Monday, 30 October 2017

Stefen Leys Pocket Park again

Last night was distinctly chilly and I suspect we weren't far from the first frost of the autumn (there was quite a heavy frost in Byfield). Even so, the morning was blessed with bright sunshine so I strode out through grass heavy with dew to visit our local pocket park. As I have said in previous blogs, it is no longer an officially designated pocket park, but the signage remains.
The signage remains. 30 October, 2017

A few weeks ago the park's only pond was choked with Yellow Flag, Iris pseudacorus, and in that condition it was no longer of any use for breeding frogs and toads. Today I was delighted to find that a group has cleared it out.
The pond on 11 September, horribly choked with Yellow Iris
The water, which someone had apparently polluted with a paraffin-like chemical, has also been drained. The material, including a lawnmower, had been bagged up and the council, ever ready to do its bit and encourage voluntary efforts, had refused to take it away, deeming it 'unsuitable'. Much of this information I gleaned from a passer-by but I couldn't find out just who had organised it as I'd have been delighted to help.
Stefen Leys Pocket Park. The pond today, 30 October, 2017
A lawnmower had been hauled out of the mud together with other unsavoury items and, as there is no obvious source of water nearby, it is hoped that rain will do the job of refilling it.
A moderately large crab apple in the middle of the area is covered with fruit. It is probably the variety 'Golden Hornet' or something very similar and the softening fruit will be a welcome source of food for thrushes, jays, mice and so on.
A crab apple is heavy with yellow fruit. 30 October, 2017
There was little out of the ordinary to note but that does not mean that commonplace species lack interest. An old, decaying tree stump was sporting a lovely clump of Turkey-tail, Trametes versicolor.

Turkey-tail is flourishing on an old tree stump. Stefen Leys Pocket Park.
30 October, 2017

This fungus is extremely common in this situation and plays a crucial role in breaking down the tissues of the wood and recycling its nutrients. It may lack brilliant colour but its subtle layering of brown, grey and cream more than make up for it.

A Brown-lipped Snail, Cepaea nemoralis, was working towards its Duke of Edinburgh  Award by scaling a tree. This clearly involved a competitive element as other snails were climbing similar trees nearby. As I say, commonplace but interesting - or at least, I think so.
Two metres up, only another twenty to go. A Brown-lipped Snail is probably
pausing until nightfall. Stefen Leys Pocket Park. 30 October, 2017


Sunday, 29 October 2017

Rushden Lakes

When retail developments clash with wildlife there is usually a problem. It is flora and fauna versus Florence and Fred, with the former generally being the losers. At Rushden Lakes, a development adjacent to flooded gravel pits rich in wildlife, a brave effort has been made to reconcile the inevitable problems. Wildlife has of course suffered and to pretend otherwise would be to turn a blind eye - or ear - to the noise, the atmospheric pollution caused by a daily influx of vehicles in their hundreds, the potential litter and simply the acres of tarmac covering what could have been an even more valuable wildlife habitat. But there is no denying the importance of this innovative venture, and if it reminds people of the wildlife on their doorstep, this is no bad thing.
My worry is that the area could be over-managed. 'We must remove that overhanging branch, someone might bump their head, and get rid of that fallen log, someone could trip' sort of attitude, but with the region's wildlife trust deeply involved I'm sure that a common sense attitude will prevail. Earlier today Chris and I mosied over to take a look.
There are plenty of well-positioned viewing platforms.
Rushden Lales, 29 October, 2017
A big effort has been made to retain and reveal the area's natural beauty. The public access is limited to footpaths but enough of the adjoining wet woodland - a sort of carr - is visible to whet the appetite, perhaps encouraging people to become involved in the work of the Trusts and get really engaged in woodlands.
Woodland to the left and a lake to the right. Rushden Lakes.
 29 October, 2017
Inevitably the amount of wildlife to be seen was limited to commonplace, familiar species, but how many children have properly looked at the flowers of brambles, examined acorns or felt the spiny receptacles of teasels?
Flowers lingered on brambles. Rushden Lakes. 29 October, 2017
There will be plenty of wildfowl on the lakes and, if they can't spot any woodland birds, there are a number of carved wooden sculptures to fire the imagination. 'I've never sat on a woodlice,' I heard a child shout, as it mounted a wooden isopod.
'Owls then on every bough do sit'.  Rushden Lakes, Northamptonshire.
29 October, 2017
Was there anything for me to report? A willow leaf bore the gall of a cecidomyid fly, Iteomyia caprae, but that was about it, and I'd not gone with the intention of doing any surveying anyway.
The yellow gall of Iteomyia caprae. Rushden Lakes, 29 October, 2017
The weather had been better than we'd been entitled to for late October and we left with the intention of returning. However, it was a round journey of sixty two miles so it won't be in the immediate future. 

