Thursday, 25 October 2018

Bugs and Ladybirds

Off to Foxhill Farm again today with only ne real objective: to find and photograph the spider Diaea dorsata. I did find a specimen but it was very tiny, perhaps only half-grown. However I did come across some creatures of interest.

This Orange Ladybird, Halyzia 16-guttata, was on ivy. Once rather scarce and confined to ancient woodland it is now spreading, having apparently developed a liking for aphids on sycamore and ash. But although now quite common, but it was new to the farm and rather pleasing.
This Orange Ladybird was on dead wood beneath trees.
Foxhill Farm, 25 September, 2018

The bug Corizus hyoscyami has also experienced a large widening of its range in recent years. It is often referred to as the Cinnamon Bug, but I am at a loss to understand why.

Snug in my sweep net, a Cinnamon Bug. I released it after
the photograph. On nettles, Foxhill Farm, Badby. 25 October.

I returned home laden with specimens and noticed that an unmentionable pair of my wife's garments had blown off the washing line. They had been on the ground for several hours and when I picked them up...

Choosing only the finest silk! Stefen Hill, Daventry. 25 October, 2018
… I found that a Garden Cross Spider had decided they would make an admirable place for its cocoon of eggs. I removed both spider and eggs and put them beside a crevice in the garage wall, but I fancy they're doomed. 'Doomed I tell ye. Doomed!'

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

South Way to Southbrook

I've been getting slothful, and it won't do! Chris was off to 'The Heart of the Shires' to meet an old friend so I asked her to drop me off on the edge of Daventry to investigate an area I know only slightly.

For me, one of the town's most attractive features is the amount of open space it offers. I fear that pressure will mount for these green areas to be built over, but at the present we need to appreciate it.

The start of my walk is not something to gladden the heart - unless you regard small factory units as aesthetically pleasing.  The southern end of South Way is flanked on both sides by dozens of such units, together providing employment for a great many people, but beautiful it ain't, and my camera was not called into action.
My chosen route took me along a footpath along the western edge of Southbrook parallel with South Way and lined with Italian Alders, Alnus cordata. I looked in vain for Alder Tongue, Taphrina alni, a fungus affecting the cone-like female inflorescences but found none. What I did find however was an interesting leaf-mine with a distinctive circular blotch.

The distinctive leaf-mine of the sawfly Heterarthrus vagans on Italian Alder.
Southbrook, Daventry. 23 October, 2018
It is the work of a sawfly, Heterarthrus vagans. Records are few on the on the National Biological Records maps and this could be a 'first' for Northamptonshire. However, in reality it is probably widespread. Certainly it was present on every tree I examined.

AS I strolled along the trees gave way to a hedgerow, with yew saplings and young holly bushes. Both species have probably arrived there via bird droppings. As is so often the case with holly, the lower leaves were well armed with sharp prickles.

The lower leaves of holly can be fiercely armed.
On tiptoe I was able to photograph higher branches where, out of the reach of browsing animals, the leaves were less fiercely armed.
Higher in the tree their edges are relatively smooth.
Southbrook, Daventry. 23 Occtober, 2018
The leaves of most of the plants had been mined by the very common fly Phytomyza ilicis.
As is often the case,  leaves had been mined by Phytomiza ilicis.

Cotoneaster shrubs may have been planted although they too are often spread by birds. It is odd how a song and dance is often made regarding Laburnum seeds and Woody Nightshade but Cotoneaster fruit, looking so much like harmless hawthorn berries, are quite toxic, with their leaves, flowers and fruit all containing cyanogenic glycosides. I would guess however that a good quantity would need to be consumed before harm resulted. The plants I saw all appeared to be the hybrid Cotoneaster x watereri.

A few cotoneaster bushes added colour to the scene with their scarlet
berries. Southbrook, Daventry. 23 October, 2018

A large number of different woody plants may indicate a hedgerow of some antiquity and here apart from yew, holly, and cotoneaster there were also specimens of ash, privet (the native species), sycamore and elder. However I suspect that this hedge, fundamentally of common hawthorn, is of no great age.

