Friday, July 22, 2016

House Circuit (13). Summer thoughts.

Note: House Circuit posts are drawn from the many 50 metre walks I make every day around our house.

A female brimstone .... Rust on rose leaves.  The Babbington's leeks.  Koromiko, Hebe salicifolia, full of bees and bloodsuckers; meadow browns and spiders, it has a sweet, elusive scent.  Wool carder bees are hovering above the columns of houseleek flowers.  Lolium perenne, perennial rye-grass.  Brachypodium sylvaticum, false brome grass, has lovely spikes with spikelets that dangle creamy anthers, the whole making troupes of elegant mobiles measuring the air.  I walked in Tony & Marion's garden next door. Tony has been confined to his house in Caterham lately and has not been able to give the lawn and hedges his usual attention.  Big Ian from just down the lane does his mowing for him.  I picked a bunch of chives in our plot as I had run out of onions for a stew.  The chameleon plant, Houttuynia cordata, named after the 18thC Dutch botanist Martinus Houttuyn, has flowered by the back door.  The leaves are edible.  It was very hot 30.3C at midday I walked to the village through the sunshine.  The meadows are rich with tawny brown seeding grass with red clover in small patches. Insects seem scarcer than ever meadow browns, gatekeepers and whites in small quantity, but the skippers have all gone and the umbels of hogweed are uncharacteristically empty of their jostling fauna.  At night only the occasional moth visits the kitchen window pane where in the past we had many different species over the year.  All these small creatures through their various stages had a biotic affect on the countryside that must now be dangerously altered and the natural cycle of growth and decay slowed with unknown consequences.  Allium bulbils, holly blue, crested dogstail like some ancient oath.  The ground was strewn with bird cherry fruit - glittering beads of jet; morellos ripened in the hedge, cherry red temptations for the birds.  The garden of sin.  The wet warm summer has produced large quantities of slugs and snails that are eating their way through the more palatable plants.  A butterfly, victim of a white crab spider hung motionless among the white spikes of the koromiko.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

House Circuit (12) Fishy business

Note: House Circuit posts are drawn from the many 50 metre walks I make every day around our house.

Outside the sitting room window we have a large, waist-height black bin which fills with water and mosquito larvae.  To reduce the mosquito problem I bought two fish last year, a goldfish and a shubunkin (which is a type of goldfish).  These fish of the carp family are omnivores, eating both insects and plants. The goldfish seems to have disappeared, but the shubunkin looks happy and healthy and I say hello to it every day.  I add various water weeds with their attached fauna to the bin if I bring examples from my field trips and the whole makes a low-maintenance ecosystem.

Shubunkins, with their characteristically mottled colours, were bred in Japan just over 100 years ago (the name is Japanese for 'red brocade').  Amazing how one can get quite fond of a fish (see centre left below).  The object in the water on the right is, I think, a dead leaf.

Monday, July 11, 2016

House Circuit (11) Ground oak

Note: House Circuit posts are drawn from the many 50 metre walks I make every day around our house.

One of the prettiest flowers of late spring in our area is the germander speedwell, Veronica chamaedrys.  The word 'germander' derives, through Latin and French, from Classical Greek khamai drus meaning 'ground' or 'creeping oak'.  The word 'germander' on its own is used to describe many of the plants in the genus Teucrium.  At Rye Harbour near here there is, for example, a small population of wall germander, Teucrium chamaedrys, which has mauve flowers and leaves shaped like small oak leaves.  There is also a speedwell from mainland Europe, saw-leaved speedwell, Veronica teucrium (the scientific name translates as 'germander speedwell') with bright blue flowers.  I suspect that in the past when these plants were valued by herbalists the various names were confused and our Veronica chamaedrys came out as germander speedwell.  Phew!

The word 'germander' rarely occurs in other contexts, though John Donne, the 16th/17th C English poet refers to a Sir Germander Pool in one of his letters.  May be he made it up to describe a particularly blue eyed knight.

Modern taxonomy, for those of you that like interesting information, has transferred the plant from the family Scrophulariaceae to Plantaginaceae, though it does not look anything like the plantains (but nor does it look like scrofula).  All to do with DNA no doubt.

It is the foodplant of the larvae of a tiny, but attractive Adelid moth Adela fibulella, sometimes called Frisch's gold long-horn (after, I think, the 18th century entomologist Johann Leonhard Frisch). It is  often seen visiting germander speedwell flowers and I watched one earlier this year wandering about on a bramble leaf on the lane to our village.
For a picture of the moth see here:

Unsurprisingly the plant features frequently in alternative medicine sources as being useful to staunch wounds and to alleviate, among other things, indigestion and jaundice.  I am suffering from both after political events in the UK over the past few weeks and might try a cup or two of germander speedwell tea to calm my spirits.

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.