Tuesday, September 27, 2016

House circuit (18): wasp, fly and two plants

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

On August 10th 2016 I saw a solitary wasp attacking a solitary bee as big as itself in a flower of Geranium ‘Claridge Druce’.  I grabbed both plus flower; one stung me in the palm, but later I managed to identify the wasp as Cerceris rybyensis, the ornate tailed digger wasp.  This makes a burrow in the ground which it stocks with paralyzed solitary bees to feed its young.

The wasp was named by Linnaeus after a place called Ryby near Stockholm in Sweden which the great taxonomist visited with his friends.

The above is an Anthomyiid fly, Anthomyia ? procellaris I think, though there are a number of lookalikes.  I once bred several from an old cormorants nest that was kindly donated to me from the Rye Harbour Nature Reserve and contained many invertebrates.  For a full account see here:


Wild marjoram and carder bee


Monday, September 26, 2016

Mysterious 'bluebottle'

I recently found a rather strange and distinctive fly in our garden that turned out  to be Stomorhina lunata a member of the Calliphoridae, the bluebottle family, though it does not look anything like a bluebottle and has been compared to some of the hoverflies.

(There are many better pictures on line).

Widespread in England, especially the south, it is said to be scarce, though Steven Falk has found it in many locations on the South Downs in recent years.  Most accounts say that it is probably a migrant from mainland Europe or even further afield.

In Africa the species is known to breed in the egg cases of locusts and some suggest that it turns up in Britain when large swarms of locusts are on the march in Africa.  This hypothesis has metamorphosed into the idea that since the early stages have only ever been found in locust egg cases, the adults must be migrants in the cooler parts of Europe - a good example of the absence of evidence being taken as the evidence of absence (in this case of the fly breeding in Europe).

In this Internet age, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations monitors locust swarms and there does not appear to have been anything exceptional, or close to Europe, in 2015 or 2016 (http://www.fao.org/ag/locusts/en/info/info/index.html).  I therefore suggest that Stomorhina lunata can breed in places other than locust egg cases, though maybe in mainland Europe rather than the UK, so our records could still be of migrants.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The spotted-winged fruit fly, Drosophila suzukii

A small fruit fly (Diptera: Drosophilidae), Drosophila suzukii, was found by the author of this blog in his garden in Sedlescombe, East Sussex (OS grid ref. TQ782188) on 10 September 2016.  It was the first Sussex record submitted to the Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre of this species which is spreading globally from its original home in the Far East.  It was first recorded in the UK in 2012.

In general appearance it closely resembles the Drosophila species associated with overripe fruit, vinegar and wine bottles but is distinctive on account of the dark area at the tip of the wings in the male (hence its English name -.  this name is often abbreviated to SWD).

The female lays her eggs within a wide range of ripening fruit and the larvae then develop inside the fruit.  Because of this it is regarded as a major pest, or potential pest, of soft and stone fruit both on a commercial scale and in gardens.  It can also attack blackberries and other wild fruits so it may have an effect on the wider countryside.

Much research into this newly arrived species is being done by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) and East Malling Research (EMR). Details of the fly and its habits are summarised here: http://horticulture.ahdb.org.uk/swd-identifying-pest  One of the problems of identification is that it is not featured in any of the European pre-2012 literature dealing with the Drosophilidae.  The females in particular are likely to be overlooked or misidentified because they do not have spotted wings.
Scott Raffle of AHDB currently works as the industry co-ordinator for much of the SWD work that AHDB fund and says (September 2016) “the pest has been present in the South of England since 2012. It can be found everywhere in the South irrespective of whether the location is near to commercial fruit growing farms.”   Accounts of the spread of the species have been published in Dipterists Digest, but few records seem to have got through to the National Biodiversity Network (NBN) and other national and regional wildlife recording agencies.

This new species may not be very tolerant of winter cold, so its survival here could be of limited duration.  Records are however important in showing how far north it might have reached thus indicating areas that are (so far) free of the pest.


AHDB Horticulture (n.d.)  SWD: Identifying the pest.  http://horticulture.ahdb.org.uk/swd-identifying-pest

CABI (2016) Drosophila suzukii on the invasive species compendium. http://www.cabi.org/isc/datasheet/109283#20107000720

Clemons, L. (2013) Kent Diptera 2012.  Bulletin of the Kent Field Club 58, 117-135

Defra (2012) Consultation on policy against Drosophila suzukiihttp://www.fera.defra.gov.uk/plants/consultations/index.cfm

Martin Drake, C. & Stubbs, A.E. (2014) First record of Drosophila suzukii (Matsumura) (Diptera, Drosophilidae) in Great Britain.  Dipterists Digest 21 (2) 189-192.  Note, pages 192 to 195 contain notes from various authors on the species in London, Suffolk, Kent, Essex, Northamptonshire, Norfolk and Middlesex.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

House Circuit running diary

20 August 2016.  Very windy and showery after the warm summer spell.  I did see one butterfly – a holly blue - from the sitting room window.  Despite the cool, hoverflies and bees seemed to remain active.  I noted Bombus pascuorum on orpine flowers – I have a growing list of insects visiting the plant.  Among the hoverflies the snout-faced, Rhingia campestris and the long-tailed, Baccha elongata, seemed to enjoy the cooler weather.