As is often the case as autumn approaches, some of the sycamore leaves were discoloured by white patches. It is a sort of powdery mildew, Uncinula aceris, and is very frequent in, for example Byfield, but few reference works seem to mention it.

Uncinula aceris is frequent at this time of the year. Southbrook, Daventry.
 23 October, 2018
Finally I reached the town where I was pleased to note that beside the Abbey Centre an Eastern White Cedar, Thuja occidentalis, was bearing cones - prolifically too. It is not really a cedar at all for it belongs to the Cypress Family whereas true cedars, Cedrus species, are members of the Pine Family.

The Eastern White Cedar is not the most commonly grow species
of the genus. Daventry, 23 October, 2018
Back to holly, for in town there was also a specimen in flower. These flowers are hardly an arresting sight and although they are of some importance for wildlife they would not earn Ilex aquifolium a place in our garden.
Easily overlooked, the flowers of holly are small and, usually, white.
Daventry town centre. 23 October, 2018

Monday, 22 October 2018

Autumn or Fall?

In the USA autumn is 'the fall'. This is an appropriate term for the northern states such as Maine or Oregon but in Florida, where leaf-fall is much less of a phenomenon, the term is surely less suitable.

In Britain it is autumn, and John Clare's poem of that name would sound odd had he called it 'The Fall': it would sound like an account of someone's tumble down the stairs.

                     I love the fitfull (sic) gusts that shakes
                    The casement all the day
                    And from the mossy elm tree takes
                    The faded leaf away
                    Twirling it by the window-pane
                    With thousand others down the lane...

Clare speaks of the leaves, shed in their billions, whose next role will be to enrich the soil via decay. Most of us also think of these spent organs and in so doing tend to overlook he other component of the litter - falling twigs.
Leaves cover a track near our house on Stefen Hill, Daventry.
21 October, 2018

The phenomenon of twig fall is known as cladoptosis and, unlike the autumnal shedding of leaves, it can happen at any time of the year, most frequently of course during gales. Twigs (and don't ask for a definition, we all have a pretty good idea of what a twig is) may get diseased or may simply be rendered redundant and die as a result of being cast in the shade by more vigorous branches. Twigs will of course, like leaf litter, decay, but the process just takes a little longer. These twigs may form a sort of scaffolding on the woodland floor and a myriad of spiders such as Neriene peltata and Linyphia triangularis makes use of this situation to construct their snares. Also, to a far greater extent than leaves, twigs may carry an encrustation of lichens.

Larger twigs, torn off in a gale, may still be formed of living tissue so willow or alder twigs, if falling on to wet ground, may take root.

Last month at the meeting of the Boddington and District Garden Club Chris won a raffle prize consisting of a specially designed rake and container for collecting fallen leaves. No doubt a few twigs will be garnered with the leaves. They will be allowed to decay beside our allotment when they will be spread as a soil conditioner. Fallen leaves/twigs contain few nutrients as these have be largely withdrawn by the tree. Nevertheless the decomposed material will help to form humus and improve the general state of the soil, helping to create a nice, crumbly tilth.

Today I went a-gathering and in so doing couldn't resist examining the leaves still clinging on. A beech leaf had been galled by the fly Hartigiola annulipes. It is not rare but in this area seems uncommon, with the U.K. distribution map not showing any apparent records for Northants.  The upright galls are slightly hairy and quite distinctive.

Beech leaf showing the galls of Hartigiola annulipes. Stefen Hill,
Daventry. 21 October, 2018

I gathered a substantial quantity of leaf/twiggy litter and will check it out, if time permits, for the various invertebrates potentially present. It will then be allotment bound.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

October colour in the rock garden

It may be mid-October but there is still much to see in our front garden.

