Tag Archives: wild flowers

When the sun stood still

The plane through the centre of the earth and the sun is called the ‘ecliptic‘ and it describes the apparent path of the sun around the earth. And the plane through the centre of the earth – on the earth’s equator – is called the ‘celestial equator‘. There is an angle between these two planes of 23.4o and this angle is known as the ‘obliquity of the ecliptic‘.

It is the obliquity of the ecliptic which gives rise to our seasons, because as the earth moves around the sun a point on the surface will be closer to the sun in summer and further away in winter. The mid winter and mid summer solstices are the midpoints of those two seasons and at the  midsummer solstice the perceived height of the sun in the sky is at its maximum ‘declination‘ – the angle between the ecliptic and the orbital plane. So whereas the solstices occur when the angle is at its maximum  23.4o, the vernal and autumnal equinoxes occur when the angle between the two planes is at its minimum, i.e. 0o, or when the celestial equator intersects with the ecliptic.

The summer solstice occurs in the northern hemisphere on June 21st and on this years solstice I found myself walking in the countryside late into the evening. It was a proper midusmmer day; sunny, warm and sultry, and the fields were full of wild flowers.

Field poppy – papaver rhoeas -my all time favourite wild flower. There’s nothing quite so spectacular as a field full of red poppies!

The field poppy is also known as the ‘Flanders poppy’ from the battle fields of WW1 – which seems wholely appropriate as I’m writing this on Remembrance Sunday. I find it difficult to photograph poppies and get the colours just right, but I really like these flowers against the green background. They were snapped in the field below, which was a riot of floral colour throughout the summer:

Looking along the drainage ditch which divides two arable fields

The old oak tree in this picture was home to a barn owl nest this year and I spent several evenings sitting in the undergrowth watching the toing and froing of the adults bringing prey to the nest. I didn’t get to see the fledglings but I’m hoping they were successful and return next year. And it was along this stretch of ditch where I photographed the yellowhammer, linnet and whitethroat I posted recently.

Not quite sunset, but the colours were breathtaking

And of course at that time of year, late in the day when the sun is getting low in the sky, the skyscapes can be magnificent .

Another flower which was sprouting in the hedgerows was woody nightshade, Solanum dulcamara, which is closely related to deadly nightshade, and the potato which is rather less toxic than it’s relatives – unless the potatos are green when they contain the same toxin. So don’t eat the green ones (or nightshade berries)!

Woody nightshade flowers with a dog rose in the background

Toward the end of my stroll it was getting darker and in the midst of a line of imposing horse chestnut trees is this dead one silhouetted against the crepuscular blueness of the western sky after sunset.


On another dead tree stump adjacent to this one was a kestrel eating its prey and it let me stand close by and watch it for several minutes which was remarkable in itself, but to give you an idea of how close I was I could actually hear it tearing the flesh off the bone! He must have been very hungry.

The moon emerging from behind a horse chestnut tree

And right at the end of the walk it was night time proper, and on midsummers day this year there was also a full moon.

The word ‘solstice‘ is derived from the Latin for ‘the sun stands still’ because the sun has stopped rising in the sky and begins it’s journey back across the ecliptic to bring summer to the southern hemisphere, leaving winter for us in the north. But I wasn’t thinking about that as I soaked up the summer warmth on midsummers day.

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The Isle of Wight, Part 1

This summers holiday took myself and the family to the Isle of Wight. I’ve often sat on the mainland and gazed at the island wondering what it was like, but apart from a sailing weekend from Cowes some years ago I’d never been there. Prior to the trip, several folk I spoke to who had been there said, ‘It’s very nice, but very 1950’s’, implying that were a bad thing. I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant, so I set off expecting bakelite telephones, knobbly knee competitions and casual racism. But the reality was nothing like that, in fact the Isle of Wight turned out to be a lovely place, very green and full of cool wildlife.

