Thursday, 3 December 2009

White Spindle

The November rain and winds has reduced the local downland to a grey/brown mire. The last leaves have been ripped from the trees and the only remaining colour is from the fruit left on scrub species. Most of them are the black of Buckthorn, Privet and Dogwood but standing out amongst those are the scarlet/crimson fruit of Spindle (Euonymus europaea,left ). It seems to have been a very good year for Spindle on the Downs, some plants are still laden with fruit with the orange seeds protruding from the scarlet flesh.

For some reason on Banstead Downs there are a good proportion of plants with fruit ranging in colour through to white, the latter being rather attractive (right). As far as I am concerned this is unusual in itself, I have never seen this anywhere else (other than gardens) not even on Park Downs close by. It has been suggested to me that it is quite likely that because Spindle used to be widely planted for its timber and perhaps in the dim and distant past someone rather liked a white variant that appeared and planted this rather than the more normal one, hence enriching the population. I am not too sure of this explanation, I suspect that planting for timber on common land (as Banstead Downs is) stopped a very long time ago but who knows.

I have always rather simply assumed that colour variants usually result from a simple genetic mutation, in this case meaning the plant is unable to synthesize the relevant pigments to give the fruit its normal colour. However this year I have noticed a couple of plants with predominantly white berries but here and there just a single normal-coloured fruit (see poor picture taken in gloom, left) I assume this suggests it is a bit more complicated than that.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Ghost Orchid back but bad timing for some!

It is good to hear on the grapevine that Ghost Orchid (Epipogium aphyllum) has been seen in flower in the UK this year. It will apparently be officially announced at the BSBI in November but its location will be kept secret, I hope for a long time.

For those who don't know, Ghost Orchid, as its latin name suggests has no leaves and also no chlorophyll. It is what used to be called a saprophyte, a plant living on decaying matter. We now know that such plants usually have a complex symbiotic/parasitic relationship with associated fungi and surrounding trees.

It has only ever been known from three or four sites in the UK and can survive for many years underground without flowering. It hadn't been seen officially for 23 years and in fact it had been declared extinct last year even though it had disappeared for similar periods earlier in the twentieth century.I was lucky enough to see the plant flowering in the Chilterns back in the nineteen seventies and eighties, (hence the poor scan from a slide) when it flowered almost annually for quite a few years. It seems the habitat has got considerably drier over the past twenty years and it was assumed that it had gone forever. However apparently not, great news!

With regards to the timing part of the title it is unfortunate (only mildly) that the announcement coincided almost exactly with the launch by Plantlife of a programme entitled:
The Ghost Orchid Declaration: Saving the UK's wild flowers today.
which they lead on the fact that Ghost Orchid had been declared extinct!! Unfortunate.

I have not read it fully yet but it seems to be an important document highlighting the problems of conserving habitat for plant and fungi species. Regardless of Ghost Orchid, many plant species are seriously threatened so lets wish them all the best.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Fly orchid information required please!

At this time of year I start looking back on the year and re-examining photos taken, none of which are ever as good as I thought they were at the time! One that caught my eye however was taken not by myself but by a friend and it is a picture of Fly Orchid (O.insectifera).

The normal Fly Orchid (above) is a magical little plant, the flower quite different from almost all other species in the Ophrys genus with petals that mean it truly lives up to its common name. We are lucky enough to have a small colony of about thirty plants of this species in Banstead although just a few miles south there are sites where in a good year you can see thousands of plants.

However the photo in question, taken at a Hampshire site, shows a plant with a flower (below) with a very obvious yellow edge to the lip, even more attractive than normal. Over the years I have seen this species at many sites in both the UK and mainland Europe and althought the lip size can vary considerably it always has been brown. Both Lang (Britain's Orchids) and the Harraps (Orchids of Britain and Ireland) mention the occurrence of this type of plant as occasional or rare respectively. So I wonder just how rare is it.I should point out that there are two similar species found in S.France and Spain O.subinsectifera and O aymoninii (below) that have lips with yellow edges but this is not they!

So, how rare is this variant in Britain, can anyone out there help, i.e. have you seen a Fly Orchid with yellow-edged flowers??

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Farming a few weeks ago!

Work and decorating means this has turned into a bimonthly blog! Not the original idea but hey ho it happens and for this posting it means Steve Gale has beaten me to it!!!