Pinks and reds seem to the fashion and Gypsophila repens is putting on a good display of shell-pink flowers. The word 'gypsophila' can be translated as 'chalk lover' and this knowledge, together with the fact that it comes from the mountains of south and central Europe, gives lots of clues regarding its needs.
Gypsophila repens is easy to obtain and easy to grow.
Our garden, Stefen Hill, Daventry. 21 October, 2018

In truth, providing the soil is well-drained and getting plenty of sunshine, it is easy to grow. Our soil is no more than neutral and yet it is happy enough.

It grows alongside a clump of Parahebe catarractae. The two plants may look vaguely similar but any more than a cursory glance reveals considerable differences. Gypsophila is in the Pink Family, Dianthaceae, alongside Sweet Williams, campions and so on, but Parahebes are related to speedwells. For most of my life they have been members of the Scrophulariaceae but, along with veronicas and hebes, they have moved to the Plantain Family, Plantaginaceae (Note 1).

Parahebe catarractae is a delight, despite being a little too vigorous.
21 October, 2018
The wild species is isually white or vaguely pink but I grow a more strongly coloured form called 'Delight'. It is tough, evergreen and vigorous. In fact I have to be ruthless with it and cut away over-enthusiastic growth.

Yet another pink flowered plant currently in bloom is Sowbread, Cyclamen hederifolium. A friend once suggested to me that this genus of plants, related to primroses, should be pronounced kiklamen. Whilst that may be classically correct it is a road full of pitfalls: we would have to refer to rhinoceras as rhinokeras. I don't think I'll go that way!

Our clump of Sowbread, Cyclamen hederifolium is blooming prolifically.
21 October, 2018
Anyway, our patch of cyclamens have been flowering for about a month now, and they have done so for the last 2-3 years, with the consequence that we now have lots of seedlings around the parent plant.

Finally, nearer red than pink, is our clump of Schizostylis coccinea. There is potential for confusion here too. Schizophrenia is pronounced as though there is a 't' before the 'z' but not so with plants: Schizostylis is pronounce skyzostylis. In both cases the word is bases on the Greek schistos - split. The style of Schizostylis is split into three parts.

The South African Schizostylis coccinea is making strong growth in our
front garden, Stefen Hill, Daventry. 21.October, 2018

Our plants are steadily spreading and in a couple of years time may need to be divided.

Note 1  The plantains referred to here are completely different from the banana-type plantains, Musa paradisiaca.

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Spidery things at Foxhill Farm (with postscript)

The ground has dried out quickly at Foxhill Farm. The parched earth quickly absorbed the rain of recent storms and I've been able to sally forth once more.

It was the western parts of the farm which received my attention today, with my target being a clump of dead and dying elder, Sambucus nigra, trees on the flank of Fox Hill.

Before reaching that point I passed a damaged ash tree. Beside a split in the trunk was growing a large bracket fungus. I'm no mycologist but even I could recognise it as Inonotus hispidus, known as the Shaggy Bracket. On the upper surface it has a soft, almost furry texture, making it rather distinctive. This fungus, common on ash, is likely to eventually lead to the death of the tree.

Shaggy Bracket on an ash tree. Foxhill Farm, 17 October, 2018
In a ditch nearby grew a plant that had me thinking. Its upperparts, where the flowers generally occur, were dead and I learned little from them, but lower down I found some clusters of flowers, showing that it was a valerian. But which one?

Common Valerian, Valeriana officinalis. With the upper parts dead a
fresh crop of late flowers has been produced lower on the stem.

It certainly looked like Marsh Valerian, Valeriana dioica. If so, this would be an exciting find, for large-scale drainage has destroyed many of its former habitats, making this a rare plant in the county. In fact it was without doubt Common Valerian, V. officinalis, a far more widespread plant. Reaching a height of over a metre it is too tall to be the former. It is a herb that has been used medicinally since ancient times and its name is derived from the Latin valere - to be strong and healthy.
I pressed on, passing the farmhouse where, on a low garden wall was a huge specimen of the Garden Cross Spider, Araneus diadematus. I had to look twice for it was almost as large as Araneus quadratus, a species featured in The Guinness Book of Records as 'The Heaviest British Spider'.