Shanklin Bay looking over the garden of out holiday abode

Within a day of arriving at our destination at Shanklin, on the southeast corner of the island, we’d encountered a pair of ravens who were keen to share our fish and chips on the seafront, and several red squirrels running around the trees in the garden below our apartment. Red squirrels are delightful creatures and the island is one of the few places in the UK where they haven’t been ousted by the bigger and more aggressive North American grey squirrel. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get photographs of these but there was plenty of other flora and fauna to keep me occupied.

The weather on the island during the first week in August was remarkable, it was hot and sunny virtually the whole time we were there, but that coincided with continuous heavy rain and big floods a short distance to the west in Devon and Cornwall. As well as the trees in the garden, there were flowers and butterflies basking in the glorious sunshine:

Wild pansy (Viola tricolor)

The wild pansy is a lovely little flower and has been used as a herbal remedy for eczema and asthma and it was believed it was good for the heart, hence its other name of ‘heartsease’. It’s laden with potentially beneficial chemicals including salicylates (aspirin), antibacterials and antiinflammatories and has many amusing common names such as ‘love lies bleeding’ (!), bullweed, ‘tickle my fancy’ and ‘love in idleness’.

Gatekeeper

Also frequenting the garden was the equally beautifully coloured, but less poetically named, gatekeeper butterfly (Pyronia tithonus). I was pleased to see lots of butterflies here because the dreadful spring weather meant I’d seen very few around Cambridge, a horrid situation which, alas, prevailed for the rest of the summer.

Below the garden at the bottom of the cliff was lots and lots of beach with lots and lots of birds, including the ravens I mentioned earlier. And amongst them was this gull youngster. It wasn’t at all fazed by me and my son running around and seemed more curious than nervous.

A young gull – either a herring gull or a lesser black backed

Alas, I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable about gulls to be able to differentiate the first year herring gull (Larus argentatus, Dansk: Sølvmåge) from the lesser black backed gull (Larus fuscus, Dansk: sildemåge), even with my Collins bird guide to assist. And while the gull was peering at us a sandwich tern patrolled the shallows occasionally diving into the water:

Sometimes returning to the surface with a fish… and other times not:

Sandwich tern (Sterna sandvicensis, Dansk: splitterne) fishing off Shanklin beach

From our limited explorations around the island it seemed to be quite distinctly in two halves. The eastern end, where we were based was green and agricultural with wide sandy beaches, and the western end, at least on the south side, was more chalk down rising to imposing cliffs toward the Needles at the far western tip. All the photographs in this post were from in and around Shanklin in the east and I’ve divided the IoW into two posts, so ‘Part 2’ will be from the western end.

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

Flowers and foliage

The greatest thing about a sodden Springtime was the abundance of bloom that resulted. So I spent alot of time this year recording the wild flowers and foliage that flourished in the wake of the deluge.

Some years ago I attended a lecture in which the speaker said that due to modern farming methods which involve the use of mechanisation and toxic chemicals to create a sterile monoculture,  verges and drainage ditches have now become an invaluable seed bank where many of our wild flowers can still prevail. Without these unpolluted conduits criss-crossing the countryside the flora seeking refuge there would be even more threatened. This idea seems to be born out in my local area as the drainage ditches are indeed full of wild flowers year on year.

Hedge woundwort – Stachys sylvatica

Hedge woundwort has lined the field margins and ditches in greater abundance this year than in previous years, its delicate purple flowerheads, growing up to around a metre tall, poking  over the top of the ditches. It’s a lovely flower and it gets its name from its preference for hedgerows and because the crushed leaves were traditionally applied to wounds to stem bleeding.

Hawthorn flowers lined all the hedgerows ealier in the year and heralded a glut of berries which are currently providing rich pickings for the birds, and will continue to do so well into the colder months.

