Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Robber flies and hogweed larvae

Today as I was watering my house leeks a kite-tailed robber fly (Machimus atricapillus) landed on our abandoned refrigerator (circa 1935) and enjoyed sucking the juices via the head of a hapless hoverfly it had just caught.

20100804 Wbx & South View 030

Not far away I found some caterpillars of the fuscous brindled flat-body moth, Depressaria pastinacella, a common species but one that normally remains closely concealed in a spun together head of hogweed.

20100804 Wbx & South View 008

Monday, August 02, 2010

The weasel's lunch

Today I decided to have my lunch looking out into the garden.  Suddenly a weasel emerged from the undergrowth only a couple of metres from me and crossed our small patio.  She held her head high as she was carrying a dead mouse, as cats carry a kitten,  in her mouth.

We do occasionally see weasels in the garden, going along the hedge bottom or elsewhere, but I have not noticed one for several years past and think, like many creatures, they must be getting rarer.

Maybe the mouse was her lunch, but as she was carrying it elsewhere, I like to hope she has a family somewhere in our garden.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A bank full of betony

Just below the south of the junction of Compasses Lane and the B2244 Hawkhurst Road on the western bank at TQ7763820510 is a magnificent stand of betony (Betonica officinalis formerly Stachys officinalis). Their rich purple flowers make a landscape feature and the small white-flowered umbellifer pepper saxifrage (Silaum silaus) also grows here, indicating this is long undisturbed grassland.

20100727 BHW & Killingan 031

Betony was much used by herbalists in the past and in the Domestic Encyclopaedia of 1803 it says that, among other things it "affects those who gather any quantity of its leaves, with a disorder resembling the effects of intoxication."

Betony garlands worn round the neck were said to suppress nightmares and the Anglo-Saxon Herbal said it would protect against"frightful goblins that go by night and terrible sights and dreams."  If one put an adder within a garland of betony it was said that it would kill itself, while thrusting a leaf up one's nose was regarded as a cure for toothache (Medicina Britannica, 1748).

The now rare great case moth (Coleophora wockeella) feeds only on betony and, as the name suggests, goes about like a hermit crab or caddis larva in a small (not great) case made of bits of the leaves.  There is a picture here:

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Killingan Coppice again

The fruit are already ripe on the bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara) and here it looks as though the sloe bug (Dolycoris baccarum) centre right is enjoying some of the juice while standing on its head.

20100727 Killingan bittersweet & sloe bug

The plant is toxic to humans and, although quite large quantities have to be eaten before there are any serious effects, it is important not to experiment.  Sloe bugs appear not to be affected.  The stems are said to be sweet when first chewed, but quickly turn bitter hence, I assume, the name dulcamara meaning sweetbitter.

Spear thistles (Cirsium vulgare) are in full bloom now and very attractive to bumble bees.

 20100727 BHW & Killingan 016

Another plant doing exceptionally well along the coppice edge in response to higher light levels is upright hedge-parsley (Torilis japonica).

20100727 Killingan Torilis japonica

In Korea seeds of this species are one of the ingredients in the 18 herb concoction called paeng-jo-yeon-nyeon-baek-ja-in-hwan (PJBH for short).  In Oriental medicine PJBH is reckoned to activate brain function, promote memory and lengthen life span.  Might try some if I can find the other 17 ingredients.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Why 'black' bryony?

With is shiny green leaves and bright red berries, black bryony (Tamus communis or sometimes Dioscorea communis) is anything but black.

However, it does have a tuber (which was used in medicine) with a black exterior and the leaves, like those shown below, sometimes turn purplish black in summer and autumn.

20100715 Tamus communis black leaves 004

The name also helps to differentiate the species from the unrelated white bryony (Bryonia dioica), the mandrake, also much used in medicine.

Both plants are climbers with red berries.  This is white bryony at Pagham Harbour, where it tends to sprawl.

20090812 Pagham 019

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Fallen elders

Along the garden path there is a place where an old, dead elder tree (Sambucus nigra) has fallen across a smaller, living example of the same species.