Garden Cross spider with a five pence coin for scale. Foxhill Farm,
17 October, 2018
This specimen was a female of an unusually pale form and she was large because she was gravid. Once she has found a suitable spot she will extrude her eggs, wrap them in a silken cocoon, and die, her task done. Spiders in this condition may live on for a while and can be recognised by their wrinkled abdomen - stretch marks!

Another view of the same specimen.
Blowing a little I finally reached the dead elder trees on Fox Hill where I spent some time examining the scattering of fallen branches. I needed to lift some of the loose bark but this has to be done with caution: fast-moving centipedes will make their escape if possible but it is also important not to destroy the habitat. As it decays a succession of invertebrates will make use of the ever-softening wood as a pabulum.

Beneath a piece of loose material I found a lovely specimen of Nuctenea umbratica - at least I think it is lovely.  It was once known as Araneus umbraticus and is closely related to the A. diadematus shown above.
Nuctenea umbratica with, to its right, a woodlouse, Porcellio scaber. Foxhill Farm, Badby, Northants.
17 October, 2018. The Porcellio is safe for woodlice are not the prey of this spider.
It is a common spider but is not often seen. This is because it is a crepuscular or nocturnal species. Its curiously flattened body allows it to insinuate itself into crevices where it will spend the daylight hours. It makes an orb web typical of the family but is constructed using very tough, sticky strands. These will hold insects firmly ensnared until the spider creeps out as nightfall approaches to gather in the day's catch. For some reason it is called the Nutmeg Orb-weaver. No, don't ask: nutmegs come from a species of Myristica and so there is no clue there.

By now the sun was shining brightly and a Noon Fly, Mesembrina meridiana, was basking while on the lookout for a mating partner - or to chase off a rival.
Noon Flies seem particularly common on sunny days in early autumn.
Foxhill Farm, 17 October, 2018
Another half-hour was spent grubbing around, looked on askance by some puzzled sheep, before zig-zagging down the hill, homeward bound. The invertebrate total for Foxhill Farm currently stands at 427 species. Today's little haul, once examined, should push it nearer to an acceptable figure.


Later in the day, just as I was retiring for the night, I noticed a spider on the stairs. Something about it looked odd so I popped it into a specimen tube for a closer examination and it proved to be a False Widow Spider, Steatoda nobilis. A lot of nonsense has been written about this species, mostly by newspaper reporters who are looking for a lurid story. Yes, it does have a venomous bite - but so do all spiders. And yes, the consequences can be an unpleasant sore spot but in most cases it is little worse than a bee sting. They are generally secretive creatures and avoid humans, only likely to bite if seriously provoked. In any case the specimen in our house proved to be a male, generally even less inclined to bite. Today I hear that a large school in Northampton has been closed for a day to allow fumigation to take place. Oh dear!


Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Byfield in October

Chris and I moved into Byfield about fourteen years ago and I have spent countless hours strolling around the village (someone has to do it). Yet when I set out for a twenty-minute stroll around there earlier today I knew there would be things of interest to note.

First up, Beckett's Close where, on the corner was a shrub I didn't recognise. It was clearly a Buddleia (see note) and probably a hybrid. Beyond that I couldn't go.

Buddleja 'Morning Mist' on the corner of Beckett's Close, Byfield.
17 October, 2018

Once home I did a bit of cutting-edge research and found that it was Buddleja 'Morning Mist', a hybrid of B. crispa and B. loricata. The former is native to Nepal, Afghanistan and adjacent countries whilst the latter is a South African species. There are about 140 species of Buddleja around the world so we can expect hybridists to be busy for quite a few decades.

