Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Living fossils

I found these strange, spore-producing shoots of field horsetail Equisetum arvense on a grassy bank near Durham city this afternoon. Known as the 'devil’s guts' to gardeners, on account of its devilish creeping underground rhizomes and resistance to herbicides that together make it almost impossible to eradicate, it produces this yellowish spore stalk first and green shoots only after these have shed their spores and withered away. Field horsetail grows to a height of around 30cm., but back in the Carboniferous, about 300 million years ago, plants that were 10 metres tall but otherwise identical flourished in steamy primaeval swarms. Like present-day horsetails, these gigantic ancestors’ stems were rich in silica and so were slow to decay, leaving excellent fossils whose basic features are almost identical to those of their present-day descendants. When I tapped the sporangia pictured here they release clouds of spores that drifted away on the wind......and if you want to see what these remarkable spores look like visit this post on my other blog, Beyond The Human Eye

Monday, March 30, 2009

Disaster averted

I discovered this gardener’s nightmare when I searched behind the greenhouse for some modular seed tray inserts, ready for sowing this season’s vegetable crop. Every cell in the inserts was crammed full of hibernating snails of every size, from infants to grandparents. In a few weeks' time these would have ravaged the very seedlings that I was about to germinate, then would have set about mating and laying eggs for the next generation of snails. Now they’ve all been transported to a local copse, to begin a new life where they belong – in the wild, away from my seedlings. So, if you’re a gardener, here’s how to conduct an early season pre-emptive strike against the snail menace: leave some old seed tray inserts (they seem to favour the 24 cells per tray size) in likely snail hibernation sites, then check them in March for sleeping snails. It could help to avoid a lot of disappointment later in the spring, after you plant out your seedlings.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Winter's last flurry?

Down on the valley bottom in Weardale there are lambs and primroses. Up on the fell tops in upper Weardale it snowed last night and the slopes of Burnhope Seat are white again. Winter isn't surrendering without a struggle.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

In with the new

Larch tree buds are beginning to burst in Teesdale and the pink precursors of this year's cones are appearing alongside last year's weathered examples.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

A carnivorous toadstool

I found this specimen of oyster mushroom Pleurotus ostreatus in Hollingside Woods in Durham yesterday. Its microscopic hyphal threads, that digest the dead wood that it grows on, exude an anaethetic that paralyses minute nematode worms that also live in the dead wood, allowing the hyphae to invade and digest the stupified nematodes. An exquisite fungus, with gills like fan vaulting in a cathedral roof.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Meanwhile, up on the fell tops in Weardale

Westgate, in Weardale, on a day of sunshine and showers. Spring arrives a month later here than down on the Durham coast.

Spring coughs into life

A chill wind, but not enough to stop colt'sfoot Tussilago farfara blooming at the first hint of sunshine. Its scientific name comes from tussus, a cough, a reference to the use of its mucilaginous sap in herbal cough cures. Its timely reappearance in spring must once have been a welcome relief for sufferers.