20100626 South View fallen elders  011

Together they make an attractive architectural and wildlife feature.  The dead tree has plenty of ear fungi on its upper branches and elsewhere and the smaller, living example has ivy ascending the trunk which holds up its dead sister.  It has a few flowers (centre left) but is also sending up some strong shoots for the future.

A good place to sit and meditate on life and death and an interesting little wilderness to try and mould into a semi-designed feature.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Year of the Welsh Chafer

There have recently been reports from many parts of England of unusually large numbers of the Welsh chafer beetle, Hoplia philanthus, emerging in semi-improved grasslands and often flying in swarms over meadows.

20100623 Ashburnham & South View 028

The adult beetles, as above, are reddish coloured, or black and present a very dark appearance in flight.  Walking in the meadows at Ashburnham, East Sussex a few days ago we were surrounded by maybe 100 or more of them flying like small bumble bees and with a similar buzzing sound.  To a non-entomologist this would have been quite a threatening experience, though the beetles are harmless and none actually settled on us.

20100623 Ashburnham & South View 004

The reason why the species is called the 'Welsh chafer' I have not yet been able to establish, but I think it is likely to be quite an old name.  The insect seems to be no commoner in Wales than elsewhere.  In Dorset its local name is the 'apple eater' (Dale, 1878), though the larvae live in turf, eating grass and other roots.  Maybe they come up sometimes for orchard windfalls.

Dale, C. W. (1978)  The history of Glanville's Wooton in the county of Dorset.  Hatchards, London

Anyway, if anyone knows the reason for the name Welsh chafer, I would be grateful to hear from them.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Coppice developing

The part of Killingan wood that was coppiced less than 18 months ago is already rapidly scrubbing over with brambles.  There is less and less bare earth and moss left and smaller plants are rapidly being suppressed.  This is not quite what coppice is supposed to do: if violet-feeding fritillary caterpillars were to flourish, for example, the ground would have to remain open for far longer.

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It is interesting to speculate whether this used to happen in the past or in different types of coppice rotation.  In terms of forestry it seems to me that the brambles are quite important as they give some protection to the new shoots rising from the tree stools.

The flora continues to provide interest and I some of the most striking are shown below:

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Bittersweet or woody nightshade (Solanum dulcamara)

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Wild foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea) among the brambles.

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And some cultivar foxgloves at the woodland edge that must have escaped from a garden.

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Marsh thistle (Cirsium palustre), what the gardeners call an 'architectural plant'.

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Heath speedwell (Veronica officinalis), a low-growing plant of poor, dry soils.

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And ox-eye daisy or marguerite (Leucanthemum vulgare), a plant of meadows and waysides, but quite happy here at the woodland edge.

20100614 Killingan ox-eye daisies 028

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Yellow archangel: more than meets the eye (or nose).

Yellow archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdolon) is an attractive dead nettle particularly associated here in South East England with ancient woodland.

20100504 Archangel Killingan coppice 010

It has done very well indeed this year in the area of coppice just up the road and makes a wonderful contrast to the bluebells.

It did not, however, seem a very exciting plant - few insect associates, few medicinal properties and, like many plants that are not actually poisonous, said to be edible when young.

The specific name is also not very inspiring as it is supposed to indicate that the plant smells like a weasel or marten and some claim that weasels smell worse than skunks.

However, after a few minutes research I discovered that yellow archangel is used as a garnish by the celebrated Danish chef René Redzepi, of the Copenhagen restaurant Noma, winner of this year's Restaurant of the Year Award.  See here for some of his recipes:

Apparently Redzepi sprinkles raw flowers and shoot tips of yellow archangel over a dish of baked celeriac and black pudding also garnished, of course, with salted ramsons seeds pickled in vinegar.  I am sure that the mustelid aroma would add greatly to the quality of this dish.

My family is in for a gastronomic treat this weekend.

20100504 Archangel Killingan coppice 009

Since penning the above I have, in the interests of both science and gastronomy, sampled leaves and flowers of yellow archangel.  I am happy to report that I could detect no unpleasant aroma and the taste was leafy and slightly nutty - a bit coarse, but not disagreeable.

