Sunday, November 29, 2015

Fern time

In November after the leaves have fallen and before the first hard frost have bitten, the ferns in our local woodlands stand out more than usual.  The picture below shows and extensive 'mini-forest' mainly of male fern (Dryopteris filix-mas) and broad buckler fern (Dryopteris dilatata).

Not far away there is an old brick pit full of ferns of different species including some very large examples of the male fern complex which I think are referable to Dryopteris x complexa a hybrid between the scaly male fern (Dryopteris affinis) and the common male fern (D. filix-mas).  This is a very complex group that seems to be changing rapidly in evolutionary terms with much crossing and back crossing.  The hybrid male fern is, however, most easily recognised by its large size (the plant in the first picture below has fronds longer than I am tall),  Sometimes several plants form a group as in the second picture below.  These examples are also growing in the right sort of habitat.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

End of season, start of season

On one of my most frequent walking routes around Hurst Lane in Sedlescombe I spotted this fading plant of betony (Stachys officinalis) the other day. I cannot imagine how I have missed it until now since, from the green spiky bit at the top of the stalk, it has clearly borne quite a number of flowers through the summer.  It was much used in the past by herbalists as a cure for almost everything.

When I was younger it was much commoner in the countryside than it is today.  It likes road banks and rough fields, but road banks are regularly cut and rough fields ploughed up for 'improvement'.  The one in the photo is, I am sure, the only one over a mile of more of the lane verge and I doubt that it will survive for many more years and not return.

Along the same verge leaves of  winter green cow parsley have been showing for a few weeks. Mostly they are fresh, bright green as in the upper part of the picture right, but sometimes they fade prematurely through pink and white and ultimately brown when they are infected by the microfungus Ramularia anthrisci.  There is also a small fly, Phytomyza chaerophylli, that produces tiny whitish mines towards the tips of the leaves.  Both these are quite common in our area, but probably not often recorded.

Another microfungus that shows up both itself and its host plant at this time of year is Melampsora hypericorum, the hypericum rust shown left spotting the leaves of tutsan (Hypericum androsaemum).  It is not, in my experience, a fatal affliction and the host plant should recover for next year.

Also from the verge of Hurst Lane.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Late common wasps

We have had a continuous visitation of common wasps (Vespula vulgaris) on the east window of our sitting room for about a month.  They are nearly all males (distinguishable by the long antennae and body and larger size than the workers) and we get up to four or five a day.  I let them out and they sail away across the garden and, I suspect, we get newly emerged ones every day rather than yesterday's coming back again.  I have not yet worked out where they are coming from and we had rather few workers in summer.
It is not unusual for this species to be on the wing very late in the year, especially if the weather is mild, but it seems that there are a disproportionate number of males (we have yet to see a queen).

Friday, November 13, 2015

Autumn berries

One of the most dramatic phenomena of the British countryside in winter is a large female holly with a full crop of berries caught in a sunlight which makes the glossy evergreen leaves as well as the clusters of red fruit shine with an almost tropical glory.

I once saw royal poinciana trees (Delonix regia) in flame red flower in Sri Lanka and, more surprisingly, a splendid example of  the Chilean fire bush (Embothrium coccineum) emblazoning a small garden in Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands, but neither had the sharp, in-your-face confidence of our native holly.  And we not only get the brilliance, there is all the folklore and the Christmastide symbolism.

Perhaps a little more sinister are the sagging ropes of poisonous black bryony berries, jewels of Halloween as writer Paul Evans called them, and, reminding of the snaking vines that clambered through fences and bushes in summer. They spring from large black tubers, once known as 'womandrakes' with a variety of magical and medicinal properties.

Such riches within quarter of a mile of home.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Terra Incognita

I headed south today in the still warm November autumn.  Our lane runs between hedge and wood to a dead end closed by a wrought iron padlocked gate that does not seem to have been used for a long time.

