Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Hogweed and Yarrow

Hogweed and Yarrow. No, not a firm of solicitors but the most prominent of the white flowers currently in bloom around Byfield Pocket Park. Both are common and, with flat-topped inflorescences, vaguely similar in appearance, but they are not closely related.

Hogweed, Heracleum sphondylium, is familiar to all but the most urbanized of people. It flourishes on the grass verges beside roads, where the soil has been enriched by constant mulches of vegetation as 'weeds' are cut back. It is not surprising that this member of the Carrot Family, being so common, attracts a large number of insects. Thus we have the picture-winged fly, Euleia heraclei, a moth Agonopterix heracliana and the fungi Ramularia heraclei and Puccinia heraclei. There are dozens of other species, particularly among the diptera who, whilst not dependent on hogweed, habitually make use of it in various ways. Humans, oddly, seem to have found little value in the plant.

Hogweed in flower, Byfield Pocket Park. 30 October, 2019

The inflorescence consists of a number of rays which spread out like the spokes of an umbrella. The family to which it belongs, the Carrot Family, is now called the Apiaceae but for a century or more was known as the Umbelliferae. It is a confusing family for inexperienced botanists but repays close study.

Hogweed in close-up shows the zygomorphic (bilaterally symmetrical)
flowers characteristic of the Carrot Family.
As I said earlier, hogweed and yarrow are vaguely similar but whereas the branches of hogweed spread out to form an umbel, those of yarrow form a corymb, with the branches of the inflorescence arising from different points on the stem. Similarities are superficial rather than actual.

Yarrow in flower on spare land adjacent to the burial ground. Byfield
Pocket Park, 30 October, 2019
Close examination of the flowers shows that structurally they are quite different and accordingly Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, is placed in the Daisy Family, Asteraceae (formerly the Compositae). An alternative name is Milfoil and older names include Thousand leaf, Nose-bleed, Staunchweed and Poor Man's Pepper. Unlike hogweed, its properties have been recognised from ancient times, even before it was applied, according to legend, to the heel of Achilles when he was wounded at the Battle of Troy. Apparently it was traditionally recommended for the treatment of 'those that have been wounded with iron' and in some areas a dialect name was Carpenter's Grass. Herbalists have employed it 'to open the pores freely and purify the blood'.

A closer view reveals the composite nature of the flowers, hence its
membership of the daisy Family

Curiously, one other feature links yarrow and hogweed: both can be found flowering in the midst of winter. Draw what conclusions you will from that!

Sunday, 27 October 2019

Sloshing through wet fields

So, after several days of what seemed like unremitting rain, today the weather relented. If not particularly warm, it has been sunny and dry - except underfoot.

I paid a long-overdue visit to Foxhill Farm, but even on what are theoretically quick-draining slopes on the side of Fox Hill, I found myself sloshing through wet ground. I played it safe and spent most of my time examining the base of walls adjacent to the farmhouse. The warmth of sun-drenched brickwork was being exploited by many flies, beetles, spiders, harvestmen and - snails.

I spend little time recording these interesting molluscs, but some thirty years ago I spent many hours with the late Gordon Osborn and others seeking out and recording these creatures. Today several species of snail were clinging to the wall. The garden snail, Cornu aspersum (known through most of my life as Helix aspersa) must be far and away the most familiar gastropod in Britain. Although the snail usually appearing in posh restaurants is the Roman Snail, Helix pomatia, our garden snail is perfectly edible (so I am told!). On the farmhouse wall it seemed content - as far as I could judge from its demeanour.

The Common Garden Snail, Cornu aspersa, was probably waiting for
evening. Foxhill Farm, 27 October, 2019
Sharing the wall with the snails were hundreds of specimens of Nursery Web Spider, Pisaura mirabilis. Although most will not mature until next spring there were some  beautifully marked and impressively large examples. Perhaps they were able to pounce occasionally on an unwary fly.

Nursery Web Spiders were exceedingly common at the base of the
 farm walls. 27 October, 2019

I took a short stroll along an adjacent hedgerow where blackberries were in fruit but not yet ripe. The gathering of blackberries still goes on but from a sort of ritualistic tradition rather than need, and the participants soon realise that the variety is extraordinary: there are early-ripening forms and there are those which take another two months or more to yield; there are large fruits and there are small; some disintegrate at the slightest touch while others remain firm; some are glossy and others are pruinose. 

