Saturday, 26 August 2017

Small and Beautiful

A single narrow leafed pea is flowering in the middle of a mass of cinquefoil, a purple counterpoint to the surrounding sea of yellow.  The pea, approximately half a centimetre across, is a perfect scale model of its larger cousin and gardener's favourite, the sweet pea.  Here, this tiny flower is noticed only by keen botanists and the photographer with his camera poised barely a centimetre above the ground.

Close up single purple pea flower against background of yellow flowers
Narrow Leaved Pea - 31 May 2017
The yellow in the background is cinquefoil


Mass of cinquefoil with plenty of yellow flowers growing up a heap of wood chips
Cinquefoil Growing on Wood Chips - 31 May 2017
Some clover and grass can be seen in the cinquefoil at the bottom of the picture

The cinquefoil is colonising a heap of wood chippings, its stolons advancing on a broad front towards the top of the heap, dragging a wealth of yellow flowers, each the size of a buttercup, with it.  At its leading edge, there is only cinquefoil. But farther back, other plants beside the pea are growing in the clump, including speedwell, white clover and, inevitably, grass.  This is ecology in action, the first stage of a new plant community - where last year there were only wood chippings. Each species literally fighting for its place in sun.  A contest with some collateral benefits, as all the flora will benefit from the nitrogen fixing activity of the clover.

Low angle close up of clump of cinquefoil
Cinquefoil - 9 June 2017

Cinquefoil, a native of Britain, is seen by gardeners as an aggressive invader of lawns. In the past, it has been grown as a herb, particularly valued as an astringent used for cleaning wounds.  It was believed to be an effective protection against witchcraft. Over the years, it has accumulated a number of alternative names, some of which, such as five fingers relate to the shape of its leaves.  Others have a far less obvious origin: biscuits, bloodrot, ewe daisy, shepherds blood, and shepherds knapperty.  Some of these are shared with the very similar tormentil,  suggesting a degree of confusion between the two species.

A single stem of speedwell photographed against the yellow cinquefoil
Germander Speedwell - 9 June 2017
A lone speedwell plant in the clump of cinquefoil

Black Medick


Side view from close to the ground of black medick with grass stems much taller than the plant
Black Medick - 14 June 2017
The grass stems tower above this tiny herb

Another invader of lawns and mown grass is the black medick. This yellow flowered relative of the clover, has flower heads about four millimetres across. But the flowers that I photographed were growing in recently cut and well trodden grass, and the whole flower head was little more than two millimetres across.  The name medick is derived from the Latin name for the plant, Medicago lupulina, which in turn is derived from the Greek medike, meaning  a plant that had been introduced from Media (modern Iran). Not surprisingly given its low growing habit and very small flowers, it is a plant that has been generally overlooked in folklore, with few recorded uses except as a source of honey.  Some claim it is the original shamrock.

White Bryony


Close up of a single white bryony flower
White Bryony - 31 May 2017

The small pale green flowers of the white bryony are easily missed in the thick foliage of a hedgerow at the height of summer, in contrast to its chains of red berries, also called devil's apples, which are a prominent feature of autumn. White bryony is also called English mandrake, and like the mandrake it has a forked anthropomorphic root.  It is said, that just like the mandrake, that when a white bryony plant is pulled up, its screams are so monstrous they cause agony, if not death, to anyone within earshot.  But English mandrake has none of the magical properties of mandrake, it is not soporific, hallucinogenic or aphrodisiac.  However, white bryony has been used as a very powerful laxative, to cure gout, to induce mares to foal, and to keep rats away from stored wheat.


CLose up of cleavers showing tiny white flowers almost hidden by leaves
Cleavers - 31 May 2017
Even close up the white flowers are almost invisible

This year was the first time I have ever seen the small white flowers of cleavers.  Like most other people, I knew this straggling annual from the smothering green blanket it forms over bushes and other vegetation and its habit of attaching itself to my clothing whenever I get too close. The tiny flowers born singly in the leaf axils are almost certainly the smallest things I have photographed so far in this project.  Chris Packham in his book 'The Wild Side of Town' states that cleavers is insect pollinated.  This seems quite amazing given that the flowers are almost vanishingly small.