Hawthorn blossom – Crataegus monogyna

The October 2012 edition of British Trust for Ornithology’s BirdTrack reveals that the migrant redwings (Turdus iliacus, Dansk: vindrossel) should be arriving here from Scandinavia any day now and will be followed closely by the fieldfare (Turdus pilaris, Dansk: sjagger), and the hedges fulls of haws will help to replenish their fat reserves after the migration across the North Sea. I think I saw my first redwing over Histon on Sunday, they have a characteristically undulating flight during which they fold back their wings and form a teardrop shape, which is what my sighting today was doing. So the fieldfare should be along soon too, according to the BTO.


Oxeye daisy – Leucanthemum vulgare

Oxeye daisies are my Mother’s favourite flower and she has been pestering me to publish a picture of one. This year they lined my cycle route to work alongside the Cambridge Guided Busway in their thousands so I’m finally able to complete my commission. So, Ma, this one’s yours!

The wild flowers have been spectacular but the leaves and some of the trees have also been contributing their own splash of colour to the countryside such as the cluster of oak leaves below.

(Dramatic interlude: Wow, the first goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis Dansk: stillits) arrived on my niger seed feeder a couple of days ago after being absent through the summer and until a minute ago there was an adult and a late fledgling feeding there. I just caught a blurr out the corner of my eye as I was writing this post and looked up just in time to see a sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus, Dansk: Spurvehøg) swoop through a gap in the buddleia bush next to the feeders, the goldfinches fled but it all happened too fast to see if the hawk was successful. It was all over in less than a second!)

Back to the oak leaves though, they were lovely colours, almost autumnal. Oak trees are amazing organisms, in fact they are substantially more than organisms, they are ecosystems in their own right. They live to be several centuries old and when coppiced or pollarded (pollarding is pruning back a tree to the top of the trunk to promote new branch growth, compared to coppicing which is pruning it back to ground level), but there are numerous examples of oaks living for 1000-1500 years. And they become home to hundreds of other species of fungi, lichens, insects, birds and mammals.


Oak leaf cluster – Quercus robur – the English oak

And right next to the oak was this gorgeous, delicate field rose. The field rose, Rosa arvensis, grows in hedges and has white to cream coloured flowers and lovely golden yellow anthers. It flowers later than the dog rose (Rosa canina) which has pink flowers and the leaves are smaller. Later in the autumn the flowers turn into bright red hips which provide food for birds as well as humans. When I was a kid we used to have rosehip syrup which was sweet and delicious and I’ve been toying with the idea of trying to make some. If I succeed in creating something pleasant I’ll post the recipe here.

Without doubt my favourite wild flower is the field scabius (Knautia arvensis). I think they’re utterly beautiful and if I have a camera to hand I struggle to walk past one! Fortunately for me the field margins around here are replete with them so I’m rarely short of photographic opportunities.

The glorious flower of the field scabius

And from side on:

The hue of the flowers can vary from a pale pastel shade to quite dark purple. Each flower contains male stamens which can be seen protruding from this flower from between the female florets. The stamen consists of the filament (the stalk) and the anther (the pollen bearing part at the end of the filament). The stamens die back before the female florets mature in order to prevent self-fertilisation. Field scabius is named afer the German botanist Dr Knaut and has historically been used to treat skin ailments such as scabies and eczema.

More wild flowers

I keep seeing herb robert lining my route to work and in the hedgerows along my regular footpaths. It’s a member of the Geranium genus and is found in hedgerows, woods and on disturbed ground


Herb robert – Geranium robertianum

I’m a tad confused by this plant because it has all the normal attributes of herb robert; the pink flowers, leaf shape, hairy buds and stems, but this one has the same bud shape as a cranesbill and a quick web search hasn’t yielded another image of herb robert with seed pods shaped like this. (So if I’ve made a taxonomic error please let me know!). Herb robert smells quite unpleasant and has been used as an insect repellant.


Dandelion – Taraxacum officinale

These pictures were taken a few weeks ago and at that time they were loaded with insect life, this danselion has six flower beetles (Oedemera nobilis) foraging on it, and it wasn’t at all unusual to see flowers in the meadow with this many bugs and more feeding on them.


