Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Garden surprises

Gardeners regularly get surprises in the garden - if they keep their eyes open - although if they take the form of weeds they may be the sort of surprise we could do without.
The pretty Labrador Violet, Viola riviniana, is a very welcome 'find', and a surprise too because I certainly didn't plant it.
Viola riviniana (V. labradorica) has made a surprise appearance in our
front garden. Stefen Hill, Daventry. 16 April, 2018 
With its purple leaves it is a very distinctive plant but there is a snag: last year I did spot one plant and this year at least a dozen are present. I hope it doesn't become a nuisance. It comes from the north-eastern parts of North America and is also native to Greenland. In many nursery catalogues it is still listed as Viola labradorica.
I have, during the last two or three years planted Pasque flowers, both in the native British form with purple flowers, and the red form which occurs in the European Alps. Several seedlings have appeared and are flowering this year for the first time. What I did not plant was the white form, and yet among these self-sown specimens a white one has appeared. And very welcome it is too.


Morisia monanthos is a dainty member of the Cabbage Family, Brassicaceae, native to Corsica and Sardinia. The surprise not that it is present, for I planted it. The wonder is that it survived the winter, for at one point it looked the worse for wear. Now here it is, looking bigger and more vigorous than ever.
Morisia monanthos has survived the winter and is looking strong.
16 April, 2018
The flowers have the typical structure for the family bearing six stamens and four petals.  For a century or more the family was called the Cruciferae.

Four petals form a cross, as in oilseed rape, wallflowers and other
members of the Brassicaceae.
Other than the plants, a couple of insects put in an appearance. A Dark-edged Bee-fly, Bombylius major, was nectaring at the aubretia. It is a furry creature looking like, but quite unrelated to, true bees.
A dark-edged Bee-fly spent some minutes feeding at the aubretias.
The second insect was a caterpillar. It was a dead ringer for The Clay, Mythimna farrago, but was on the small size for that species. I think it must be the Brown-line Bright-eye, Mythimna conigera - an all-too-common species. 

Brown-line Bright-eye (probably) in our front garden at Stefen Hill,
Daventry.
It seems odd to be so pleased at finding these mundane insects in the garden yet, with our insect fauna having been devastated on the last three or four decades, all visitors are accepted.







Monday, 16 April 2018

Windflowers

As far as I can recall the first 'botanical' poem I learned was by Robert Bridges:



Thick on the woodland floor gay company shall be,
Primrose and Hyacinth and frail Anemone...




Born in Victorian times, Bridges would have been familiar with the scene he describes. By 'hyacinth' he meant of course the bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, and here in the west of Northamptonshire we are fortunate to be home to some superb woodlands on the slightly acid soil these plants prefer.

Anemones are a different matter. They are still widespread and, in places, moderately plentiful, but I see them less regularly than bluebells. We only have one anemone native to Britain and that is the Wood Anemone, Anemone nemorosa, sometimes referred to as the Windflower. Of course the Pasque Flower was, until perhaps the 1970's, still called Anemone pulsatilla but now the only true Anemones we have growing in the wild apart from the Windflower are occasional garden escapes such as the Blue Anemone, A. apennina, the Balkan Anemone, A. blanda and the Yellow Anemone, A. ranunculoides.
Anemone blanda in a Daventry garden. 17 April, 2018
A couple of days ago I glimpsed a mass of Wood Anemones on a roadside bank near to Newnham windmill and today I returned to photograph them. Around a hundred plants or so clothed the bank, making a fine sight, but their status is a little enigmatic.
Wood Anemones cover many square metres of a bank near Newnham
windmill. 16 April, 2018
In their true wild state Wood Anemones are a pretty good indicator of ancient woodland so are we safe in assuming that woodland once covered this area?  Possibly. They could have spread from a few deliberate plantings of course but they produce very little viable seed and only spread rather slowly via root growth. It would have taken many years for a patch this large to have developed. I must make a few enquiries.
Anemones are in the Buttercup family, a curious mix of superficially quite different plants such as Delphiniums, Monkshoods, Clematis and Hellebores. Structurally the flower of the Wood Anemone looks like a white version of a Celandine, Ficaria verna - until one looks beneath the 'petals' to find that anemones have no sepals.
From above the Celandine flower looks rather like an anemone.
16 April, 2018
In nearby rather wet fields Celandines were common. Celandines were generally known, until recently, as Ranunculus ficaria. Along with many true buttercups they are often found in wet places, a habitat which may partly explain the use of the curious generic word 'ranunculus' - which means 'little frog'.

