Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Last day of March 2021

 It is warm but a thin mist hangs over the countryside on this last day of March.  The forecasters say it is partly composed of dust from the Sahara desert.  Here is the view from Churchland Wood across the plough to the distant Fairlight ridge buttressing against the sea.      

Birds are now very active nest building and, as I sit at my lap top, I can see the magpies coming and going from their nest in a rowan tree.  Sometimes the pair go and perch on top of the tallest tree in the garden, a wild cherry, from where they can get a 360 degree view.

Often the woodpigeons, who also nest in the garden, get there first.

We have a large area of lesser periwinkle (Vinca minor) under the hawthorns halfway down the garden.  This effective ground cover is currently sprinkled with flowers, but these seem to appear in much greater quantity around the edges of this periwinkle area. 

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Two new arrivals

 In an obscure corner of the garden the light caught a small conifer maybe 5cm tall.  An adventurous seedling that is probably a yew, but possibly something else. The leaves go all round the central stalk, though I expect this is just a characteristic of a seedling. In Bean's Trees and Shrubs it says of the mature plant "leaves spirally attached to the twigs, but by the twisting of the stalks brought more or less into two opposed ranks."  This made me look more closely at the mature yews in the garden with their bipinnate branchlets unlike the newly found seedling.

Not far away from the conifer there is a mound, the remains of many bonfires.  Tana grew potatoes on this last year and there is a fine selection of weeds each summer, well nourished by the chemicals in the ash.  Wood ash is a variable substance but usually composed mainly of calcium carbonate.  However, there is often around 4% potash and 1% phosphate plus various trace elements.  But I digress, the find of the day was a solitary flower of coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) growing on the side of the mound.

Coltsfoot flowers appear at this time of year before the large leaves (shaped vaguely like colt's feet) and they are not at all common in our immediate area, preferring heavy clay soils.  I have never seen any in or near our garden.  A piece of root might, I suppose, have been brought in from somewhere else, but that seems unlikely.  As it is a native plant, arrival by seed would seem the most probable explanation. 

An infusion of the leaves was once widely used as a remedy for coughs and, in some places, the dried leaves were used as a substitute for tobacco and smoking it was said to help asthma sufferers.  The plant is also used to flavour coltsfoot rock made, over the last hundred years, to a secret recipe by Stockley's Sweets of Oswaldtwistle in Lancashire.  The aniseed/liquorice flavour is said to be 'strangely addictive' and it appears to be quite popular still.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Vole and daffodils

Tana put some scraps out on a log just outside our back door the other day and it was not long before they attracted the attention of a vole, a bank vole, Microtus glareolus, kindly identified by British mammal expert Dr Mark Hows  (It is not easy to distinguish them from field voles, Myodes agrestis.) It was a very nervous animal but I was just able to take a snap of it through the rather smudgy glass of the kitchen window. 

On my trip down the garden I was pleased to see a trio of wild daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) in flower.  They have slightly drooping two-toned flowers and mine have now survived for many years with no attention. Those below had arranged themselves together like Three Little Maids from School.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

A few flowers

Still a windy day but quite pleasant, though cool, in the sunshine.  I noted several 'heralds of spring ' in flower today - lady's smock (below), alexanders and, above, early dog violets (Viola reichenbachiana).  Tana saw some wood anemones while on a walk.

Our colony of Tenby daffodils continues to look in good condition and, unlike other daffodils locally, have been unaffected by the recent gales.  The photo below shows that all the flowers face south.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

March winds

There is some hopeful anticipation that the current boisterous weather will win the next storm name on the 2021 list - 'Evert' (a short form of the German name Eberhard most frequently used in Sweden and The Netherlands).  Here the wind came in strong gusts overnight and during the following day, with heavy rain showers. Sitting down the garden in the middle of the day, I was surprised that I could hear many birds singing over the deep roaring of the wind, like treble voices over a bass choir.

