Meadow yellow

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

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Well fishy

After the recent cold snap, the weather returned this week to a mild theme and encouraged me out into the garden. As I climbed the steps to the upper garden, my ‘peripherals’ caught a movement in our well. The well sits in a cobbled courtyard and appears to be fed by local groundwater,  and with over a foot of rain in recent weeks has got very full. Since we moved into our new home this summer I have frequently peered into the dark depths of the well, never expecting and never seeing any obvious life in the crystal clear water. I was therefore curious about the water movement – had an animal fallen in and was struggling to get free? At first glance I could not see anything, but as my eyes grew accustomed to the grey gloom I noticed a fishy tail poking out from the side wall. After a few minutes the tail moved gently and a head appeared, followed by the long slender body of an unmistakeable Eel (Anguilla anguilla), at least one and a half feet long (see images – not an easy photograph to take). Gracefully it swam around the well, appearing to search for an escape from its surprise prison until it disappeared through a fissure, not to be seen again and to where underground I can only puzzle.

The questions this observation poses are as deep and dark as the well. This mysterious fish will have started its incredible life far away in the Sargasso Sea (van Ginneken & Maes, 2006). This is “the earth's only sea without a land boundary”, defined instead by biological characteristics and oceanic conditions to determine its location and extent within the North Atlantic sub-tropical “gyre”, and so named after the abundant presence of Sargassum, a “brown drift algae” (Sargasso Sea Alliance, 2011). It is within this unique ecosystem that the young eel larvae feed, develop and drift using the inherent currents, such as the Gulf Stream to migrate the huge distances to freshwater European and North African rivers. Unusually for fish they can travel over land if necessary, and perhaps it is this ability to move out of the confines of purely aquatic environments enabled it to find its way via groundwater channels into our well. Living for up to 30 years, you can only wonder at the adventures such a creature can have, but I am glad that one of them resulted in it appearing in our garden well - I can only hope that it is able to fulfil its destiny and return eventually to breed in the Sargasso Sea and bring its life full circle.

Sargasso Sea Alliance (2011) [online] About the Sargasso Sea.   [Accessed 21/12/11]
van Ginneken, V.J.T, and Maes, G.E (2006). The European eel (Anguilla anguilla, Linnaeus), its Lifecycle, Evolution and Reproduction: A Literature Review. Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries, 15 (4): 367-398

Friday, 2 December 2011

The commonly anonymous Euonymus

When I lived in Nottinghamshire and botanised with my friend Mary, one of the plants that gave her a lot of pleasure was the Spindle (Euonymus europaeus). She proudly showed me the last remnant specimens along a stretch of a local hedge. It is an easy to miss shrub amongst Hawthorn, Blackthorn and other hedgerow plants. Its innocuous greenish-white flowers do little to make it stand out in the spring. It does however have an interesting and chequered history – Due to it being the winter host for two important crop pests, particularly the black bean aphid (Aphis fabae) which feeds on field beans and sugar beet, it led in the past to widespread removal from hedgerows and woodlands (Thomas. et al., 2011). I guess this explains some of its fragmented occurrence in Britain depending on how zealous and relevant this pest hosting was to local farmers. It did have some historic economic importance due to the wood being very hard, enabling it to be cut to a very sharp point and used in the making of spindles for spinning wool - Any guesses as to how it got its name!

Roll forward to Devon, our new home, and lazy summer strolling along local lanes. There in the hedge appeared many four lobed coral-pink fruits, sculptured almost unnaturally like trendy buttons or sweets (see image above). These are the charmingly characteristic products of the Spindle, no longer blending into the background but colourfully and querkily brought forward. As summer has merged into autumn, and flowers and leaves have eventually withdrawn from hedgerows, these spectacular fruits have come further into prominence, advertising a more abundant presence than I had realised. They are now fading as we approach winter, but not without a final flourish of secondary colour and confectionary mimicry, as they expose bright orange sheathed seeds (see image below). In the next week or so the Spindles will have retreated back to being that highly anonymous shrub.

Thomas, P.A., El-Barghathi, M. and Polwart, A. (2011) Biological Flora of the British Isles: Euonymus europaeus L. Journal of Ecology, 99 (1): 345-365

Thursday, 17 November 2011

The photophobic spider

Cave Spider
When the sun emerges after days of damp autumn greyness, as it did this morning, it seems that much more precious and to be treasured. I therefore abandoned the laptop screen, Google and business planning in favour of the outdoors, and emerged this morning to that special bright blue of the coast. The warm updrafts from the Berry Head cliffs propelled gulls effortlessly overhead, whilst occasional out-of-season Red Admirals sailed with the breeze. I was hoping for a close up view of dolphins or porpoises and so made my way out to a rock promontory near where we had seen one feeding over a month ago. Although this proved fruitless I was drawn to some nearby caves. I had no torch but used my camera focusing red light beam to do a bit of searching. And that was when I discovered a rather large spider (see picture above), and quickly discovered that this one was by no means alone. In almost every crevice were other specimens and several large white cocoon sacs hung like silk globes from the ceiling.