The past few weeks has seen a lot of agricultural activity on the fields south of Banstead (Canons Farm) referred to here earlier in the year. Back then after spraying, most of the fields were sown with Flax which is always promising because to my uninformed mind that means less herbicide use and hence the possibility of some arable weeds. Sure enough there were plenty but unfortunately nothing remotely unusual or unexpected and apart from Field Pansy nothing of any real beauty. The Flax duly grew but to me seemed rather less vigorous than when planted in previous years (perhaps less fertizer was used!) and was a white-flowered variety that was less attactive than the blue and never seemed to put on a decent display.

In one of the fields however some strange goings on. In a number of separate patches the crop seemed to be overcome by almost monocultures of a number of weed species. A large patch of Charlock (see below, taken in June) here and a large patch of fumitory there, and several others too, rather peculiar. It almost looked as if they had been planted, the other fields did not show this.
Yes, this is a crop of flax!
Normal service resumed however in September when the whole crop was sprayed with a herbicide to "ripen" it prior to havesting and so wiping out all the weeds as well, a desert again! The crop was duly harvested and in my simple mind I thought Flax would have a double return, seeds for oil and the stems for fibre, sure enough the "straw" was baled but a couple of days later, the bales were burnt (not by vandals but intentionally) so there I assume there is no demand for fibre. Must buy some more linen shirts!!

Now the extra interest in this crop has been mentioned by Steve, the last time it was grown on these fields two years we had massive winter flocks of finches. However there are two big differences this year compared to then: firstly two years ago the crop was harvested very late when most of it had been beaten down with rain and large amounts of seed spilled; and secondly as far as I recall the fields were left untouched through the winter before being sown with the next crop (a spring cereal), this year it has already been cultivated and I suspect will be sown very soon. As Steve says a lot of birds are already on the fields but whether the bonanza will be as big and last as long only time will tell.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Cut-leaved Germander and Ground Pine

Back in January Steve Gale kindly welcomed my new blog with a comment about a number of plants we are lucky to have growing in this area, including Ground Pine (Ajuga chamaepitys, left) and Cut-leaved Germander (Teucrium botrys, below) both of which are nationally rare. Well, yes and no!

He was I am sure, referring to a small piece of chalk grassland just to the south of Banstead Woods called Fame's Rough, a cracking place for both wild flowers and butterflies. It has an interesting history which essentially boils down to the fact that in WWII the field was ploughed to grow crops (unsuccesfully) and for a few years after Cut-leaved Germander (among others) was common having only been previously recorded as an infrequent arable weed in the area. After a few years it disappeared only to reappear en masse when the land owner was persuaded to ploughed a strip of the field.

For the next 30-40 years a new strip was ploughed every five or six years and the cycle repeated, often with both the above and many other ruderals (colonisers of disturbed ground) growing in huge numbers. Obviously the seed of these species is quite long-lived but they have little capacity to compete with other plants.

For the past 10-15 years the ploughing has stopped and the field started to scrub over, a couple of years ago the scrub was cut back and a test was started to see how much soil disturbance was required for the germination of these species to occur. A number of areas were dug/scarified to varying degrees but not ploughed! The results were fairly disappointing with a few plants of both species appearing but no great numbers.

Last year a larger area was lightly rotovated and a on recent visit I failed to find any plants of either species, so it appears it is ploughing or nothing. Hopefully this will be tried soon.

The two plants are interesting as well as rare, Cut-leaved Germander occurs at probably fewer than ten sites in the country and Ground Pine at only 32 sites since 1970. They are fairly closely related members of the Labiatae or Lamiaceae (or whatever), the mint family. but are instantly recognisable as they are members of the only two genera of that family in this country that have very little or no upper lip as the picture of Teucrium botrys below shows. You can read more about Ground Pine in an excellent dossier produced by Plantlife.

The interest on Fame's Rough does not end with these two species, it is a joy to behold from spring through summer with many chalk specialist plants including orchids and is always well worth a visit.

Finally, to get back to Steve's comment, yes, I am sure the plants are still there, if only as seed but; no, you'll be lucky to find them this year. I should point out the photos were taken a couple of years ago.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

A knotty find.

Strolling around Park Downs the other evening I noticed a small white flower (above), on the path, just another Purging Flax I thought, but no it was larger than that (probably why I noticed it) although still less than 1cm across. On closer inspection it turned out to be the flower of Sagina nodosa, Knotted Pearlwort. This is a very delicate plant with terminal flowers on stems that bear very small linear leaves clasping the stem that give the "knotted" feel when you run it through your fingers, you might just be able to see it in the picture above. Try getting an in-focus picture of the stem.

