Saturday, 4 July 2020

Wet basin treasures

A modestly-sized housing development has recently been completed - or almost completed - along Badby Road West, in Daventry. Very sensibly a stormwater pond, aka wet basin, has been included as part of the scheme. Measuring about 40 metres by 6 metres it is obviously capable of holding a great deal of water, but the basin is currently dry and, along with the perimeter, is developing a fine display of weeds. (At least, I think it is fine; I suspect householders overlooking the area fail to share my opinion.) Covid-19 restrictions have led me to give the area closer scrutiny.

Rank weeds now occupy the perimeter of the stormwater basin. Lovely!
Badby Road East, Daventry. 4 July, 2020
A stroll through the area revealed nothing unusual in botanical terms although White Campion, Silene latifolia, was present, a species I rarely see in the Daventry area. Unlike Red Campion, S.dioica, it is not native but is a long-established neophyte.
Although White Campion is well-established I find it tends to occupy
disturbed ground. 4 July, 2020

A wide range of insects has been drawn to the thistles, clovers and so on.

Looking west across the sunken area of the stormwater basin.

Butterflies flittered about the despite the occasional spot of drizzle, and included the Meadow Brown, Ringlet and Large White.

Large White, Pieris brassicae, re-fuelling at Spear Thistle.
Badby Road West, Daventry. 4 July, 2020
There were no brassicas to attract the latter but they were content to re-fuel, largely at the Spear Thistles, Cirsium vulgare, although there were plenty of Creeping Thistles, Cirsium arvense, available.

Creeping Thistle was common too. Badby Road West, Daventry
Broad-leaved Dock, Rumex obtusifolius, is abundant on waste ground and was present in large quantities. Dock Bug, Coreus marginatus, was common of course but of more interest was the Tortoise Bug, Eurygaster testudinaria, swept from grass. For many years this species was confused with Eurygaster maura but distinguishing characters have now been established and it is clear that E. maura is far less common and largely confined to the south-east. Even so, Northamptonshire is close to the limit of the range for E. testudinaria and it is always pleasing to find it.

Tortoise Bug in its final instar. Badby Road West, Daventry.
4 July, 2020
There can be no doubt that the area will be tidied up but for the moment I will enjoy its goodies. I have lots of specimens to identify and there are unlikely to be any rarities but, hey - carpe diem!
A female Oedemera nobilis enjoys the Spear Thistle flowers.

Monday, 29 June 2020

Konigssee Farm

I was determined not to visit Stefen Hill Pocket Park today but, with the weather looking questionable I didn't want to venture too far. For or a change I took the A351 to Badby and then turned west on to a little-used road leading to the hamlet of Upper Catesby.

My objective was the curiously-named Konigssee Farm. The Konigsee is a lake in Germany, situated in Bavaria. I was surprised that the lake, Germany's third largest, was named after this farm (although I suppose the farm could have been named after the lake).

The visit got off to a promising start for, on a leaf beside the footpath leading to the farm was a moth, a Large Fruit-tree Tortrix, Archips podana.

The Large Fruit Tree Tortrix is abundant and widespread.
Near Konigssee Farm, Badby.

This is a very common moth of course but I felt that it foretold of good things to come. I was wrong! Within a minute the heavens opened and it chucked it down for two minutes. A nearby ash tree offered the only, but barely adequate, shelter until I was able to set off again.

Oddly enough the next insect to come to my attention was another moth, this time a footman. It was, perhaps predictably, a Common Footman, Eilema lurideola. Like the tortrix, it sat nicely and smiled at the camera.

Sometimes venturing into houses, the Common Footman is quite a
 familiar moth. Near Konigssee Farm, Badby, Northants

It was sheltering on some plastic mesh in the lee of a barn. The barn was one of a collection of sheds, etc. forming a smallholding with a couple of fields, a handful of horses and some Shetland-type ponies. It was worrying to note that piles of horse/pony droppings were piles up in various spots around the fields and showed no signs of decomposition. At least one huge pile looked to have been there for several years and was largely covered in nettles. Where were the dung beetles and other agents of decomposition? It is tempting to suspect that Ivermectin has been used liberally in the area; its effect upon dung beetles and other insects can be devastating.