White clover – Trifolium repens

Clover grows abundantly in grassland. It is pollinated primarily by bumble bees but as bumble bee numbers decline it has become a major source of nectar for honey bees, therefore beekeepers became important people for cattle farmers who grow clover as a fodder crop for their livestock.

Jack go to bed at noon – Tragopogon pratensis

The lovely yellow star of ‘jack go to bed at noon’ is so named because the flowers open early in the morning and close up again at noon. It is also known as ‘goats beard’ and is a native annual in the UK. It has a milky latex sap which, according to Wiki, children from the countryside in Armenia make bubble gum from. It has a wonderful seedhead which is much bigger than than the dandelion and has fewer larger seeds.


Jack go to bed at noon seedhead

As with alot of other wild flowers, they are rampant just now because of the warm wet weather and are numerous in fallow fields and hedgerows.

A jack go to bed at noon seedhead with a closed flower behind it at the edge of a field

Also common around Cambridge right now is the birdsfoot trefoil. The flowers here are a gorgeous golden yellow but can also have red or orange which gives them their other common name: bacon and eggs.


Birdsfoot trefoil – Lotus corniculatus

Birdfoot trefoil is a legume which means it can actively fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. It can do this with the help of symbiotic bacteria which colonise root nodules and convert inert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia, a form of nitrogen which plants can use. This ability makes the legumes a natural fertiliser because nitrogen is required by all plants, but unless they can fix it in this way they are reliant on alternative sources in the soil. Poor soil can be boosted by the application of other fertilisers such as good old fashioned manure, or more recently ‘NPK’ (Nitrogen/Phosphorus/Potassium, ‘K‘ being the chemical symbol for potassium). Or, when cycles of crop rotation are used, one of the crops used may be another legume, such as peas, which can help to replenish nitrogen levels in the soil naturally.

Poison Parsley

Poison parsley is another name for hemlock. Hemlock originally attained notoriety around 2500 years ago when it was used to poison the Ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates. He was executed because his teachings were highly critical of the Athenian state and he was a thorn in the side of various high ranking Athenians. And in those days that tended to limit ones life expectancy.

Hemlock – Conium maculatum

I hadn’t knowingly encountered hemlock until a couple of weekends ago when I was strolling around the RSPB reserve at Fen Drayton, where it was lining the hedgrows in some profusion. It is an imposing plant that was growing taller than me, up to around 2m, it has dark green feathery leaves and white flowers that resemble the hogweeds.


This plant was growing amongst hogweed and cow parsley, and it can appear fairly similar to both, to the uneducated eye.

A variable damselfy (Coenagrium pulchellum) warming itself in the early morning sunshine perched on a hemlock frond

The hogweeds used to provide fodder for pigs, hence the name, but giant hogweed is toxic to humans due to its sap which contains a type of chemical called a ‘furanocoumarin‘ that causes the skin to become sensitive to ultraviolet light. That can result in extremely unpleasant blistering of the skin and blindness if it gets in the eyes. Derivatives of furanocoumarins have been developed as drugs for the treatment of psoriasis.

But the hemlock toxin works in a different way. It is called ‘coniine‘ and the chemical name is 2-propylpiperidine:

I think this compound is remarkable because it is very small for a molecule which has such a specific and catastrophic effect. It exerts its effect by blocking a receptor for a neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, which resides on the membrane on the far side of nerve synapses. This results in a condition called ‘flaccid paralysis‘. Basically, the nerves which facilitate muscle contraction get blocked and stop firing. It starts in the feet and travels upwards, the muscles go floppy and that’s ultimately fatal when the effect reaches the heart and lungs. Socrates’ death was described by Plato and his last words were to his friend, Crito:

“Crito, we owe a rooster to Asclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.”

The smooth stem of the hemlock plant

The purple spots on the stem of the hemlock are diagnostic, other similar plants don’t have this, so if you see it, admire it, but don’t touch it! All parts of the plant are toxic and it doesn’t take much to have an effect.