Cocoon sacs holding spiderlings
Back home and reacquainted with Google, I searched on “Cave Spiders”, to discover that is indeed what had observed. Most likely the species is Meta menardi, one of Britain’s largest spiders, a type of orb weaving spider. Their distribution is wide and patchy across Europe (British Arachnological Society, 2011), perhaps due to their particular preference for permanently dark damp sites, such as caves, which may also mean that they are often overlooked. They are termed as troglophiles (literally “liking caves”) with photophobic tendencies, avoiding light and feeding off other invertebrates sharing their darkness. Interestingly the young spiders are, in contrast, strongly attracted to light (Smithers, 2005), possibly an evolutionary adaptation to ensure the species disperses more widely.
In the meantime my empathy is with the young spiders and was certainly glad to emerge out of the cave back into the sunlight to enjoy the last of the afternoon’s precious rays.

British Arachnological Society (2011) [online] The Checklist of British Spiders.  [Accessed 17/11/11]
Smithers, P. (2005) The early life history and dispersal of the cave spider Meta menardi (Latreille, 1804) (Araneae: Tetragnathidae) Bull. Br. arachnol. Soc. 13 (6): 213-216 [Cited at]

See also this video of Cave Spiders being rescued:

Friday, 4 November 2011

Wild Madder goes red

Towards the end of the summer I was out botanising with a friend and we came across a Wild Madder (Rubia peregrina) plant growing on the edge of some woodland. This is a butch, version of the ubiquitous Cleavers (otherwise called Goosegrass or Sticky Willy), being larger, tougher, pricklier, and an evergreen. They are both members of the ‘Bedstraw’ family (Rubiaceae) that are generally sprawling climbers and include the Tropical Coffee plant. In the autumn Wild Madder plants produce characteristic dark black berries, like over-sized elderberries (see image).

I was surprised when Greg said that it was the first time he had seen this plant. Although it was new to me this year I had seen it several times on my walks about Devon this year. However checking the distribution map for this species on the ‘NBN Gateway’ ( clearly shows a strong south-west preference, with no records from his home county in Essex. I have most commonly seen it recently on coastal walks which also seem to be its preference – perhaps due to its apparent resilience towards sea spray.
The madders were used traditionally for many centuries in the making of various dyes - remains of madder were excavated with Viking material at York (, 2011). The closely related Common Madder (Rubia tinctorum), was introduced to the UK and formerly grown for its dye (Stace, 2010),  ‘Turkey Red’, a brilliant red permanent dye - this was very well known in 19th century for “maddering” wool and cotton (Koreankye, 2010). Wild Madder provides a subtler, rose-pink dye. The long roots of the madders are particularly rich in these dyes and were used with materials such as leather and wool until towards the end of the Nineteenth century, when they were replaced by the more efficient industrial manufacture of the chemical, Alizarin Red (, 2011). However some traditionalists are reacquainting themselves with old methods of natural dyeing with plants such as Madder (see This seems to be another example of people turning their backs on disconnecting industrialisation and trying to relearn from nature’s amazing secrets.

Korankye, O. (2010) Extraction and application of plant dyes to serve as colourants for food and textiles. []
Stace, C.A. (2010) New Flora of the British Isles (3rd edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (2011) [online] Madder - [Accessed 4/11/11]

Thursday, 20 October 2011

A bat fan-attic!

One of the early delights of moving to Devon this summer was watching bats flying around our barn and those of our neighbours. I wondered if any roosted in our building and if so, where had they found to reside. As far as I was concerned they were very welcome, having held a lifelong fascination in these curious creatures.

Before we moved into our new home our surveyor had provided a very satisfactory report, with only a few minor defects noted. One of these was a seemingly faulty extract fan in the downstairs toilet. This soon became apparent when I tested it after moving in – however I then became distracted with general moving and settling into our new home - anyway the doors were open much of the time and so ventilation not a key issue. However the weather acutely reminded us this week that it is autumn, requiring us to make more use of mechanical ventilation. This then tied in yesterday with an unpleasant surprise in the downstairs toilet! A steady drip seemed to be coming from the dodgy ventilation unit. Initially I wondered if it was excessive condensation in the ventilation system caused by the sudden drop in temperature. Shining a torch up through the plastic protective grill I noticed a furry looking creature and guessed it might be a trapped young bird. However when I removed the grill out fell a desiccated bat (see image). I can only assume that the bat (I’m making a fairly safe guess at the Common Pipistrelle, Pipistrellus pipistrellus ), entered into our roof space/attic and got lost and then stuck down the ventilation ducting.
At least I now know the answer to two outstanding questions:
(1)   Why the extract fan did not work properly?
(2)   Do bats live in my house?

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the drip was nothing to do with the ventilation – a leak from a tap in the upstairs bathroom was tracking down the side of the ventilation tubing. Both domestic problems are now resolved, but unfortunately no happy ending for the bat.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

A cricketing summer at last

As a southern suburban boy I remember the lazy sound of late summer with invisible crickets strumming endlessly through the night. I always imagined thousands of individuals from the great impact on my senses. This sound however had all but disappeared for me as an adult living in rural East Midlands. Maybe I have not been near the right habitat for crickets, too far North, or they have simply been decimated by mans ongoing impact on their environment. It was with great pleasure therefore that my move to Devon this summer has reacquainted me with the Crickets’ song.

The 10 species of British ‘bush crickets’ (family Tettigonidae) are mainly restricted to southern England, whilst the 4 species of the distinctively different ‘crickets’ (family Gryllidae) are “increasingly rare and only likely to be found in the extreme South of England” (Tilling, 1987). It is the bush crickets that favour the night for their characteristic ‘songs’ or stridulation, raising their wings and rubbing them together. Last week the late summer burst of warmth seem to invigorate the local crickets and I managed to capture one (see image), a Dark Bush Cricket (Pholidoptera griseoaptera). This is a sturdy looking species, dark brown with a yellow underside and almost wingless, often occurring in bramble thickets and hedges, found close to our new garden. The song is a brief, penetrating chip (see You Tube clip at, but a combination of the species occurring in numbers and the sound carrying well can make for an impressive chorus (Haes & Harding, 1997).