Friday, 13 April 2018

St Giles' Churchyard

Friday the 13th, but Chris' visit to Northampton General Hospital was just routine. She has been receiving treatment for nearly two years now, and the staff have been excellent. These are cautionary treatments as she is now clear of illness and the idea is simply to prevent any return.
The administration of her cocktail of medications is quite a lengthy process so I grabbed the opportunity to go to Northampton's town centre for a few odds and ends. (I got the odds but couldn't find ends anywhere.)
My walk took me through the Churchyard of St Giles. A public right-of-way passes through this hallowed ground and although an effort is made to keep it neat and tidy it is always a bit scruflected - scruffy and neglected.
A bush of Box, Buxus sempervirens, sprawled over a nearby wall. Box is a curious shrub giving its name to the Buxaceae, a family of about 100 species worldwide. With holly, Box is one of only two native evergreen hardwoods in Britain - if, that is, it is actually native.
Box sprawls over a wall near St. Giles' church, Northampton.
13 April, 2018


In their authoritative book 'Alien Plants' (Ref. 1) Stace and Crawley plant do not even give  Box a mention, suggesting that the writers are happy to regard it as a 'true Brit'.  The species has certainly been in Britain for a long time, with charcoal from Neolithic sites in south-east England having been identified as box-wood. Furthermore there is a scattering of settlements incorporating 'Box' into their name, reaching as far north as near Dunstable and west into Gloucestershire at the village of Boxwell.
Box flowers are insignificant - to us, that is, not to the plant!
Billing Road, Northampton. 13 April, 2018


Box certainly isn't grown for its flowers although the clusters of cream blooms were plentiful today. It has however been valued as a low hedge since Tudor times, when it was a vital feature of knot gardens.
With spring being held back by chilly, miserable weather not a lot was blooming in the churchyard. Comfrey was in flower and I took the species to be our native plant, Symphytum officinale, although given time I would have checked out other possibilities. It is an excellent bee-plant.
A small clump of Comfrey was flowering in St Giles' churchyard.
13 April, 2018
Poor weather or not, the grey squirrels are always a feature of the churchyard, scrabbling around for the biscuits or nuts provided by visitors. Endearing they may be, but the damage they can cause is so varied and extensive that a whole blog would be needed to consider their nefarious ways.
The squirrels in St Giles' churchyard are very confiding.
13 April, 2018
Just before I left one curious but easily overlooked feature caught my attention. A number of headstones from Victorian graves had been set against a wall at the edge of the churchyard. Lichens had colonised the stone, as they generally do, but the decorative features on one stone had provided a tiny but interesting series of niches for these strange organisms.
A series of little niches on a headstone provided a home for lichens.
When examined closely half a dozen little carvings had provided the substrate and dampness for a particular species to flourish, forming little crescent-shaped, repetitive colonies around the edge of the stone.

Each patch formed a more or less crescent-shape colony.
St Giles' churchyard. 13 April, 2018
Very curious. What was it Shakespeare said?

                                    Find tongues in trees, books in running brooks,
                                    Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.

                                                                                         As You Like it.