The flower head just before the white flowers emerge

Hemlock has a number of names according the the Royal Horticultural Society: California fern, cashes, herb bennet, Nebraska fern, poison hemlock, St Benedict’s herb, snakeweed, spotted hemlock, spotted parsley and winter fern. Also according to the RHS, its range is Europe only, but it has been introduced to the United States, hence the two names which include U.S. states.

Hemlock grows in damp poorly drained soils and is fed on by various insects including caterpillars and occurs in field borders and roadside verges aswell as along the lakes and ditches where I found it at Fen Drayton.

Insects and molluscs

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been out and about photographing wild flowers, and of course the raison d’etre of flowers is to produce the reproductive cells of the plant in order to ensure survival. And as plants are immobile they rely on other vectors to connect the male and female parts, that can be the wind and the rain but many flowers are exquisitely evolved to attract one or more species of insect to carry the pollen to the ovum and effect fertilisation.

So in the course of photographing the flowers some of them were hosting a pollinator or two:

Tree bumble bee – Bombus hypnorum

This tree bumle bee was sipping nectar from the flower of the white deadnettle. It’s one of the insects that is strong enough to get to the back of the flower and take the nectar. Flowers have evolved in this way such that the insects have to pass the stamen, which is where the pollen, or plant sperm, is produced. The stamen is made up of the filament and the anther, and foraging insects brush against the anther picking up pollen which they carry to the next flower where it is deposited on the female part of the plant – the ‘carpel’, and fertilisation ensues.

There are various species of bees in the UK but only around half a dozen common ones. Bees are in trouble in this country and no one seems to know why, both honey bees, which live in colonies, and solitary bumble bees are dying out at an alarming rate.

Buff tailed bumble bee – Bombus terrestris

The buff tail above was in a particularly poorly condition and had tiny mites crawling on it’s body so I imagine it didn’t do much more pollinating.

Soldier beetle – Cantharis rustica

The soldier beetles are related to the fireflies and they get their common generic name from one species which is bright red and is therefore named after the ‘redcoats‘ – English soldiers from days of yore. The larvae and the adults are carnivorous, the larvae feeding on insect eggs and caterpillars and the adults on aphids. They also feed on nectar and can therefore pollinate too.


Black slug – Arion ater

Alot of people have an aversion to slugs because of the damage they can do to fruit and vegetables, but this chap was out in the field making a meal out of a couple of dandelion seedheads. I don’t think they contribute much to pollination and they are predated by frogs and toads and also hedgehogs. Although I’ve heard that if too much of a hedgehog’s diet consists of slugs, parasitic worms living in the slugs can get into the lungs of the hedghog and kill it because its lungs fill up with fluid. Which sounds pretty unpleasant but I guess it’s not the fault of the poor old slug!


Brimstone moth – Opisthograptis luteolata

The brimstone moth is a splendid creature with a wingspan of 32-37 mm. It’s common and widespread across the UK. In the warmer climes of  the southern UK there can be three generations in a year but in the north there is only one brood per annum, and adults can be seen on the wing between April and October. The caterpillars feed on various trees and bushes including hawthorn and blackthorn.

A couple of weeks ago after days of rainfall which had moistened everything I found a 50m stretch of verge which was crawling, literally, with hundreds of yellow and brown snails.


Brown lipped snails – Ceppaea nemoralis. Just a few of the hundreds that were making the most of the damp conditions

The ‘lip‘ of the snails in their name is the front edge of the shell which can be seen in the next two pictures and is lighter brown on the yellow one and a much darker brown on the brown one:

Snails are predated by songthrushes. They pick up the snail by the fleshy part and crack the shell on a handy stone. Some years ago I was sitting at home on my own reading a book and everything was very quiet. I heard ‘tap tap tap’ on the front door, but when I went to answer it their was no one there. So I went back to my book. A few mintes later I heard the same tapping and again there was no one there, so I opened the door to have a look up the street and rather than a visitor there was a collection of broken snail shells on my front doorstep. It transpires the tapping I’d heard was a songthrush using my front doorstep as an anvil to swing the snails against and hammer open the shells!