Roll on next summer!

Haes, E.C.M & Harding, P.T (1997) Atlas of grasshoppers, crickets and allied insects in Britain and Ireland. London: Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

Tilling, S.M. (1987) A key to the Major Groups of British Terrestrial Invertebrates. Preston Montford: FSC AIDGAP project.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

The last White Rock-rose

With my daughters recently back to school I was keen to get out and do some serious birdwatching and try and spot a few summer migrants on their way back to winter quarters. Berry Head seemed like a good option, a headland jutting out beyond Brixham at the extreme tip of the southern arm of Torbay. I was pleased to see so many resident pebble-chinking stonechats, but not much sign of migrants. A solitary Wheater flitted discretely on the steep slopes.

It did not take long before my eyes were heading downwards rather than to the skies – the abundance of late summer wild flowers caught most of my attention. Berry Head’s thin limestone soils mixed with salty air have created a special botanical habitat. The last blue flowers of Viper’s-bugloss (Echium vulgare) clung to the tips of arching flower branches ending their summer show, whilst the tiny blue lily flowers of Autumn Squill (Scilla autumnalis) were in their prime scattered widely on the cliffs. Sea specialist, Rock Samphire (Crithmum maritimum) was most abundant on less accessible rocky slopes providing late yellow warmth to the cliffs. However it was a nationally rare species that I was eager to find, the White Rock-rose (Helianthemum apenninum), a limestone specialist restricted to a few locations in the South West. It occurs on dry, rocky limestone grassland on south facing slopes (Countryside Trust, 2011), typical of montane Mediterranean habitats where is more commonly found. However the conditions provided by the Devonian limestone sea cliffs of Berry Head provide sufficient conditions for the White Rock-rose to prevail, although threats from scrub invasion, trampling and dog fouling put this at risk (Countryside Trust, 2011). In the UK it is at its northern European limit (Preston, 2007).

The White Rock-rose flowers between April & July (Rose, 2006), and so I was being rather optimistic to see it at its best. Just when I was giving up any hope of finding it, there was one last solitary flower already in decline having shed one of its petals. This contrasts with the small silvery downy leaves, strongly inrolled at their margins. Next year I will be visiting much earlier, perhaps to time in with the return of the summer migrants.

Countryside Trust (2011) [online]. [Accessed September 24th 2011]
Preston, C.D (2007) Which vascular plants are found at the northern or southern edges
of their European range in the British Isles? Watsonia (26): 253–269
Rose,F (2006) The Wild Flower Key – How to identify wild flowers trees and shrubs in Britain and Ireland. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Migrating south

Two harsh winters in a poorly heated woodland house would be enough to test most people’s resolve. Ice on the inside of the bedroom and puffed up like ‘Michelin’ marshmallows we held on each day for the allocated evening heating. My wife’s semi-Italian blood just found it too extreme, despite last Christmas’s present of an electric blanket. So with some regret about leaving the Pinfold’s peacefulness and woodland wildlife, I moved with my family over the summer from Nottinghamshire to Devon warmth. Of course it was not just the more amiable climate that pulled us South, but my desire to be part of a richer more stimulating landscape with greater biodiversity. Devon had always appealed to me with its mix of extensive coastline, moors and rivers.

We have moved to a cottage on the outskirts of Totnes within the wooded Gatcombe valley, with its rolling hills, high hedgebanks and gentle streams, views to Dartmoor and easy access to South Hams coastline. The wildlife experienced already has certainly not disappointed. An evening woodland walk was rewarded with a badger sighting. From our own home I was surprised by a darting Kingfisher slightly off track from its aquatic path. Three times I have seen a Sparrowhawk swooping through the cluster of cottages trying to take Sparrows by surprise. I even got a glimpse of a Peregrine soaring overhead as I painted a skylight, whilst the ever present buzzards glide by effortlessly, heralded by their mewing cries. Botanically the valley is rich in hedgebank & woodland plants and particularly noted for species of Crane’s-bill (see image of Long-stalked Crane’s-bill). Further afield I have treated myself to Cirl Buntings on the nearby coast and rock pool diving to see Blue-rayed Limpets and star ascidians amongst many marine species.
In recent weeks I have become aware of Nature’s more natural migration with swallows collecting on telegraph wires and family groups of House Martins’ collectively feeding on the roof of Butterwell Cottage. They too have to make decisions about climate and make the difficult journey south, whilst we hopefully will be enjoying our first comparatively warmer winter in our new cosy cottage.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Robin’s pincushion

A tip-off earlier this week had me stumbling around a local meadow hunting for an elusive Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera). This is a difficult botanical time of the year for hayfever sufferers. A warm June evening with a slight breeze is perfect for wind pollinated grasses to exude their zillions of sneeze-inducing dust granules. So with sandpapered eyes, streaming nose and rapidly numbing brain I wandered through thigh high Cock’s-foot, Sweet Vernal and False Oat grasses. No orchid for my pains, but I was attracted to a red tufty moss-like ball attached to a rose sapling. A dim memory flickered about parasitic growth but no more ID knowledge was forthcoming. Further on I came across many more of these and was struck by their weirdness. A few days later I was back in the meadow with an accomplice on the Bee Orchid trail, Mary, who was very quick to identify the rose associated curiosity as a Robin’s pincushion.

