Sunday, June 19, 2016

House Circuit (10) A trip to New Zealand

Note: House Circuit posts are drawn from the many walks I make every day around our house.

There is a number of New Zealand plants in our garden, mostly from my old friend the late Graham Hutchins of County Park Nursery in Hornchurch, Essex.  In recent weeks two have been noticeable - Corokia cotoneaster and a Libertia.

The Libertia (above) produces its white flowers during May and June.  It is, I think, L. chilensis but may be L. grandiflora and there is great confusion in the nomenclature of this genus.  L. chilensis seems to be, as the name indicates, a Chilean species introduced to New Zealand where it joins several other native species from the genus.  It is known in New Zealand and elsewhere as the New Zealand Satin Flower and mikoikoi in Maori.  The genus was named after Marie-Anne Libert, a 19th century Belgian botanist.  Her own nomenclature appears to be somewhat confused too as she is sometimes known as Anne-Marie Libert.

Our plants came from a small clump I found many years ago on a rubbish dump in Devon and it has proved hardy and easy to grow here.  The flowers are attractive to a range of insects.  The linear leaves are very tough and make good plant ties.  It is said that this toughness made them resistant to grazing by moas, those huge, extinct New Zealand birds of the Dinornithiformes order.  This attribute would not perhaps be necessary in Chile, but may have protected them against grazing by rheas, flightless birds (ratites) related to ostriches.

The other new Zealand plant I want to mention today is the wire-netting bush, Corokia cotoneaster or, in Maori, korokio.  We have an old plant that flourishes in a south west corner outside the porch. It flowers every year, but has never produced its red berries.  It has been used for hedging as it has wiry, contorted twigs suitable for this.

The leaves are brownish green and spoon shaped and it has been claimed that if boiled they provide instant relief from stomach ache.  The wood contains beta-sitosterol, one of the compounds used to lower blood cholesterol.

Monday, June 06, 2016

House circuit (9).Foxglove & washing line

The winter before last we moved a bird table and a foxglove came up where the post had been.  This year, well-fertilized by bird droppings no doubt, it has grown vigorously and has overtopped the washing line.

Another plant smiling amid the junk is an unusual looking dandelion with very jagged leaves near the back door.  I have a copy of the BSBI's book for identifying microspecies dandelions, but find the prospect of running it down to species level somewhat daunting, so I shall leave it to a quieter time of year.


As the garden surges into its wonderful May and June brilliance, the little unplesaunce in the south west corner of the house looks increasingly dejected.  As Sellar & Yeatman wrote in what has been described as a frgrant book Garden Rubbish "Countrymen fear the Unpleasaunce.  They know that if it is not ruthlessly kept down and cut back it will encroach: putting out tentacles like an Octopus."  I remember when granddaughter Ellie used to ride the pink bicycle, her pride and joy, wildly around the summer garden.  Now parked rusting against the wall probably to move only to the skip leaving happy memories behind. The metal crate has a much longer history and we have had several in the garden for many years. Unlike old bicycles they are much used for covering vulnerable plants or study plots and even, on one occasion as a stand for boiling a kettle out of doors during a prolonged electricity cut.  The leaves in front of the bike are of hazel saplings.

Friday, June 03, 2016

House Circuit (8) Privet sawfly

In the hedge a couple of metres from our back door I have recently seen several examples of the rather handsome privet sawfly (Macrophya punctumalbum).  I have not come across this here or anywhere else and have been unable to find any previous records from Sussex.

There is a thin spread of records across the southern part of Britain and it is widespread in Surrey, so it is probably simply under-recorded in Sussex, though I am surprised I have not seen it here before. It may have cycles of relative abundance and scarcity.

The larvae feed on ash, privet, lilac and other members of the Oleaceae family and, rather unusually for insects of this kind, the adults browse on leaves of the same plants.  There is a characteristic grazed patch towards the top right of the picture above.  The picture is of a female and while males are found occasionally, the species is said to be mainly parthenogenetic.

This record, which may be a first for Sussex, shows the value of walking round the house several times a day and looking out for anything interesting.  It helps one to see things that would otherwise have been missed as elsewhere the eye is drawn on to more interesting looking sites.  The piece of hedge where these sawflies occur does not look a particularly promising spot though wild privet and ash grow together there.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

House Circuit (7) White-flowering trees and shrubs

In mid-May the countryside is splashed with white as many of our native and exotic trees come into flower.  Round my circuit we have hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), sour cherry (Prunus cerasus), Japanese snowball (Viburnum plicatum f. tomentosum 'Mariesii') and bird cherry (Prunus padus).

The hawthorn in the northern hedge (below left) flowers about 5 days earlier than those in the southern hedge and has differently shaped leaves, so it may have had a different, exotic origin (as is the case with so many hawthorns planted recently as hedges.)

The morello cherry, or perhaps more correctly, the sour cherry has grown for many years in our southern hedge.  In the past there were many different cultivars in England and elsewhere, most of which now seem to have gone.