I have, from time to time, seen a wasp become ensnared in a spider's web and sometimes the spider drops rapidly to the ground, apparently deciding that caution is the better part of valour. However, on a shrub, also in Beckett's Close, a specimen of the Garden Cross Spider, Araneus diadematus, had given the coup de grace to two wasps. One victim was  German Wasp, Vespula germanica, but the other was so well wrapped in its silken winding sheet that it was unidentifiable.

A female Araneus diadematus has caught two wasps, either of which could have killed it. Beckett's Close, Byfield.
17 October, 2018
Female spiders are generally identified by examining part of the sex organs known as the epigyne. Here the epigyne, pale amber coloured and looking oddly like a penis, can be seen in the centre of the picture. With tiny 'money spiders', perhaps only about two millimetres in length, this organ can be tricky to see properly.

A close-up of the ventral (under) side of the abdomen showing the epigyne.
I moved on to The Brightwell recreation area, named after a well-to-do local farmer who gave the land to the village. Trees of Common Lime had some of their leaves thickly covered - encrusted almost - in galls. Many galls can be found on lime trees but these were the work of a mite, Eriophyes tiliae. Unsightly though they are, the tree seems to suffer no ill effects.

Galls on Common Lime. They are the work of a mite,
Eriophyes tiliae. Byfield, 17 October, 2018
Nearby stood a Lombardy Poplar, a fastigiate form of Black Poplar, and it was also having its leaves attacked. This time the culprit was a tiny moth, Stigmella trimaculella. Known as the Black-poplar Pigmy, it is found over much of Britain - and much of Europe come to that.

Black-poplar Pigmy is a common micro-moth. Here its mines are on
 the leaves of 'Lombardy' Poplar. Byfield, 17 October, 2018
Quite overcome by all the heady excitement I made my way to the tennis club, where I knew a mug of hot coffee would be offered.

Note  Buddleia is the popular name for Buddleja. It is apparently named after the Reverend Adam Buddle, vicar of Farmbridge in Essex, although I have read that it was named after a London apothecary of the same name. Perhaps the Reverend dabbled in drugs as a side-line.

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Dung Beetles

For the general public I have no doubt that the idea of investigating dung for its insect life is rather repellent. The 'Cow-dung Community' (Ref.1) is in fact endlessly fascinating and, of course, is of vital importance for agriculture and the general well-being of our countryside. In Australia the introduction of sheep and cattle created a problem, for no dung community existed there and significant areas of land gradually became less productive as a result of ungraded dung, because of course vital soil nutrients were locked up in this material. Great efforts have been made over the last few decades to establish a bucoprophilous fauna to deal with the  situation.
The dung of carnivorous animals is often unpleasant both in terms of odour and its potential for spreading disease via insects. With herbivorous animals these problems are not entirely absent and sensible hygiene precautions need to be taken but Eau de Sheep Poo is usually very faint and the insect visitors are, in general, very unlikely to go on to visit our picnic table. Of course, when I say the odour is very faint, that is not the case for insects such as dung beetles. Often the dung has barely hit the ground before the beetles arrive and, once there, they virtually 'swim' into this rich food source. Significantly several dung beetles belong to the mainly aquatic Hydrophilidae 'water-loving' family.
Many dung beetles are quite small, tiny even, but the rather handsome Aphodius fimetarius females can reach 8 mm in length.

Aphodius fimetarius, taken in flight. Foxhill Farm, Badby.
31 May, 2018
The most interesting of the dung beetles taken so far this year has been Onthophagus  coenobita. I retrieved it, more dead than alive, from a water trough on Foxhill Farm. Its elytra (forewings) have the same red-brown coloration (dung coloured?) as Aphodius fimetarius, but is far less common and this may be the first recording of it from Northants.

My pinned specimen (9 mm) of Onthophagus coenobita from Foxhill Farm, Badby. 9 September, 2018
It may now be approaching mid-October but there are still plenty of dung beetles around. Aphodius contaminatus is particularly common and I have even found one or two on window ledges around the house, but we are only three hundred yards from the nearest sheep pasture.