Tony White  E-mail:

Friday, 27 October 2017

The church of St Nicholas, Eydon

Here I go again, poking around yet another church. Today it was the very attractive church of St Nicholas, Eydon. Before I go further I should mention that the village name is pronounced Eden, and as if to make this absolutely clear, there is a farm nearby called East of Eydon Farm. As in:
                        So Cain went out from the Lord's presence and lived in the land of
                        Nod, which is east of Eden.

                                                                            Genesis 4:16

Right, that's sorted!
The church, like so many in the area, is Grade II listed, even though in general architectural terms, it is not at all unusual and the devil is in the detail. The local area was once well known for its quarries, with some of the finest stone apparently coming from a pit near Eydon owned by one William Tew. The whole of the church is constructed using Eydon stone which, according to Diana Sutherland is 'very ferruginous, with sand grains set in a matrix of strong limonite'. [Sutherland 2003]

The stained glass windows always attract attention - of course, they are meant to - and most portrayed a typical array of biblical scenes. Two of the windows in St Nicholas' Church were nevertheless unusual, displaying heraldic material in the form of coats-of-arms.
Window 1
Clockwise, from top left:
                                 Edward the Confessor
                                 William the Conqueror
                                 Edward III
                                 King Stephen

Window 2 

Clockwise, from top left:
                                 Hanover (!)

Of course my real interest lay in the churchyard and its wildlife. An important and imposing feature was not a native species but a Tulip Tree, Liriodendron tulipifera, a member of the Magnolia Family from the U.S.A. Not for the first time my attention was drawn to its presence by noticing its leaves on the ground. These four-lobed structures are very distinctive and the shape is surely almost unique. Tulip Trees can attain huge dimensions, sometimes reaching a height of 45 metres. This churchyard specimen is a fine tree but has a long way yet to go. Incidentally the species is prized for its timber.

There was a fine Silver Birch present and a lovely Scots Pine, Pinus sylvestris, whose lofty branches created a lovely tracery pattern against the steel-blue autumn sky.

A nearby wall provided a home for a thriving patch of House-leek, Sempervivum tectorum. It is not a native to this country but is long-established, having been first recorded in 1629 and with the first Northamptonshire record being from Charwelton in 1813. It is known from walls and roof-tops (tectorum - of roofs) over most of Europe but seems to be unknown as a genuinely wild plant. Its tendency to be grown above doors may be behind one of its old names of 'Welcome home husband, however drunk you be' [Clapham et al,1962]. According to Richard Mabey House-leeks were originally grown on roofs as magical protection against lightning, especially on thatched houses, which were very prone to fire. [Mabey, 1996] Other names include 'Jupiter's Eye' and 'Bullock's Beard'.
I examined a Lawson's Cypress and was pleased to find a specimen of the Juniper Shieldbug, Cyphostethus tristriatus, among the cones; pleased because it is a new record for the area but also smugly pleased because the coloration of this insect make it difficult to spot.

The village may merit a return visit in six months time.                                 


Clapham, A.R., Tutin, T.G. and Warburg, E.F. 2nd Ed.1962  Flora of the British Isles  Cambridge University Press
Mabey, R 1996  Flora Britannica  Chatto & Windus
Sutherland, D.S. 2003  Northamptonshire Stone  Dovecote Press

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

En route to Daventry

I frequently walk into Daventry hoping to find, generally without success, some curiosity upon which to comment, be it plant, animal or fungus. October is traditionally a good month for fungi and forays in search of these curious organisms are popular - if someone with sufficient expertise can be found to lead the group. Today proved to be without fungal interest and only botanical subjects drew my attention.
Greater Periwinkle, Vinca major, was in flower. It was an escapee from a nearby garden, from whence it had spread vegetatively by stolons, arching downwards and rooting where they touched the soil.
Pretty though it is, Vinca major can become a garden thug and is probably
best avoided. Daventry, 24 October, 2017

