Saturday, 27 May 2017

Unfolding Spring

Spring.  As the sun moves nearer the equator, the days get longer and warmer.  On the trees, new leaves and flowers burst out of the buds which have been dormant during the winter.  The countryside is transformed from a dull monotone to a celebration of vibrant greens. 

Young sycamore leave, shine yellow green backlit in the sunshine
Young Sycamore - 24 March 2017
Sycamore are amongst the first trees to get their leaves.
Here at the end of March the new leaves shine in the spring sunshine.

In the past two years, I have tried to capture the landscape of the park at the tipping point when the trees first begin to turn green, with results that have not been wholly convincing.  This year, I have photographed individual buds as they unfurl. 

Close up of field maple leaves unfolding
Field Maple - 26 March 2017
Field maple is one of the dominant shrubs in the park.
Their new yellow/green leaves give the park a springlike feel. 

In February, the trees are drab, brown and bare, hide nothing.  The opposite bank of Dickerson's Pit is clearly visible across the water from the path that runs alongside the eastern border of the park.  By June, the trees are completely covered with leaves, whose colours range from the willow's silvery green, through the red green of the sycamore, to the bright saturated colours of the hawthorn, and which form an almost impenetrable screen between the waters of the pit and the visitor.

Bramble shooting out of thick thorny stem
Bramble - 26 March 2017
There is plenty of new growth on the brambles,
but plenty of last year's leaves are still in evidence.

But the change is gradual, and like all gradual changes, it isn't noticed, particularly since it is punctuated by tidal waves of white spring blossom. How late would the leaves have to appear before anyone remarked on the delay? For instance, imagine if the winter was very cold and extended so that the trees were still bare in June, would anyone talk about the lack of leaves, or would they discuss how late the hawthorn flowers were?

Spray of young oak leaves against a blue sky
Oak - 23 April
Oak are one of the last trees to get their leaves.
This was one of the oak trees on remembrance meadow.

Neither is it a single monolithic process, but a whole series of changes as each tree species gets its leaves at different times.  It starts with the elder in February; this is followed by the sycamore, then the hawthorn; and, finally, in May, the beech and the poplar.  As far as I can find out, only the relative timing of the appearance of the leaves of the ash and the oak has made it into weather lore:

    Ash before Oak - we're in for a soak,
    Oak before Ash - we're in for a splash

Closeup of stickly bud as it is just starting to unfurl
Horse Chestnut - 26 March 2017
The unmistakeable sticky bud of the horse chestnut
on one of the newly planted chestnut trees at the south end of the park.

Perhaps the one bud everyone knows is the sticky bud, the large bud of the horse chestnut which is covered in a sticky resin.  The resin serves a dual purpose, it protects the bud from frost and water damage, and also against attack by small insects.  As the day temperatures rise, the resin melts and very quickly the large palmate leaves unfurl.  

Close up of hawthorn bud with unfolding leaves and growing flower buds
Unfolding Hawthorn Bud - 26 March 2017
Close up of bud shows emerging flower buds
amongst the unfolding leaves

Close scrutiny of a developing bud reveals it is far from a simple case of a single leaf emerging from a single bud. Take, for instance, this picture of a developing hawthorn bud.  There is clearly a rosette of leaves, inside of which are the flower buds.  All tightly packed together in the minimum possible space.  If this were the end product, we would admire it.  As it is only a short lived stage in the development of the anticipated flower, it is ignored.

But beyond a masterpiece of packaging engineering, consider what a photograph cannot show.  Each new cell that is created has the same DNA, and therefore the same potential, as every other cell in the whole tree.  What controls how any particular cell develops? What determines whether it becomes part of the fabric of the leaf, part of a vein, or part of a petal?

Further Reading
Aesculus hippocastaneum
Horse Chestnut 
Next: Catkins 

Saturday, 13 May 2017


One of the pleasures of writing this blog has been learning about the plants that I have photographed.  It has not been the botannical science that has piqued my interest so much as the folk lore and herbal remedies associated with the trees and flowers.  For it is the plant lore, and the origins of some of the romantic sounding vernacular names, that give such a fascinating insight into way our predecessors viewed the world. 