Thought. In mediaeval times dung was often incorporated into daub for the construction of walls. I wonder whether dung beetles have been found entombed in this mixture? I will investigate.


Skidmore, Peter (1991) Insects of the Cow-dung Community. Field Studies Council.
This book should be in every home. It is the perfect antidote to 'Strictly Come Dancing'.

There's always the garden

I've taken a break from blogging for a few days, partly 'cos I've been busy but also because the foul weather has largely kept me indoors - too wimpy to go out. But I shouldn't grumble as local farmland is still displaying cracks in the soil an inch or more wide.

The rain has topped up my half-barrel and it's current level suggests we've have a shade over an inch of rain over the last couple of days.

A couple of Water Lettuce plants, Pistia stratiotes, drift around in the barrel. They are odd plants, their roots spreading, finger-like, searching for dissolved mineral salts in the water. They won't find much as I've kept deliberately kept nutrient levels low. The species is not at all hardy and I'll doubtless lose my plants over the winter. As for the flowers, they are tiny and difficult to find deep in the rosette of leaves.

Water Lettuce in our half-barrel. Stefen Hill, Daventry.
15 October, 2018
Pistia is a genus in the Arum Family, Araceae. The family is huge, with some 3,750 known species but in Britain we are not well off, having just two species plus another two or three which are naturalised. Our two native species are Arum maculatum, known as Lords and Ladies, Cuckoo Pint, Wake Robin and a host of other names plus the Italian Lords and Ladies, Arum italicum, native to the south of England and South Wales. The thick root (actually a rhizome) of the Italian Lords and Ladies is rich in starch and this was extracted and used for stiffening Elizabethan ruffs and other items.

Lords and Ladies, Arum maculatum. Daventry. 16 August, 2018
Perversely, many plants are at their best, with flowers being produced in abundance. Our two Yuccas I have already mentioned but a foxglove is also in bloom.

This is a variety of Digitalis x valinii, a hybrid produced by crossing Digitalis purpurea with a species from the Canary Islands. The Canary Island plants were formerly classed as Isoplexis species but are now generally regarded as true Digitalis species. The hybrids are reasonably hardy and, in our sheltered back garden, seem happy. Unsurprisingly these are be sterile and, not producing seeds, stay in flower longer than a fertile species.

Our hybrid Digitalis is flowering strongly.
15 October, 2018
These crosses are sometimes marketed as 'Digiplexis' hybrids but the name is of doubtful validity. A friendly thrush has pulled out the label from my specimen and I can't yet recall the name under which I purchased it. But I like it.

As for the Strawberry Tree, Arbutus unedo, it is flowering beautifully. This is the best display it has put on since we bought it.

Our Strawberry Tree is performing admirably. 15 October, 2018
Unfortunately the conditions are so wet that it isn't likely to receive any insect visitors for the time being. The flowers are beaded with droplets of rain but in the pendulous, flask-shaped flowers the pollen is safe and dry.

Unfortunately the flowers won't receive any visitors while these conditions prevail.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Oaks around Byfield

We have two native oaks in Britain, Quercus robur and Q. petraea, plus two species which are well naturalised - too well naturalised in some areas. The common oak of lowland Britain is the Pedunculate oak, Q. robur, and there are several specimens around Byfield. The acorns in their cups are on the end of a stalk - the peduncle - an inch or so long. The leaves have rounded lobes at the base.

A leaf of Quercus robur, showing lobes at the base. Byfield, Northants.
10 October, 2018

There are specimens of Q. petraea within a few miles of Byfield but I have not found one within the village.