So, maybe galeobdolon (a name coined by ancient Greek physician Dioscorides) has nothing to do with the smell of weasel unless it was used mischievously to deter people from collecting the plant for the kitchen.  Alternatively the word may have something to do with galea the Latin (and ? Greek) for a helmet from the shape of the flowers.  And anyway, perhaps Dioscorides didn't mean yellow archangel as we know it.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Baby orange-tip

In Killingan coppice today I started to look for orange-tip butterfly eggs on the stand of lady's smock (Cardamine pratensis). 

20100425 Cardamine pratensis Lady's smock Killingan coppice 046

It was almost too easy.  On the first plant I looked at there was a solitary characteristically shaped orange egg carefully placed beneath a flower stalk (see picture below near centre).  They are usually put on their own like as though the mother knows that her caterpillars will have strong cannibalistic tendencies .

 20100504 Orange-tip egg Killingan coppice 007

With a good deal of luck this will have turned into a butterfly by next May.  Below is a female of the species.

20080519 Brede High Woods 10a Rafters Wood orange-tip female 063

Monday, May 03, 2010

White on grey

Today, Bank Holiday Monday, was showery and cold.  Great dark clouds rose up to the east of our garden showing off to perfection the flowers on the wild cherry (Prunus avium).  As Housman wrote "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now/is hung with bloom along the bough,"

20100503 Prunus avium South View 5

Cherry trees are the subject of a 3-year survey being organised by the Natural History Museum, though they are largely interested in garden cherries as part of a general interest in the significance of gardens for biodiversity.   See here:

20100503 Sorbus aria leafing South View

Also foregrounded by the clouds and sunshine were the opening leaf buds of whitebeam (Sorbus aria).

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Return of the goldilocks buttercup

 20100429 Killingan R auricomus 002

Goldilocks buttercup (Ranunculus auricomus) used to be common in our High Weald woodlands when I was a boy, but it seems to have become scarcer and scarcer over the years.

There used to be a small colony in the wood at the top of our lane but I thought this had gone.  Today though I was very pleased to find about half a dozen plants in full bloom beside the path.  Although the abundant celandines (Ranunculus ficaria) with their rather similar yellow flowers can make the goldilocks buttercup easy to walk past, it has an attractive, airy quality with delicate stems with their narrow upper leaves holding up the shining yellow flowers.

20100429 Killingan R auricomus 004

Many of the flowers do not have full compliment of petals, or have one or two normal petals plus a few abortive ones and I wonder if this is related to their asexual reproduction

Goldilocks buttercup can reproduce asexually and several hundred microspecies (also called 'agamospecies') have been described from mainland Europe.  Apparently there may be a similar number of these microspecies yet to be described in Britain.

If the plants can reproduce without pollination there would seem to be no need to attract insects making petals redundant.  However, asexual reproduction implies little or no variation so, presumably, the number and type of petals would remain the same down the generations and not 'evolve' into plants with petal-free flowers.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Variegated honesty returns

One of my favourite garden plants is the variegated form of honesty, Lunaria annua, an introduced species whose origin is unknown, though the perennial subspecies is found in Italy and the Balkans.  It has been grown in Britain since at least 1570.

20100421 SV honesty 017

The plain green form is attractive, but this version with cream edging to the leaves is quite spectacular as it rises into flower in spring.  There is also a white flowered variegated form.

Despite its scientific name, this plant is a biennial here: seed sown later this year will flower next year.  The seedlings are markedly variegated when they appear but quickly turn wholly green.  The variegation reappears as the plant develops towards flowering at the end of winter.  Then, of course, there is the later benefit of the silvery, penny sized seed pods.  The fact that these seeds can be seen through the thin walls of the pods is the reason for the name 'honesty'.

The leaves and roots are said to be edible and the ground seeds have been used as an alternative to mustard.  The scented flowers are attractive to insects and orange-tip butterflies will sometimes lay their eggs on the plant and, so far as I know, the caterpillars flourish on it just as much as on cuckooflower, Cardamine pratensis, their usual pabulum.