On a hazel leaf I found a long, narrow mine characteristic of the tiny moth, the least nut-tree pigmy, Stigmella microtheriella.  According to A. Maitland Emmet in his book on the scientific names of British Lepidoptera the specific name derives from Ancient Greek micros (small) and therion (a small creature) – splendid example of a tautology.  When the name was given to the insect by Stainton in 1854, it was thought to be the smallest moth.

There is a rather fine honeysuckle flowering outside the back door.  It looks like Lonicera periclymenum ‘Graham Thomas’, with its dark green leaves and late flowering habit.  It seems to agree with many of the pictures on the Internet.  It is certainly a cultivar, probably one that Sammy bought in a pot that has somehow managed to survive in the dark recesses on the north of the house.

19 August 2016.  Rain showers for much of the day bring some needed refreshment to the countryside.  Because of my leg ache from yesterday, I went out rather little.

18 August 2016.  The blue pimpernel, Anagallis arvensis ssp. foemina was flowering in the Old Woodyard and later, at home, I found the rather fine plume moth Amblyptilia acanthadactyla, the beautiful plume, on the lighted kitchen window pane.

17 August 2016.  Two moths late last night on the kitchen window the common grass veneer Agriphila tristella, and the red twin-spot carpet, Xanthorhoe spadicearia.  The identity of the latter had to be checked via an examination of the genitalia.

Butterflies remain rather scarce, though a brimstone put in an appearance on the buddleia and I saw a small white briefly visiting the orpine flowers (which are still regularly patronised by bumble bees).

There were several holly blues in our large buckthorn bush.  They were flying from one place to another and constantly settling as though laying eggs.  Alder buckthorn is an alternative foodplant and in France the butterfly is called the 'buckthorn blue' (azuré des nerpruns).

16 August 2016. Butterflies rather scarce again, though I watched a holly blue laying eggs on ivy in the northern hedge.  A migrant hawker hung itself up here and I found a very dark worker middle wasp very sluggish on buckthorn flowers.  I found a figwort beetle, Cionus scrophulariae, on flowers of Buddleja x weyerana ‘Sungold’.  Usually found on figwort, it also occurs on yellow and orange buddlejas, and these plants formerly belonged to the Scrophulariaceae.  Perhaps the beetles know something the taxonomists don’t.  A brimstone moth, Opisthograptis luteolata, on the lighted kitchen window.

The single flower on the globe thistle, Echinops ? bannaticus, in the northern border (it has been there for about 25 years) is very attractive to bumble bees, with often three on it at any one time, but the flowers are over quickly.

I have a bit of mint found in the Old Woodyard in Brede High Woods yesterday.  It looks a bit like pennyroyal, but I shall have to try and grow some on to get a conclusion.  It isn’t anything I am familiar with.

15 August 2016.  The vanessid have returned in small numbers with small tortoiseshell and red admiral around the buddleia.  I also saw a meadow brown and there was a gatekeeper visiting the orpine plants.

14 August 2016.  It remains very warm but, strangely, most of the vanessid butterflies so abundant yesterday seem to have disappeared and I only saw two rather sluggish red admirals resting on buddleia leaves.  Non-vanessid species seemed to be at about their normal level.  There was the hoverfly Rhingia campestris visiting flowers of orpine and Syritta pipiens on the mint I moved yesterday.  I caught a light brown apple-moth, the tortrix Epiphyas postvittana, on vegetation outside my study window.  Originally an Australian insect it has spread widely through England and Wales since it arrived in Cornwall in 1936.

On a dusk expedition around the house I netted a mother of pearl moth, Pleuroptya ruralis.

13 August 2016.  I moved the strawberry mint Mentha x piperata ‘Strawberry’ to the area opposite the kitchen window as it is in bloom and attracts some interesting insects.  I bought the plant last year at the Blackbrooks Garden Centre but there does not seem to be much strawberry in its smell.  Looking at pictures on the Internet there seem to be many shapes and sizes of mint called 'Strawberry'.  I caught a small hoverfly attracted to it later.  I also found a large number of very active pollen beetles and took a good set of photos of the butterflies on the buddleia.  Also a neat picture of Episyrphus balteatus, the marmalade fly, attracted to a flower head of orpine.