Easily mistaken for either of these common oaks is the Turkey Oak, Q. cerris, of which two specimens stand beside the village hall car park. It is one of our two naturalised species.  I will not weary any readers with details of the Turkey Oak's features as I have written of this species before. Just a reminder that the leaf tends to have a greater number of lobes and these are slightly pointed. The acorn cup is covered in rather long curvy scales, looking like whiskers.
The leaf lobes of Q. cerris come almost to a point. Byfield.
10 October, 2018

Three examples of the Holm Oak, Quercus ilex, otherwise simply known as the Ilex, stand in the village pocket park. Actually I should say stood, for in the last few days two of them have been unaccountably felled.
Many oaks have evergreen leaves but Q. ilex is the only species commonly found in the U.K.
Byfield Pocket Park. 10 October, 2018

The glossy leaves look, to our eyes, very un-oak-like, but interestingly leaves produced on young stems at the base of the tree are prickly and rather like holly. It is worth remembering that the Latin name for holly is Ilex aquifolium. The Holm Oak does produce small acorns but not reliably and I have been unable to find any this year.

The Holm Oak is native to countries around the Mediterranean and is the second of our naturalised species, but we have a North American species in Byfield too. For some time I have been unsure about its identity but this year I found a number of its odd little acorns scattered beneath the tree.

They are curious flat structures and enabled me to determine that it is Quercus palustris. The Americans call it a Sallow (we use the word sallow for a species of willow). It is also known as Pin Oak.

Leaf and cones of Q. palustris. Byfield, 10 October, 2018
The acorns seem not always to develop properly and the specimens I found were certainly oddly flattened, but they do match the structures described in some of my books. It may be that the species is self-sterile and for proper acorn development needs to be pollinated from another specimen.

The acorns seem to be under-developed.
On thing is sure: the tree takes on lovely autumnal colours and certainly justifies a place in Byfield, where it stands adjacent to the tennis courts.

The Byfield specimen of Quercus palustris is currently a fine sight. 10 October, 2018
In having only two species native to Britain we have missed out, for oak trees, in their various forms consist of between 300 and 600 species depending on the criteria employed by the individual taxonomist, but 450 would seem a reasonable figure. I have frequently found leaves of North American oaks in country lanes with the parent tree(s) not apparent. Autumn leaves clearly get carried over considerable distances.

Friday, 5 October 2018

Of Thorn Apples and other things

Just as silly headlines appear in newspapers about False Widow Spiders (several schools in London's East End have been closed recently for fumigation) so it is with the Thorn Apple, Datura stramonium.

  'Poison arrow plant found in English garden' (Independent, 7 August, 2010)

  'Deadly tropical plant grows in Suffolk Garden' (Telegraph, 6 August, 2009)

  'The deadly household plant that teens are using to get high - and kills hundreds each year' Daily Mail, (apparently encouraging young people to experiment!) 10 May, 2013


I wrote a blog on the subject recently (22 August, 2018) and I am tempted to add a little but, interesting though the plant is, there is only so much that can be said before readers nod off. Suffice it to say that it is still today (5 October, 2018) flourishing in the grounds of Northampton's General Hospital.

Despite alarmist headlines I suspect no one will be chomping on the plants and, even though they are on the edge of a busy car park, the odds are that no one has noticed them.

Thorn Apple showing the spiky fruit from which the plant gets its
common name. Northampton General Hospital. 5 October, 2018
Oddly enough the were growing cheek by jowl with another extremely poisonous plant, Hemlock, Conium maculatum. This looks vaguely like parsley but I don't think they'll be a part of anyone's fish dish tonight. The third member of the original triumvirate of toxic plants, Deadly Nightshade, has disappeared - or at least, I couldn't find any.

A dastardly duo. On the left, Thorn Apple with, on the left, Hemlock.
Over almost every border in the hospital grounds, sprawls Traveller's Joy, Clematis vitalba. The garden staff seem to have adopted a policy of benign neglect for, although it was surely never planted, it is an attractive species. Its clusters of stamens are arguably more of a feature than the petals (which in fact are really sepals, but who among the public cares?) The flowers will be replaced by feathery fruits, described vividly by Gilbert White: 'The downy seeds of traveller's joy fill the air, & driving before a gale appear like insects on the wing.'

