Meadow yellow

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

Friday, 29 March 2013

Town hall clock chimes with spring

Spine-tipped leaves of Moschatel

The many faces of the Town-hall Clock
Whilst the bitter winds this March have held back much of spring, some plants seem to have paid no heed to the cold. Many of these are woodland species that cannot afford to wait too long as they will suffer from closing leafy canopies cutting out much needed light. Walking this week through the local Penny’s Wood I was on the lookout for these early emergers and was drawn to a clump of Fumitory-like foliage carpeting an area at the base of a tree trunk. On closer inspection I noticed a few innocuous tiny yellowy-green flowers, but was still none the wiser as to their identity. At home I studied digital images I had taken using a macro lens and noticed tiny spines at the end of each leaf. However more curious was the arrangement of the flowers in cube-like formats at the end of long stalks with four side faces and one facing upward to ‘heaven’ - the unique feature of the plant, ‘Town-hall Clock’ (Adoxa moschatellina). It is perhaps therefore not surprising that this flower has been considered a symbol of Christian watchfulness (Martin, 1975). Now this is a plant that I have long wanted to see with its unusual flowers, but I had not foreseen that it would require a blown up image on a computer to recognise it. It is more commonly called Moschatel named after its musk-like smell - from the French moscatelle, from Italian moscatella, from moscato 'musk (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary). Other names include Five-faced Bishop and Muskroot.
Moschatel is one of a very small family of plants that are globally uncommon or rare (locally frequent to scarce throughout its U.K. range), and existing in small fragmented populations. It would seem that not a great deal is known about the ecology of this species. It flowers very early in the spring, but the foliage persists most of the summer so it is not considered a spring ephemeral. Holmes (2005) reports: that it is pollinated by a variety of day-flying and night-flying insects, none of which seem specialized for this species; flowering is sequenced for each cube flower unit, with staged openings of the top flower followed by opposite pairs, which might facilitate self-fertilisation. So this tiny flower remains very much a mystery and probably hidden from perception by all but those with an inquisitive botanical eye.  

Holmes, D.S. (2005) Sexual reproduction in British populations of Adoxa moschatellina L. Watsonia 25:265–273

Martin, W.K (1975) The Concise British Flora in Colour. Hong Kong: Ebury Press

Thursday, 21 March 2013

An earful of Waxwing

Flock of Waxwing roosting on the side of Devon Expressway

Whether you are a fanatical wildlife watcher or casual observer of nature around you, there are iconic animals and birds that capture everyone’s imaginations. Polar bears, puffins and pandas all come to mind. But as a boy I was drawn to the mystery of the Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus), a brightly coloured bird that sporadically irrupts into Britain on an Arctic chill; the polar opposite of the Hoopoe that butterflies in on the heat of a southerly breeze. But I saw neither of these as boy or young man. Eventually it took a trip to Easter Spain to be woken from a convent cell by the terracotta warmth of the Hoopoe.  Two decades later and under rather less enchanting circumstances I encountered my first Waxwing - I stood with Greg chilled between a ceramic industrial building and the roar of the Devon Expressway whilst an ‘earful’ of Waxwing teased us chattering through the February mist on the distant carriageway (hence the rather poor image!). The other collective nouns for Waxwing are more obscure, ‘museum’ and ‘grosbeak’.

Our rather sad looking specimens with much of their colorific splendour drained out by the enveloping greyness made occasional risky efforts to feed on the last abject rose hips on the central reservation. They are under better conditions very jazzy birds, featuring a punky hair-do, black eye mask and accessorised with red and bright yellow feathers. Their mystery lies in part to due to their occasional mass migrations (‘irruptions’) from Northern area such as Scandinavia in tens of thousands into mainly Eastern Britain. However the extreme cold weather this February would appear to have driven them further to the warmer West Country. Their apparent tameness means that they seem relatively unaffected by human activities and so they seem unabashed feasting in a Tesco’s car park, or in our case amongst heavy traffic. It was fantastic to get my first glimpse of these quirky birds, but I hope next time that I come to meet them at a more attractive feeding location and that I do not have to wait another half a lifetime.