We used to have quite a number of self-sown plants in the garden every year and I thought I had lost them way back in the last century, so I was very pleased when this one appeared.  It is in an area where there was much deep shade under a Lawson's cypress removed last summer.  Clearly the advent of light and warmth has triggered a long dormant seed.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Less usual spring flowers

Spring is still running late, though the day before yesterday I saw the first blue on some bluebell buds.

Two of the rather less common spring flowers are the marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) and the wood dog-violet (Viola reichenbachiana).

20100413 Swallotail Hill Farm 001

Marsh marigolds seemed much commoner when I was a child and I know only a few places locally where they still grow.  Their preferred habitat is very wet meadows and most have these have been drained.  Even when they are re-flooded, the Caltha does not seem to return.

20100413 Viola reichenbachiana

The violet is holding its own rather better, especially in well-lit areas of clay woodland.  It flowers slightly earlier than common dog-violet (Viola riviniana) which grows in similar places and the violet shade of the narrow flowers has rather more red in it than riviniana.

The scientific name of the violet pays homage to Ludwig Reichenbach, a 19th century German botanist.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

A new toy

I have acquired a new toy in the shape of a digital microscope wired up to the computer.

It takes a bit of getting used to, but hopefully it will enable me to share some of the smaller creatures I come across with you.

As well as scanning over things, it is easy to capture a still, or even a video, and this can then be tidied up and kept on the computer.

My first effort (and I am sure quality will improve) was of the coffin fly Megaselia ciliaris (Diptera: Phoridae).

Megaselia ciliaris

Only about 2mm long, I found several in one of my traps over a stack of decaying logs in the garden.  Megaselia is a huge genus and identification is often difficult as the flies normally have to be mounted on a microscope slide like this one and often dissected to see some of the smaller features.

One of the distinctive features of this species is the partially yellow front legs.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Tortoiseshells return

After some years of very low numbers, the small tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae) seems to be back in numbers.  Today I saw several, including the one below, in a rough field at Netherfield in East Sussex wheeling about and buzzing one another in the warm afternoon sunshine.

20100406 Darvel Down Netherfield 016

This recent decline has been linked to the parasitoid tachinid fly Sturmia bella which was first recorded in Britain in 1998 at about the time the decline of the small tortoiseshell began.  The butterfly caterpillars swallow the eggs of the fly while they are feeding and the parasitoid larvae develop inside them, eventually killing them.

Some research has been done on this and large numbers of small tortoiseshells have undoubtedly been attacked by Sturmia, but results are not so far conclusive.

It may be that we will now see cycles of abundance and scarcity of this species (as with the holly blue and its parasitoid).  More butterflies means more tachinids, but this leads to less butterflies and less tachinids and so on round and round

Thursday, April 01, 2010

In praise of ragwort (Senecio jacobaea)

20060713 Ragwort & cinnabar larvae 2

Ragwort flowers with cinnabar moth caterpillars.

Since 2003 common ragwort has been a proscribed plant due to the Ragwort Control Bill, introduced largely to protect horses that can be poisoned by the plant.  On nature reserves and roadsides as well as on farms and commons the plant has been pulled up in vast quantities.  It is ironic that, although the horse population must be far lower than before the internal combustion engine, the dangers of the plant have only recently been a subject of legislation.

Many naturalists are concerned about this wholesale destruction of a plant that has been with us for many centuries, particularly as a very wide range of insects feed on the leaves and flowers.  Indeed, the cinnabar moth has recently been made a Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) species, due, no doubt, to the threat to ragwort.

Today I read the following about ragwort in a essay called Summer published in the book The South Country in 1909 by Edward Thomas (famous for his poem Adlestrop).  He is talking of the top of the South Downs and I have little doubt that if such a quantity of the plant appeared there today the authorities of the new South Downs National Park would be quick to get rid of it:

"There a myriad oriflammes of ragwort are borne up on tall stems of equal height, straight and motionless, and near at hand quite clear, but farther away forming a green mist until, farther yet, all but the flowery surface is invisible, and that is but a glow.  The stillness of the green and golden multitudes under the grey mist, perfectly still though a wind flutters the high tops of the beech, has an immortal beauty, and that they should ever change does not enter the mind which is thus for the moment lured happily into a strange confidence and ease."