As far as I know it doesn't produce seed in this country for I can't ever recall finding any plants bearing seeds. It belongs to a largely tropical family, the Apocynaceae, although this particular species is native to southern Europe. The family is generally poisonous, often dangerously so, but one of its old English names - Violet of the Dead (or simply Flower of the Dead) - did not refer to the plant's poisonous properties but from the custom of adorning people condemned to death, with a garland of these flowers placed on the head. It is tempting to believe that this is the origin of its other English name of Periwig but I found, on checking, that the etymology does not support this idea. The Apocynaceae is a large family of plants and includes Oleander, Nerium oleander, which is also very poisonous.
I did a double-take a few yards further on when I saw a small shrub smothered in glossy purple berries, but quickly realised that it was a honeysuckle or, to be more precise, Wilson's Honeysuckle, Lonicera nitida
Brought back from China by Ernest Wilson, Lonicera nitida, is most
attractive if allowed to produce its fruit. Daventry, 24 October, 2017

People could be forgiven for not recognising this evergreen plant, hailing from China, as a honeysuckle at all, as it is quite unlike the twining, deciduous species we are familiar with. The flowers are inconspicuous and, as the plant is often clipped back hard to form tight hedging, the attractive fruits are often lost. It occasionally becomes naturalised.
In our back garden we have a specimen of the Alpine Mint Bush, Prostanthera cuneata. For some reason it has failed to flower this year so I was a little irked to see one blooming quite prolifically along Augustine's Way. This species, from south-east Australia, really is a member of the Mint Family, Lamiaceae, and has a pungent mint smell when rubbed.
The Alpine Mint Bush has flowers typical of the Lamiaceae family.
Daventry, Northants. 24 October, 2017
It is quite succulent and when not in bloom vaguely resembles one of the quite unrelated stonecrops.
Finally, on reaching Daventry town centre, I made an interesting discovery regarding the human form. Many years ago I can recall reading to my pupils extracts from a little story called 'Flat Stanley', by Jeff Brown. I had always assumed that flat people such as the eponymous Stan were purely fictitious beings. I was clearly wrong, for some appear to be resident here in Daventry. They even have their own waste bins. We live and learn.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Pellitory of the Wall

What is the difference between Pellitory of the Wall and the Daily Mail?  Clearly one is a noxious and pernicious growth whose existence is difficult to justify and is best avoided; by contrast Pellitory of the Wall, Parietaria judaica, is an interesting species of plant to which we should accord more respect. The first is passed by many of us on our daily walks and rarely noticed and sadly I am one of those who fall into this category. Come to think of it the second subject is, in a sense, also passed daily - if our bowels are in good working order.
Pellitory of the Wall is a member of the Nettle Family, Urticaceae,  but despite its relationships the plant does not sting.  Over the decades it has also been referred to as Parietaria diffusa and P. ramiflora. Its common name is very appropriate for it is rarely seen in any location other than on, or at the base of, a wall, the only exceptions I can recall being the occasional plant growing on rough, stony ground.
Pellitory of the Wall clinging to the wall - where else? - of Holy Cross
Church, Byfield. 18 October, 2017
Certainly John Clare knew it from this distinctive habitat for in his 1821 work, The Village Minstrel, he described a location as being 'Where the mouldering walls are hung with Pellitory green'.
Gill Gent and Rob Wilson, point out that it often occurs on the brickwork of canal lock-gates. [Gent and Wilson, Ref 1] Beyond Britain I have often noted it on ancient buildings and archaeological sites in southern and western Europe.
Despite its superficially mundane nature it has a number of interesting features. For example, some of the stigmas on this wind-pollinated plant are red whilst the others are white. Why? There is no apparent reason. To avoid self-fertilisation these stigmas shrivel up and cease to function once pollinated and it is only then that the associated anthers release their pollen. Like stinging nettles, the pollen is released by an almost explosive mechanism whereby the stamens spring outwards, discharging a cloud of pollen, allowing it to drift away in the breeze. Being reliant on wind rather than insects it can be found in flower throughout the winter months, but visually it must be admitted that these flowers are excessively dull.
It clings to other walls in the village too. Byfield, Northants.
18 October, 2017
The Red Admiral Butterfly. Vanessa atalanta, generally uses the Perennial Stinging Nettle, Urtica dioica and the Small Stinging Nettle, Urtica urens, as food plants for its caterpillars but will on occasion also use Pellitory of the Wall. 
Pellitory of the Wall. The clusters of inconspicuous flowers are wind
pollinated. Byfield. 18 Octpober, 2017

As for humans, it was once frequently used by herbalists, being 'a most efficacious remedy in stone, gravel, dropsy and suppression of urine.' [Wren, Ref 2] The poet and playwright, Ben Jonson wrote:
                                  ' A good old woman...did cure me
                                   With sodden ale and pellitorie o' the wall'.
                                                                                         The Alchemist, III

So, this humble plant, much esteemed in the past, has an interesting history. Indeed, its habitat may in part relate to its cultivation by monks or nuns in physic gardens and subsequent escape, to initially colonise the walls of priories and abbeys.