More blooming flowers

Hedgerows, field borders and roadside verges continue to thrive in this part of the world as a result of the recent rainy weather. Nettles are in abundance at the moment, in particular the white deadnettle (Lamium album):

The white deadnettle is, as the name suggests, not a stinger, and it’s common all over the UK, Europe and Asia. It’s white or pink flowers need to be prised open in order to reach the nectar at the back of the flower so only bulky insects such as bumble bees can reach it. It flowers from March to December so it can provide a food source for these insects for most of the year.

According to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, the leaves and flowers can be eaten raw when they are young and tender and the fresh leaves can also be boiled and eaten as a vegetable. The flowers can also be boiled in water and used as a traditional herbal remedy for catarrh and dropsy, which is another name for oedema, or build up of fluid under the skin. The roots can be boiled in wine, which will extract compounds that are insoluble in water into the alcohol fraction of the wine, and the resulting concoction can be used as a remedy for kidney stones. White deadnettle is also used as a herbal treatment for benign prostate hyperplasia, which is enlargement of the prostate gland, and for gastrointestinal problems. So this humble hedgerow plant has the potential to provide a plethora of therapeutic compounds.

The white deadnettle is also known as bee nettle, blind nettle, day nettle, deaf nettle, dog nettle, snake flower and white archangel.

And the other nettle which is springing up everywhere is the much maligned stinging nettle, Urtica dioica:

The flowers of the stinger are tiny and green and grow in strings which are several centimetres long. The stinging mechanism is via hairs, or ‘trichomes‘, and each one has a bulbous end that breaks off when brushed by a passer by, leaving a sharp hollow tube. The tube acts like a tiny hypodermic needle that injects a cocktail of irritant chemicals including histamine and acetycholine which potentiate an inflammatory immune response which is the cause of the stinging sensation. The sting protects the nettle from grazers but also offers protection for other species which are resistant to the sting and the stinging nettle is therefore home to various species of insect and is an important refuge for caterpillars such as that of the peacock butterfly. Before slashing them down in your garden see if you can’t find an out-of-the-way corner to let them grow and provide a home for the butterflies.

Cooking the nettle leaves removes the sting and they are rich in vitamin C so they are used to make soup, herbal tea and, latterly, pesto and in the production of a cheese called ‘yarg‘ from Cornwall.

Charlock, Sinapis arvensis

The yellow flowers of the charlock plant, also known as carlock, corn mustard, field kale, kedlock, kerlock, kinkle, wild kale and wild mustard, have sprung up along the field-side drainage ditches and hogweed, Heracleum sphondylium, is well established too:

Hogweed flowerhead

Hogweed grows all over Europe and flowers from June to August. The flowers burst out of large pods at the top of the stems and are initially pink but fade to white. The young shoots are reputed to be good to eat with a flavour similar to asparagus and the plant gets its name because it was gathered to provide feed for pigs in times past. Hogweed is also known as cow parsnip, cadweed, clogweed, eltrot, giant parsnip, madnep and meadow parsnip.

Pansy, Viola arvensis

Lurking along the edge of the nearby rape fields, almost hidden in the undergrowth, are pansies. The name of the pansy originates from the French word ‘pensee‘ – thought. It is also know as heart’s ease, ladies’ delight and stepmother’s flower.


Hedgerow cranesbill, Geranium pyrenaicum

Hedgrow cranesbill, aka mountain cranesbill, is very common at the moment. It flowers from May to August and it gets it’s name from the shape of the seedpod in some species of geranium which is long and pointed and said to resemble the beak of the crane.

Herb bennet, Geum urbanum

According to the RHS herb bennet also has a number of colourful names: blessed herb, city avens, clove root, colewort, Indian chocolate, minarta, St Benedict’s herb, star of the earth, water flower and wood avens. This plant grows in shaded spots and flowers from May to August. It has aromatic roots which have been used to flavour ale and give off a smell of cloves so it was hung by the door to ward off evil spirits. It was also used medicinally by the Romans as a substitute for quinine.