Some blackberries are sill bearing multitudes of fruit.
Foxhill Farm, Badby, Northants. 27 October, 2019
Virtually all may be regarded as Rubus fruticosus but, as I have mentioned before, there are well over a hundred so-called micro-species and these are enthusiastically studied by batologists.

In contrast the Common Gorse, Ulex europaeus, shows little variation. It can famously flower at any time of the year and today a few blooms were on show. Unsurprisingly insect visitors were few and although the occasional wasp put in an appearance none lingered.
Gorse has ignored the unpleasant weather to bear a few flowers.
Foxhill Farm, 27 October, 2019

In late May or thereabouts the smell of coconuts produced by gorse flowers can be very distinctive making it a delight on a walk. However it is not regarded as a delight everywhere for in New Zealand and a number of other countries gorse has become a serious pest. Controls such as the Gorse Mite, Tetranychus lintearius, have been introduced on the advice of agricultural scientists but success has been limited. Incidentally burning is very ineffective because not only do new shoots spring from burnt stumps but seeds seem to germinate more readily after being 'toasted' by fire.

However, although there are dozens of gorse plants on Foxhill Farm they cause no apparent problem and I'm sure Matt Moser is content to leave them.

Friday, 25 October 2019

Bears and 'strawberries'

Chilly, grey, wet - a miserable day, typical of late October. The chill I can deal with, but the rain decided it for me - it was to be a day in, a day for curling up with a decent book. I am reading a book by Jane Isaac. It's hardly deathless prose but she lives in Northamptonshire and the occasional mention of the county helps things along.

Leaves were being tugged off nearby trees by a gusty wind and they kept flitting across the window like tiny birds. As I glanced up I realised that the rain had stopped, or at least paused. Slipping on a pair of shoes, I ventured into the garden, glad of a chance to grab a few lungfuls of fresh air.

Our Strawberry Tree, Arbutus unedo, is covered in ivory-white flowers. Last year most of the flower buds were destroyed by caterpillars but this time they have escaped the damage. We should get a good crop of the bright but inedible fruit.

Our strawberry tree is currently a lovely sight.
Stefen Hill, Daventry. 25 October, 2019
Following the depredations of last year the tree only bears one fruit. It is larger than average but next autumn the 'strawberries' should be more numerous but smaller.
Most of the blossoms were destroyed last autumn so we only have
a single fruit. Surely we can improve on that in 2020.

In Lisbon there is a famous statue of a bear climbing a strawberry tree to get at the fruit. It is known to the inhabitants of that city as 'El Oso y El Madrono'. (In Portuguese the fruit of the strawberry tree are 'Medronhos'.)

Lisbon's Coat of Arms is a bear climbing a strawberry tree.
Understandably I am now keeping a wary eye on our back garden but so far no bear has appeared. I won't tell Chris as she won't sleep.

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Byfield Pocket Park in late October

Chris and I drew aside the bedroom curtains this morning to reveal fog, with visibility down to barely 100 yards. We were off to Byfield to meet old friends but there would be a chance for a stroll around the village pocket park.

The fog had begun to thin out by the time I reached the park but spider webs were still glistening silver-grey. Spiders on this dock plant would have to wait for the dew to disperse before they stood a chance of ensnaring a victim.

These webs are commonly present but usually less obvious. Byfield Pocket
Park. 23 October, 2019
There were a few flowers to brighten up the scene and, as the sun broke through, insects began to stir themselves. They become torpid in cold conditions and must wait for the temperature to rise. This Rose-bay Willowherb was open for business but its flowers were not yet receiving visitors.

Rose-bay Willowherb is still flowering well. Byfield Pocket Park.
23 October, 2019
Once the sun gained in strength the mist dispersed rapidly and other flowers became obvious. The racemes of the Rose-bay had been predictable but I was pleased to find that an aster was flowering too.

This aster is probably Symphoritrichum lanceolatum. Byfield Pocket Park,
23 October, 2019

Asters can be tricky: many are North American species, escapees from gardens are frequent and to complicate the picture hybrids are common too. The Byfield plant appeared to be Aster lanceolatus, now perhaps better referred to as Symphoritrichum lanceolatum. The group appears to be rapidly evolving and new hybrids are likely to occur.

As striking as the flowers, if not more so, were berried shrubs. Spindle has fruit as bright as any and despite their toxicity to humans they appear to be happily accepted by birds.
Spindle is fruiting profusely...

The birds will need to be quick, for berries are beginning to split, following which they will wither and lose their edibility.