Tony White:


1.  Gent, G and Wilson, R  2012  The Flora of Northamptonshire and the Soke of  Peterborough  Robert Wilson Designs/B.B.S.I

2. Wren, R.C. 3rd edition 1932  Potter's Cyclopaedia of Botanical Drugs and Preparations
Potter & Clarke, Ltd.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

The Strawberry Tree

Most gardeners are familiar with the Strawberry Tree. Its Latin name is Arbutus unedo and I know of at least two specimens in Byfield;  I also grow it in my back garden here in Daventry. Unfortunately three Old World trees and eight species from North America go under the general name of 'Strawberry Tree' and it can potentially lead to confusion.
Arbutus unedo is sometimes referred to as the Killarney Strawberry Tree for it is found wild in that county and adjacent ones in the Irish Republic. Along with about fourteen other species it forms the 'Lusitanian' element in the flora of the British Isles. Other plants in this curious group include St Patrick's Cabbage, Saxifraga spathularis, the Irish Fleabane, Inula salicina and St Dabeoc's Heath, Daboecia cantabrica (Note 1).
There is a Lusitanian fauna too. The Kerry Spotted Slug, Geomalacus maculosus and the Pyrenean Glass Snail, Semilimax pyrenaicus, are joined by a woodlouse, Oritoniscus flavus and all may share a similar history.
Arbutus unedo in flower. Church Street, Byfield. 18 October, 2017

But what is this history? All are found in parts - mainly the south-west - of Ireland and also in the Iberian peninsula (Lusitania was a Roman province roughly equating to modern Portugal), so there appears to be some kind of geographical linkage.
Fanciful theories once posited the existence of a lost land region, Atlantis, which existed somewhere to the west between Iberia and Ireland, thus resurrecting an idea which first appeared in the works of Plato. A more plausible theory concerns the situation which prevailed during the last stages of the Pleistocene. As the last ice sheets receded some fifteen thousand years ago land areas would probably have been exposed, the sea level being about 100 metres below the current level. Such land could form a bridge, thus providing a means by which certain organisms made the Iberia-Ireland journey. An alternative explanation could be a relatively mundane one: Mesolithic sea-going human travellers may have inadvertently carried these organisms as 'stowaways' and there is accumulating evidence to support this.
It might have been hoped that advances in genetics would have shed light on the subject. In fact these researches seem to have complicated the situation [Ref 1] and to outline the problems would cause me to digress too much from the main subject of this blog - the Strawberry Tree. Incidentally the genus should be pronounced ar'butus and not ar'but'us.
The Church Street specimen appears to be bearing only one fruit.
18 October, 2017

Despite being confined in the wild to south-west Ireland and Mediterranean regions Arbutus unedo is reasonably hardy, surviving certainly in southern England and Wales and even becoming naturalised here and there. The flowers and extremely insipid fruit (unedo : eat once) are produced simultaneously in the autumn months. A vivid imagination may detect a resemblance between the rather warty fruits and a strawberry, but in appearance only, not flavour! It belongs to the Heather Family, Ericaceae, generally a lime-avoiding assemblage of plants, but whenever I have found the species wild in Spain, Portugal, France and Italy, it has been on distinctly limy soils. The fruits of the strawberry tree may ferment before falling, leading to stories of animals becoming drunk when feeding on them. Indeed even bears were believed to become intoxicated and the city of Madrid's coat of arms depicts a bear climbing a strawberry tree.
Our own specimen, planted about six months ago, is about to come
into flower. 18 October, 2017

I said there are three Old World species. Arbutus andrachne is the Grecian member of the trio. It is a beautiful tree with its flowers borne in the spring. It requires protection when young but is reasonably hardy once mature. The third species, Arbutus pavarii, is rare and little-known. It has been found in one place only, the Gebel Akhdar near the coast of Libya. Photographs show a handsome, pink-flowered shrub but, though a desirable plant, it would require very special cultivation in the U.K.
The New World species include the lovely Madrona, Arbutus menziesii, from California. However, recent studies suggest that this, and the other American species, are suffiently distinct genetically to be placed in a separate genus, so I will discuss them no further.