Its other name is Rose Bedeguar gall and the cause of this splendid manifestation, as stunning as any rose flower, is a gall wasp Diplolepsis rosae usually found on wild dog roses like in this case. It is actually fairly common and I have seen it before but without knowing that it was indeed a gall. In addition to the gall wasp there could be up to 14 different insect parasitoid species that live within the gall making up a broader community (Randolph, 2005). The gall has inevitably attracted interest over the ages, such as its use in medieval medicine for restricting blood flow and as a remedy to help sleep if placed under a pillow. Pity it has no use for hayfever sufferers. It is remarkable how nature has evolved to allow an insect to dupe a plant to alter its growth to create such a bizarre home. In contrast the Bee Orchid has turned the tables on the insect world, duping the bee into trying to copulate with its flowers and in doing so aiding the reproduction of the plant.

..and if you’re interested, I did find the Bee Orchid with a little help!

Randolph, S. (2005) The natural history of the Rose Bedeguar gall and its insect community. Sudbury: British Plant Gall Society.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Surprising Salad Burnet betters Blueberries

“It looks like disco-ball, smells like a cucumber and is a better antioxidant than blueberries”

I recently came across a Salad Burnet (Sanguisorba minor) plant and decided to take a closer look at this easy to miss herb. A member of the rose family it has characteristic globular heads that look red-purplish from a distance, like miniature botanical disco balls. But look closer and then closer still (you may need a x10 hand lens) and you will may notice that there are no petals and the striking colour is actually from feathery structures, the stigmas. These are the female flowers. The more subdued male flowers have long stamens replacing the colourful stigmas.

Salad Burnet leaves has long been used as an ingredient in salads, where their slightly bitter taste has a distinct cucumber aroma. Apparently Sir Francis bacon recommended it in the herb garden, whilst Napoleon enjoyed it whilst in exile on St Helena (Mabey, 2007). More recent scientific investigation has however found it to have potentially valuable health benefits. It has long been known that cardiovascular disease is low in Mediterranean areas where plant foods rich in antioxidants make up a considerable portion of the diet, often through the seasonal harvesting of wild plants. Did Napoleon just have a ‘gut’ feeling about this! My wife’s Father and family from the Italian deep south frequently collected wild herbs to supplement their diet, such as wild rocket and dandelion, often through necessity rather than choice. This has been backed up in some recent research by Vanzani, P., Rossetto, M. De Marco, V., et al. (2011), where wild Mediterranean plants used as traditional food were analysed for their antioxidant properties. They were compared against wild and cultivated chicory and blueberry, representing vegetables and fruit amongst the richest in antioxidants ( the “reference plants”) . They found that the antioxidant power of Salad Burnet was “remarkably higher than those of reference plants”.

Little did my wife’s Italian family know that driven by poverty they were forced into some healthy eating options. So maybe I should start selling Mediterranean medicinal herb bags as a cheap alternative to heart drugs and operations.

Mabey, R. (2007) Food for Free. London: HaperCollins
Vanzani, P., Rossetto, M. De Marco, V., et al. (2011) Wild Mediterranean Plants as Traditional Food: A Valuable Source of Antioxidants. Journal of Food Science, 76 (1): 46-51

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Cuckoo heralds great (Tit) success

Last year we were disappointed that our homemade nestbox was ignored by the many woodland tits that frequent the Pinfold garden. The box was certainly given the once over by a number of birds and a small amount of material taken in – but no, they were just teasing us! Had we put it too close to the busy birdtable? Was it too large inside? This year we observed the same nervous dilly-dallying of Great Tits (Parus major) around the entrance. I was tempted to rush out and push them in, yelling “you won’t get much better than this”, being proud of my DIY construction. However this year our patience seemed rewarded with a pair looking like they had settled down to nest in the box.

I dared not risk checking the box until I suspected the eggs had hatched with the adults taking live food in for the young. At this point the adults will rarely abandon the nest, and so when this started I felt it reasonable to have a quick peek. Triggered by my inspection the hungriest nestlings craned their scrawny necks up in the hope of food. However a week or so later I noticed a few flies around the nestbox and became anxious that the young had died. I had been concerned that the recent dry weather might have reduced the amount of caterpillars and other food, so that one or more would starve to death. On inspection I found one dead young, which I removed uncovering a bed of tiny fresh fly maggots. Interestingly the adults and other nestlings must have ignored their deceased relative and smelly decomposition. Apparently most garden birds, including tits, do not have well-developed sense of smell (Garden Birds, 2011) – just as well! Anecdotally from the internet it would appear that birds vary in how diligent they are at keeping their nest clean, but adults have been observed removing dead nestlings. Did it starve, or die of another ailment? I was worried that others might die from the same cause. I put more mealworms out on the table.

Fortunately, and with some relief a week later the nestbox was found empty and I assume all the remaining young fledged successfully. Later that same day towards dusk a Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) called from high in a nearby Ash tree. A recent arrival from Africa it was at the start of its reproductive campaign just as our Great Tits completed theirs. If our young tits survive the summer they will face the challenge of an increasingly unpredictable British winter, whilst any new cuckoos the long lonely journey to a distant warm land that they only know about through some marvel of genetic coding. By this winter my family will also have faced a great challenge, migrating to the warmth of Devon and a new life.

Garden Birds [Website accessed 26/5/11].

Thursday, 19 May 2011

There’s a bug in my bed!