My day job is in the pharmaceutical industry so I have a professional interest in chemicals which could have medicinal applications either on their own or as cocktails of compounds which may be contained in the same plant. So when I’m researching a post like this I wonder how many species we’ve lost due to modern agricultutal practices and how much herbal knowledge and potential drug molecules have passed into history. Many have probably been lost but there are still thousands remaining to provide us with food, herbs and spices, medicines, and to add the wonderful shapes and colours to the countryside.

The wild flowers are blooming

A combination of the recent rains and the rising temperatures we’re getting now is creating ideal conditions for wild flowers. Any piece of uncultivated land is starting to bursting forth with flora which in turn is providing food and cover for flies, bees, beetles, butteflies and a plethora of other insect life. Which is also good for the birds, small mammals and other predators, and so on up the food chain. And on top of that it’s lovely to look at. So here’s a selection of flora currently blossoming in my patch of East Anglia:


Ground ivy – Glechoma hederacea

I like ground ivy because it occurs early in the year, first appearing in March, but like many other phenological phenomena it may now be happening earlier. It creeps across the ground, like ivy, forming carpets of blue flowers and with the green and red leaves it adds lots of colour to the undergrowth. It has numerous names and here are a few from the Royal Horticultural Society website: Devils candlestick, creeping charlie, crows guts, wild snakeroot, hens and chickens, gill-go-by-the- street, and my favourite: ale gill.

Another creeper which grows across the ground and in hedgerows and which has lovely blue flowers is the periwinkle. There are two types of periwinkle, the lesser (Vinca minor) which may have been introduced to the UK and the greater (Vinca major), which was introduced (both according to my wild flower guide).


The greater periwinkle

I’m a tad confused by this flower because they are meant to have 5 petals but this one only has 4. It is also known as creeping myrtle, cut-finger, flower of death (!), grave myrtle, and sorcerer’s violet, among others.

Sprouting next to this periwinkle flower was a nascent white deadnettle, Lamium album. It normally has white flowers which haven’t yet arrived, but the closed buds are visible below the crown. Everything is very green at the moment because of all the rain and looks beautiful against the red wing cases of the ladybird .


White deadnettle about to burst into bloom


Greater celandine, Chelidonium majus

It is thought the greater celandine is named after the swallow (‘khelidon’ is Greek for swallow) and it’s a member of the poppy family. When the stems are broken they ooze a latex sap which is as yellow as the flowers, and the colour can be as deep as orange. It contains a host of alkaloids which confer therapeutic properties but it can also be toxic. It is also known as cocks foot, sight wort and wart wort as the sap has been applied as a treatment for warts. I’m not sure where ‘sight wort‘ comes from, but if it burns off warts I wouldn’t want it anywhere near my eyes!


Cow parsley – Anthriscus sylvestris

As far as I know cow parsley doesn’t have medicinal properties and according to Wiki it’s not pleasant to eat. But I think the flowers are lovely and they bring back childhood memories of running through the woods in springtime when the cow parsley or ‘keck‘, as it was referred to by my Dad, was as tall as me. There’s nothing quite like a forest floor which is full of cow parsley, in it’s own way it’s as iconic as blue bells. It’s also known as wild chervil and Queen Anne’s Lace.


Beefly – Bombylius major

At the end of my flower finding mission I was looking for a ground ivy flower head and I found this little beauty, and just as I was just about to open the shutter a beefly zoomed in to sip the nectar. Flower pictures can benefit from some insect action and I like beeflies, so this was a highly serendipitous encounter!

Erratum: Maggie from http://www.intouchwithnature.co.uk‘ has pointed out that the last flower with the beefly on is in fact red deadnettle  – not ground ivy. So a big thankyou to Maggie for keeping me honest with my plant identification 🙂

The birds and the bees (and the flowers)

As our warmest and driest Spring on record turns into what is shaping up to be a warm and dry Summer, nature’s great events are occurring apace to exploit the prevailing climatic conditions.