Queen bumble bees are quite abundant just now – feeding up for hibernation I suppose.

12 August 2016. Warmer, 25C at midday.  Many butterflies on the buddleia including small tortoiseshell, comma, peacock, red admiral.  Elsewhere holly blue, meadow brown, large and small whites.

There was a meadow brown nectaring on the orpine flowers, the plant from Hurst lane.  It was there for around 2 hours and, I suspect, only departed when disturbed by a bumble bee.

For the first time since last year I went out with the sweep net and, among other things, caught a reduviid bug, the wandering thread-legged bug, Empicoris vagabundus in the hedge by the lane, a new species for me that feeds upon other small insects.  Another tiny (under 3mm) lace bug was Physatocheila dumetorum.  It seems to like lichen covered trees, especially Rosaceae, though where I found it is not noticeably lichenised.  I have found it in the garden before.

11 August 2016.  Muggy after a rather cool night.  The first flower has opened on the orpine (Hylotelephium telephium) from Horns Wood.  I also noted some jasmine flowers, white convolvulus (Calystegia) rapidly smothering the back of the house and the first ripe blackberries in the hedge by the lane.

Yesterday I saw a solitary wasp attacking a solitary bee in a flower of Geranium ‘Claridge Druce’.  I grabbed both plus flower; one stung me in the palm, but later I managed to identify the wasp as Cerceris rybyensis, the ornate tailed digger wasp.  This makes a burrow in the ground which it stocks with paralyzed solitary bees to feed its young.

A mining bee was discovered burrowing into a blue planter on my houseleek table.  I think it is Megachile versicolor from the orange pollen brushes underneath its abdomen.  I also got some photos of a carder bee on a marjoram flower.  Bombus pascuorum I think, but difficult to separate from B. muscorum with a specimen.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

House Circuit (17) 35 years agrowin

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

The other day I noticed a clump of off-white flowers thrusting itself up, like an aerial cauliflower, from somewhere at the overgrown rear of our old caravan.  I got as close as I could and concluded that it must be an Olearia, a daisy bush, and one of the many New Zealand plants I had acquired over the years.  It looked most like Olearia x haastii, a natural hybrid.  Searching my computer I found a diary entry for the plant and discovered I had bought it from a local nursery in 1981 and planted it at the back of this self-same caravan. Presumably it has been struggling through brambles and nettles for 35 years finally to emerge into the sunshine.

Whilst scrambling about at the rear of the caravan I spotted some clematis flowers high in an old damson tree here.  It turned out to be Clematis viticella 'Huldine'.  This may be a plant I bought as C. flammula at the same time as the Olearia above.  I certainly have no record or recollection of putting C. 'Huldine' anywhere else in the garden.

Monday, August 08, 2016

House Circuit (16) Another fine insect

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

Garden delights continue.  Today on one of my circuits I met this splendid insect, a fine female hornet hoverfly, Volucella zonaria, sipping the nectar from a hogweed umbel.  A hundred years ago it was a great rarity, but now seems well-established in the southern parts of England and Wales.

These splendid creatures breed in wasps and hornets nest and we have had the females come searching about indoors when their hosts are nesting in the attic, as they often do along with the tree bees..

Saturday, August 06, 2016

House Circuit (15) Two fine insects

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

Almost at the end of one of my circuits today, there was a papery rattle and a fine migrant hawker dragonfly (Aeshna mixta) land on the hedge beside me.  It stayed there long enough for me to go indoors and get a camera.  Isn't it remarkable how well such large and colourful insects blend into the background against jumbled vegetation?

No sooner had I taken this shot when a large butterfly zoomed over my shoulder and landed on the hedge quite close to the dragonfly.  It was a silver-washed fritillary (Argynnis paphia), a woodland species that occasionally ventures into gardens in Churchland Lane, and is always a very welcome sight.  I tried to photograph it without lining up the camera properly and the below is all I managed before it took off again and sailed away over the hedge.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

House circuit (14) The day of the butterfly

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

It has been warm, but not heatwave level.  In the early afternoon it was 26 C.  The number of butterflies in the garden seemed unusually large and I noted 8 species: peacock, red admiral, painted lady, meadow brown, gatekeeper, large white, small white, green-veined white, brimstone.  There are also commas and holly blues about but I did not see them today.  Mostly they seemed attracted to the purple spikes of buddleia, but Geranium x oxonianum 'Claridge Druce' was also popular, especially with the whites.  This is, perhaps, a good example of how important gardens are as there seem to be rather few nectar sources in the countryside round about at the moment.

