Sunday, October 08, 2017

Ice plants & orpines in 2017

Since last year my interest in the genus Hylotelephium has grown.  Hylotelephium includes many species and varieties that used to be in the genus Sedum but in most cases they are quite large plants with ovoid fleshy leaves, often grown in borders and beds.  Some, but not all, have flower heads that are attractive to butterflies, bees and other insects during their period of bloom which stretches from the end of July well into October.

My personal interest was aroused by the occasional patches of orpine (Hylotelephium telephium subsp. fabaria) I came across in Brede High Woods, East Sussex.  Where it occurs it seems to grow and flower quite well in shade or semi-shade and is considered to be an indicator of ancient woodland.  It also grows by wayside hedges and ditches and I know several sites where it occurs in our parish of Sedlescombe.  It is our only native species of Hylotelephium though some others have escaped into the wild from gardens and parks.

The picture below shows how it grows in Horns Wood near Brede.  The stems lay themselves down naturally and, as they can root and produce new plants from the leaf nodes, the species is able to spread vegetatively.  Seeds also germinate quite freely in the spring after they have set.

The flowers last for several weeks and are attractive to a wide range of insects, particularly bees, butterflies and hoverflies.  I have several plants in my garden and the meadow brown butterfly below was nectaring on the flower heads for over an hour.

An interesting garden plant related to H. telephium fabaria is Hylotelephium 'Matrona' with upright stems and purple stained leaves and pale pink flowers in compact heads that are also very popular with butterflies and bees, especially in my garden, carder bees.  It has an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society.

Another garden variety that must have much H. telephium in its genes is Hylotelephium 'Rosetta'.  This has the most beautiful rosettes (hence the varietal name I suppose) of blue green foliage as it develops in early spring and summer followed by rather small pinky-white flower heads.  It attracted few bees and no butterflies, but I did find the moth in the photo below busily imbibing nectar from the flowers.  It is a beautiful plume (Amblyptilia acanthadactyla), a species well-established in our garden and quite well-camouflaged on the flowers.

I have two other H. telephium varieties: the nominate subspecies H. telephium telephium and H. telephium maximum.  Both came from a seed distribution organised by the Sedum Society.  In the case of the nominate subspecies I raised seven seedlings several of which flowered in the same season, the flowers varying from pale to darker pink.  They were smaller that our native H. t. fabaria and had a tendency to spread sideways rather than grow upwards.  The mother plant grew by the 'river Ourthe, Warempage' in Belgium and I ought to try and investigate it further.

I found a small caterpillar on one of these plants and it turned out to be a migrant species, the pearly underwing (Peridroma saucia) which I bred to maturity and released.

Hylotelephium telephium maximum is a white-flowered plant of mainland Europe, often growing in rocky places or on waste ground.  It has larger leaves and is generally more robust that the other subspecies of H. telephium I have seen.  I grew my plant from seed collected in Lozere in the south of France.   In Norway it is called smørbukk - butterball - perhaps because the creamy white flowers look slightly like a rounded lumps of butter.  As it is in its first year it has flowered quite late, but so far does not appear to be attracting any insects.

The real insect-attracting ice plants are Hylotelephium spectabile and its various forms, still generally sold as Sedum spectabile.  They seem to have a plentiful supply of nectar and are constantly visited by bees and butterflies.  However, because they get so efficiently pollinated they tend to go over quite quickly whereas the well known hybrid H. 'Autumn Joy' aka 'Herbstfreude' has longer lasting flowers but lacks nectar and is seldom visited by insects.  'Autumn Joy' is also sometimes the only Hylotelephium on sale in nurseries and garden centres and gets itself wrongly billed as attractive to insects.

The upper of the two pictures below is of Hylotelephium spectabile 'Brilliant' with a peacock butterfly and the lower of of H. 'Autumn Joy/Herbstfreude'.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

An inky story

Yesterday I came across a fine clump of the common ink-cap (Coprinopsis atramentaria) growing in the newly sown grass of a house just up our lane.  Quite a bit of wood had been buried during the laying of the lawn here and this was, no doubt, what the fungus was growing from.

These dark and delicate caps looked too fragile to last and by this morning they were autodigesting, dissolving away into the eponymous ink of their vernacular name.  As the old saying goes sic transit gloria mundi.

The common ink-cap is edible and it has been used when young in much the same way as field mushrooms.  After deliquescence the 'ink' has even been used to make ketchup.  There is a health warning though - this species must not be consumed with alcohol as this produces a toxin that can make one very unwell.  Another name for this fungus is 'tippler's bane'.

The black deliquescence of the caps was also used to make ink for writing by boiling it with gum arabic and/or other substances.  At one time it was suggested that this ink was used for legal documents to try and counteract possible future forgery. The spores in Coprinus-ink would be visible indefinitely under the microscope.

Friday, September 15, 2017


There is a litter from oaks and other trees after storm Aileen all over the lane and the field edge.  I found spangle and pincushion galls on one small oak sprig and a hazel nut neatly chiseled into by a mouse.  There are knopper galls everywhere on the ground but this year lots of acorns too.

They are very beautiful with their smooth, semi-gloss melon green fading towards the base to pale yellow and ivory and with a tiny point at the top.  Some have fallen still inside their cups of dusty grey embossed with darker markings like antique bowls.