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Variable-leaved crestwort

One of the more modest spring manifestations  is the fruiting of some of the liverworts.

This one is variable-leaved crestwort (Lophocolea heterophylla) a common species often found on damp decaying logs.  This example was in our Sedlescombe garden.BHW Bannister South View Lophocolea Megaselai 018

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The ponds of Footlands

On the south eastern edge of Footlands Wood, Whatlington this afternoon I found a series of magical ponds, perhaps the remains of old iron ore workings.  The Footlands site is known to have been active in the Iron Age before the Romans arrived and that great authority Henry Cleere says it appears to be a site worked by the Regni, a British 'tribe' possibly set up by the Romans.

20100317 Pond in Footlands Wood 017

A few metres from this a Roman road from Compasses Gate curves close to the wood where these ponds are and a short distance further down the Rusty Brook valley ancient flint arrowheads and Bronze Age artefacts were once found.

It was all very peaceful today, the only sound being from the birds and the frogs hopping lively into the water as I approached.

My enjoyment of this mysterious and really rather remote place was crowned by the discovery of an ancient wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis) coppice on a bank at the southern end of the pond (see below).  I have been to Footlands Wood many times, but this is the first wild service I have found - and it was my birthday.

20100317 Wild Service Footlands Wood 016

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A laid hedge

At last some spring-like weather has arrived, with warm sunshine this morning, though little is moving yet and gorse is about the only obvious flower.

For the last couple of weeks they have been laying the hedge at the top of the lane.

Sedlescombe footpath hedge laying church 009

This has opened up the view to the west and south west and it is very impressive as one comes round the Killingan Wood corner on the way home.

Our Sedlescombe parish church across the fields is on the right under the holly.  The lowest point on the horizon, towards the left of the picture, is where the Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066: Anglo-Saxons on the right, Normans on the left.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Spring snowflake (Leucojum vernum)

20100306 spring snowflake Leucojum Woods Mill 0

Outside the Sussex Wildlife Trust's offices at Woods Mill near Henfield there are a few clumps of spring snowflake (Leucojum vernum) that are putting on a particularly fine show this year.

This is not a native plant, but it does escape from gardens from time to time and has become naturalised in  parts of the UK.

These examples are slightly unusual inasmuch as they have yellow instead of green spots towards the tips of the petals and might therefore be the form known as var. carpathicum, also quite widely grown.

The larger tree second from left behind the clump is a wild service, Sorbus torminalis.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

After the cold

Today was lovely and sunny, quite a change after the cold and wet we have been enduring for many weeks.  They say it has been the coldest winter for 30 years and it is not really over yet.

Looking out of one of our sitting room windows I was pleased to see how it framed some hazel catkins in the hedge beyond.

Ivy Cottage Beech Oast Rowan South View 033

Inspired by this I took a walk in the woods past two strange trees that I see almost every day.  One is a large oak with branches derived from epicormic shoots sprouting from the trunk.

Ivy Cottage Beech Oast Rowan South View 030

The other a high coppiced sweet chestnut, almost a pollard.  This is usually done to mark the edge or corner of a coup and not because the woodman could not be bothered to bend.

Ivy Cottage Beech Oast Rowan South View 028

Back in the garden the sunshine had provoked the snowdrop flowers to expand fully, albeit about a month late.

Ivy Cottage Beech Oast Rowan South View 041

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Annual catkin display

Every year I try to capture with the camera the feeling that comes when the male hazel catkins, the lamb's tails, at last extend to their full stretch.

Ellie Killingan SouthView 012

The above show a branchful in our front garden in Sedlescombe.  They show up well against the foliage behind which is that of the tamarisk-leaved false-cypress, Chamaecyparis  lawsoniana Tamariscifolia, at least, this is what it was sold to me as many years ago and I have no reason to disbelieve the supplier, a local conifer nurseryman in Whatlington.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Killingan Coppice: 22 February 2010

It has rained and rained all day with twin rivers of water pouring down our road and constantly lowering skies with black, threatening clouds.