The two fields contained a surprising amount of Self-heal, Prunella vulgaris. With the horses constantly grazing I would have expected the flowers to have been nibbled off. Are the  distasteful?

Self-heal is a familiar plant even in urban lawns. Near Konigssee Farm,
Badby, Northamptonshire.
This pretty plant is a member of the mint family and I anticipated to see plenty of bees calling in for nectar, but I saw none. Perhaps the rain had discouraged them. Its common name is a reminder that Self-heal was once highly esteemed in herbal medicine, often taken as a tea for the relief of sore throats and other ailments.
Its pretty flowers are beloved of bees.

Very little Self-heal grows on nearby Foxhill Farm; perhaps the conditions there - slightly on the acid side - do not really suit it.

So, no dung flies noted but I was pleased with the abundance of ladybirds. They were mostly - and predictably - 7-Spot and were in all stages.

Coccinella 7-punctata, the 7-spot Ladybird, in familiar colours. Near
Konigssee Farm, Badby, Northants.

Obviously those which most readily caught the eye were the fully developed imago forms but many were teneral, i.e. only just emerged from their pupae, and had not yet fully developed their bright red coloration.

This specimen needs another hour or two for full coloration to
develop. Near Konigssee Farm
I was spending so much time on these two fields that I was clearly not going to reach Konigssee Farm. A surprisingly large bag of insects was accumulating but I was also keeping an eye open for unusual plants. In this latter quest I was unsuccessful, with only fruiting Lords and Ladies, Arum maculatum, meriting a photograph. (Unless one counts Spear Thistle, Cirsium vulgare, mined by the moth Coleophora peribendaneri).
Coleophora peribendanderi usually attacks Creeping Thistle but
here it is on Spear Thistle. Near Konigssee Farm, Badby

Rain was again threatening so I made my way back to the car, but resolving to pay the area another visit soon.

Lords and Ladies, aka Parson-in-the-Pulpit, Cuckoo Pint, etc. is one of only two British native members of the Araceae, a surprisingly low number considering that, with around 3800 species, this is one of the world's largest families of flowering plants.

The berries are ripening on Lords and Ladies. Near Konigssee Farm.

When in flower it is instantly recognisable and many of the old vernacular names refer to the phallus-like spadix. The 'pint' part of Cuckoo Pint should rhyme with mint, as it was originally short for 'pintle', a now-obsolete mane for the penis. I could bore readers' socks off with the masses of folk lore associated with the plant and could exacerbate the problem by quoting John Clare - but I will kindly refrain. I am not a cruel man at heart, (but obviously Boris Johnson and the editors of the Daily Mail, Daily Express and the Sun are fair game).

Here comes the rain!

Friday, 26 June 2020

A trio of wayside flowers

Calls for local authorities to go easy on the mowing and conserve wayside flowers seem to have gone unheeded locally and few flowers escape the unkindest cut of all. I took a ball of chalk along Christchurch Drive for a butcher's hook.

I was pleased to see that a small patch of Lady's Bedstraw, Galium verum, had avoided the mower by teetering on the edge of the kerb. It is a member of the Rubiaceae, a family which - as I mentioned a few days ago - includes coffee among its ranks, but also contains quinine and gardenia.

Lady's Bedstraw hugs the kerb to avoid the mower. Christchurch Drive,
Daventry. 26 June, 2020

Its common name apparently derives from the custom of using it when dry to stuff mattresses, particularly for women about to give birth. I have noticed a smell of honey when strolling through swathes of this plant on Foxhill Farm but when dried it gives off a different scent - that of new-mown hay. Apparently the plant was used to provide a substitute for rennet in the process of cheese making, but the secret has been lost. I tend to associate the plant with acid heathland or at least neutral soil, but it will grow even on chalk and the main requirement then seems to be good drainage.