… but the pink fruits are beginning to split, revealing the orange-red seeds.
Byfield Pocket Park, 23 October, 2019

By now the sun was shining brightly and I could happily have spent further time there but I had other matters to attend to. I was about to leave when I noticed a clump of lovely toadstools in a flower bed. The species was Stropharia caerulea,  known as the Blue Roundhead. It was growing in a common situation, viz. soil to which a mulch of wood chippings had been applied. This species contains psilocybin/psilocin, Class A drugs which have hallucinogenic properties.

Blue Roundheads, lovely (but inedible) toadstools in wood chippings.
Byfield Pocket Park, 23 October, 2019
It was a fungus new to the pocket park so I departed well pleased with the morning.

I arrived home in sunny conditions to find that a Pasque Flower, Pulsatilla vulgaris, was in flower in our garden. Again, a case of a plant that has failed to read the books and in consequence is way out of season!
What on earth was this Pasque Flower thinking of! Blooming six months out
of season. Stefen Hill, Daventry. 23 October, 2019

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Kentle Wood, October 2019

It was a lovely morning as I set out for Kentle Wood - the finest for several days. Sadly there was a serious shortage of interesting insects - or I wasn't being sharp-eyed enough. Oak trees were bearing the scars of a long summer in the form of leaf mines but what caught my eye was an oak tree with a nice example of a Ramshorn Gall, the work of Andricus aries.

Ramshorn Gall on pedunculate oak. Kentle Wood, Daventry.
22 October, 2019

I have spoken often of this tiny wasp so I will say no more about it. It was not even a new record for the location. However it is the first time my pictures have clearly shown the insect's exit hole.

A jay called harshly from a nearby tree and a Comma butterfly flitted along the sun-dappled ride, settling on a dead oak leaf. I cautiously stooped in order to secure a photograph but it fled as a gust of wind stirred the leaf. However, as I stopped I noticed a patch of interesting fungi on a rotting tree stump.

Candle-snuff Fungus on dead wood. Kentle Wood, Daventry.
22 October, 2019

It was  Xylaria hypoxylon, commonly known as Candle-snuff Fungus. It is common but quite variable. Its presence on dead wood is a typical location.

The lichen, Lecanora chlarotera, also occupied a typical site - on the smooth bark of a young ash tree. It will be seen that the Lecanora is surrounded by dozens of ascocarps, looking like pale brown jam tarts, probably of another Lecanora or a closely related genus.

Lecanora  chlarotera on ash tree bark. Kentle Wood, Daventry.
22 October, 2019

However, although numerous flies occupied sunlit foliage it was generally a day to simply enjoy a pleasant stroll.

A female Polietes meridionalis enjoys the sun on a cherry leaf.
Kentle Wood, Daventry. 22 October, 2019
I added one species to the list for Kentle Wood. Phaonia subventa, with a clear yellow abdomen, is a very common relative of houseflies and that I had failed to record it before is surprising. The species-list for the site now numbers 540.

Monday, 21 October 2019

Of mossy things

It was Tennyson who wrote in 1842:

                  In the Spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love...

                                                                                       Locksley Hall

It can only be an oversight which caused him to overlook the obvious corollary:

                 And in the autumn of his years his mind then turns to thoughts of moss.

Surely it would not have upset the trochaic metre of the poem too much.

Among the birds the summer migrants have fled; most flowers have withered away, their work done; the bees have departed in sympathy but may yet return to the ivy for a final feast. And it is at this time of the year that mosses and liverworts come into their own. In Britain we have over 750 species of moss alone and, at the last count, 297 liverworts. Enough to keep the enthusiast busy for a lifetime. I do intend to keep my eyes open for these neglected plants, which should be more obvious now, following a series of very wet days.

However, as I pointed out in a blog some years ago (7 November, 2016) Northamptonshire has a very poor bryophyte flora, reflecting the county's lack of mountain, moorland, heath, bog or, of course, coast. So when I set out this morning it was with realistically limited expectations.

I was on the look out for mosses but the first thing to catch my eye, growing on an old fence, was a lichen or, to be more precise, a Cladonia. The trumpet-shaped structures are the podetia and the way in which the cups (scyphi) expand rather abruptly from the stem (rather like a golf tee) suggests that it is Cladonia fimbriata.

