Meadow yellow

Meadow yellow
Bulbous Buttercup (Ranunculus bulbosus) in a Devon meadow

Friday, 23 July 2010

Unbelievable umbellifers

An umbel is an inflorescence made up of many individual flowers on stalks (pedicels) that originate from roughly the same point on the flowering stem (peduncle) giving the appearance of an umbrella. The umbellifers all share this characteristic, usually with white or yellow flowers with rounded or flattened tops, with the appearance from above of complex lacework. The British Iles is home to over 50 species, ranging widely in size and usefulness. They are more commonly referred to as the ‘carrot’ family (Apiaceae), and include a number of edible garden plants in addition to the carrot, including fennel, coriander, parsley and celery. However more unusually, the Pignut (Conopodium majus), was once commonly dug up for its edible tubers. Indeed evidence that they were collected as a wild food and possibly used in a ritual context, would appear to date back to the Bronze Age, in addition to the now nationally rare Great Pignut (Bunium bulbocastanum) (Moffett, 1991). But many of the umbellifers are far less agreeable and some considerably poisonous.....

......Many people are familiar with Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) and its poisonous sap, which when combined with sunlight causes severe blistering to skin. The red/purple spotting on the stem is a useful warning shared by other poisonous umbellifers, such as Hemlock (Conium maculatum) and Rough Chervil (Chaerophyllum temulum). To illustrate their potency, one report of dairy cattle inadvertently consuming Rough Chervil caused severe internal haemorrhaging amongst many other symptoms, leading to their slaughter (Fejes, et al., 1985).

But it is the ubiquitous Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) that is probably the most familiar umbellifer out of the garden, adorning our country lanes and roadsides with their tall frothy inflorescences from April to June. Now in July they are brown and ageing, their flowerless umbels resembling old broken umbrellas.

I’ve seen most of these umbellifers this year, but there is one that I am unlikely to come across – a protected species, Shepherd’s- needle (Scandix pectin-veneris), listed as critically endangered by the World Conservation Union and has its own Biodiversity Action Plan. This seems somewhat ironic as it originated as a grain contaminant from the Mediterranean establishing itself for generations as a common weed of cornfields.

So when you next spot an umbel look a bit closer, but check first for purple spots, or maybe dig for wild pignuts like our ancestors.

Fejes, J. et al. (1985) Chaerophyllum temulum [temulentum] poisoning in dairy cows. Veterinářství, 35 (2):68 -69
Moffett, L. (1991) Pignut tubers from a Bronze Age cremation at barrow hills Oxfordshire England UK and the importance of vegetable tubers in the prehistoric period. Journal of Archaeological Science, 18 (2):187 -192

Saturday, 3 July 2010

There and Back again

There and Back again (better known as ‘The Hobbit’ by Tolkien)

(Image copyright of Andrew Easton)

A couple of weeks ago I was watching BBC Springwatch on iPlayer with my youngest, with the presenters introducing a new bird for the series, when a movement caught my eye out in the garden through the window. A dusky, non-descript bird flying repeatedly back and forth to the same perch on a warm summers evening - it could only be the Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata), the same bird Peckham & Dumble were so proudly talking about. Coincidental! This hunting behaviour is unique in birds, having been described as the only such species that is a ‘sit-and-wait’ predator of aerial insects (1). It can also be identified by a characteristic upright stance and the streaked markings on the forehead – it is the young that are more truly spotted.

Last year we had a pair of Spotted Flycatchers try and nest in the Wisteria on the South-facing wall of the house, but without success. So it was reassuring to see them back this year, a late migrant from Southern Africa. They are a bird in some crisis, with growing conservation concern following a period of prolonged and accelerating decline of over 50% in the UK over the past 25 years (2), putting them high on the at danger ‘Red List’. The factors affecting the population decline is still unclear, but it does appear to be broad-scale, affecting populations in all habitats and regions equally (2).

As a child I used to look forward every summer to visiting my grandparents in the Cotswolds and seeking out these birds near a small sewage treatment site, where they used nearby barbed wire fencing as a perch to hunt from. Now here in 2010, as I watch and show my daughter these precious birds flying back and forth from favourite perches, I wonder if she will have the same opportunity with her children - For that, these and others will have to fly there and back again many times, both to catch millions of insects and travel repeatedly across continents.

(1) Davies, N.B. 1977. Prey selection and the search strategy of the Spotted Flycatcher. Animal Behaviour. 25: 1016–1033.
(2) Freeman, S.N. & Crick, H.Q.P (2003) The decline of the Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata in the UK: an integrated population model. Ibis, 145:400–412