With the Lady's Bedstraw were many plants of Field Bindweed, Convolvulus arvensis. There is no doubt that is an agricultural pest, able to regenerate from small fragments of the creeping stems or of the underground runners. That said, it is a beautiful plant with a delicate fragrance. It is nutritious too and many years ago I, like thousand of other enthusiasts, fed it to my pet rabbit.

The heads of Field Bindweed may be mown off, but the underground
 portions survive with ease. Christchurch Drive, Daventry. 26 June, 2020

Flowers on the local plants tend to be almost totally white but elsewhere delicate pink shades are common and frequently there is a clear pink stripe on each petal. According to W.J.Stokoe ' resents the plucking of its delicate flowers by closing its pink cups almost immediately'. Stokoe (1963). This comment intrigued me and I promptly went out and picked a few of the flowers. The other cups did close, but only partially and over 3-4 minutes.

John Clare, as a farmworker, must have been aware of its reputation as a weed but he wrote fondly:

                                 So trailing Bindweed with its pinky cup
                                 Five leaves of paler hue go streaking up.

                                                                                   Clare's Rural Muse, 1835

Field Bindweed can be very colourful.

The third plant which came to my attention on my stroll was Cinquefoil, Potentilla reptans. Although buttercup-like in its appearance it belongs to the Rose family, Rosaceae. It can become a weed inasmuch as it spreads rapidly when once established by stolons which root at the nodes, may be some metres long and can quickly cover a large area. Madeline Harley (Harley, 2016) wrongly calls it an annual but it is a persistent perennial whose eradication can be a real problem.

The five leaflets of cinquefoil are clear here, as is a red runner in the
top left of the picture. Christchurch Drive, Daventry, 26 June, 2020
The common name refers to the fact that its leaves are divided into five leaflets, making it a very distinctive little plant. At the base of each petiole is a pair of appendages called stipules. They form one of the main reasons why these flowers belong with the roses and not in the buttercup family.

People have claimed that some of the 13th Century carvings in Southwark Minster represent cinquefoil. I am not convinced but they certainly represent wonderful craftsmanship.

A variation on the Green Man theme. Southwark Minster, Nottinghamshire.

'So,' I hear you cry, 'what did John Clare have to say about cinquefoil?' I quote again from his Rural Muse of 1835.

                                       The five-leaved grass, mantling its golden cup,
                                       Of flowers - five leaves make all for which I stoop.

The name 'Five-leaf Grass' was used also by 18th Century pharmacists, who employed it to treat 'looseness of the bowels', (Wren, 1923), by which I suppose they mean dyer, dior, dyar - the shits.

All very nice, but local authorities must go easy on the mowing.



Harley, Madeline, 2016  Wonderful Weeds  Papadakis Publications

Stokoe, W.J. (compiler) 1963  The Observer's Book of Wild Flowers. Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd.

Wren, R.C. 3rd edition, 1923  Potter's Cyclopaedia of Botanical Drugs and Preparations  Potter and Clarke, London

Thursday, 25 June 2020

Whew, what a scorcher!

I set out for my walk early today, having received dire predictions regarding temperatures later. Nor did I walk far either, once again only making it as far as the local pocket park.

A plant of Tutsan, Hypericum androsaemum, greeted me as I entered. Its status here is uncertain; it is probably not native to Northamptonshire, but occurs frequently as a garden escape, the seeds probably spread by birds. I understand it can be invasive in places but here it is very welcome.

I sought shelter from the already blazing sun by checking out the foliage of a Field Maple. One leaf bore a mine which I didn't immediately recognise so I took it home for further examination.

Field Maple bearing a mine made by Heterarthrus wuestenii.
Stefen Hill Pocket Park, 25 June, 2020
 It turned out to be the work of a sawfly, Heterarthrus wuestenii and, as there are only about 30 records of it on NBN* maps I was rather pleased. Truth be told, it is probably quite widespread but, I suspect, easily overlooked.

We have arrived at that time of the year when the Horse Chestnut leaves are being ravaged by the moth Cameraria ohridella. I obviously do not need to include a picture since, sadly, we all know what the damage looks like, and I do so only to compare the leaves to those of Aesculus carnea.