Cladonia fimbriata is a common and widespread lichen, usually on wood
rather than stone. Christchurch Drive, Daventry. 21 October, 2019
Despite being on alert for mosses it was another lichen which next came to my attention. Lecanora chlarotera often forms roughly oval patches on bark - in this case an ash tree. As the tree grows and the trunk expands the patch of lichen is often split from top to bottom. It is tolerant of pollution and is frequent even in supermarket car parks.

Even trees in supermarket car parks are likely to bear a few patches of
Lecanora chlarotera. Christchurch Road, Daventry. 21 October, 2019

Then there were the mosses. Some, like this Rhytidiadelphus squarrosus, were easily identified. It is the bane of many a gardener, making large patches in any lawn where drainage is not perfect. It is know as Springy Turf-moss in the U.K. but this no more than a book-name; gardeners have more earthy names for it!

Rhytidiadelphus squarrosus. The oddly-shaped leaves are bent, pointing
down the stem and giving a star-like appearance. Christchurch Drive.
21 October, 2019

Avid readers of this blog will be in agonies of expectation, wondering what else my gimlet eye hit upon. I share those feelings but we must all wait until I find the time to get my specimens under a microscope.

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Back in action

Chris and I have both been hors de combat for about four days, struck down by a heavy cold. Showing the courage for which the British are renowned we made it into Byfield today, keen to visit the coffee club and unselfishly share our virus strain with friends.

I had a stroll around my usual haunts, first dropping a letter in to my old friend, Angela Weller. An old (birch?) stump in her front garden sported an exuberant clump of fungi.

Armillaria species? Church Street, Byfield, 16 October, 2019

My limited knowledge of fungi suggests that it is some form of Honey Fungus, Armillaria species, but this is, I gather,  a complex group of several closely related species, challenging even for the expert.

With liverworts I am only slightly more comfortable. A flourishing colony of Marchantia polymorpha has found a congenial home in damp gravel beside Byfield's tennis courts.

The liverwort, Marchantia polymorpha, showing the female reproductive
 structures. Byfield Tennis Club, 16 October, 2019

The female organs are umbrella-like and, initially green, turn brown as they mature.
Marchantia polymorpha again. Here the bud-like structures seem to be
the female organs at an immature stage.
The bud-like structures in the second photograph appear to be the female receptacles in a developing state.

On to the pocket park, where I allowed myself to be distracted by various features formed by organisms on an oak tree.

The first was easy-peasy. The Ram's Horn Gall, Andricus aries, is commonly present (despite being first recorded in the U.K. as recently as 1997) but rather easily overlooked as the structures can be less than impressive.

A number of leaf mines were also present but, as they are decidedly unphotogenic, I decided to spare readers the details.

Ram's Horn Galls can be unobtrusive and frankly dull. Byfield Pocket Park,
16 October, 2019

Friday, 11 October 2019

A boring surprise

Can a surprise be boring? Perhaps that's a question for philosophers. I had surprise today when visiting Stefen Hill Pocket Park but it was not at all exciting.
I must have visited the park 50+ times and yet today, strolling through a gloomy area beneath some scrubby trees I found a strongly-growing plant of Spurge Laurel.

Daphne laureola in the gloom beneath trees at Stefen Hill Pocket Park.
11 October, 2019
Despite the name it is neither a spurge nor a laurel, but is a daphne, Daphne laureola. It is a native of Northamptonshire but is largely confined to calcareous soils, and ought not to be here on the mildly acid soils around Daventry. It is hardly likely to be a garden escape, as it is not worthy of a place in most gardens, so perhaps this unassuming evergreen has simply been overlooked.

It may have been far more widespread in the past but was once much sought after by herbalists, with my copy of Potter's cyclopaedia stating... 'acts favourably in syphilis, scrofula and rheumatism'. (Ref.1). More importantly it seems to have been used to terminate unwanted pregnancies. All parts of the plant are poisonous.

It has pleasantly-scented if rather uninspiring greenish-yellow flowers in late winter, perhaps attracting the occasional bumblebee. John Clare was familiar with it, writing:

                            While Dark Spurge Laurel on the banks below
                            In stubborn bloom the autumn blight defies.

                                                                      Shepherd's Calendar, 1827

I will re-visit the plant in 3-4 months time to examine the flowers - should there be any - and make a further check for galls and mines 

In fact my main purpose for visiting the park today was to look for leaf mines, an occupation recently described to me as 'dangerously addictive'. As a study it is of limited general interest so I will spend little time on the subject, but one or two mines found today merit a mention. This mine on Red Valerian, Centranthus ruber, had me scratching my head.