The first swifts were seen over Histon 3 weeks ago (by me at least) after their heroic journey back to their breeding sites from overwintering in Africa. To celebrate this event I’ve spent several hours sitting in the garden of the Castle pub on Castle Hill in Cambridge enjoying a few convivial sharpeners and watching the swifts shrieking through the sky like an avian aerobatic team. I can heartily recommend both activities!

Wild flowers, including one of my favourites, white campion, are now in bloom:

White campion, Silene latifolia, decorating ditches and hedgerows

White campion is a dioecious plant which means the male and female reproductive machinery are on separate flowers. It grows in well drained earth and flowers from Spring to Autumn and is now delineating my walks across the open countryside. Another one of my favourite wild flowers is red clover (Trifolium pratense) which is a gorgeous colour and provides nourishment for bumble bees:


Red clover flower being harvested for pollen and nectar by a common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum). This is the national flower of Denmark.

And of course the local birdlife has been very busy breeding and raising chicks. Alot of species started this process earlier this year due to the unusually warm weather in Spring. I have a pair of blue tits raising a brood in the nestbox in my crab apple tree and my friend told me of a family of song thrushes which fledged from his garden a month ago. Which is very early.

A pair of great tit have been feeding their chicks on crushed peanuts which I put out on my bird feeder over the last month and last week they fledged and the whole family were feeding in my garden for just a day or two before they ventured further afield. (If you put nuts out for the birds during the breeding season please make sure you use crushed nuts as inexperienced parents can try to feed whole nuts to chicks and this can have fatal consequences). Great tits have over 70 different vocalisations which I think is remarkable, almost simple language! And on my explorations along the fields and hedgerows around Histon last weekend (21st May, 2011) I saw more great tit, blackcap and whitethroat all feeding gangs of fledglings:


Common whitethroat male, Sylvia communis

There are two species of whitethroat to be found locally, the common and the lesser (Sylvia curruca). They are distinguished by their song, which I won’t try to describe because I’ve never yet read a book which gives the remotest idea of what birdsong actually sounds like by a written description! But if you want to compare them try here for the common whitethroat, and here for the lesser whitethroat.


And another male whitethroat, this chap was singing long and loud, punctuated with characteristic jerky flights straight up in the air and back to the same spot

There are a good number of common whitethroat in the hedgerows north of Cambridge, lesser whitethroat are also here but are not so numerous. There are other distinguishing features between the two species, the lesser, as the name suggests is smaller (~11cm long compared to ~13 for the common), and is generally more grey with a pale grey head and noticeably darker grey ‘ear’ patches. It also has dark grey legs. Both species overwinter in sub-Saharan Africa, the common in central Africa and the lesser in eastern Africa.

Linnet can be regularly seen flying around the bramble thickets on the edges of the village and perching and singing on top of them. On Saturday early in the morning a fracas was going on in an elderbery tree in Rowleys Meadow in Histon which ended when a jay was chased out of the tree by a family of linnet and a family of whitethroat. The jay alighted on an adjacent shed to suss out the lie of the land and contemplate another raid whilst the indignant songbirds dispersed into some scrub to hide. Eventually the jay decided to keep his powder dry and disappeared into a nearby wood. Jays, like other members of the crow family, will raid nests of smaller birds for eggs and chicks, so it’s a perilous business being a small bird with a family to rear.


A linnet male perching on a bramble. When they’re not protecting a nest I’ve managed to sneak within 15 feet of linnet perched like this.

Linnet, Carduelis cannabina, are abundant resident and migrant breeders, although their numbers, as with many of our songbirds, are declining, and they are also passage and winter visitors. Due to their declining numbers over the past 40 years or so their conservation status is red, indicating they are globally threatened. They are finches which live in open country and farmland and feed on seeds.

Many species of moths, butterflies, bees, flowers and a plethora of other creatures are all appearing as trhe seasons are progressing and there’s something new to see every week!