After a few days they turn nut brown, but keep their shine, and provide a welcome food source for various animals and birds: mice and voles, squirrels and wild boar, jays and woodpigeons.  There are insects too - acorn weevils and some tortrix moth caterpillars.

There is a round disc at the base of each acorn like a flatbread with char marks around the rim or a stone disc with a mystical circle of characters in an unknown language - acornish.  Do all these characteristics have a purpose that makes them 'fitter' than other seeds I wonder.  Why are they egg shaped?  Why to they sit in a cup?  Why do they have a point at the top?

In the autumn sunshine as well as acorns there are buttercup and smooth hawksbeard flowers, but the finest is the late flourish of dandelions with their wonderfully ragged symmetry and a bright, even yellow.

Friday, June 02, 2017

A moth romance

A few days ago a female white ermine moth (Spilosoma lubricipeda) settled on the glass of our kitchen window where it had been attracted by the light.

The following day this female (which was not there in the daytime) re-appeared in almost the same place and was found by a male when events followed their natural course.

After mating, however, the moths did not leave the window pane but rested motionless side by side for several hours
They were still there when I turned the light off just after midnight, but by the morning they had gone.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A landscape of fear

I have read recently about the ecological phenomenon described as 'Landscapes of Fear' where the introduction of large predators can change the flora and fauna of an area quite radically.  The re-introduction of wolves in Yellowstone Park is a good example.  See:

A couple of years ago our granddaughter came to live with us and brought her cats into a cat-free garden and this has had quite a marked effect on biodiversity.  On part of the lawn, for example, an impressive stand of cuckooflower or lady's smock (Cardamine pratensis) has developed whereas in the past the plants would have been eaten down by rabbits.  In the picture above note the rabbit and mouse hunting tortoiseshell cat in the background.  Ground feeding birds also avoid the lawn and there has been a marked increase in slugs and snails.

Although many species have suffered, others have done well.  The cuckooflowers attracted solitary bees, bee flies, hover flies and many other insects which often find nectar and pollen providing plants scarce in early April.

The cuckooflowers are over now but yesterday a male orange-tip butterfly (Anthocharis cardamines) spent some time exploring the green seed heads looking, no doubt, for a female searching for the food plants on which to lay her eggs.  Eventually the butterfly settled on some hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) which, I have noticed elsewhere, often seems popular with orange tips.  Though not so showy the bittercress has no doubt been able to flourish in the absence of rabbits kept in check by the cats.  Both cuckooflower and hairy bittercress are used as food plants by orange tips.

We are mowing round the cuckooflower area and will report on any other interesting developments.  As with all such matters, issues of management will arise: when should we cut the 'meadow', for example, and where do we expect whatever programme we follow to lead us?

Monday, March 27, 2017

Bread and cheese

Hawthorn leaves (Crataegus monogyna) are now sprouting liberally in the garden.  Every year I think they are earlier than ever, but this may just be a delusion as I do not keep any proper phenological records.  To be of any value I think the first record of anything in a particular year should be made under the same conditions as in previous years.  One should return to the same hawthorn bush and be sure that local conditions round about it have not changed.  Around our lane there is a 50 metre stretch of hawthorns that always seems to sprout before any others.  I suspect this is because they are an early leafing clone that was bought in and planted, but roadside plants often behave rather differently from those elsewhere.  The road and its traffic perhaps creates a microclimate or possibly more carbon dioxide and other exhaust gases accelerate growth.

As a child my friends and I used to eat young hawthorn sprouts and called them 'bread and cheese'. This seems to be a very widespread habit in the British Isles and the shoots are quite palatable, if not very exciting.  How they came to be called 'bread and cheese' I have been unable to discover - they are certainly nothing like bread and cheese either in appearance, in shape, or in colour.  A probable explanation is that they were eaten by the very hungry as a replacement for bread and cheese.  The expression is also not confined to hawthorn - much wild leafy food has the bread and cheese accolade.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Slow traveller

I found this solitary wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa) in a shady spot under some ornamental trees at the base of an old dead eucalypt in our garden the other day.  Wood anemones are ancient woodland indicators in South East England, but this was definitely not in ancient woodland.  I reckon the nearest population is about 75 metres away in Churchland Wood.

The plant is known to be able to colonise suitable new sites, but it can, so they say, take hundreds of years.  I suppose though it only takes one successful event for the colonisation to start and this could be one season from year zero or a good deal longer - I don't think the plant is particularly fussy about where it grows: I have seen it in undisturbed grassland as well as woodland.  Once established it will, of course, spread vegetatively as a clone of the original, so perhaps several different clones would make a healthier woodland population, but maybe not.

It has been suggested that new arrivals of this kind may have been transported mechanically as bits of rhizome in some way - on a vehicle, or the sole of a boot.  It is possible that someone walked this one in but the rarity of the plant's arrival in new places means that this is the sort of thing that seldom happens.

The plant is flowering, of course, to attract insects to that central ring of yellow anthers around the green stigmas, and early insects often do visit wood anemones, but successful dispersal of seeds does not appear to be of great value in establishing the plant in new sites (I wonder why)