The moth Cameraria ohridella has ravaged the leaves of this Horse
Chestnut tree. Stefen Hill Pocket Park, 25 June, 2020
This second species (actually it is not a true species being a hybrid between Aesculus hippocastanum and A. pavia and should be written as A. x carnea) was growing about sixty metres away and the foliage was untouched. It is sometimes attacked but the consequences are far less severe.

In contrast the leaves of a nearby Aesculus  x carnea were
The cherries are now bearing fruit. They are clearly the native Wild Cherry or Gean, Prunus avium. It is a species found genuinely wild only about three miles away but here they may in part be planted.

The fruits of Wild Cherry are now ripening. Stefen Hill Pocket Park,
25 June, 2020
They are eagerly eaten by thrushes, bullfinches and various other birds and the cherry stones are obvious in their droppings. The poo I photographed was only about fifty metres away but this is obviously a very effective means of distributing the seeds. During their passage through the bird's gut does the hard outer coating of the cherry stones get softened?

The cherry stones are very obvious in bird droppings.
A highlight of the morning was a Marbled White. Is this butterfly on the increase? It seems to have had two or three good years recently. It briefly settled on bramble blossom but was away again before I could bring my camera into action. On arriving home I checked the Stefen Hill species list and found that it failed to include Gatekeeper, Ringlet or Meadow Brown, although I see all of these butterflies regularly. The arthropod species list for the site currently stands at 328 but should probably be far higher. Careless! 

* National Biological Network

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Purple Loosestrife

A few weeks ago the Yellow Flag Iris brought the first splash of colour around the pond in Stefen Hill Pocket Park. This was followed by the fragrant cream flowers of Meadowsweet and today these plants were joined by the lovely Purple Loosestrife, Lythrum salicaria.

The lovely flowers of Purple Loosestrife are now present beside the pond.
Stefen Hill Pocket Park, Daventry. 24 June, 2020
It is a member of the Lythraceae and is thus unrelated to the Yellow Loosestrife, Lysimachia vulgaris, a member of the Primrose family, Primulaceae. As I have mentioned before, it seems that in ancient times a species of loosestrife was fed to cattle (and horses too?) in order to calm them down prior to stressful occasions - they would apparently lose strife.
Yellow Loosestrife is a frequent garden escape.

Though not as common as a century ago Purple Loosestrife is still very frequent beside lakes, rivers and canals. In Canada the plant has become an invasive weed and two beetles, species of Galerucella, have been used to try and effect control. Today I saw no insects on the plants or visiting the flowers.

Almost overhanging the pond was a Hornbeam, Carpinus betulus. It is possibly a native species in some parts of Northamptonshire but this county is right on the edge of its natural range; all the specimens I have seen appear to have been planted as amenity trees. Anyway, I did pass my net through some of the foliage and out tumbled a Forest Bug, Pentatoma rufipes.

A final instar Forest Bug was present in a hornbeam. It is common in
the pocket park. 24 June, 2020
It was a last-stage instar, i.e. it will go through one more moult, when it will emerge as an adult with fully-developed wings, etc. It is a common insect and was not new for the pocket park.

I am always intrigued my the neat spacing of Aceria nalepai galls on alder leaves and often pause to photograph them. Of course there is a simple explanation: the mites responsible simply choose to develop in the angles between the leaf veins and the midrib. But it results in a pleasing symmetry.
These neat galls on alder leaves are the work of a mite, Aceria nalepai.
Stefen Hill Pocket park, 24 June, 2020

The alder tree in question was at the very edge of the pocket park, where a garden almost intrudes into the area.The garden plants included some fine mallows which I believe to be Malva sylvestris var mauritiana, sometimes called French Mallow.

Malva sylvestris var mauritiana. In a garden beside the pocket park.
24 June, 2020

It is a lovely thing and I carefully examined the blooms to see if any of the six tiny beetles associated with mallows were present. I had no luck but but I may check again in a few days time. (And later on still I may sneak a few seeds!)

The flowers were sumptuous - but sadly free of beetles.
And that was about it although just before leaving I did pass an ash tree (painful; no wonder I've been constipated) and photographed some cauliflower galls.