Cleavers has long been used for various purposes: as bedding (Virgin Mary is reputed to have used it for the bed for the baby Jesus); the stems made into a mat and used to sieve milk; as a pot herb; its seeds used as a substitute coffee; its roots used as a source for red dye; and any number of medicinal uses including as a diuretic, a tonic, a sleeping draft, a cure for ear ache, and a remedy for snake bites.  It has an equally impressive collection of alternative names: goosegrass, clivers, robin-run-in-the-hedge, love-man, sticky-willy, burweed, catchweed, and hedgesheriff.

Next: Summer Surprise

Monday, 14 August 2017

From Candles to Conkers

One of the delights of the English countryside in spring is the sight of  a horse chestnut in flower, with its cones or 'candles' of white or pink blossom radiant against a background of the vibrant green of its newly unfolded leaves.  It seems to be a visual megaphone, saying to the insect world, 'Here I am, I am  in flower, come and pollinate me'. This is its moment of glory.

Close up of a single infloresence with others in the background
Candles of Horse Chestnut Flowers - 11 May 2017
Few of these flowers will bear fruit due to the ravages of the leaf miner moth

The horse chestnut is of course a foreigner, first introduced from the Balkans in the seventeenth century. Unsurprisingly, it quickly found favour with the landscape gardeners of the time.  For instance, Christopher Wren redesigned Bushy Park specially to incorporate an avenue of these trees stretching from Teddington to Hampton Court. An avenue that Queen Victoria made an annual pilgrimage to visit and admire. Others were equally enamoured, including Capability Brown who planted 4800 chestnut trees in one estate in Tottenham alone.

Large chestnut in full bloom besides a path
Mature Tree - 21 May 2017
A mature tree in full bloom is an impressive site
This tree by the Old School Lane entrance look very different in August

The brash floral display of this newcomer total eclipses the far more subdued (O So British) flowers of the native trees like oak, ash, poplar and birch. But they are wind pollinated as every hay fever sufferer knows.  They do not need to advertise themselves, and can have discrete brown or green catkins, reliant on nothing but the wind for the essential pollination.

Tree now has brown leaves
Cankered Tree - 13 August 2017
The same tree as shown in the previous photograph
showing the effects of the moth.

But by August, the horse chestnut looks decidedly drab.  The larvae of a leaf miner moth (for a picture and other details of the moth click here), which first appeared in Britain from Europe in 2003, tunnel into the leaves and turn them an unsightly brown.  This infestation has reached epidemic proportions with well over half of all trees infected.  Although the moth larvae are not fatal to the trees by themselves, they weaken their hosts and make them more susceptible to other pathogens.  One pessimistic prognosis is that horse chestnuts could be virtually wiped out within 15 years.

Close up of affected leaf with brown 'mines' clearly visible between the main veins.
Cankered Leaf - 11 August 2017
Leaf damage and black holes where the moth has hatched

The affects of the canker are well illustrated by a comparison of two horse chestnut trees in Milton Country Park.  By August, the large tree by the entrance shown in the photograph above has a lot of damage.  On the lower branches at least, I could only find one solitary conker. In contrast, on one of the trees planted in the last couple of years which shows very little leaf miner damage, there are any number of clumps of fruit with four or five conkers in each group.

Cluster of four conkers
Fruit on a Healthy Tree - 11 August 2017
One of many groups of conkers on a healthy tree

Finally, in September, the fruit is ripe and falls to the ground to be collected as ammo for endless games of conkers.
A single conker hanging between leaves with extensive damage
Single Fruit on Damaged Tree - 11 August 2017
This was the only conker I could see on the lower branches of the large tree featured above

And That Old Chestnut

One thing did puzzle me: where did the saying 'that old chestnut' come from?  It apparently comes from an 1816 play by William Diamond.  One of the players endlessly repeats a joke about a cork tree with only minor variations.  His listener, bored with the 28th repetition, interrupts with the line "A Chestnut. I have heard you tell the joke 27 times and I'm sure it was a Chestnut!".  The actor, William Warren, who played the listener later quoted the line at a dinner party when another guest started telling an old joke.  From there, the phrase 'that old chestnut' passed into the language.