Great masses of air boomed over the garden from the south west keeping the tops of the trees in Churchland Wood (which I can see from my window) in constant motion.  Bright sunshine picks out much of the detail: there are fading hazel catkins, goat willow flowers and the magpie's nest in one of the rowan trees.  The birds are nowhere to be seen and may be sheltering in their insecure looking twiggy retreat, or perhaps they have a foul weather hideaway somewhere nearby.  Most mammals are hiding too but one grey squirrel went hopping over the roof of the hut.

The two tallest trees in the garden are a wild cherry grown from a fruit I found in Orlestone Forest many years ago and the silver birch in my Square Metre project,  The uppermost branches of the cherry are permanently bent over to the north, pushed that way by successive storms I suspect, especially as the trunk does not seem to move in the wind..  The birch, on the other hand grows ramrod straight though it sways, often quite violently in the wind.

An unusual effect of the wind is the way the path to the wood is strewn with pink camellia petals as though for some Oriental festival.  The petals are being blown down from a Camellia 'Garden Glory' which has been in bloom since early January and still has many more flowers to come.

Monday, March 08, 2021

The mouse and the cherry stones

Underneath a large wild cherry tree (Prunus avium), in a small open area enclosed by protruding roots, I found a large horde of cherry stones.  Each one had a hole chewed in the top.  These holes had been made by a wood mouse, or mice, (Apodemus sylvaticus) to extract the kernel within.  In summer the ground beneath this tree is strewn with fallen fruit and I wondered if the mice had collected these, maybe eaten the pulp, and then stored the cherry stones for later use.  Though there were no stones that had not been opened, considerable effort must have been involved in making such a large midden, so maybe each one was brought from a store concealed nearby and dropped outside once its contents had been consumed.

As well as wood mice, cherry stones can be holed by dormice and voles although the markings made by the animals' teeth around the rim differ for each species.  There are a several illustrations of this online; a good one is at:

Cherry stones have a reputation for toxicity as they contain amygdalin which converts to cyanide in the body if ingested.  The amount of amygdalin in the kernels seems to vary considerable and there is a wide range of commentary on the Internet as to their relative danger to humans.  One commentator claims that "A single cherry yields roughly 0.17 grams of lethal cyanide per gram of seed, so depending on the size of the kernel, ingesting just one or two freshly crushed pits can lead to death".  Others recommend they are used to flavour cherry jam.  

However, according to Adriano Chan et al., mice are more resistant to the effects of cyanide than humans (see so it would appear that our wood mice have not been in danger of poisoning themselves.

Sunday, March 07, 2021

An episode on the Isle of Sheppey

In February and March 2021 I read The Sea View Has Me Again. Uwe Johnson in Sheerness, a large book (733 pages) by Patrick Wright that plaits the life of the eminent German writer Uwe Johnson with a description of the past and present of the Isle of Sheppey in general and Sheerness, one of its main towns, in particular.

Uwe Johnson was born in Kammin on the Baltic coast in German Pomerania, (now Kamien Pomorski and in Poland). The area has had a complex history having been fought over by Germans, Poles and Swedes. During World War II German rocket launchers were stationed on Chrząszczewska Island (formerly Insel Gristow) that lies immediately to the west of Kammin and to which it is connected by a bridge. After the war, most Germans left Kammin and were replaced by Poles. The Johnson family moved to Anklam in German West Pomerania and also close to the Baltic with its winding rivers, lagoons and seacoast. These estuarine, rather bleak landscapes and equally bleak histories are thought partly to have attracted Johnson to live in a house in Sheerness overlooking the Thames Estuary for the last ten years of his life.

Patrick Wright is an author, historian and Emeritus Professor of Literature, History and Politics at King’s College, London. Among other things, Wright’s book (which has been highly praised by many critics) describes the numerous eccentricities of the Isle of Sheppey and its people, many of which did, or would have, attracted the interest of Uwe Johnson. I would like to add a Sheppey episode of which Patrick Wright is unlikely to have heard but which, I think, may have amused Uwe Johnson.