Again they are the work of a mite, in this case Aceria fraxinivora. The galls tend to develop within, or near to, the bunches of 'keys' and presumably are therefore only found on female ash trees. They were not new to the pocket park either and so in terms of additions to the site list the visit was fruitless, but in terms of enjoyment it was time well spent.

Cauliflower galls are common on ash trees at this time of the year.
Stefen Hill Pocket Park, 24 June, 2020
But, as with yesterday, the heat was becoming intolerable and I decided it was time to admit defeat and 'goo 'ome' (to use the old Northamptonshire dialect).

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Mulleins, mallows and meadows

About eight miles of where I currently live lies the rather attractive stretch of water known as Boddington Reservoir, constructed to supply water for the Oxford Canal. From where I once lived it was a pleasant 4-5 miles round walk across fields and my visits were frequent; it is now a 15 mile car journey and it must be something like a year since my last visit. The county boundary runs down the middle if the reservoir so that the eastern banks are in Northamptonshire whilst the western banks are in Oxfordshire.

Looking west across Boddington Reservoir. 23 June, 2020
I took with me my entomological gear but, on what promised to be a blisteringly hot day, my aim was simply to have a stroll and tale a look at some of the plants at the water's edge.

I suppose the stony margins of the reservoir count as a brownfield site and many of the plants notes were typical of such a situation: Teasels (Dipsacus fullonum), Opium Poppy (Papaver somniferum), Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), Weld, Reseda luteola and so on.

Weld was among the plants on the stony bank of the reservoir.
23 June, 2020

Common Mallow, Malva sylvestris, was there too, sufficiently mature for its fruit, consisting of about ten flattened seeds arranged in a disc, to have developed.
The fruits of Common Mallow were now developing.
Boddington Reservoir, 23 June, 2020

The flowers of mallows attract tiny beetles, with about six species found on them with some regularity. In the event I only recorded Podagrica fuscicornis. It has orange-red legs, a feature which distinguishes it from the otherwise very similar P. fuscipes, with black legs. It is a Notable B species - Scarce. In Northamptonshire it is on the edge of its range but was prolific on these plants today.

The chrysomelid beetle Podagrica fuscicornis was plentiful on the mallow.
Boddington Reservoir, 23 July, 2020

I was surprised to find strongly-growing plants of Musk Mallow, Malva moschata, too and it was interesting to note that no beetles whatsoever were visiting its flowers, even though they are structurally very similar.

Musk Mallow was also flourishing on the dry banks.
Boddington Meadow, 23 June, 2020

The flowers are far paler than those of Common Mallow but surely it cannot simply be colour which attracts the beetles to one species and, apparently, not the other. Musk Mallow lacks the bold nectar guide present on the petals of Common Mallow.

The beautiful pale flowers have made Musk Mallow a popular garden plant.
Boddington Reservoir, 23 June, 2020

Common Mullein, Verbascum thapsus, is also a typical plant of brownfield sites. On seeing it I immediately began a search for caterpillars of the Mullein Moth, Shargacucullia verbasci and, sure enough, it was present in some quantity.

Common - but always pleasing to find. Mullein Moth caterpillars
on Verbascum thapsus. Boddington Reservoir, 23 June, 2020

The caterpillar is an attractive creature which is apparently distasteful to birds and no cryptic coloration is needed. I kept an eye open for the adult too but with no luck. It is far less attractive than its 'children'.

The adult Mullein Moth is a dull creature - to human eyes.
Photo courtesy of
Ragwort was predictably present and was the food plant for several caterpillars of the Cinnabar. This is not just distasteful to birds but is actively poisonous, its body loaded with pyrrolizidine alkaloids which it has obtained from the ragwort.  I understand that the cuckoo may eat it but, as there are few cuckoos around nowadays, I suppose it is safe.

The larva of the Cinnabar is unmistakeable. Boddington Reservoir,
23 June, 2020

So far this year I have seen very few Two-spot Ladybirds but I shouldn't have worried. The Common Mallow plants were carrying thousands of aphids, and there were many 2-spots present, gorging themselves and mating between meals.