This picture shows the landscape in the rain from the corner of Killingan Coppice looking west towards Sedlescombe church.

Killingan Ivy Cottage 003

In the hollows of the coppice, the shallow pits caused by past opencast mining operations, probably for iron, will hold water for a few days, but not for long enough to be colonised by any wetland flora and fauna.

Killingan Ivy Cottage 016

The pale green moss growing on top of the bank on the left is a fine landscape feature in the open coppice at this time of year.

Killingan Coppice can, by the way, be seen on Google Earth as it was photographed from above on 23 May 2009.  It shows as a pale brown strip alongside Churchlands Lane, Sedlescombe at 21⁰ 56’ 37.66” N   0⁰ 32’ 12.38” E  (83.5 metres, 274 ft above sea level).

Sunday, February 21, 2010

A setterwort surprise

Yesterday, walking through an oak and chestnut wood between Battle and Rye in the East Sussex Weald, we noticed some luminous green plants towering above the wet brown fallen leaves.


(All photos were taken by my friend Andy Redford who was with me - I left my camera at home as I did not think there would be any worthwhile subjects).

The plants were stinking hellebore or setterwort (Helleborus foetidus), a very rare species in East Sussex, and there were maybe one hundred of them large and small scattered over quite a wide area and clearly doing well.

I have walked through this piece of woodland dozens of times and not seen these plants before, nor do they seem to have been recorded by others, but they must have been here for a long time (perhaps only really obvious early in the year). 

There is a story that the first hellebore grew from the spot where a little girl's tear dropped onto the snow because she had no gift for the Christ child.  With all the snow and frost we have had recently and seeing these plants coming up to their best so early, it is easy to understand how such an idea arose.

Another bonus was the discovery on many of the plants of mines of the leaf mining fly Phytomyza hellebori (see below) first recorded in Britain in 2002.  So far as I know this a new species for East Sussex.


The stinking hellebore is a popular garden plant with an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society.  In the wild it normally grows on chalk or limestone, so the question as to whether the plant is a garden escape in this wood arises.  Though I do wonder quite how it got there, there are no houses immediately adjacent and all the plants are in natural places, not in spots where garden rubbish might have been dumped.

The name 'stinking' comes from the fact that the leaves smell of decaying meat when bruised, though the flowers have a pleasant honey scent and are good for early insects, especially bumble bees.  All parts though are toxic and though it has been used medicinally, the result may often have been fatal.

A moving postscript to all this is that I found a fine piece of writing on the stinking hellebore penned by my old friend Dr. Tony Hare, the founder and first chair of Plantlife:

Sadly he died at an early age in January and I think this essay is a very fitting tribute to a remarkable man and a great conservationist.  I know he would have been very pleased that we had stumbled upon a flourishing colony of this one of our more remarkable wild flowers.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Killingan Coppice: 20 February 2010

Despite the cold and snow with continuing hard frosts overnight, there are many signs of spring in the coppice.

Bluebells are sending their small pointed shoots through the leaves.

Ellie Killingan SouthView 006 As are the fat shiny rolls of cuckoopint (Arum maculatum) leaves.

Ellie Killingan SouthView 004I even found a primrose (Primula vulgaris) in flower.

Ellie Killingan SouthView 020It all makes me wonder if the phenologists are wasting their time.  Here, after the hardest winter in years, many plants are, unsurprisingly, not as advanced as normal.  Snowdrops are still struggling into flower and hazel catkins at the beginning of their season.  Other plants though scarcely seem to have been held back, although I suspect the primrose above may have a bit of exotic blood from a garden Polyanthus which may affect its performance.  It certainly is not typical - just an early flowering form and to use it statistically would, in my view, be somewhat dishonest. 

Proper phenology should be done by monitoring the same individual plants season by season, but even this would, I reckon, prove very little about climate change.  As it is people expend much effort looking for the 'first'  this or that of the season without acknowledging that most  plant species produce individuals that are somewhat ahead of the game.

In the case of the hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) there are two native British species one of which flowers about two weeks before the other and many derived from exotic seed that may have strange foreign habits when they are mature.  Phenology recorders are not asked, so far as I know, to differentiate.