1. St Dabeoc is an obscure Irish saint. When the name was Latinised to form this botanical specific name the 'o' and 'e' were accidentally reversed, giving us Daboecia. In the interest of continuity the error has been allowed to perpetuate.


!. Beebee, Trevor (2014) Ireland's Lusitanian Wildlife  British Wildlife 25: 229-235

Monday, 16 October 2017

To Southbrook and back

Southbrook lies on the far side of Daventry and earlier today I strode out to this eastern outpost for no other reason than a bit of exercise and a change of scene.
We are now well into autumn but, as a compensation for a disappointing September, this month has been remarkably mild. I kept up as brisk a pace as I could manage but the warmth - around the 19-20 degrees mark - meant that I was glad of the occasional pause for a photograph or to examine an insect or two. All I saw were commonplace and the mirid bug, Liocoris tripustulatus, on Rose Bay Willowherb, didn't merit an entry on my recording sheet.
Hawthorns are bearing heavy crops of fruit this year.
Daventry, 16 October, 2017
Signs of autumn were everywhere and hawthorn 'berries' were turning from scarlet to a dull crimson; birds will not go hungry. Garden Cross Spiders, Araneus diadematus, may also find themselves snapped up by birds; the females are now plump with eggs and in this gravid condition make a substantial contribution to their required daily protein intake. If alarmed many spiders, and insects too, drop to the ground where their cryptic coloration helps them to blend in well with dry grass, dead leaves and so on.
A gravid specimen of the Garden Cross Spider. Daventry.
16 October, 2017
I pushed on towards the town centre, passed beneath the busy A425 and so into Southbrook. An interesting stretch of waste ground lay on my left; such areas can often be worth checking over for garden escapes, alien plants and so forth so I decided to investigate.
Potentially interesting waste ground in Southbrook, Daventry.
16 October, 2017
The area proved to be a bit of a disappointment in terms of unusual plants but was not bereft of interest. A Horse Chestnut tree, Aesculus hippocastanum, was growing strongly at the edge of the area, its sticky buds already fattening up ready for next spring. An unfortunate harvestman had become firmly stuck on the glutinous surface and its plight indicated one purpose of the glutinous coating.

This harvestman has died, stuck on the bud of a Horse Chestnut. Southbrook, Daventry. 16 October, 2017
Harvestmen are harmless to the tree but it could have been an aphid, mite or even a Horse Chestnut Leaf Miner, Cameraria ohridella, a moth which causes such dreadfully disfiguring damage to these trees.
Two very common species of Potentilla were present on this waste ground but of course neither was in flower. Creeping Cinquefoil, Potentilla reptans, has palmate leaves with 5-7 leaflets.
The cinquefoils are well named, each leaf having five - or sometimes up to
seven - leaflets. Southbrook, Daventry. 16 October, 2017
Silverweed, Potentilla anserina, is quite different with pinnate leaves which tend to have a silvery, even silky appearance. It might be thought that these contrasting features would have been sufficient to place the two species in different genera but the flowers are very similar. Silverweed was sometimes, as in times of famine, eaten. The rootstocks were consumed raw or roasted and, according to John Ray, writing in the 17th century, they taste a little like parsnips. Its Latin name suggests that it was readily eaten by geese as the Latin word anser means 'goose'. 
Unlike Silverweed, Goosegrass has pinnately compound leaves.
Southbrook, Daventry. 16 October, 2017
These species are commonplace, even ubiquitous, and of more interest was a melilot, Melilotus altissima. Tall Melilot is an erect plant, found frequently on waste ground in southern England, and is an introduction. It was once occasionally grown as a fodder crop but is almost certainly no longer cultivated. Melilot species often smell of new-mown hay.
Tall Melilot on waste ground at Southbrook, Daventry. 16 October, 2017
We do have a native melilot, Melilotus officinalis, moderately common on sandy ground and occasionally a component of wild bird seed mixes. Its flowers tend to be of a paler shade of yellow.
A closer look at the yellow racemes of Tall Melilot.
Southbrook, Daventry. 16 October, 2017
The melilots are closely related to the medicks, Medicago species. Black Medick or Nonsuch, Medicago lupulina, is extremely common and was present in some abundance. It resembles a yellow clover such as Trifolium dubium, but is easily distinguished by the seed pods, which are coiled and flattened. It is a valuable constituent of hay meadows, being very nutritious - as are clovers and melilots - and is an important food plant for caterpillars of the Common Blue Butterfly. 
The flattened and coiled pods of Black Medick are very distinctive.
Southbrook, Daventry. 16 October, 2017
I had now reached the furthest point of my walk and I began the return to the town centre, passing on the way some clumps of the Japanese Rose, Rosa rugosa. It is widely planted, not only in gardens but by municipal authorities, being valued both for its fragrance and its large, tomato-red hips. It frequently becomes naturalised on sandy soil but also appeared to be spreading beside the footpath I was following.