If you look in any British flora it will tell you something along the lines (to quote Clapham, Tutin and Warburg, I live in the past) "Frequent in damp sandy and peaty places throughout the British Isles". So what is it doing on dry chalk downland?

In fact in Surrey it seems it does things differently. In Lousley's Flora of Surrey (1976) it is described as very rare, only recorded at three sites in the recent past, two of which were on chalk including Banstead Downs up until about ten years ago. As far as I know it was first recorded on Park Downs in the early 1980s about 100 m from where I found it and had not been seen for about fifteen years. It was thought possibly to have been imported with gravel used to repair the path it grew on.

However I remembered that last year I had photographed a small white flower on another path on Park Downs and promptly forgot all about it. I dug it out and sure enough there it was (below) Knotted Pearlwort, so back to Park Downs and last night I found it again in the same place on a path some 100m from the other two sites. The fact that it is still present across quite a large area perhaps that even if it got here by man's hand it can survive quite happily. Certainly not an obligate calcifuge. Of course strictly a non-native in this context!!!!!!!

Later this week I shall inspect Banstead Downs to see if I can find it there. Watch this space.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Late re-entry - Small Balsam

For a number of non-botanical reasons, I haven't posted for a long time so I have plenty in reserve now I am resuming!!

One surprise this summer came at the weekend when walking in Banstead Woods. In many places there is a good cover of Impatiens parviflora, Small Balsam along path edges. Interestingly it also seems to be one of the earliest plants to be able re-colonise ground after Rhododendrons have been cleared, even so it still takes a couple of years before it can germinate.

It is not a very showy plant only having a small flower, however, close-up (above) it is rather attractive. The base of the petals (and sepals) appear white with red markings with the rest being yellow. The surprise came when I stumbled upon a couple of plants with flowers that completely lacked any yellow (below) being white , the red markings more pronounced! White variants of many species are quite common but I have never seen it in this species, indeed I have rarely seen white variants of any normally yellow-flowered species. Off the top of my head I can only think of Primrose and even that was as a garden variant.

Has anyone else seen a white Balsam?

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Dactylorhizal heaven

Last week we paid a visit to coastal Sussex to a min-flood-plain site that is home to a number of Dactylorhiza species that grow in profusion. For many reasons, I like the Dactylorhiza genus,the various species are usually stately and attractive plants and in Europe you are never far from one species or another, they can be found from the Mediterranean to the Arctic circle and the genus is represented in just about every habitat type. I do however often have problems with identification of many of the species mostly centred around the facts that firstly, Dactylorhiza is an essentially purple-flowered genus and superficially (the level of most of my plant identification), many of the flowers are similar and secondly, in many cases hybridization occurs between species often producing fertile offspring intermediate between the various parents.

At this site, there are three or four species depending on your choice of nomenclature, Common Spotted Orchid D.fuchsii, Southern Marsh Orchid D.praetermissa, and two Early Marsh Orchids D.incarnata (D.incarnata incarnata) and D.pulchella (D.incarnata pulchella).

As far as I am concerned, this number of Dactylorhiza species growing in the same place and such a small area (the entire site is no more than 400m x 100m) is quite unusual so perhaps given the circumstances it is not surprising that all sorts of strange things have happened (a bit like humans).

D.incarnata presents no problem of identification because the flowers are not purple but a wonderful flesh pink. The top picture shows a few flowers with typical markings and although the outer lip is not bent back something that is supposed to be fairly characteristic!

Having nailed this species, the direct comparison of flowers enables the identification of the other Early Marsh with some certainty, D.pulchella and splendid plants they were too up to 60cm high with intensely coloured flowers and dense spikes, real crackers (above right)!

Interestingly, at least I thought so, the two Early Marsh species tended to grow in separate patches as though their requirements were slightly different.

Moving on there were scattered plants of easily identifiable Common Spotteds D.fuchsii, typical colouring and the clearly indented lobe to the lip. But then there were many more plants that at a distance screamed Common Spot but when you looked closely were similar to the one on the left with an atypical lip shape but still with spotted leaves.

In addition, there were occasional plants that appeared to be pretty standard Southern Marsh Orchid (D.pratermissa) such as the one on the right and non-spotted leaves but then there were those with exactly the same flowers but spotted leaves and so it went on. After a while it became clear we were in the middle of a hybrid swarm, not as dangerous as a bee swarm unless you keep on insisting on identifying the individual plants. After a while you begin to doubt whether any of your identifications are correct, so take everything here with a pinch of salt!