There were a lot of stories last year about bed bugs (Cimex lectularius) infesting New York. These parasitic insects are however rarely seen, attacking their victims at night whilst asleep. However my wife was recently tidying one of our daughter’s beds, when she was rather shocked to find a rather larger dead bug under her pillow – a Cockchafer or Maybug (Melolontha melolontha). How it got there is quite a mystery and we are just grateful that our daughter did not find it, or she may never sleep there again (she still does not know). Her room is not called the ‘Den’ for nothing, and it certainly attracts a mixture of wildlife. I have been called to save her several times, including an invasion of gigantic slugs and spiders (so you would led to believe).

The ‘chafers’, characterised physically by the exposed tips of their abdomen are actually fairly harmful insects, both as adult and even more so as larvae, causing damage to trees and crops (Chinery, 1977). They also are known to have mass outbreaks every 30-40 years, creating even greater economic losses to a wide range of crops - This has prompted research into control methods, including trying to exploit the Cockchafers alcoholic tendencies – It would appear that the males are attracted to naturally occurring green alcohols from the leaves of tree leaves such as Beech and Oak (Reinecke, et al., 2002). However despite their voracious appetite and size (up to 35mm) they are quite harmless to us – it is just quite a shock when they crash into our human lives, drawn in by the lure of incandescent light.

Chinery, M (1977) A Field Guide to the Insects of Northern Britain. 2nd ed. Collins: London
Reinecke, A., Ruther, J., Tolasch, T., Francke, W. and Hilker, M. (2002) Alcoholism in cockchafers: orientation of male Melolontha melolontha towards green leaf alcohols. Naturwissenschaften, 89 (6):265-269

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Miss Barberry

I recently received an email alert from a local friend, Mary, informing that she had been out looking for some Barberry (Berberis vulgaris) – “it is amazing! A huge bush about 8 ft high. ... full of bright yellow hanging flowers. Don't miss it!”

Well if that isn’t a call to botanical action...! I noted from Mary’s description of the location that it should be on my running route. So putting on my trainers I headed out in some anticipation, and despite not wearing my glasses I was confident that it would be easy one to spot. Two circuits of the lane yielded nothing, as did another run past the next day having double checked the location. On the third attempt I found it – how did I miss it? I consider myself fairly observant and have an eye for new plants & flowers, which raises the question how many botanical wonders go unseen. The flowers are arranged in dropping spikes each characterised by five yellow perianth whorls (sepals & petals). Also of note are the three-pronged spines, sharply toothed leaves and elongated bright red fruits.

It turns out that Barberry is amazing in other ways. It has been an important source of material for herbal healing for over 2,500 years (Arayne, et al., 2007). Modern science has found over twenty alkaloids with medical importance from different parts of the plant, whilst homeopaths use it for kidney pain and removal of stones (Arayne, et al., 2007). The plant is mainly used nowadays for gallbladder ailments, but it has also been noted for its use as an antiseptic (bark & root), for jaundice, rheumatism (flowers & stem bark) and much more (PFAF) ....but sadly not the improvement of eyesight. Well at least I should have no trouble spotting the bright red berries.

Arayne, M.S, Sultana, N. and Bahadur, S.S (2007) The berberis story: Berberis vulgaris in therapeutics. Pak J Pharm Sci, 20(1):83-92.
Plants for a Future (PFAF) (

Friday, 29 April 2011

Bonky tit!

It’s been a difficult few weeks. Each day around dawn a fluttering and scratching begins against the bedroom window continuing throughout the day. The giant moth-like muted sounds are strangely able to pierce sleep and their irregularity ensures no sustained slumber. It all started over two weeks ago at a different window - The Magnolia branch outside the annexe building provided a convenient platform for a Blue Tit (Parus caeruleus) to seemingly launch an attack on its window reflection. At first we were amused and fascinated by the behaviour assuming that it was searching for spiders and other insects around the window frames. Friends staying in the annexe over following days were the first to suffer from the unwonted early alarm call, but we dismissed it as a passing ornithological whim. The pile of droppings beneath indicated a more zealous prolonged cause. What made it extend its attack on other fenestration foes can only be conjecture, but in the following days the kitchen and my bedroom windows fell under a sustained attack, reminiscent of scenes from Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’. Finally, and perhaps more understandable, the car side-mirrors were drawn into the illusory battleground of this tiny two-winged bandit. The cumulative sleep deprivation rapidly induced less lovable inclinations to the blue fluff-ball! I began to ponder what I would do if I could get it in my hands. You will be pleased to know that a calmer wife has since found a solution, by covering the window with an externally hanging towel and taking away the bird’s attack trigger.

Apparently the size of an ostrich brain is the size of a pea. So how big can a Blue Tit’s be? How amazing that this tiny accumulation of nervous tissue can trigger such exaggerated behaviour, with such dramatic consequences on my life. The RSPB website ( comments that “there is no apparent reason to what triggers an individual bird suddenly to start this behaviour, and it cannot be predicted how intense it will be and how long it will go on for.” Clearly we were at the start of the breeding season and I can only assume that this particular individual bird was shot with an unusual amount of hormones to fuel such a marathon assault.

Now I’m off for a nap!