The rugose (wrinkled) leaves of Rosa rugosa are very obvious here.
Southbrook, Daventry. 16 October, 2017
I briefly considered taking some of the hips home for jam-making but swiftly dismissed the thought. I would not have been thanked.



Sunday, 15 October 2017


Yesterday Chris and I, together with our friends Ann and John, paid a visit to Thenford , the home of Michael Heseltine and his wife. The house dominates the hamlet and virtually is Thenford. Dating largely from the late eighteenth century, the house is doubtless very fine but we, and hundreds of other visitors, were concerned only with the gardens. The weather was unusually warm and we counted ourselves very lucky.
Such was the wealth of plants, even this late in the year, that I suffered a sort of mental overload. This, coupled with the need to cover as much ground as possible in the time available, meant that I took very few photographs. Furthermore I made the error of photographing the more colourful, as distinct from the more interesting, plants. This Red Hot Poker for example - I believe it to be Kniphofia rooperi - is dramatic but not scarce, being readily available from a number of nurseries. Unfortunately these plants become very untidy when flowering is over but are certainly striking.
A fine clump of Red Hot Pokers, probably Kniphofia rooperi, were backed
by a warm wall. Thenford, 14 October, 2017
Then there were the Tulbaghias growing against a warm wall. The species is probably Tulbaghia violacea but, as with the Kniphofia, there was no label to be found. This and the Red Hot Poker both hail from South Africa but the Tulbaghia is a little more tender and is safer with the shelter provided by the wall together with a well-drained soil. I grew Tulbaghias in Byfield a few years back but a cold winter finished them off and I haven't tried them since. It is a very attractive genus and is well worth cultivating but don't use them as cut flowers: the distinctive smell shows its relationship to onions!
Tulbaghias also benefited from a warm siting. The species is probably
Tulbaghia violacea. Thenford, 14 October, 2017
Requiring even greater protection is Hedychium. This is a very large genus of plants and again, frustratingly, I could find no label. It is almost certainly Hedychium gardnerianum but it could be any one of several hybrids available. Hedychiums are in the ginger family and are thus closely related to the ginger of commerce, Zingiber officinale. Most require the protection of a greenhouse but can be potted up and spend the summer months outside.
Hedychium gardnerianum may cope outside unless winter is unusually
harsh. Thenford, 14 October, 2017
In contrast to the herbaceous plants, most of the trees and shrubs were clearly - or reasonably clearly - labelled. Roy Lancaster had been deeply involved in the selection of species and I suspect that the unusually fine range of ash trees, Fraxinus species, was instigated by him.  Properly labelled too were most of the plants in the several glasshouses, here seems to be a law in operation: if I'm unsure about a plant, it doesn't bear a label.
We enjoyed the obligatory tea and cakes - very good they were too - before meandering back to the car.
There is little doubt that Chris and I will return next year, when much more should be in flower.
So why, if am so keen to return, did I leave with a feeling of unease, bordering on repugnance? Why did the house and grounds bring to mind certain streets in the less salubrious parts of Banbury, less than six miles away?
To expand upon that subject would make this blog distinctly political. Not the done thing at all.


Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Signs of autumn

We're well into October and there's no sign of frost. Nor am I expecting any for a while. Nevertheless signs of autumn are all around us: plants and animals seem to be influenced more by day-length than by temperatures. The study and measurement of seasonal changes is known as phenology but is frequently a very inexact science. People contributing to a phenological survey may, for instance, report honey bees in mid-winter when what they have observed is a Drone Fly, a bee-mimicking hoverfly. Nevertheless results are often intriguing.
The seed pods of Stinking Iris, Iris foetidissima, aka Roast Beef Plant, have now ripened and the orange coloured seeds now show through the gaping fissures. The birds seem to eschew these until later in the year when times are hard.
Iris foetidissima outside Byfield Co-op. 11 November, 2017
Trees are taking on autumn colours, none more so than the maples. We may lack the brilliant shows provided by their foliage in parts of north-east U.S.A. but our sycamores, Acer pseudoplatanus, do pretty well. The fact that sycamore is probably not native to Britain is of little consequence.
A scattering of Sycamore leaves beside the Tennis Club, Byfield.
11 November, 2017
Definitely non-native is the Narrow-leaved Ash, Fraxinus angustifolia. It is currently putting on a lovely display around Daventry and no doubt elsewhere. Its foliage has taken on a beautiful purple-maroon colour and this tree, native to Europe on flood plains from France to Turkey, is a welcome sight.(It is less welcome in parts of Australia where it is becoming a serious weed.) Unfortunately this lovely tree, together with the frequently-planted Manna Ash, Fraxinus ornus, is also susceptible to ash dieback.
Narrow-leaved Ash trees brighten up a car park in Daventry.
9 October, 2017
I must mention one feature definitely not expected in autumn. In our front garden clumps of Aubretia, Aubrieta deltoidea, are flowering quite splendidly and form a welcome source of nectar for late hoverflies and other insects. 

Aubretia, clearly confused, flowering in our front garden at Stefen Hill,
Daventry. 10 October, 2017
The study of natural history is constantly throwing up surprises!

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Allotment: to dig or not to dig?

On our allotment the remaining few beetroot and leeks will be lifted shortly, leaving only the raspberries, gooseberries and rhubarb. Other than these permanent plantings we are now 'putting the plot to bed'. Having said that we are looking to next spring with broad beans sown and red onion sets already planted.
Our last few leeks are about to be lifted. Drayton Allotments, Daventry.
10 October, 2017

Onions and broad beans share an interesting history - or perhaps I should say lack of history - for neither is known as a wild plant. The broad bean, Vicia faba, seems not to have been in existence as a crop prior to the Neolithic period although it may have been in cultivation in the Middle East as long ago as 6000 BC.  It apparently arrived in Britain during the Iron Age, i.e. a few centuries B.C. but we cannot be more precise. The seeds would not have been contained in today's non-shattering pods so harvesting would have required careful timing [Ref 1]. As for onions, Allium cepa, we have several wild onions native to north west Europe, notably Ramsons, Allium ursinum, but modern onions - together with leeks and garlic - seem have no definite or obvious wild relatives. Obviously onions and leeks did have wild progenitors but, like tea, Camellia sinesis, they appear to be extinct. Incidentally our leeks look quite emaciated but the variety was developed to be gathered when the stems are no more than  a couple of centimetres wide.
Traditionally autumn on an allotment involves extensive digging and limited areas of our plot will be dug over but I am increasingly doubtful about the value of all this hard labour [Ed: That's because you're getting old!]. So why are so many of us out there, collectively turning over I guess several million tons of earth?
A no-dig policy involves simply spreading a layer of manure on the soil.
10 October, 2017

When, some months back, Chris announced that she would like an allotment I was uneasy but I went along with the idea as I felt that the activity would be therapeutic in her recovery from cancer. In fact I have enjoyed it far more than anticipated. As Jeremy Corbyn said when questioned about his personal commitments should he become prime minister, 'Why would I give up my allotment? I think there's a need for everyone in life to balance what they do...[and] you do your job better if you give yourself time to collect your thoughts and do something else.'  Not everyone fancies an allotment so for others it will be a round of golf or blasting a few brace of birds out of the sky on a grouse moor, the latter heavily subsidised by the taxpayer, the ultimate 'magic money tree' [Ref 2]. But these leisure times are important and I admit that I find digging valuable as a way of unwinding; when I turn over the soil I also turn over my thoughts. But let us return to the question: why - other than for therapeutic reasons - do we do it?
Well, it buries the weeds. That is clear and, once they are buried, they will decompose and release their nutrients, returning them to the soil as humus. What else? I have scratched my head and can come up with nothing. It is argued that it breaks up heavy soil and lets in the air but this is a very moot point. Most plants root better in firm soil. At times the soil may feel compacted and dense but is in fact full of air channels - tiny but adequate for the growth of crop plants. Breaking up the soil seriously damages its structure and causes extra loss of moisture via evaporation. We also seriously damage the invisible but immense network of saprophytic fungi that exists beneath virgin soils and which provides vital help (there can be five metres of their mycelial threads in a gram of soil) in breaking down organic matter. As for weeds, other than the most stubborn of perennials such as brambles and bindweed, they should be hoed off and composted. Rather than dig in the compost -  or manure if I can get it - I intend to simply spread it on the surface and allow worms to drag it down. 
The best plot holder on our site does just that and her results are impressive. The concept of a no-dig plot is not new but it seems to be gaining in popularity. Its advantages are staring us in the face.
I hope I am not too old to learn.