Traveller's Joy, aka Old Man's Beard, with its starburst of stamens.
The day was sunless and, initially, on the cool side so few insects were around. A lone bug, Elasmucha grisea, was on a birch leaf. Known as the Parent Bug as a result of the way it protects its offspring, it is very common but pleasing to see.

The Parent Bug wears sombre colours. Very sensible too.
Northampton General Hospital. 5 October, 2018
Although Chris was visiting the hospital today her treatment is complete and hopefully it will be a long time before we need to return.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

October in the back garden

It may be October but our back garden still holds much of interest and there are as many plants in bloom as at any time of the year.

Most obvious is the yucca. Our plant, like most around Daventry, is Yucca gloriosa 'Variegata'. It is native to the warm east coast regions of the U.S.A. between Virginia and Florida but appears to be perfectly hardy.

Yucca gloriosa is currently a fine sight. Our garden at Stefen Hill,
Daventry. 3 October, 2018
From time to time over the years I have needed to move a specimen. It is a hazardous business. It is not called 'Spanish Dagger' for nothing and carelessness can lead to the loss of an eye. I suspect it is reasonably safe from grazing animals!

Earlier this year, on Friday 13th of July, we visited the late Beth Chatto's beautiful garden near Colchester and Chris bought a plant of Tulbaghia violacea. It was in flower at the time and is in flower still and shows no sign of stopping. I'm afraid my photograph shows the flowers as a wishy-washy off-white but in fact it is of a delicate violet colour.

Tulbaghia violacea may be a South African plant but seems very happy
with us. 3 October, 2018
This species, native to southern Africa, is sometimes called Society Garlic and when crushed the leaves and stems do have an onion-like smell. A couple of decades back it was regarded as a risky plant to grow in Britain but with climate warming it is a far safer bet.

Holotelephium spectabile is also a good, safe choice for all but the shadiest or wettest of gardens. I have photographed it at least partly to remind me that its former name of Sedum spectabile ought not to be used. The old name is not wrong but genetic research suggests that it is sufficiently different from other Sedums (Seda?) to merit being placed in a different genus. It is ultimately a matter of opinion.

Holotelephium spectabile is full of flower but lacks butterflies. Stefen Hill,
Daventry. 3 October, 2018

It is generally regarded as an excellent butterfly plant but sadly this year I have seen none on it.

Speaking of butterflies, an excellent plant for insects generally is the widely-popular Verbena bonariensis (bonariensis - of Buenos Aires). Theoretically it is extremely easy to grow but for some reason ours struggled a bit at first. However it is now doing well and has produced a few seedlings.

Verbena bonariensis. This time a South American but happy enough.
Stefen Hill. 3 October, 2018

Chris and I grow few roses. Partly it is down to a lack of space but the concept of a 'rose garden' does not appeal. We use them as we would use any other shrub but insist on fragrant varieties.
'The Pilgrim'. David Austin roses have a reputation for hanging their heads
but can be lovely. 3 October, 2018
The Pilgrim, a David Austin rose, is one of only four varieties we grow. It is very fragrant and is tall enough to train against a fence.

Finally a plant I am particularly fond of although it is admittedly not a dramatic feature. The Strawberry Tree, Arbutus unedo, has featured in a previous blog so I will not dwell on it. It causes surprise among many to learn that it is a member of the Heather family, Ericaceae.

The flowers of the Strawberry Tree are not fuzzy although my photograph
would suggest otherwise. 3 October, 2018
Ours is a young plant and this is the first year in which it has put on a show of flowers. There are no signs of the fruit yet but earlier today I photographed a specimen in Byfield bearing several of the scarlet, rather warty fruits.

A specimen in Church Street, Byfield, is bearing fruit.
3 October, 2018
Given visits from pollinators and we too should have some fruit a year hence.