The picture at the top is a painted lady and the one below two small whites courting on a grape vine leaf.

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: http://ukmoths.org.uk/species/cauchas-fibulella

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.

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.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Bluebell time

Never corny, the flowering of our bluebell woods is always spellbinding.  Despite the erratic weather in the 2015/16 winter the plants seem to be doing just as well as ever.  This is from Killingan Wood in Sedlescombe.

Butterflies continue to appear.  Today I had a chat with this splendid comma (below) resting head down and wings spread to catch the sun's warmth on dead bramble stalks in a blackthorn thicket.  Although so familiar, I ruminated on the jagged edges to the wings which hardly seem designed to enable the insect to fly better.  If they are supposed to disguise the insect by making it seem like a fallen leaf then come on Evolution pull your socks up.  The butterfly is more cryptic if the wings are closed allowing only the dark underside to show, but then why is the upper side not dark also?

Friday, April 08, 2016

Woodland bee wall

In ancient Churchland Wood just at the end of our garden there is a root plate on  a sweet chestnut that was toppled in the 1987 great storm.

Microhabitats like this can be interesting and are important to species of plants and animals that need the conditions they provide. I have often looked at it for wildlife and this year was pleased to find that there were many females of Clarke's mining bee, Andrena clarkella, digging out nest holes, mostly near the top of the plate, as comfortable, well-stocked quarters for their progeny.  These bees are fond of pollen from sallow flowers and will visit dandelions and other species for nectar.  We have several sallows in the garden and, combined with the root plate, a breeding opportunity is created that is becoming increasingly scarce.  I worry though that in 'well-managed' woodland (now often thought of as a essential conservation requirement), root plates would be levelled (might get in the way of forestry machines) and sallows removed as tree species of little worth.

Andrena clarkella is widespread in the south of England.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Blinks confirmed (maybe)

Late last spring I found some tiny plants among short grass on an earth bank running down from the front garden of a house in a modern estate on the edge of Sedlescombe village.  It was a very dry, sunbaked spot and the plants were brown and dry too, but had clearly been flowering.

I brought a few small pieces home and potted them up, though I had little hope that they would grow. However, some tiny seedlings appeared in the autumn and developed gradually, coming into flower in late March.  They appear to be blinks, Montia fontana, probably the subspecies chondrospermia which grows in drier places, but it is not an entirely accurate fit and I will have to wait for seeds as their outer casing is diagnostic for the subspecies.  There are also various foreign species of Montia and I will have to bear that in mind as members of the genus appear to travel well.

M. fontana is a wintergreen plant and, with its rather larger sister subspecies (which grow in wet places) has been used as a salad, though one would have to pick a lot to get any satisfaction.  In some places it is known as 'annual water miner's lettuce'.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

All that is made?

I found an old hazelnut on the floor of our sitting room today. It might have been something I brought home in my pocket or, more likely a survivor from the bag of Kentish cob nuts we bought in the autumn. From its shape it might be the variety known as Merveille de Bolwiller. Anyway, I drilled a hole through it and threaded it onto green ribbon.  It reminded me, as hazelnuts always do, of the wonderful passage from the writings of the 13th/14th century English anchoress Julian of Norwich in her Revelations of Divine Love:

In this vision he showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, and it 
was round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and 
thought "What may this be?" And it was generally answered thus: "It is all that is 
made." I marvelled how it might last, for it seemed it might suddenly have 
sunk into nothing because of its littleness. And I was answered in my 
understanding: "It lasts and ever shall, because God loves it. 

Also William Blake:

To see the world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

My hazelnut, as you can see from the photo, is ovoid rather than round. Nevertheless, the principle applies.  I am struck by the way Julian's vision anticipates the Big Bang and how our current universe arose, so they say, from a tiny singularity.  I think she, William Blake and Plotinus would have got on very well.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

From mild to cold

In the last few days the exceptionally mild, wet period seems to have ended and we have had several overnight frosts.

The relatively high winter temperatures seem to have produced uneven effects.  As I wrote on 31st December, many camellias are flowering already and daffodils are out here and there in the village, though they do not look comfortable.  Hazel catkins are now just starting to expand and are slightly later than usual and there are no snowdrops out in our garden yet.  Perhaps these need a cold spell, like many seeds, to trigger them into action.

The unseasonal warmth has allowed some plants to flower on beyond their season.  The hogweed to the right (with a visiting anthomyiid fly) was photographed here on 7th January.  Normally a late summer flowering species, it grows in our lawn and has probably been cut back by mowing but has grown up again and continued its development long past its normal season.