Tag Archives: woody nightshade

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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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