 



Reference


Stace, Clive and Crawley, Michael (2015)  Alien Plants  Collins New Naturalist Series

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Lime Trees

Readers of these august columns will know that, from time to time, I turn my attention - and my ire - towards lime trees. Perhaps I should not do so for we have two fine native limes, the Small-leaved Lime, Tilia cordata, and the Large-leaved Lime, T. platyphyllos. The former is generally rare in Northamptonshire (although probably extremely common a few millennia ago). It is still to be found patchily in woodlands to the north-east of the county. The Large-leaved Lime is now extinct in the county - if it was ever present - and is quite a rare tree in Britain as a whole.
I confess that that the only lime which I, and millions of others, find familiar is the Common Lime, Tilia x vulgaris, which is a hybrid of our two natives. From time to time I have cracked open the little round fruits, always finding them empty. But fertile seed is produced and I occasionally find seedlings, often in flower borders not too far from the parent tree.
Throughout Britain it has been planted by municipal authorities as a street tree and in public parks. The question is, why? Throughout the winter it stands, leafless, graceless and useless.
Lime trees on 'The Brightwell',  Byfield. Note the suckering shoots
 at the base of the trunk. 11 April, 2018
In the early summer it has attractive foliage of a delicate green - lime green - to be followed a little later by the flowers. These are generally described as fragrant although in some years I find the fragrance to be minimal or absent. The downside of lime trees, and something about which I have whinged before, is the rain of honeydew from the leaves in high summer. These droplets are the work of an aphid, Eucallipterus tiliae, and not only will these excreted droplets fall on any cars parked below but the sugary liquid is found on the leaves, encouraging the development of a disfiguring sooty mould.(Oddly enough the leaves have occasionally been used as sandwich fillings and the aphid secretions make them 'like honey-coated lettuce leaves'.) [Ref. 1] In the autumn the fallen leaves of lime trees seem to form, when wet, a particularly messy sludge in gutters and on footpaths.
But the biggest problem, I feel, concerns the suckers that sprout around the base of the tree. In Byfield yesterday an attempt was being made to remove these unsightly growths.
Clearing the suckers is a regular, and doubtless tedious, job.
Byfield, 11 April, 2018
The person tasked with the job will probably spend most of the day in the area - and then perhaps go on to repeat the operation on hundreds of trees elsewhere. The operation leaves an unsightly mass of sawn-off little stumps and, of course, the whole business will need to be repeated year after year, a huge waste of time and money.
The result is not always neat and tidy.
Are there compensations? I have mentioned the delicate spring foliage and the fragrant flowers. The Lime Hawk-moth, Mimas tiliae, feeds on the foliage and there is also, in most years, a good crop of nectar with subsequent delicious honey. But there so many options: alders, planes and birches seem good choices and I have seem Ginkgo, Ginkgo biloba, occasionally used. Around the car park of our local Tesco supermarket several Tulip Trees, Liriodendron tulipifera, have been planted. We may have to exercise a little patience before they flower, but what a wonderful idea!


Reference


1. Quoted in Richard Mabey's book, Flora Britannica. Chatto and Windus (1996)






Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Regarding the merits of trees

Across Northamptonshire we take trees for granted. I, and most of my friends, value them greatly and tend to assume that other people do too.
In yesterday's blog I briefly recounted a late afternoon stroll I took in the vicinity but made no mention of the trees along the way.
A fine Beech Tree, Fagus sylvatica, stands towards the western end of Christchurch Drive. Many people have rhapsodized about the beauty of the Wild Cherry, a judgement based largely on the tree as seen in full blossom. If, however, we set aside the flowers, then the beech must be one of our loveliest trees.
Beeches produce fine timber, for which the tree is encouraged by foresters to grow tall and straight, but in earlier times coppicing was more frequent, making the foliage and younger branches readily accessible. Our neighbourhood specimen has been coppiced but whether deliberately or by an accident to the leading shoot is anyone's guess. It clearly predates the adjacent houses. As a wild tree the beech may not be native to Northamptonshire but it is certainly native in the south of England; suspicions that it may have been introduced by the Romans were demolished when pollen from 6000 year-old deposits were found in Hampshire.