1.  Stace, Clive A. and Michael J. Crawley (2015)  Alien Plants. William Collins
2.  Monbiot, George  Black Hole. Guardian Newspaper, 18 August, 2016

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Autumn colour in our garden

Autumn can be one of the loveliest times of the year in our gardens and, although ours is small, we endeavour to brighten it up with the three f's: flowers, foliage or fruit.
Strictly speaking only two species currently in bloom are autumn flowering plants. We planted Hesperanthera coccinea this spring and it has performed well. In older books and many plant catalogues this South African member of the iris family is called Schizostylis coccinea. As for common names it may be listed under River Lily, Crimson Flag or Kaffir Lily, although the last of these name is now in disfavour as 'kaffir' is by some considered an offensive word. It is a little on the tender side but, unless we have a severe frost, it should be safe. It is closely related to Gladioli.
Hesperanthera coccinea is currently doing well for us.
Stefen Hill, Daventry. 16 September, 2017
The other plant in this autumn flowering category is Sedum spectabile. Some gardeners, Bob Flowerdew for example, hate this plant and I admit there are more spectacular species, but I value it as a superb 'insect plant', attracting bees, hoverflies and butterflies by the score. Having said that, September was rather cool and wet; flower visitors have been fewer than expected.

Sedum spectabile in our back garden. 20 September, 2017

The other plants in bloom are really summer flowering species. They remain in flower either because they naturally have a long flowering season or because they have been cut back to induce a late floral display.
Shrubby Veronica species, formerly known as Hebe, bear racemes of flowers not unlike those of Buddleias. They do not attract butterflies in quite such abundance but some varieties such as 'Midsummer Beauty' aren't at all bad and are regularly visited in our garden by Small Tortoiseshell and Red Admiral butterflies. When time is available I snip off spent flowers to extend the display.
Red Admiral butterfly on Veronica (ex-Hebe) flowers in our front garden.
16 September, 2017

Some climbers are also producing late flowers. One is the Passion Flower, Passiflora caerulea. It does not look like producing fruits this year although last year it did so in profusion and I am currently nurturing one strong-growing seedling.
Passion flowers have an intriguing floral structure.
Our back garden. 20 September, 2017
'Black-eyed Susan' is a name applied to two completely different plants. One is Rudbeckia hirta, a sunflower-like annual. It is very popular but we do not grow it. Instead what we have is Thunbergia alata, a fast-growing climber in the Acanthaceae family (a surprise this, because it looks nothing like the familiar Bear's Breeches, Acanthus mollis). It is a perennial but is distinctly tender, so we grow it as an annual. It doesn't produce seeds for us so to propagate it we would need to take stem cuttings. Instead we simply buy new plants each year. We plan to erect a poly-tunnel on our allotment so I may have a go at cuttings.
Black-eyed Susan has grown rampantly for us this year.
22 September, 2017
Dahlias are not the first plants to spring to mind when considering autumn colour but of course they usually do very well until the first frosts. All are natives of Mexico (the Dahlia is Mexico's national flower) and from the original wild species some 42 thousand varieties have been developed. As a general rule complex hybrids are poor for attracting pollinators but ours have done very well this year probably because we are growing varieties with a simple flower structure.
Still going strong. Dahlias in our back garden on 7 October, 2017
Next year?  I aim to introduce some Sternbergia lutea into the front garden. This autumn or winter-flowering species is found wild from the Balearic Islands, through the Middle East and into Central Asia. I have heard it said that this plant was Christ's 'Lilies of the fields' but such a suggestion appears to be highly speculative.
Anyway, I'll give it a bash.