Further Reading

UK Moths : Horse Chestnut Leaf-miner Cameraria ohridella
The Phrase Finder: That Old Chestnut  
 Forestry Commission: Horse chestnut leaf miner - (Cameraria ohridella)
Country Living: Fact File: The Horse Chestnut Tree
UK Safari : Horse Chestnut Trees  
Google Books: The Long Long Life of Trees
Daily Telegraph: Conkers Could Vanish Within 15 Years  

Next: Small and Beautiful

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

May Day and Hawthorn Blossom

The hawthorn flowered early and abundantly this year.  The hedge shown in the photograph below was covered with blossom in the first week of May, at least a fortnight earlier than the previous two years.   Furthermore, a spell of settled weather meant that the flowers remained undamaged for an extended period of time

180 Degree panoramic of hawthorn hedge
Hedge in South of Park - 4 May 2017

Hawthorn flowering at the beginning of May is unusual in modern times, but this was not always so. Traditionally, the blossom would be out on May 1 and be used as decoration for the May Day celebrations. But that tradition must have come to a shuddering halt in 1753.  In 1752, the English calendar had been reformed to bring it into line with that of its continental neighbours, with a one off removal of 11 days from the year (the day after 2 September 1752 was the 14 September 1752).  This meant, that in an average year,  the hawthorn would not now flower until the middle of the month. 

Close up of a knot of white hawthorn blossom
White Hawthorn Blossom - 14 May 2017

It must have been a strange May Day, and for many, a very disappointing one, in 1753.  One of the big events in the calendar with a key component missing.  It must have been a bit like Christmas without the lights would be to  us.  

Close up of a clump of pink hawthorn flowers
Pink Hawthorn Blossom - 14 May 2017

At that time, England was not an industrialised nation, and most people earned their living working on the land.  Live would not have been ruled by the clock and the calendar as it is today, but would have been tied to the natural world, its seasons and its weather.  The lack of hawthorn blossom on May Day must have been one of the most obvious effects of the new calendar.

This year the hawthorn has again blossomed on May 1.  Maybe, with climate change bringing milder winters, the old custom of 'gathering nuts in May' can be revived.   

Arch of hawthorn over path
Hawthorn Arch - 7 May 2017

I have already photographed may blossom twice before, in 2015 and 2016, but that hasn't dampened my enthusiasm for taking pictures of these beautiful bushes.  

Low flower laden branch of hawthorn besides small muddy path
West Bank of Dickerson's Pit - 7 May 2017

One of things I wanted to achieve this year was better close-ups of the flowers, particularly the pink blossom.  On some of the bushes, as the flowers age, they turn a delicate shade of pink.  Inevitably, by the time the blooms are at their most pink, they are looking decidedly tired and weather worn.  

Hawthorn bush flowering among different trees and bushes all of different shades of green
Shades of Green - 4 May 2017

Besides the drama of the hawthorn, May is the time of year when the trees are at their most verdant, and their green foliage is at its most varied.   It ranges from the bright yellow green of some of the very newest shoots, to the darker, and more blue, of the ivy that envelops many of the trees in the park.

Field of cow parsley with flowering bushes of hawthorn in the background
Cow Parsley and Hawthorn - 7 May 2017

Another plant which adds very significantly to the whitening of the park at this time of year is the cow parsley.  One area of grass beside the path that leads to the Fen Road exit is completely covered with this flower.

Further Reading

 Mental Floss: Why Our Calendars Skipped 11 Days in 1752

Next: From Candles to Conkers