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.  

Sunday, May 15, 2016

House Circuit (3). Primrose x Cowslip

The central plant above is a primrose/cowslip hybrid, Primula x polyantha.  It grows right beside the House Circuit near the corner of the old porch and has been there in robust health for several years.

Primroses are common in the area, but not cowslips.  We have, however, grown cowslips in the garden from time to time and I am pretty certain that this was the source of one of the parents  The variously coloured garden polyanthus are also primrose/polyanthus hybrids and these do grow locally in gardens and hedgerows as 'escapes', but in my experience they do not produce flowers like the one above with cowslip-like clusters of small 'primroses' on each stalk.

This hybrid is sometimes known as the false oxlip.  The true oxlip, Primula elatior, is a species in its own right, but found in the wild in Britain only in East Anglia.  It differs in several ways from the primrose/cowslip hybrid, but a characteristic feature is that its flowers are held to one side rather than symmetrically round the supporting stalk.  There is more on primroses, cowslips and oxlips on the Westfield Wildlife blog:

The white flowers to the right in the picture above are three-cornered leeks (Allium triquetrum).  More of them in future posts.

Friday, May 13, 2016

House Circuit (2). Where we are.

Our house, round which the house circuit runs, is a small bungalow now around 90 years old, built originally in a hop garden (aka hop field) a kilometre or so north of the village of Sedlescombe, East Sussex (UK).  It is in the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and covered administratively by Rother District Council.  The Ordnance Survey Grid Reference is TQ78241883 or 50.94 latitude, 0.54 longitude.

The garden round the house has been developed without much specific planning since the house was built.  After World War II my wife's parents bought it as a second home then came to live here.  We have some roses from that period and probably some of the plants in the hedges have been there a very long time.  The one to the west was probably in situ long before the house was built.

Our own interventions go back some 42 years and we still have many introduced plant species flourishing from each of the decades since 1970 as well as numerous wildlings that have found their own way here.  It is untidy, delightful and home.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

House Circuit (1)

In order to get a little more regular excercise, I have taken to walking round the outside of the house, from backdoor to backdoor several times a day if possible.  The distance is just over 50 metres and I travel at about 1km per hour, often stopping to look at things.  The photo below shows the start.

The journey is more complex than one would imagine and is another example of how much pleasure and interest can be gained by focussing on the detail of a relatively small area.  the other day, for example, I found a glow worm crossing the path in full sunshine and a brimstone butterfly was laying eggs on the uppermost shoots of the alder buckthorn.

Highlights at the moment include the small, pink-flowered camellia 'Spring festival'.  I planted this on my wife Cynthia's 50th birthday, 8th February 1986 and it has always grown and flowered well.  A cuspidata/japonica hybrid, it has an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society.

There is also a primrose/cowslip hybrid in full flower (we did once grow some cowslips in this part of the garden and primroses are ubiquitous); 'morello' cherries in white swags all along the southern hedge; pink Clematis montana scrambling over the northern hedge; scarlet japonica and Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus) with its strange, scented maroon flowers.  A hornet was hovering around the north west corner of the shed, possibly looking for a nest site (unless it has already found one there).

The blue tits are nesting in the bird box (as they do every year) on the south east corner of the house, but are under threat from the cats.  One jumped up and got his paw through the nest box hole the other day, so our granddaughter garlanded it with a wreath of holly and furze, which seems to have worked without scaring the birds away.

The first hawthorn flowers have appeared in the north hedge, seemingly overnight.  They are common hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) and not Midland hawthorn (C. laevigata) or the hybrid between the two, both of which usually flower up to a fortnight earlier in this area.  The leaves on this plant are, however, not quite the usual shape for common hawthorn, so I wonder if some different genes have somehow got into the mix locally.

Recorders of wildlife are often asked to note the date when hawthorn starts to flower and the phenologists use this among other information to say whether the season is early or late and then speculate as to whether this is due to global warming, El Niño or these in combination with other phenomena.  However, they should be clear on which of the two British hawthorns and their hybrid they have seen in flower.