoderma applanatum, is probably the commonest species and this is almost certainly what I was looking at, but it is easily confused with G. adspersum.
The under surface was white but without obvious features.
Stefen Leys Pocket Park, Daventry. 4 February, 2017
Only a few days ago ('Stumped', 30 January) I was commenting on the widespread nature of Turkey Tail, Trametes versicolor, and here it was again, appearing to cascade down the side of a dead tree stump.
With barely room to move! Trametes versicolor at Stefen Leys Pocket Park,
Daventry. 4 February, 2017 (a strimmer had been at work nearby).
But enough - I still needed bread, and a few minutes later I was on my way home, to find that the sun had done its work and Crocus sieberi was in flower in our front garden, living up to its reputation as one of the earliest-flowering croci.
Crocus sieberi is very early to flower. Our garden, Stefen Hill,
Daventry. 4 February, 2017

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Champing at the bit

We are into February; I am champing at the bit, but winter drags on. Every day a check is made on our crocus and iris plants to see if their blooms have emerged to brighten up the front garden but surely for them it is a no-brainer: hang on until there is a prolonged sunny spell with a chance of early bumble bees being on the wing. Hazel catkins dance in our neighbour's back garden, weaving through a plant of broom, Cytisus. For them sunshine is irrelevant; all that is needed are dry conditions for the wind-borne pollen grains to reach their target. The fly Contarinia coryli often causes disfiguration of the catkins, the white larvae causing a distinctive swelling, although the catkin remains cylindrical - if a little bent. I must make an effort to find some examples.
Hazel catkins are now conspicuous. Stefen Hill, Daventry.
2 February, 2017
On the edge of Daventry Grey Squirrels, Sciurus caroliniensis, chase each other around the bole of a tree. The immediate surroundings may be desolate but this is valuable territory and worth fighting for - although this 'squirreling' rarely seems to involve a physical clash. The disputing animals often scream at each other but the precise nature of the scream will vary in accordance with the situation. I have known people mistake these screams for those of a Jay, Garrulus glandarius; how apposite is its generic name!
Grey Squirrels dispute over territorial rights. Danetre Drive,
Daventry. 2 February, 2017
Meanwhile, a short distance away, on a little-used footpath, mosses have taken over, making the surface treacherous for the occasional pedestrian. But the mosses are not having it all their own way and are under attack from some sort of pathogen, perhaps involving a lichen, to produce an intriguing mosaic of green, grey and gold. Biting rain is now stinging my cheeks in a strengthening wind and I beat a hasty retreat. Just what is going on here? I'll be back for samples.
Mosses and lichens form a complex mosaic on a footpath at
Danetre Drive, Daventry. 2 February, 2017