No, not a 4-spot Ladybird but two x 2-spots. Boddington Resevoir,
23 July, 2020

Beside the reservoir lies Boddington Meadow Nature Reserve, a fine stretch of unimproved, flower-rich pasture. I had intended to follow a perimeter track around the meadow but the soaring temperature was making me reconsider.
Boddington Meadow is currently at its best. 23 July, 2020

Anyway, I decided to make it a short stroll and set off. I was immediately struck by the Betony, Betonica officinalis. Boddington Meadow has, for as long as I have known it, had a very good display of this handsome member of the Mint family, Lamiaceae, but this year it is exceptional, with the purple-red flowers everywhere. It was once widespread in the county but the destruction of ancient meadows by drainage and 'improvement' have led to a drastic reduction in its frequency.

Betony is happy in damp meadows. Boddington Meadow, 23 June, 2020
Also present today in considerable quantities was Great Burnet, Sanguisorba officinalis. It comes as a surprise to the non-botanist to find that it is a member of the Rose family. Like betony the destruction of ancient meadows has seen a decline in its abundance but on an even greater scale, so it is now present in only a very few favourable sites.

Great Burnet is an unlikely-looking member of the Rose family.
Boddington Meadow, 23 June, 2020

Perhaps my most pleasing find on this fleeting visit was a small patch of Crosswort, Cruciata laevipes. It is a member of the Bedstraw family, Rubiaceae (which surprisingly includes coffee) and is reasonably common. It is not a colourful plant and is therefore easily overlooked but for me it is something approaching an axiophyte. The B.S.B.I.* has apparently defined an axiophyte as a plant which makes botanists go 'ooh!', but I'm afraid that in reality west Northamptonshire is a trifle short of such plants.
At least one patch of Crosswort was present in
Boddington Meadow Nature Reserve.

The temperature was now up to  a sweltering 28℃. I had taken a few insects for examination later and it was time to call it a day. I returned to my car and, gingerly handling the burning-hot steering wheel (I had been unable to park in the shade), I headed home.

* Botanical Society of the British Isles

Sunday, 21 June 2020

More Mallows

A few days ago, en route to Kentle Wood, I paused to photograph a plant of Common Mallow, Malva sylvestris. It gets its name because...well...because it is common.
Common Mallow in Brown's Road, Daventry. 26 June, 2020

Chris and I have been a bit cooped up over the last 72 hours due to a number of heavy downpours, but today we managed to get our walk in, and in so doing saw yet more mallows.

The first, growing beside a footpath, was Musk Mallow, Malva moschata, easily recognised by its deeply divided leaves. Its leaves and flowers apparently have a musky fragrance but I confess I have never detected it.
The leaves of Musk Mallow are deeply divided.
Worcester Way, Daventry. 20 June, 2020
It has, in recent years , become popular as a cottage garden plant so the presence of this specimen may be from such a source. In the west of Northamptonshire the species is uncommon as a wild plant, not least because alkaline soils, which it seems to prefer, are largely absent.

The flowers of the Musk Mallow were barely open.

The next mallow to be seen was definitely not a garden escape. Dwarf Mallow, Malva neglecta, is a rather weedy plant with a sprawling habit. It is commoner than Malva moschata but less so than M. sylvestris.

The flowers of Dwarf Mallow are small and so pale that they can appear
almost white. Christchurch Drive, Daventry. 20 June, 2020

The flowers are pale and quite small for a mallow. The leaves are rather rounded and an old name for this species is Malva rotundifolia. In his 1930  'Flora of Northamptonshire ...' Druce describes it, in a curiously dated term, as viatical, referring to the fact that it is often found by waysides.

The famous botanical taxonomist John Hutchinson  regarded the mallows as a very highly evolved group.

It could be argued that the Mallow Family, the Malvaceae, is not a significant part of the British flora, but on the world stage it is a different matter, as it contains Okra, Durians, Cacao, Theobroma cacao and Cotton, Gossypium species.


On 22 June I took a stroll around the Drayton area of Daventry and found that Musk Mallows were being used extensively in front gardens in Lake Crescent.