Thursday, 14 April 2011

A Stitch ahead of time

What a contrast the woodland and hedgerow flora is compared to last year. In spring 2010 after a protracted winter, all the wild flowers seemed reluctant to get going, and botanists wondered if some species would ever arrive and chase away the snowdrops. This year with such a warm spring, everything seems to be racing ahead of time and I’ve been dashing about trying to catch things before they’ve been and gone. The starlight blooms of Wood Anemones' (Anemone nemorosa) (see image) and sunny displays of Colt’s-foot (Tussilago farfara) are more or less finished locally. In the news there have been stories of Bluebells in flower a good two weeks earlier than normal, mirrored by the first shimmer of a blue blaze in the Pinfold garden. However it was the sight this week of hedgerow bottoms turning creamy white with the early flush of Greater Stitchwort (Stellaria holostea) that for me confirmed the speed of spring this year (see image). This is about a month earlier than last year. There have been many reports that global warming is creating a trend in the UK for earlier springtime. Although we may welcome this ‘bonus’ warmth and sunshine, scientists are concerned about the long term impact on species and whether or not they can adapt quickly enough to such change. One example of the complexity that might arise is whether plant pollinators, such as insects, can adapt their timings (phenology or life-cycle) in parallel with each other. If one depends on the other or they have a mutual reliance, then getting out of ‘synch’ may result in their local decline or extinction. Hegland, et al (2009) found some evidence that the onset of flowering and first appearance of pollinators did occur in parallel as temperature increased, but stressed that other studies had shown some timing mismatches. As climate change really takes a hold we may well find that there are winners and losers in the British countryside, with those able to evolve faster than others.

Hegland, S.J., Nielsen, A., Lazaro, A., Bjerknes, A. and Totland, O. (2009) How does climate warming affect plant-pollinator interactions? Ecology Letters, 12 (2): 184-195

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Corpse flower almost pales into insignificance

We were walking in the Lakes last weekend near Ambleside and took a footpath leading up to Rydal Mount for the second time. This time I was more botanically focussed as we planned an easier stroll to compensate for the previous days strenuous mountain challenge of the ‘Fairfield round’. I noticed from some distance under some trees by a stream what initially looked like old dried bracken stems. But something encouraged me to go over and take a closer look. I was glad that I did, because it was indeed a collection of the parasitic Toothworts (Lathraea squamaria), closely related to the broomrapes. Quite the most ugly and beautiful plants I have seen, emerging from leaf litter like gigantic stout and anaemic caterpillars. I assume its name is derived from the white tooth-like leaves. It is less commonly known as Corpse Flower, maybe due to its deathly pallor or because in the past it was believed to feed off buried bodies – the latter is indeed not too far from the truth as it does tap the roots of their host plant, mainly Hazel and Elm (Rose, 2006), drawing off nutritious high sugar carbohydrates with pad –like suckers. The paleness is due to it having no chlorophyll as it has no need to photosynthesise.

Underground it would appear no less curious, with an extensive network of stems with white fleshy leaves, no longer light dependent – according to Studnika (1981) these much reduced leaves have cavities lined with enzyme-synthesising glands that they may use to repel or absorb small soil organisms - This physiological ability is similar to the mechanism of some carnivorous plants, but appears poorly understood. However Studnika (1981) goes on to suggest an alternative explanation, that “the main work of the glands is to eliminate surplus water....this is essential to enable the plant to absorb constantly new supplies of most plants water is evaporated from the stomata, but plants growing in a very damp atmosphere often eliminate water in drops by means of glands like the Toothwort.”

It would appear that this plant is worthy of further research.

Rose,F (2006) The Wild Flower Key – How to identify wild flowers trees and shrubs in Britain and Ireland. London: Penguin Books Ltd

Studnika, M (1981) The problem of carnivory in the Common Toothwort (Lathraea squamaria). Carnivorous Plant Newsletter []

Monday, 28 March 2011

Frogs hop into spring

It often surprises me how seemingly unfussy frogs are with their spawning grounds. I have seen them in road ditches in Scotland and even taking to an old ceramic toilet buried and filled in a previous garden of mine. On the corner of our village road is a rather sad, shallow pond – or more accurately a large muddy puddle choked with leaf detritus, rubbish and even occasionally the odd fridge. Earlier this month however, ‘Top Town Pond’, as it is called locally(1), was choked by something very different and far more welcome - by frogs making their annual frenzied return and all the more obvious in the few inches of water.

So what makes them choose what seems at face value to be a less than attractive location for their spring romance and productivity? The first evidence that I have noted is that there are always small fish present, even in the height of summer when you might expect this pond to dry out. According to locals the pond is fed by continually by a spring from the nearby Dumble, “a stream which has formed a deep wide channel in the clay that is quite out of proportion to the amount of water normally carried”(1). So although the pond more than halves in volume in hot weather, it never completely dries out making it a safe haven for tadpoles to complete their aquatic life cycle. Another factor is the age of the pond - Many amphibians are loyal to their birthplace, potentially using a number of sensory mechanisms to return each year, such as; odours of ponds, landmarks, the positions of sun, moon and stars, and the earth's magnetic field (2). This pond has certainly been there for a long term, and indeed perhaps its presence determined the location of the Pinfold itself as in times past it served to quench the thirst of stray cattle that would be temporarily placed there awaiting their owners to reclaim them(1). Of course the dramatic decline in ponds over recent decades has meant that our amphibians have had to become less fussy – why else would they use my old toilet!

The pond has now returned to relative calm whilst the clumps of abandoned jellied eggs slowly warm in the rising spring temperatures. In a few weeks however the shallow waters will be churning again to movement of black tadpole shoals overshadowing the resident minnows.