Twig of blackthorn laden with flowers
Blackthorn Blossom - 26 March 2017
Superficially very similar to the plum blossom, but without any leaves
and the individual blossom are slightly smaller.

Previously, in this blog, I have discussed how the name we use for a plant or flower alters our perception of it ( see my post 'Using New Eyes Part 3' ). I believe that the same is true of anything that we have learnt or have been told about something.  So after reading about the old superstitions surrounding some particular species, we can never look at it in quite the same way again; we see it in a  new light.

One bush that I will now look at somewhat differently is the blackthorn, a shrub that is easily overlooked in Milton Country Park as its white flowers appear just as the very similar cherry plum blossom is dying off.  It is very easy to confuse the two species, as I did in 2015 when I misidentified all the early white cherry plum blossom as blackthorn. In fact, there are only half a dozen or so blackthorn bushes in the park. 

The name 'blackthorn' is not a great revelation: it is simply a straightforward description of the bush, and suggests the means of distinguishing it from the cherry plum, which does not have thorns.

Blossom only visible a sparse white sheen over the hedge
Blackthorn Blossom in the Hedge - 17 April 2016
I took this photograph last year, but have not bettered it  since.
The blackthorn is quite lost among the surrounding the bushes.
Interestingly, by mid April this year, the blackthorn had finished flowering.

 What has changed the way that I look at blackthorn is learning that it is the preferred wood for making shillelaghs.  Apparently, wood from the blackthorn root is particularly suitable as it does not crack during use.  Shillelaghs were originally clubs used for fighting and self defence, and are still used in a form of martial art.  Now, whenever I see a blackthorn bush, I will inevitably think of it as the source of that most potent symbol of Ireland.

Beyond its Irish connection, and its use in making sloe gin, blackthorn has gained a sinister reputation over the thousands of years it has been known to man. It has been very heavily associated with witches and the dark side of their craft. Its wood was used to make a wand with thorns at its end used to cast spells to bring harm to others. The tree is also linked to warfare and death.

Other Flowers

This is my third post in a series on the subject of March flowers in the park. The first two in the series dealt with plum blossom and with daffodils.  Besides these and the blackthorn, there were a few isolated bushes in flower, a couple of which caught my eye.

Looking up into the canopy of berberis bush lots of yellow flowers among green leaves
Berberis - 23 March 2017
A single bush besides the jetty on Dickerson's Pit

The first was a large berberis bush on the banks of Dickerson's Pit.  It had clearly been established for a number of years, yet I had completely missed seeing it up until now. Though I am disappointed in my failure to spot the bush, in many ways, it is a very good illustration of the underlying philosophy of this whole project: there is a lot to gained by close careful observation of our environment, however familiar it may be.

A close up of a single branch of flowering current with racemes of flowers
Flowering Current - 21 March 2017

Then there are a number of flowering current bushes scattered around the park.  Their pink flowers providing a contrast to the prevailing whites and yellows of the other blossom in the park.

In the Garden 


Single blue hyacinth surrouned by red leaves
Blue Hyacinth - 12 March 2017
A colourful corner in the Sensory Garden
with a blue hyacinth surrounded by the red leaves of a bush I cannot identify

There was more colour in the sensory garden, which is at its prettiest in early spring.  But without any large blocks of colour, the interest was in the detail, like the contrast between this blue hyacinth and the red leaves surrounding it.

Low view of white polyanthus with pale green hellebores and daffodils in the background
White Polyanthus - 12 March 2017
In the background to these white polyanthus, growing in the raised bed in the sensory garden,
 are hellebores and daffodils.

I particularly enjoy photographing the raised bed, as it is very easy to get a worm's eye view and a just a few square inches of garden becomes a landscape filled with towering plants.

Close up of picture of purple and yellow polyanthus
Polyanthus - 15 March 2017

In the same bed are a number of other polyanthus plants.  I liked the way the flowers of this plant seemed to be being held in a protective cocoon of green leaves.