Mine on Red Valerian. The red 'frass' in the mine is simply a reaction
to the activities of the insect. 11 October, 2019

The culprit responsible for this mine on Broad-leaved Dock was certainly the fly, Pegomya bicolor, a species widely found across England but scarce in Scotland. Pegomya species belong to a very tricky family, the Anthomyiidae, but the mines produced by the larvae can be a great aid to identification.

Broad-leaved Dock mined by Pegomya bicolor. Stefen Hill Pocket Park,
11 October, 2019

Away from leaf mines, a few shieldbugs were noted. Hawthorn Shieldbug, Acanthosoma haemorrhoidale, is seen on most of my visits but this colourful insect deserves a photograph.

Hawthorn Shieldbug on sycamore leaf. Stefen Hill Pocket Park,
11 October, 2019

The smaller Parent Bug, Elasmucha grisea, was on an alder leaf and also merited a picture but when aimed my camera at the leaf it was nowhere to be seen. I found the little rascal on my hand where a decent focus proved impossible.

Being difficult. A Parent Bug on the back of my hand.
Stefen Hill Pocket Park, 11 October, 2019

When I checked my hand a day later the bug had gone.                      


1.  Potter's Cylopaedia of Botanical Drugs and Preparations (1923 edition) Potter & Clarke

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

A chilly Byfield

It was distinctly nippy overnight, with temperatures getting uncomfortably near to freezing point, so when I visited Byfield Pocket Park today I was rather pessimistic about finding much in the way of insects. But in fact when the sun finally emerged lots put in an appearance, particularly on ivy blossom. A Noon Fly, Mesembrina meridiana, chose to abandon the ivy and alight on a nearby plum leaf although by and large the insects offered few photo-opportunities. They would never make it as politicians.

A Noon Fly basks in the sunshine on a plum leaf.
Byfield Pocket Park, 2 October, 2019

As I mentioned in my last blog, this is the season for galls, leaf miners and so on. A sinuous mine on the leaf of an Aspen, Populus tremula, proved to be that of Aulagromyza tremulae, and was the 171st species recorded for the site. I'd like to say that it was an exciting rarity but, alas, it is rather common.

Hardly exciting. The larva of Aulagromyza tremulae is responsible for this
mine on an aspen leaf. Byfield Pocket Park, 2 October, 2019
I was temporarily distracted by a clump of Cocksfoot Grass, Dactylis glomerata. The seeds had germinated within the panicles of flowers, giving the plant an odd appearance. These proliferous spikelets are not uncommon and in some grasses they are a regular occurrence and in some cases occur as a form of viviparity.
Proliferous spikelets on Cocksfoot Grass. Byfield Pocket Park,
2 October, 2019

Back to  leaf mines. A wild rose bore the mine of a moth, Stigmella anomalella. It is known as the Rose Leaf Miner - now there's a surprise! Again it is very common but had not been recorded in the pocket park before and proved to be the 172nd species for this location The neat, unbroken line of frass (poo) runs down the centre of the mine, helping to confirm the identification.

This sinuous mine is the work of a moth, Stigmella anomalella.
Byfield Pocket Park, 2 October, 2019
I casually took a picture of an ash tree leaflet bearing the gall of Psyllopsis fraxini. This psyllid bug is exceedingly common wherever ash trees occur but was astonished to find that it was also a new record for the site. 173!

The roll-like gall of Psyllopsis fraxini. Byfield Pocket Park, Northants.
2 October, 2019

It takes the form of a roll at the edge of a leaf, and is likely to turn reddish or purple over the next few weeks.
A cedar, planted some twenty years ago by my old friend Oliver Tynan is, he assured me, a cedar of Lebanon, Cedrus libani. I have been sceptical and have been waiting for the tree to bear cones for an identification.

Cedar of Lebanon or Deodar? I'm still not sure.
Byfield Pocket Park, 2 October, 2019
The male flowers are now present and he may well be right but I have a gut feeling it is a Deodar, Cedrus deodara. When the female cones have fully formed a clear answer should be possible. 'All will be revealed,' as the lady promised the cardinal.

Anyway, the total ended up at 181 species. It should pass 200 species by the year's end.This is of no particular interest in itself but, in 25 years or so, when I have long gone and the climate has warmed dramatically, my species-list will be of some interest to anyone who cares to re-survey the site.