(1) The Westhorpe Dumble Heritage Trail (see (2) Sinsch, U. (1990) Migration and orientation in anuran amphibians. Ethology Ecology & Evolution, 2 (1): 65 - 79

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Blackcap warming to English winters

During a recent visit to my parents in Ledbury, Herefordshire, I was delighted to see the distinctive Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) frequently feeding from their birdtable. This warbler is probably the easiest to identify with distinctive skull caps, black in males and a chestnut brown in females. Like many other warblers, the Blackcap is a summer migrant to Britain. However since the 1960’s it has been increasingly seen staying over during the winter, particularly in southern England - I have never seen this species where I live in Nottinghamshire. Why have a growing proportion of Blackcaps decided not to migrate during the harsher winter conditions?

Migration clearly requires a high cost to the ‘traveller’, in terms of energy and ‘in-flight’ hazards. If the benefits of staying put over winter outweigh those of migration, you might predict that some would be tempted to stay. It would appear that the Blackcap with more eclectic tastes than other warblers more reliant on insects, has taken advantage of the growing bounty found on English birdtables. It has also been proposed that it is also a good example of how some wildlife is responding to climate change and warmer British winters, which might well lead eventually to complete residency as temperatures continue to rise (Pulido & Berthold). So, although many households welcome this addition to their gardens in winter, its increasing presence may also be a warning signal of continued climate change and less welcome impacts on other wildlife.

I guess it won’t be long before the Blackcap will start to turn up more frequently at birdtables in the Midlands and further North.

Pulido, F. and Berthold, P. (2010) Current selection for lower migratory activity will drive the evolution of residency in a migratory bird population. PNAS, 107 (16): 7341-7346

Thursday, 3 March 2011

This antisocial poisonous plant clone is not for sale

I took a stroll in our local woodland yesterday and was surprised to see how much had changed in a couple of weeks. Everywhere new green vegetation is pushing through as the snowdrops fade. Most notable are the Lord’s and Ladies (Arum maculatum) and Dog’s Mercury (Mercurialis perennis). Interestingly both of these species are reputed to be poisonous to animals, perhaps defending themselves as early emergers from the onslaught of grazing. However for Dog’s Mercury the evidence appears limited and contradictory. Watson (1998) describes suspected poisoning in cows, but such reports are rare and there are reports of animals happily grazing on the plants such as Muntjac deer. Interestingly it is also used in remedies for medicinal purposes, such as the ointment, ‘Wound-Care’, used to help accelerate wound healing (Weleda, 2009).

Dog’s Mercury is dioecious (=two forms) with clearly different male and female plants, in particular the floral parts (the plants in the image are male, showing catkin like spikes emerging from leaf axils - Rose, 2006). However this species expands mainly asexually by vegetative propagation, with rhizomes extending underground and sending up frequent aerial shoots. This produces large single sex clonal stands which appear to remain quite distinct, rather than mixing with adjacent ones (Wilson, 1968 – cited in Jefferson, 2008). Have a look and observe that most patches are distinctly male or female. Improved light conditions (such as canopy openings in woodlands) appear to favour male plants (Vandepitte, 2009b) which may exaggerate their separation from females.

Although it is a widespread and common plant in woods and shady places, its distribution appears to be limited by a strong affinity to ancient woods in Britain (Peterken & Game, 1981). There is also evidence of local declines through factors such as increasing deer browsing (Hall, et al. 2004), coppicing and other disturbance that opens up woodland canopies, bringing increased competition from other plant species. So with poor mobility and growing threats, it is probably declining gradually in parallel with the loss of older and precious ancient woodland (Grimes et al, 2007). So please look again at this apparent modest plant and see it as an indicator of the health and heritage of our woodlands which should not be put up for sale to the highest bidder.

Hall, J.E., Kirby, K.J & Whitbread, A.M. (revised 2004) National vegetation classification field guide to woodland. Joint Nature Conservation Committee.
Grime, J.P., Hodgson, J.G. & Hunt, R. (2007) Comparative Plant Ecology: A Functional Approach to Common British Species, 2nd ed. Colvend, UK: Castlepoint Press.
Jefferson, R.G. (2008) Biological flora of the British Isles: Mercurialis perennis L. Journal of Ecology, 96: 386-412
Peterken, G.F. and Game, M. (1981) Historical Factors Affecting the Distribution of Mercurialis perennis in Central Lincolnshire. Journal of Ecology, 69 (3): 781-796.
Rose,F (2006) The Wild Flower Key – How to identify wild flowers trees and shrubs in Britain and Ireland. London: Penguin Books Ltd
Vandepitte, K., Roldán-Ruiz, I., Leus, L., Jacquemyn, H. and Honnay, O. (2009b) Canopy closure shapes clonal diversity and fine-scale genetic structure in the dioecious understorey perennial Mercurialis perennis. Journal of Ecology, 97:404–414

Watson, P.J. (1998) Suspected dog’s mercury (Mercurialis perennis) poisoning in cattle. Veterinary Record, 142 (5): 116–117.
Wilson, J.F. (1968) The control of density in some woodland plants. PhD Thesis, University of Lancaster, Lancaster, UK.
Weleda (2009) Wound-Care [online]. [Accessed December 17th 2009]

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Wild foraging: Bitter-cress sandwich

I’ve been curious for some time about how realistic it is to integrate ‘wild’ foods into my diet and whether they can make a significant contribution. Firstly I should identify what I mean by a wild food. These are essentially plants or fungi that are not cultivated with the intention of consumption, but grow freely in the countryside or disperse into gardens.
So my plan is to pick one species at a time testing it out on myself first, possibly family & friends, and then report on ease of identification, how easy to find and palatability. I should stress that I will abide by the laws & codes of conduct of the countryside, ensure that I do not compromise the future local viability of the species, and avoid plants that may be contaminated by pollutants (agricultural & roadside). I am lucky that our current rented garden should keep me going for some time as it is fairly representative of the local countryside with woodland, hedgerow, open spaces and an area of cultivation.

