Flowers and frogs at Milton Country Park

Not long after my lunchtime spin around Cambridge Science Park I paid a visit to Milton Country Park which is about a mile from where I work, as the crow flies. Wild flowers were everywhere, the sun was out, and there was lots to see including a family of treecreepers (Certhia familiaris, Dansk: træløber). Prior to this I’ve only seen treecreepers individually but this time a whole family of at least five birds was flitting around a tree trunk before flying to an adjacent tree. Treecreepers are fun to watch, they begin hunting low down on a tree trunk and climb up it in a spiral pattern to ensure they don’t miss any insects lurking in the crevices of the bark, they are very aptly named. I didn’t have my long lens with me so I couldn’t get any photographs of the treecreepers, but I did capture some gorgeous flowers on this outing:

Scarlet pimpernel flowers

I’ve never noticed scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis) growing around Cambridge before but I’ll be happy if it spreads. The flowers, which were less than a centimetre across, open in the morning and close mid afternoon and were shooting from amongst the short grass. It’s common in England but less so in Scotland.

The purple and yellow flowers of the woody nightshade flowers (Solanum dulcamara) were illuminating the undergrowth:

Woody nightshade

The flowers of the woody nightshade are beautiful and eventually give way to berries which are green before they ripen into a lovely deep red colour. As the colour may suggest they are toxic, the main ingredient being an alkaloid called ‘solanine‘ (an alkaloid is a plant-derived nitrogen containing compound which can exert a physiological effect on humans. More infamous members of this category include opium, cocaine and marijuana).

The glycoalkaloid ‘solanine’ found in members of the Solanaceae family including the nightshades and potatoes

Solanine is also the active ingredient in deadly nightshade, Atropa belladonna, and is the compound which makes green potatoes toxic! The green pigmentation is due to chlorophyll which is produced when potato tubers become exposed to light and is not therefore toxic, but it is produced along with solanine. Solanine isn’t degraded by cooking so eating lots of green spuds is a bad idea.

As you might expect, solanine has physiological properties which make it a useful compound. Ancient Greeks would take it before consulting the priestess Pythia, the Oracle of Delphi, to utillise its halucinogenic properties. And Italian ladies used the sap of the deadly nightshade in days of yore to dilate their pupils as they believed this made them more beautiful. Hence the specific name of the deadly nightshade ‘belladonna‘ (‘beautiful lady‘ in Italian). It was also used by torturers as a medieval truth drug to extract confessions. In more recent and enlightened times therapeutic doses have been used to treat a range of conditions incuding inflammatory eye diseases such as uveitis, and it has also shown inhibitory properties when applied to melanoma (skin cancer) cells. It’s amazing stuff!

Common frog – Rana temporaria

A frog hopped across the path in front of me and hunkered down in the undergrowth to avoid being spotted and/or predated, so I got up close to capture some portraits. I was within 8-12 inches and it didn’t flinch, so I took half a dozen pictures before it hopped off deeper into the bush.

Rosebay willowherb – Chamerion angustifolium

At the edge of a lake a stand of rosebay willowherb was just coming into flower. The flower spikes and leaves of willowherb have been used to treat grumbly bowels and apparently it makes a good mouthwash too. The willowherb was interspersed with spears of aarons rod:

Aarons rod – Verbascum thapsus

This aarons rod was a very fresh example and was only just coming into flower but when in full bloom the spear is full of yellow flowers from the leaves to the apex. They have been lining my route to work since June and there are still some hardy individuals lingering on into the autumn. Aarons rod has been used medicinally as an expectorant to treat coughs and for numerous other conditions including colic, eczema, boils and warts. It’s a very versatile plant.

Tufted vetch – Vicia cracca

Many shrubs and bushes were festooned with the flowers of tufted vetch which is a European native and has also been introduced to the Americas where it is a weed. The flower heads were several inches long and a rather fetching blue/purple colour. It grows over other plants by shooting out tendrils which grasp stems and provide an anchor for further encroachment. It can grow up to 2m tall and can strangle smaller plants. But the flowers are lovely

21 responses to “Flowers and frogs at Milton Country Park

  1. What a great post! So many wonderful photographs. I always learn so much when I visit here. Thank you!

  2. I wish we had weeds like that here in Australia! I just found your blog after being shared by Argyle sock in a recent “scientific blogs” post that flatters me no end because science and I are strange bedfellows…I waded through her scientific blogs and found a few to cram into my overstuffed rss feed reader…most of them were too dry for me but your blog was refreshingly beautiful and informative. Cheers for a lovely post. We live in Tasmania Australia where many U.K. natives grow well thanks to a bit more rainfall than mainland Australia in general. We have teasels here but I have never seen them flowering. I found a teasel plant recently that spawned young and will be watching them eagerly over the next few weeks when walking the dog to see if I can’t catch that pretty purple flower. I love them so much I might even harvest some seed and spread it around Serendipity Farm. I like the idea of instant insect overwintering homes 🙂

    • I bet there’s something equivalent and equally exotic lurking in the Antipodean undergrowth. The teasel flowers are a gorgeous colour, I hope you find a bloom in your back yard.

      Welcome to The Naturephile and thanks for the very nice comments!

  3. I so appreciate the science you incorporate into your posts, Finn…wonderful information…thank you.

    I was going to mention the common name that we use for your Rosebay willowherb, but Montucky beat me to it…. I’m sure you’re aware of it as well, but the seed pods open later in the season and release a silky fluffy material that catches in the breeze and wind and carries the seeds everywhere…they also get stuck in one’s eyelashes, mustache, and beard when that someone is trying to photograph them up-close! 🙂

  4. I believe this is my first time seeing a Scarlet Pimpernel – this blog holds many firsts for me 😀 Thank you so much Finn! We have rosebay willowherb over here too though everything’s long gone now with our first snow and colder weathers coming on. I’m surprised to see so many wild flowers still blooming happily over at yours! That’s so great! Thank you for your lunchtime spin. Looking forward to more! Sharon

    • Hello Sharon, it appears I’ve misled you. These pictures were taken in July, nearly all the wild flowers have gone now including the willowherb, but there ar still a few hardy aaron’s rods on my journey to work. The pimpernels are lovely aren’t they?

  5. Nice and interesting series. I didn’t know solanin was such a potent substance. Myself I don’t use the green potatoes… 😉

    • I guess the difficulty lies in the dose – how much is required for nicely dilated pupils and some mild and pleasurable hallucination… and how much is fatal? Best avoided I guess 🙂

  6. Beautiful and interesting! I’ve no seen Scarlet pimpernel before; I love its deep color! The Rosebay willowherb had me going for a bit until I realized it is called fireweed over here.

  7. Pingback: Fall harvest in Cappadocia | Back Yard Biology

  8. Great post! I’ve only seen treecreepers individually, too, and now I’m wondering whether you saw a brood of fledglings with their parent(s). Goofle found this
    If I’m right, treecreepers are like magpies in this respect.

  9. I’ve often wondered about green potatoes and green crisps, if one should eat them or not. I tend to cut out green bits on potatoes and am not sure what to do about crisps. Is it okay to eat them in small quantities, or are they better discarded? I’m not familiar with woody nightshade but I’m so glad you’ve introduced me to it, what a beautiful plant. Always wonderful to see a frog, too.

    • Hello Lorna, I must confess I’ve never really stressed too much about green potatoes. Maybe I should, although it sounds as though small quantities may not be too dangerous. I guess green potatoes shouldn’t be eaten but if you end up inadvertently eating a green crisp there’s no need to put the undertaker on standby 😉

  10. Informative and very interesting – thank you!

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