A coppiced beech stands near the west end of Christchurch Drive,
Daventry. 11 April, 2018
Along Badby Road West stands a small group of Sycamores, almost certainly an introduction. I paused to admire and photographs a section of trunk which, despite being only four or five yards from the busy road, was thickly encrusted with lichens. A man who was just leaving the premises of a nearby house shouted out, 'I wish someone would cut the buggers down.' I was a little taken aback and was tempted to offer a response encompassing the words Daily Mail or The Sun but I restrained myself - a decision encouraged by the fact that he was younger and bigger than I. In fact he had a valid point for these trees when in full leaf would have made his living room very gloomy. There was another point too.
This sycamore sports a rich lichen assemblage. Badby Road West,
Daventry. 10 April, 2018
The lawn, his garden borders and in fact any available ground, bore an astonishing crop of sycamore seedlings,  probably covering at least five hundred square yards.  They are easy to remove from a lawn of course as one mowing does the trick, but to remove them by hand from a border must be the very devil of a job.
Sycamore seedlings abundant on a lawn. Badby Road West, Daventry.
10 April, 2018
The Ash Tree, Fraxinus excelsior, is also common hereabouts, as it is all over the English midlands. It shares with sycamore the ability, via copious seed production, to rapidly colonise vacant ground. It cannot be coincidence that both species have winged fruits and I have found, over many years of gardening, that seedlings of ash and sycamore are the only trees that fall into the 'weeds' category. Just a few yards further on, at the edge of the recently-constructed Daventry by-pass a forest of small ash trees has developed. In the years flowing the great storms of October 1987 and January 1990 the job of healing over the scars was largely managed by ash trees.

A thicket of  ash saplings has developed beside the A45. Daventry.
10 April, 2018
I again took the opportunity to photograph the strange-looking inflorescences borne by the trees. They look more like fruits than flowers.
The yet-unopened flowers of ash beside the A45, Daventry.
10 April, 2018
What strikes me as very odd is that a number of place-names are based on the word 'ash'. In Northamptonshire alone we have two villages called Ashton, one near Oundle and the other a little off the M1 near Hartwell. Also within the county there is Castle Ashby, Canons Ashby, Ashby St. Ledger and probably more.  Now to name a settlement after a distinctive yew tree or a fine holly tree - that would be understandable, but to distinguish it on the basis that an ash or even a group of ashes stood nearby seems strange. Over Britain as a whole there must be scores of not hundreds of place-names that make reference to ash trees. The answer may lie way back in history.
The younger of my two sisters will never pass a magpie without saying, 'Good morning, Mr Magpie.' In Sussex people would treat an ash tree in a similar manner and people would not, it seems, pass one without bidding it 'Good Day.' This greeting may hark back to pagan times and in Scandinavian mythology the ash tree was revered as Yggdrasil, which, as the tree of life, had 'its branches spread all over the world'. Perhaps the proximity of an ash tree to a settlement was regarded as propitious - a good omen worth remembering in the name.











Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Violets and Forsythias

The rain, almost incessant over the last seventy two hours, finally departed today in the early afternoon and I took a stroll, needing to stretch my legs. I strode out along Badby Road West enjoying the damp but fresh air. This road was once the main route from Daventry to Banbury but now comes to a dead end, cut off by the (moderately) new by-pass. This area was once open fields, part of, I suspect, Malabar Farm. The present roadside was once bordered by a hedgerow separating the road from the fields.
Along the base of this vestigial hedge violets still grow, bringing to mind the poem 'To Violets' by Robert Herrick:


                            Welcome, Maids of Honour,
                            You doe bring
                             In the Spring;
                            And wait upon her.