To the right of this gate there are a number of plants of butcher's broom (Ruscus aculeatus) growing in the hedge.  They have been there as long as I can remember, but I expect they were planted as the species seems to occur almost entirely in hedges in our area.

It is, rather surprisingly, a plant of the asparagus family (Asparagaceae) and has had many uses both practical (brooms etc.) and medicinal being presented, as with many herbs, as a universal cure-all.  I won't list the conditions it is supposed to alleviate, though one remedy I do like is given by Mrs Grieve in her famous herbal "The boughs have been employed for flogging chilblains."  (I hope 'chilblains' isn't a misprint for 'children')  It is supposed to flower in spring, but I found one in bloom today (see picture).  The spear-like 'leaves' are, technically, cladodes, flattened leaf stalks and the flowers appear in the middle of the undersurface of these. Occasionally they turn into attractive red berries.

I carried on into Terra Incognita in the shape of the interior of Framabo Wood.  Framabo is a small property with a caravan and a couple of sheds but has a quite large secondary woodland which is virtually unvisited and whose interior I have never explored.  One hundred and fifty years ago it was an open field then in the early 20th century an orchard.  Now is has large mature trees and coppiced hazels like those in the picture below that look as though they have been there for centuries.  It is salutary to observe how quickly the woods return without any planting or special 'management' help.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

One mile around home

Life has changed a lot since my last entry.  I have been found to be diabetic and, as a consequence, have had to give up driving.  At 77 years old I don't move too quickly either so my ramblings are restricted to a radius of about one mile (I prefer this rather old fashioned phrase to 'one kilometer').

Taking excercise is important for everyone, so as often as possible I go for what I call a 'constitutional', a walk of a mile or so from home and back.  This all takes place in the parish of Sedlescombe in the High Weald of East Sussex.  By dint of long habit I always look at the wildlife and usually manage to find something I have not seen before - it is extraordinary how very rich a relatively small area of our planet can be and I suppose I shall never run out of novelty or phenomena that make me reflect on the way things work.  From now on I will try to update this blog regularly and you are welcome to walk with me (especially if you are suffering from insomnia).

The photo at the top of this page was looking south west from the corner of our lane to the distant town of Battle.  It seems fine: fat sheep grazing contentedly, trees and hedges touched with autumn yellows and browns.  But, we are having one of the mildest Novembers on record.  Most of the leaves are still on the trees, many of them green.  The grass that is being chomped by the sheep is much more vivid and lush than normal at this time of year, and still growing vigorously.  In the woods by this field there have been almost no terrestrial fungi since late summer - there used to be thousands of many different species.  There are hardly any autumn insects either and, if there are no fungi for their larvae to eat, there may be hardly any in the future to the detriment of birds, small animals, spiders and other creatures.  The ground in the wood is deeply carpeted with leaves, but they do not seem to be rotting down in the usual way; maybe due to the warmth and lack of frost or, more worryingly, because soil-dwelling invertebrates are not doing their jobs properly.  In the past fallen oak leaves have usually borne a good crop of spangle galls each with a small worm at its heart that could have been a quick snack for many fossicking creatures, but I have seen very few this year and many of those do not seem to have developed properly and are twisted and shrivelled.

As though to make a point, I found an unseasonal primrose in full flower.  I have no idea, by the way, why this property is called 'Ariel'.  The name has been applied to all sorts of things and people over the years, but none seem to have any particular relevance to the small country retreat flagged up here.

I also found a branch that had been knocked off a beech tree at the plot called 'Rosewood'.  This has recently changed hands, so it might have been a visiting lorry that pulled the branch down. Tomorrow I shall cut a length of wood suitable for making a paper knife.  I like making paper knifes, or letter openers as they are often called.  It is just simple whitling, but there is some technique in getting a high polish on the blade and creating other small details.  Each one takes many hours, so they are definitely not a commercial proposition, but I like making them out of different woods and then giving them away - a sort of antidote to the computer and writing a blog.