So to my first plant subject - the easily overlooked Hairy Bitter-cress (Cardamine Hirsuta). This was an easy first choice as it grows fairly rampantly in the garden, particularly on the vegetable patch and on a steep bank. It is also available now in mid-winter, a real bonus with the scarcity of fresh salad plants. I have in the past weeded it out from the vegetable plots wastefully, not realising its dietary potential. On this occasion I pulled up a good sized plant (about 5 inches in diameter) already with tiny white flowers and a characteristic basal rosette of about 20 leaves. I can identify this species fairly easily having spent some time focussing on it last year. However it closely resembles Wavy Bitter-cress (C.flexuosa), the key difference being that it unusually for a crucifer (member of cabbage family) only has 4 stamens in the flower. I assume that the Wavy Bitter-cress is less palatable, as I could not find it recorded in wild food sources. The Hairy Bitter-cress had a distinctive peppery taste, stronger in flavour that normal cress and not too dissimilar to rocket. I ate it first with bread and cheese and the next day with beans on toast (also enjoyed by my wife). We found it perfectly acceptable and indeed a pleasant alternative/addition to the meals. I would certainly recommend it, saving on buying expensive bags of rocket or pots of cress.

Happy foraging.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Chaffinch killer conundrum

There are many threats to birds in winter. Most weeks recently I have seen at least one bullet-like Sparrowhawk chase zooming through the bird feeding area, occasionally getting lucky. The cold weather itself must take its toll, particularly on smaller birds. So I was curious when I found a dead chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) lying by the French windows, as to the cause of its demise. Initially I thought it had flown into the window, but the curtains were still drawn making that unlikely, as well as there being no tell-tale feathers or marks on the glass. Our cat had been out for an early morning stretch, but normally she carries back her prey to the front door and at least has a go at eating some of it. I picked it up to dispose of the bird, and noticed how badly affected the legs and feet were; grotesquely disfigured with extensive wart like growths. On one foot there was only one visible claw remaining, which made me wonder how it could perch and move about without significant inconvenience. Otherwise the bird seemed perfectly normal.

I have seen this before in Chaffinches, often seeing several affected individuals in the same area. The condition is commonly referred to descriptively as ‘fur foot’ or ‘bumblefoot’. According to the website similar deformities are often caused by the Fringilla papillomavirus (FPV), which as you can see by comparing the Latin name of the Chaffinch is associated with this bird and to a lesser extent the closely related Brambling (Fringilla montifringilla) with which they often mix. It is this flocking behaviour of these birds in winter that probably aids its dispersal to give high local infection rates. The condition is not too dissimilar to human warts, with excessive growth of skin. From some quick website research people frequently report seeing chaffinches behaving relatively normal despite varying degrees of such malformation. Indeed the link states that the condition can actually spontaneously disappear. However, it must put affected birds at some disadvantage and it is probably a wise precaution to reduce spread at concentrated feeding areas such as bird tables, by occasionally cleaning with mild disinfectant and moving their location (note to diary).

Returning to our crime scene by the French windows, we might surmise now that the Chaffinch was probably more likely the victim of our cat, rather than from a sudden death syndrome. Was ‘Purdey’ put off by the warty legs, or just too lazy to bring it to the door? Whether it was a cat attack or not, it is a useful reminder to refit Purdey’s collar with its warning bell!

Friday, 14 January 2011

Bullfinch not nettled by nettles

We are lucky to get occasional visits by bullfinches in our garden, with the stunningly coloured males. Indeed their Latin name Pyrrhula pyrrhula would appear to have its origins with the Greek word ‘pyrros’, meaning ‘the colour of fire’, which certainly is in keeping with the male Bullfinch’s flame coloured breast. Presumably this is where the word pyromaniac comes from.

Our bullfinches usually visit as a pair feeding on the buds and berries in the garden. However I have noticed them also occasionally feeding on nettle seeds. I always assumed with their largish beaks that they were better adapted to larger food items rather than small seeds. Indeed it is their propensity to eat the flower buds of fruit trees that has not always made them popular with gardeners and commercial fruit growers. According to Newton (1967) the key factor in determining what proportion buds were included in their diet was the size of the ash (Fraxinus excelsior) crop, such that when it was poor, the bullfinches resorted to buds much earlier causing greater damage. He did also emphasise that the seeds of the nettle (Urtica dioica) are important in their diet, along with those of Dog’s Mercury (Mercurialis perennis), Bramble, Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale agg) and Common Chickweed (Stellaria media). Breeding birds develop special pouches situated beneath their lower jaw which acts as a temporary storage chamber to collect food for their young (Newton, 1967).

According to some websites nettle seeds can provide humans with quite a medicinal punch to treat various ailments, concentrating ingredients found in the leaves. Whether this ‘flame-boyant’ bird gets such a kick, it is of course impossible to say, but they certainly seem to enjoy them. Maybe I should give them a try!

Newton, I. (1967) The Feeding Ecology of the Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula L.) in Southern England. Journal of Animal Ecology, 36(3):721-744