In the early years of the current century I took up the study of mosses and joined the British Bryological Society (BBS). Shortly afterwards I learnt that the BBS were conducting a survey of the bryophytes (mosses, liverworts and hornworts) of arable fields. Most of these are in decline due to changes in agricultural practices. In order to improve records of their current distribution I was invited, in 2004, to join a November field meeting to look for as many of these species as we could find in stubble fields on the Isle of Sheppey. The fields chosen were to lie fallow all winter with the bryophytes therefore undisturbed (except by visiting bryologists).

Our small party of half a dozen enthusiasts gathered on a cold but bright day in a stubble field to the south of Eastchurch in an elevated position more or less in the centre of the island. It was cold with a wind from the north east. To find and study the various bryophytes that flourish in stubble fields requires searching on hands and knees, high powered magnifying glass in one hand and maybe a handbook and/or notebook in the other. It is cold and uncomfortable work and I wondered how many people from Eastchurch or elsewhere were troubled at the sight of full-grown men and women crawling across the windswept fields in prayerful attitudes, especially as we were quite close to one of Her Majesty’s Prisons.

The day was made more exciting by the arrival of a group of researchers from the University of Lancaster who were studying people who indulged in unusual pursuits and, clipboard in hand, a young woman asked questions and took notes about my interest in almost invisible ephemeral mosses despite weather and other seemingly negative circumstances.

One of the target species for the day was Bryum klinggraeffii which I had never heard of. Nevertheless one of our party called out that he had found some and I went and inspected the moss that bore such an interesting name. And there on the bare soil were a few small tufts of green between the rows of the prickly cut ends of summer corn. After a quick dissertation on the visible and distinctive features of the tiny leaves and stems of this diminutive plant he drew my attention to the small, reddish tubers hiding in the moss and which, because of their shape and colour, had won it the English name of ‘raspberry bryum’. These tubers, only about ¼ millimetre wide, often occur only on the moss’s rhizoids below ground and have to be searched for in loose soil (sometimes known as the ‘diaspore bank’).

The specific name for this moss was coined by W P S Schimper, an Alsatian botanist, who formally described the species in Hugo von Klinggräff’s 1858 book Die höheren Cryptogamen Preussens (The higher cryptogams of Prussia). Klinggräff was a 19th century German botanist who specialised in bryology. Both Uwe Johnson and Hugo Erich Meyer von Klinggräff were born in neighbouring provinces of Pomerania with Baltic coastlines, both in places where Germans have been replaced by Poles and German by Polish. I like to imagine that Klinggräff would be pleased that people were finding ‘his’ moss in fields on the island where his celebrated fellow Pomeranian had once chosen to live. Had they met I think they would have had much to talk about and I think Uwe Johnson might even have made an entry in one of his notebooks.

A small memorial of this day’s moss hunting in the bare, winter countryside on this estuary island can be found on the National Biodiversity Network’s web page for Bryum klinggraeffii. If one zooms in to Sheppey there is a small cluster of dots marking records of the species made in 2004 in the arable fields around Eastchurch.

Saturday, March 06, 2021

The old sallow tree in the middle of the garden died last summer and is now sporting a fine crop of Daedaleopsis confragosa the thin walled maze polypore or blushing bracket, the second name referring to  the pores (botanically described as 'daedaloid') on the underside that 'blush' pinkish if they are pressed with a finger.  The fungus is often found on willows and sallows (Salix spp.) but also occurs on many other trees where it causes white rot.

The fungus is named after Daedalus, a Greek architect and inventor who was commissioned by King Minos to build the labyrinth on the island of Crete.  Author James Joyce sometimes used the name Stephen Dedalus or Daedalus in an autobiographical sense perhaps referring, among other things, to the labyrinthine qualities of some of his writing.  'Confragosa, simply means 'rough' and refers to the upper sides of the brackets.