Apparently this population has been the subject of a number of academic studies that I have not read (!) and it illustrates the problem of trying to identify individual species within genera that contain species are clearly not yet stabilized or whatever the correct term is.

In this case the simplest thing to do is sit back and enjoy the plants and the spectacle. A sheer joy!!

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Old friends revisited

Box Hill, north of Dorking, Surrey, is a large area of mixed chalk turf, scrub and woodland renowned for its varied flora. It was where I was first shown how to identify wild flowers and felt privileged to be shown the rarities of the area. Since then (over 40 years ago!!!) I have visited the area regularly and at this time of year a walk almost anywhere is rather like going out to meet old friends.

We went for a stroll there the other night supposedly looking for Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera) at a spot where there are generally plenty but very few this year, we only found a single plant. Now it could be a bit early for the Bee Orchid but I suspect not as at the same site we did find Musk Orchid (Herminium monorchis, right) just starting to flower, this must be two weeks earlier than usual, growing at the site I first saw it.

Across the road and there were a small number of plants of Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna, left), within a few feet of where I first saw this species all those years ago.

We then moved on, not far, to a wooded area by the River Mole, to look for Turk's Cap Lily Lilium martagon at a site where, according to Lousley's Flora of Surrey, it has been known for little more than 50 years. Only one flower open as yet (below) and roughly the same number of plants as were present when I first saw them.

Finally we moved on to another site for the Lily about a mile away where it has been recorded for almost two hundred years , here also it was still in bud but the colony is huge with hundreds of plants spread over quite a large area. It will be a picture within a week or so when the flowers open, especially since there are a good number of white-flowered variants to add a bit of spice.

It is nice to meet old friends.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

White Orchid!

Our local Common Spotted Orchids (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) are just coming into flower at the moment and at one site, although only a small number of plants are present (1-200), the flowers are remarkably variable both in colour and in patterning. This year there is an addition, a single pure white spike has appeared. It does seem to be completely white with only the pollinia showing any colour at all, so I suppose it could qualify as var.albiflora, but if I did that I would have to come up with about 50 names for all the other colour variants present so I will just stick with "a white one".

This is the first time I have ever seen a white form of Common Spotted in forty years, despite it being supposedly common, so I was quite chuffed to find it locally especially as it is so attractive to look at.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Lemon Iris

At the moment, the local ponds are providing a fine display of Yellow Flag(Iris pseudacorus, left). This is a spectacular plant only spoiled by its very short flowering period. The golden yellow flowers brighten up even the dullest June day.

Even better, in this area we are lucky enough to be able to find the much paler lemon-yellow version (below) that goes under various names including the descriptive I.pseudacorus v.pallidiflava or less obvious v. bastardii. If anything this is even more beautiful than the type species appearing almost ethereal in comparison.

It seems to be a bit of a N.E.Surrey specialty occurring in a number of ponds around here although in Lousley's flora of Surrey it is only reported from a single site in Epsom. So far I have failed to find little details of it growing elsewhere.

The origin of this plant around here is something of a mystery. There is a pale variety that has been in cultivation since being introduced from the USA early in the 19th century but equally it was reported in the wild (not in Surrey) in the early 18th century by no less an authority than John Ray. It has also been recorded in Middlesex in the more recent past.

I would be interested to know if anyone out there has seen this plant elsewhere.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Bluebells in Banstead

A very belated post but the Banstead Botany Blog could not let spring go by without mention of the Bluebells in Banstead Woods. Bluebell woods are quintessentially British, the plant itself (Endymion non-scriptus) is native to a small part of maritime Europe but only in the British Isles does it reach such levels of monoculture that is typical of our springtime landscape. In the east it is very much a woodland plant but in the far west it often grows in more open situations.

Banstead Woods is well known for its annual display and this year was particularly good. However this may not have continued to be so because until recently the display was under threat. The reason was Rhododendron ponticum that up until about 15 years ago was taking over the understorey of the Woods with about a quarter of the total area covered. However a concerted programme of annual “Rhododendron Bashing” organised by Reigate and Banstead Council (who own the Woods) and a local conservation group (the DCMP) has had a dramatic effect. Not only is the woodland floor now more open and hence views extend further but slowly the Bluebells are recolonising the cleared areas to increase the expanse of blue. The display and scent early on a spring morning is rather special.

A few years back someone suggested to me that the Bluebell display in this country owes its existence to the extinction of Wild Boar (that are partial to bluebells) in medieval times and that their reintroduction would lead to the disappearance of Bluebell woods. I don’t know if that is true, luckily as far as I am aware there are no wild boar around here!