The name 'morello' seems to have been applied to one cultivar only but then became the name for all of them.  The word 'morello' is from the Italian and means 'small black', so true morello cherries should be very dark or black.  The fruit of ours is red, so it must derive from some other cultivar.

One of our most magnificent garden plants is the Japanese snowball 'Mariesii' (Viburnum plicatum f. tomentosum 'Mariesii)'.  The plant, which has an Award of Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society, was introduced by Charles Maries who collected in China and Japan in the late 19th century.  As well as fine flowers it has a lovely spreading tabular habit.

Finally among the white-flowering trees and shrubs is our old bird cherry (Prunus padus).  The word padus is ancient Latin for the river Po in Italy along whose banks many of the trees grow, but I found mine as a seedling in the Yorkshire Dales 40 years ago and it was planted to mark the grave of our cat called Big Bill.  He liked trying to catch birds, so a bird cherry seemed appropriate.  Its shape is such, with the first branches not much about ground level, that generations of children have had great enjoyment climbing it.  Often I have come home and heard, rather than seen, these youngsters chirruping away in the foliage like the singers I once saw in a tree in a performance of the Carmina burana by Carl Orff.  For many years the tree has flowered, often profusely, and when the wind blows the small white petals flutter onto the lawn like whirling snow. 

The 17th C  Flemish herbalist, Dodonaeus wrote that people planted them because "they were reputed to be highly effective in warding off sorcerers and malefactors", a sort of early Neighbourhood Watch.  Another source said that young girls who had been bewitched could stand under a tree before sunrise and shake it so that the dew fell on them.  Sounds like a good excuse for being out all night and getting wet.

The bird cherry is described as preferring moist woodland, scrub, stream sides and shaded rocky places, most frequently on damp calcareous or base-rich soils, while it avoids very dry or very acidic conditions.  Our tree, however, grows vigorously on a dry, acid, sandy soil.  I have often noted that plants which prefer specific habitats in the wild grow well in quite different conditions in the garden.  The explanation might be that there is a quite complicated limiting factor or factors. There might, for example, be a climatic phenomenon, or a disease every fifty or a hundred years or more that wipes out all examples except those growing in optimal conditions.  In other words the one in my garden might die due to 'growing in the wrong place', but those where mine originally came from survive.

There is a weevil Anthonomus rectirostris and an attractive little moth, the bird-cherry ermine (Yponomeuta evonymella), that both feed exclusively on bird cherry.  The gregarious larvae of the moth can completely defoliate a tree, as I once saw when we lived in the Peak District.  Neither species is found in Sussex as the tree is not considered a native species in the county, so we hope our bird cherry is safe from attack here.

Monday, May 23, 2016

House Circuit (6) Three carices

I have so found 3 sedge species (carices) on my round the house walks:  wood sedge (Carex sylvatica), pendulous sedge (C. pendula) and grey sedge (C. divulsa).

The top picture is of wood-sedge: an elegant little plant if set against bare soil and supposedly, like pendulous sedge an 'ancient woodland indicator'.

The picture below is of a fine pendulous sedge trying to add a touch of elegance to the slummy north side of the house.  This is another plant said to be an ancient woodland indicator though it comes up everywhere, even well within urban areas.

Grey sedge (Carex divulsa)

Friday, May 20, 2016

House Circuit (5). Kamuro-zasa

There are various walking routes round the house: minimum (i.e. the closest easily walked circuit) and maximum (the widest circuit possible); shortest (which is not the same as minimum as this cuts corners).  All these and other variants can be walked clockwise and anticlockwise.

The route is clear at present, though all kinds of vegetation cutting will soon be necessary.  The only pruning I have had to do so far is of an errant bramble cane and a few leaning stems of a variegated bamboo Pleioblastus viridistriatus (see right)The leaves of these have been described as "bright yellow with random avocado green stripes".

 It is known as 'kamuro-zasa' in its native Japan but I have not been entirely able to unscramble the meaning of this apart from 'kamuro' having something to do with baldness, though no reason for this was put forward.  Maybe it was regarded as a cure for baldness. 'Zasa' I think is just a word for bamboo.

Monday, May 16, 2016

House Circuit (4). The Fernery.

Outside the kitchen window in a north facing corner I have a collection of mostly native ferns grown both in pots and in the soil.  Ferns can be quite difficult to identify, so having a collection which I see every day makes the different species more easy to pick out when looking in woods and hedgerows. Many are also distinctive when the fronds unfurl in spring, but grow to look much more like one another as the season goes on.

Above is an unfurling frond of hard shield-fern, one of the scarcest species in our area.  The backward curve of the frond tip is easy to pick out at this time of year and is very similar to the frond of soft shield-fern, though this plant tends to a rather lighter green and with a less spread out shuttlecock shape.

Another interesting pteridophytic feature is at about 4pm on the circuit where a plant of alexanders has seemingly grown from the shuttlecock of broad buckler-fern.