Wednesday, 22 April 2009

A bit of horticulture

When I started this blog I did not intend to write about garden plants but hey, a morning in the garden in the beautiful sunshine made me change my mind. Two quite different plants did it for quite different reasons.

The first is I think Symphytum grandiflorum (above and right), I am not absolutely sure, and is valuable for a number of reasons. It grows to about 25cm and is great ground cover for a sunny position even suppressing the dreaded Ground Elder (Aegopodium podagraria) which in my experience makes it unique. Equally of course that means it is invasive but in a very civilized way and can easily be pulled up in large patches as it is very shallow-rooted. It's greatest value is however for insects, it appears to produce plenty of nectar and/or pollen and is always covered with six-legged beasts especially bees. Even better, it starts flowering in February and thus provides an important food source for early emerging insect species and it is still going strong and will probably not finish flowering for another few weeks. Some might dismiss it as just another Comfrey but although it is not an elegant plant I think it is a valuable addition to the garden.

The second plant is for unashamedly decorative interest, Ribes speciosum, the Fuchsia-flowered Currant or Californian Currant. The first plant I ever saw of this was trained espalier-style, 5m up a south-facing wall to show off its flowers that hang down below the branches to full effect and it was quite spectacular. My own plant is more or less free-standing and is about 3m high. The flowers open virtually together and the contrast between the bright red flowers and the vibrant green of the newly-emerged leaves is something to behold. Individually, the flowers are not large (about 3cm inclusing the exserted stamens) but en masse they have quite an impact. Apparently, it is only just hardy but has survived in my north-facing garden for years. It is difficult (for me impossible) to root from cuttings unlike most Ribes species and that may explain why I have not seen it too often either in gardens or for sale. The final merit of this plant is that in the summer it produces small red- bristled gooseberries, that until this moment I have never thought of tasting, I shall try this year. I think if I was restricted to having a single shrub in the garden it would be this.

Two posts in 2 days!!!! I might get the hang of this blog thing eventually

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Early Spider Orchid

Not been out much locally recently but a trip (or perhaps as so many people do it, a pilgrimage!) to Dorset in the past few days gave the opportunity for a walk along the Purbeck cliffs to see Early Spider Orchid (Ophrys sphegodes) and thus start to catch up with the Greeks. This species is at the northern limit of its European distribution and is confined to the warm chalk and limestone of southern England in Kent, Sussex and Dorset. Most populations are found very close to the sea although one of the largest colonies at Woodingdean in Sussex is about two miles inland. Generally it is a plant of very short turf having very little capacity to compete with strong-growing grasses.

In Dorset it is typically a plant of the cliff edge and quarries that abound in the area as the rather cheesy picture on the left illustrates. This year we did find large numbers growing in rough pasture a bit farther back (10metres) from the cliffs that had been winter-grazed. Plants are often quite small the second picture shows an extreme example, the daisy flower is of Bellis perennis about 7cm high.

In recent years O.sphegodes has shown an amazing propensity to colonise suitable fresh habitat at Samphire Hoe, near Dover (see Kingsdowner blog and picture to the left). The Hoe was created from spoil from the Channel Tunnel diggings and in the intervening 12 years since it was completed the number of O.sphegodes plants have increased from less than 100 to over 10,000 making it one of the largest colonies in the country. In Dorset I suspect that if there was more suitably timed grazing there would be many more plants.

One thing is certain however that this species is one of the gems of the British flora especially flowering so early in the year.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Going green

My favourite view in Banstead is from the top of Park Downs looking south over Banstead Woods, with a valley in between you get a wonderful view of the trees clothing the opposite side of the valley.

The photo behind the title of this blog is of part of that view, taken in late autumn. This afternoon, the sun was shining across the trees and I couldn't resist. The green shoots of spring at least on the trees are just beginning to unfurl and the colours (greens!!) are quite spectacular.

The picture above is roughly the same view as the title, looking towards the north-western end of the woods. This was once home to a large country house pulled down early in the 20th century and the woodland surrounding the house was planted with a large number of non-native species especially conifers and these provide the darker greens.

The picture below was taken looking toward the north-eastern end of the Woods where there are fewer planted species. In the foreground birch and Hawthorn on Park Downs are just beginning to show leaf. The three bright green trees to the left centre of the picture are I think Sycamore in flower (I couldn't be bothered to check). The other main species in the wood, Oak and Beech are yet to show green.

I will return to this view and the Woods through the spring.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Asplenium anyone?

Chalk downland in the south-east of England is probably not the first place that you would go looking for ferns in the UK especially if you were searching for the smaller species of the Asplenium genus. However there is one place on Banstead Downs where a veritable cornucopia (its all relative) of such plants grow although it must be said they do not lend themselves to close inspection. Banstead Downs is split by the Epsom Downs railway line and halfway across the Downs is a brick bridge known as the Sheep Bridge. Walking across it and you would only notice the odd piece of graffiti and pass on. Look over the parapet and you might be surprised to see that the mortar of the brickwork supports a considerable level of plant life ranging in size from birch seedlings through Silene species to a number of small ferns including at least five species of Asplenium.

In fern terms, walls in the south-east might be expected to be home to Wall Rue (A.ruta-maria, top left) which is very common and Black Spleenwort (A.nigrum) that in my experience seems to have a special affinity for railway bridges but in addition to these, both Maidenhair Spleenwort (A.trichomanes, middle) and Rustyback (A.ceterach or Ceterach officinarum, bottom left) are present.

Now I realise that those of you who live in the west and north of the British Isles are thinking along the lines; "so what, the latter two occur on every wall and rock crevice available here". Well, here in the SE the situation is slightly different, A.trichomanes is much less common than in the more rain-endowed areas of the country and as for A.ceterach , a quick look at the NBN Gateway distibution map shows it has a marked southerly/westerly distibution in the British Isles and is absent from many 10km tetrads in the SE and even in those where it does occur it is by no means common.

One interesting point is that there are many more plants on the hotter south-facing outer wall of the bridge than on the north-facing side. Virtually nothing grow on the inside walls.

That's four Asplenium species, the fifth doesn't quite fit the "small" description, there are a few plants of Hart's-tongue fern (A.scolopendrium or Phyllitis scolopendrium). In addition there are a few other ferns that are out of reach that I have never identified.

Worth having a look but remember don't lean over the parapet too far!!!