Being me I had to include a close up of a flower, not just blue but also white! It seems to me that white variants suffer a distinct competitive disadvantage, they do not seem to clump up very often remaining as single spikes and certainly do not appear in the same place each year.

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!!!

Monday, 30 March 2009

Violets are Blue?????

Like Daffodils, see previous entry, Violets (Viola species) presage spring but unlike Daffodils I cannot get enough of them. Around Banstead it has been a good year for the various species but special mention must go to Park Downs where there is a spectacular display of Hairy Violet (V.hirta) this year.

It is there every year but the numbers and effect vary depending on the level of rabbit grazing. This year is a great year because of the large number of rabbits that have managed to reduce part of the Downs to a sward that a bowling green groundsman would be proud of (although not flat if you know what I mean!). The plants remain firmly tucked into the other vegetation until it seems, the very last minute and then they throw up their flower stems, the rabbits do not seem to relish the flowers at all and so the overall effect from a distance is of a blue haze across the side of the south-facing slope, the picture at the bottom does not do them justice.

Normally Hairy Violet tends to have flowers that are closer to blue than purple (?violet?) of other species, a fact immediately observable in the field but not so easy to see from photos because getting typical colours of these shades is heavily dependent of the ambient light. Unlike Sweet Violet (V.odorata) Hairy Violet is rarely found in white although paler blue versions are freely available.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Devil daffodils

I must confess that Daffodils make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up for very different reasons.

In Britain they are evocative of Spring, when they come into full flower it usually coincides with those wonderful first sunny but cold days of early spring such as we have had for the past few days in Surrey. Unfortunately there are no native daffodils (Narcissus pseudo-narcissus) that I know of in this area and so locally the experience has to be gained from those rather more gaudy cultivars and therein lies the rub.

I like some Daffodils (or more generally Narcissus species) in their right place, to me that means either in their natural habitat in which case we are talking about species which are predominantly southern European, or in gardens where cultivars are more commonly grown than species.

Unfortunately, we seem to suffer (in my opinion) from a surfeit of Daffodils elsewhere in places they do not belong!! Firstly, the mass planting on roadside verges, roundabouts or any other convenient grassy area mostly sponsored by local authorities. Rather than use delicate Narcissus species including the native species, the vast majority of plantings involve obnoxious cultivars that have as much subtlety as a brick wall. Why???

Ridiculous - discarded Daffodils on Park Downs, Banstead

Secondly and more importantly, Daffodils present visible evidence of the laziness and anti-social behaviour of "fly tippers" who regard plants as disposable and throw them out with gay abandon, usually apparently from cars. The roads across the downland in Banstead have many clumps of various Narcissi that on the whole only occur within about 5 metres of the carriageway, i.e. throwing distance. AND, it is not just Daffodils, other rubbish includes forms of Crocus, flowering Hyacinth and other sundry bulbous species.

Sublime - Narcissus serotinus growing in southern Spain. Chosen perversely to represent the genus because it is an autumn-flowering species!!

Now some people respond to my rants by suggesting that they brighten up the countryside as if the countryside is there purely for their entertainment and amusement. I grant you that apart from offending my eye around here they do little damage to habitat, at least so far. To me however it is what they represent in the form of the total lack of respect that people have for the countryside that is so galling.

Finally however the other night the television news carried a snippet about some poor guy in Gloucestershire who spends his time digging up alien Daffodils because of fears that they may pollinate populations of the native species, I can't help feeling he is fighting a losing battle.

From conversations with many over the years, I realise that I am in a minority of one so I hope I haven't offended anyone with these views!!!

Friday, 13 March 2009

New links

You may have noticed I have added a few new links recently that have botanical content.

Kingsdowner presents an excellent commentary of all types of wildlife and habitat in Kent and has some great photography too. A constant reminder of the reasons to keep on going back to Kent.

Of particular interest to me are the two Greek ones covering orchids and other botanical interest. They are reminders that spring starts early in the Mediterranean and that I would rather be out there walking in the sun than here writing blogs! They also illustrate the spectacular richness of the Greek flora, for example, Crete, an island only about 160 miles long and forty miles wide has more native plant species than the British Isles and the region around Mt Olympus in the north of the mainland has even more. If only all those summer tourists knew what they were missing! Photograph of Cyclamen cretica for no other reason than I like it!

They also set me thinking that since I found them by a very roundabout way and I do not read or speak a word of Greek (although I know all the letters!!) there may be other foreign language (especially European) botanical blogs out there. If I find any I will probably have to treat them likes comics, look at the pictures and not read the words but if they are anything like the two Greek examples already found they will be well worth it.