Further Reading

I found the following websites helpful:

Blackthorn Tree Lore: Blackthorn
The Magic of the Ogham Trees

Next: Unfolding Spring

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Flowers From Hell

Daffodils are forever associated with Wordsworth and the Lake District, and his host of golden flowers dancing in the breeze. The impact of their large colourful trumpet flowers is heightened by the fact that they flower at a time when the rest of the landscape has lost very little of its winter drabness; even a single flower is easily spotted. So relatively few daffodils have a major effect on the landscape of the park, particularly in the area around the Visitor Centre and the childrens' playgrounds.

Close up of a group of daffodils with deep yellow trumpets
A Fanfare for Spring - 12 March 2017
Outside the Visitor Centre, a group of daffodils at their best
welcome the visitor.

From Hell to Life Preserver

These first flowers of spring are seen as a symbol of rebirth, but that has not always been the case – in ancient Greek mythology, Wordsworth's gleeful blooms were seen as flowers from hell. Pliny claims that daffodils grew on the banks of the underworld river Acheron to cheer the passing souls. In another myth, daffodils were white until Pluto dragged Persephone, the worman he loved, down into his underworld kingdom and turned the bunch of the flowers she was carrying yellow. Egyptians also included daffodils in funeral wreaths.

A cluster of daffodils around a tree trunk
Group of Daffodils - 12 March 2017
There are no great masses of daffodils in Milton Country Park
just groups of flowers in the grass or around the trees.
Almost all the daffodils are found within a couple of hundred yards of the visitor centre.

The daffodil fared little better under the Romans who introduced the flowers to England in the mistaken belief that their sap could help to heal wounds; in truth daffodil sap has entirely the opposite effect and acts as an irritant. More macabrely, Roman soldiers carried a bunch of daffodil bulbs around with them to be eaten if they were mortally wounded in battle. The bulbs are both narcotic and highly poisonous, so presumably the men thought that they would die peacefully and painlessly.

Over the ensuing centuries, daffodils have gathered a lot of folk lore, some good and some bad. I find it interesting to speculate on how these various beliefs started, and how they became established and spread. We are used to daily headlines telling us what to eat and what not to eat for a long and healthy life. And we know where these stories come from: scientists have studied the diets of thousands, if not millions of people, over many years; then analysed the results on powerful computers to come to their conclusions. Even then, the more sceptical of us wonder how they could isolate the effects of one food from a mass of diets, different life styles, different genetic susceptibilities, etc. Our predecessors had access to none of this.

Clumps of daffodils growing beneath silver birch trees
Naturalised Flowers - 12 March 2017
Clumps of daffodils naturalised below the birches beside the car park
Their bright yellow flowers dominate the otherwise drab scenery

Take for instance, the belief that to deliberately avoid trampling on daffodils is to bring good luck. Is this no more than a lord of the manor trying to preserve his view from his dining room window; a sort of 'keep off the grass' notice for an illiterate and superstitious population?

Or what about the stricture never to give a single daffodil, always give a bunch, because to bring a single daffodil into the house will bring bad luck? Is this just a way of saying don't be mean? 

A small clump of flowereing daffodils shine bright yellow among the trunks and leaf litter
Beneath the Trees - 6 March 2017
There are a number of small clumps of daffodils scattered throughout the park,
many beneath the trees, where their bright blossoms shine brightly
 among the brown leaf litter.

But good luck and bad luck are very general and fuzzy ideas, whose interpretation depends on how someone looks at life. Yet, some beliefs are quite specific: to bring daffodils into a house with poultry in it would stop the eggs hatching or the hens laying any more eggs. How did this come about? Did farmer Giles walk into his local pub one night, and tell everyone that his hens had stopped laying eggs ever since his wife brought those daffodils into the house? Did someone else vaguely recall that something similar had happened to old Martha in the next village? Then as the tale spread, did others remember similar incidents – naturally forgetting all the countless bunches of daffodils that had had no effect whatsoever on laying chickens? So a legend was born.

Close up of two daffodil flowers with more daffodils in the background
Sensory Garden - 12 March 2017
The golden trumpets of daffodils dominate the central bed in the Sensory Garden

Wordsworth, of course, reversed these bleak views of the daffodil with his famous celebration of the plant. Now, in the twenty first century, this flower once associated with death is now being used to improve life: since the late 1990's daffodils have been grown commercially for their galanthamine content, a substance which has been shown to slow down the progress of Alzheimer's disease.

Further Reading