It is presumed that Herrick's poem refers to Sweet Violets, Viola odorata, and the flowers I saw today had a lovely, if fleeting smell.
Sweet Violets bordering Badby Road West, Daventry.
10 April, 2018
Scientists have established that one of the chemicals within this fragrance is ionine, an interesting property of which is the temporary deadening of the receptors in our olfactory system. First you smell it, then you don't.
Another feature helping to identify the species as the Sweet Violet is the leaf shape - slightly variable but generally of a heart shape.
The leaves of Sweet Violet have a distinctive shape.
Violets form a valuable element of our flora, being the food plant for several fritillary butterflies, including the Dark Green, the Pearl-bordered, the Queen of Spain, the High Brown and the Silver-washed. But tumbling over a fence nearby was a plant of virtually no wildlife value at all.
Forsythia sprawls over a fence. Badby Road West, Daventry.
10 April, 2018
Forsythia is a member of the Olive Family, Oleaceae and for many years it was thought to be a hybrid between two Chinese species and bore the name Forsythia x intermedia. More recent research suggests it is a true species and the 'x' has been dropped; it is therefore now Forsythia intermedia. Its spring flowers are bright enough but, although clearly designed for insect pollination I have never seen the flowers receive a visitor and a trawl of various sources suggests that few other people have either. For the rest of the year it is a very dull shrub with little value and I am surprised that it received an Award of Merit from the R.H.S. - but that was back in 1894.
This is the species most often encountered, Forsythia intermedia
A little further another Forsythia was present. It had a rambling habit with paler flowers more loosely strung along the branches in a pendant manner. This, I suspect, is Forsythia suspensa. Neither will find a place in our garden.
Further along Badby Road West was Forsythis suspensa.
10 April, 2018




 






Saturday, 7 April 2018

Tiptoe through the tulips

Our tulips have been in flower for a week or so and although I don't like them arranged in regimental order in beds they can be a lovely sight in drifts.
Pottering around the garden I notice that our purple Pasque Flowers are now in bloom. The red variety has also, like the tulips, been in flower for a few days and very attractive they are too. They opened around Easter Day and, bearing in mind that the word 'Pasque' like 'Paschal', refers to Easter, their flowering was almost spot on.
The red form of the pasque flower, Pulsatilla vulgaris.
However, the sumptuous purple of our native form is stunning and here in Northamptonshire we are lucky to have it present as a wild flower. True it only grows at the eastern end of the county around Barnack, and attempts to re-introduce it to its former site have met with limited success.
The native form of this lovely buttercup relative, once known as
Anemone pulsatilla. Our garden at Stefen Hill, Daventry. 7 April, 2018
Here at the western end of Northants the limestone, if present, is not exposed as an outcrop and the Pasque Flower is not to be found other than in gardens. Oddly enough it has seeded around and we now have a dozen or so plants even though the pH of our soil is only around neutral. There you go!
I hope to propagate our Hacquetia from seed and the chances having some to sow would surely be enhanced by insect visitors. I was therefore pleased to see a bumble bee at the flowers earlier today. Bombus terrestris or B. lucorum? I am not a hymenopterist so I honestly can't be sure. Rather illogically I am happy to kill flies and examine them under a microscope but I avoid doing the same with bees.

Our Hacquetia clearly does receive insect visitors. 7 April, 2018
Our plants of Pale Corydalis, Pseudofumaria alba, formerly Corydalis alba, are now in flower but are hardly exciting. I grow it largely because it makes a change from the yellow version, P.lutea. Despite its appearance it is a member of the Poppy Family, Papaveraceae. It is said to be pollinated by bees but I have never witnessed an insect of any type paying a visit.
Pale Corydalis, Pseudofumaria alba, is interesting rather than exciting.
Our garden at Stefen Hill, Daventry. 7 April, 2018


A few logs and chunks of sawn tree trunks are distributed around the garden and I was inordinately pleased to see that one bore a specimen of Daldinia concentrica. Known as Cramp Balls or King Alfred's cakes the fruiting body, when cracked open, displays concentric pale rings.
Daldinia concentrica on a sawn piece of tree trunk in our garden.
 7 April, 2018
It is a very common fungus and my pleasure arose simply from the fact that it was present in our garden. Handy if ever the dreaded cramp strikes!