Last but certainly not least, I have just added a new blog, Plants of Skye, Raasay and the Small Isles, admittedly it covers an area a long way from south-east England and so I am unlikely to get there very often but it is the genuine article, a botany blog written by a botanist.

Defoliation begins!

Haven't had much to write about recently but a walk with the dog today changed that!

South of Banstead is mostly open space with chalk downland (Chipstead Downs), ancient mixed woodland (Banstead Woods) and a large area of arable farmland stretching to Kingswood. My stroll today covered a little bit of each; in the woods the Bluebell leaves (Endymion non-scriptus) are coming on apace; on the downs the violets (Viola species) are just beginning to flower and rabbits permitting, there will be a spectacular display of Cowslips (Primula veris) in a few weeks time. All was looking great.

Then towards the end of my walk as I came out onto a footpath along the side of a field, there it was - a very large tractor with two even larger booms to either side spraying the field right up to the very edge. Last year the field carried a cereal crop and herbicide spraying was so successful that just before harvest the only weeds in the crop were a few distorted Burdock and sundry small patches of a few other stunted species, highly efficient farming! Over the winter the spilled wheat seeds have sprouted and I assume the spraying today was of herbicide to kill all plants prior to ploughing or direct drilling for a non-cereal crop.

Ten years ago the area carried a good population of breeding "farmland" birds including Yellowhammers, Linnets etc, even Reed Buntings. Now, today there are few although the past two winters have seen good sized flocks of winter finches especially Chaffinches and Bramblings.

Modern agriculture has created mini-deserts devoid of wildflowers and their associated insect fauna hence the birds are lost. In this area the cereal is alternated with cash crops such as beans or Flax and there the crop is even sprayed before harvest so killing all those plant species that survived that season because of the lack of selective herbicide use.

I realise farms are businesses but I can't help feeling we have gone too far. I know there are plenty of farms out there that seek to enhance wildlife habitat but there are far too many who just ignore it. Hopefully things might change before it is too late but don't hold your breath.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Home extension

The title is not an excuse for not posting for a while (hadn't got anything to say!) but more a description of the local badger activity over the past week or so.

About five years ago, badgers established a new sett close to houses in Banstead, it was a modest three-entrance abode set amongst scrub that involved digging into the chalk and the associated earthworks were quite something. For a couple of years nothing changed and then an extra entrance was provided. Evidence of their everyday activities was obvious with many tracks strewn with bedding material leading to the sett. Now and again when I walked the dog in the morning I would be lucky enough to get a fleeting glance of one of the occupants.

During the recent snow there was not much activity and they didn't start changing bedding for almost a week after it had cleared, presumably when the dead grass and moss that they use had dried out. Then last week they got the builders in, so far two new entrances have been created and two more have been started. Amazingly one of the new ones (see photo) is right in the middle of a path used regularly by dog walkers but they (the badgers) have not let that deter them they are still putting the finishing touches to it and walkers will have to detour. Presumably the family group is growing and they need extra space, quite a lot judging by the chalk they are shifting.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Welcome Hellebore

A walk around the Downs south of Banstead this morning showed what twelve inches of snow does to the vegetation. Although most of the trees and scrub had sprung back after losing their load of snow, the grass and other herbaceous plants have a sorry, flattened, grey-brown appearance. The bright green shoots of recovery are not yet showing and the local rabbits seem to be having a hard time, as you walk past they carrying on browsing when normally they disappear the minute you appear.

This almost total greyness was only interrupted by the welcome presence of Stinking Hellebore (Helleborus foetidus). This plant never fails to please at this time of year with its bright green buds and flowers standing out like a beacon amongst the gloom. There is a small colony here and the plants all show the flattening effect of the recent snow and damage to the foliage. The flowers are not quite open yet but when they do they show a rim of red to the petals (the picture on the left was taken a few years ago). The flowers produce a considerable amount of nectar and must prove a valuable source of food for the early emerging bees and other insects.

This species normally starts to flower at this time or even earlier and is fairly common along the North Downs and elsewhere in Britain on chalk and limestone. It is one of two Helleborus species native to Britain, the other being Green Hellebore (H.viridis) that usually flowers a month or so later. Green Hellebore is much less common on the Downs, the nearest colony to here I know of is near Dorking and where it does occur it is usually much less conspicuous. Although a less showy plant, it can form large colonies such as shown in the lower photo of plants growing on the banks of the River Wye near Symond's Yat.