Monday, July 30, 2012

Summer in the City: Where the Wild Things Are....

Botanically, there are two sides to a city. There's the carefully manicured, redeveloped part that has been purged of any plants that are out of place - and that doesn't get much more sterile than the one above, which is Northumbria University's campus. The only living greenery in this canyon of glass, stainless steel and concrete is the row of lollipop hornbeam trees on the right, with their foliage clipped into a neat cube. The green circles are astroturf (although I did notice that a plucky real fern was just beginning to grow around the edge of one - it won't last long).

For the other botanical face of a city, you need to venture just a few streets away from the centre, where the wild things are.

There you'll find the Buddleia davidii in full flower in late July, adding beauty to old walls.

The flower heads are magnificent this year, perhaps because the shortage of water that usually kicks in in late spring in cities just didn't materialise. All that rain kept the wild flowers growing and flowering ....

 ......but there are no butterflies to enjoy the Buddleia flowers yet.

This is lady's bedstraw, blooming alongside ripening brambles in one  of the less manicured parts of Newcastle. Who knows how this plant, that's usually associated with dry haymeadows, came to be here. Brought in with fodder with horses maybe, before the age of the automobile, and hanging on ever since? Maybe a relict of the distant days when all this was open fields? We'll never know, but it's a welcome reminder of the countryside in the heart of a city.

Pure white trumpets of bindweed clambering through an old, broken down fence. Its brittle underground rhizomes are moved from place to place when soil and rubble is shifted.

Drifts of hawkweed, rose bay willowherb and wild parsnip in an old flower bed that's no longer maintained - maybe one of the less unpleasant consequences of public spending cuts?

Scentless mayweed, a cornfield weed, growing alongside a security fence around a construction site.

Drifts of melilot, growing on a rubble-strewn ex-industrial site. The plant has a powerful aroma of new-mown hay and you can smell it from some distance on a warm day.

A double-flowered opium poppy, a refugee from a long-vanished garden, growing on rubble.

By next year this bank of rubble will be bulldozed away, when this site is redeveloped, but for now it's home to corn poppies, oriental poppies and dyer's rocket .... and a host of other wild plants.

A lot of wild oats are sown in the centre of Newcastle on Friday nights, these were thriving in a neglected flower bed.

Rose bay willow herb on the edge of the Shieldfield industrial estate, five minutes walk from the university campus in the picture at the top of this post.

Ragwort amongst the broken bricks.

Tansy, which has a powerful aroma when it's crushed......

....... with tall stems threaded through a wire fence.

Yellow toadflax growing between a link fence and the pavement.

Wild parsnip puts down roots wherever derelict land provides a temporary opportunity ....

.... to display its tall flower stems .....

... that brighten up even the most brutal urban architecture.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Industrial Archaeology ... and Medical Archaeology too?

Just north of Blanchland in Northumberland there is a road and then a footpath that leads out over moorland towards Slaley, that passes through a little valley where you can find this impressive ruin. It's the engine house that housed the machinery for pumping water out of the lead mines and was built 200 years ago. In its heyday 170 people lived and worked in this valley, extracting minerals underground in work that was back-breaking, debilitating and dangerous. You can read all about the history of this place - and find some fascinating insights into the lives of the people who lived and worked there, by clicking here

The engine house site has recently been cleared of the tangle of vegetation that threatened to engulf it and has been stabilised, so you can have a look at the site. The disturbance has led to the germination of some interesting plants that would have been familiar to the people who once lived and worked here. There are some exceptionally fine specimens of common mullein or Aaron's rod, Verbascum thapsus, that often thrives in disturbed ground. 

The plant produces a few new flowers each day along its long flower spike, so blooming continues for a long time ....

.... and produces a constant supply of pollen for bumblebees over a prolonged period. It's easy to spot these visitors because their pollen baskets are always full of orange pollen.

Mullein is a biennial and produces a beautiful rosette of densely hairy leaves in the first year, that look particularly fine when they are covered with dew on sunny autumn mornings, then in the second year the flower spike elongates. The dense hairs were once shaved from the leaves, dried and used for making lamp wicks and tinder that ignited easily with the slightest spark. A mucilaginous extract of the leaves, boiled in milk, produced a medicine that that was used to treat coughs and it's tempting to think that those who worked in the constantly damp conditions underground here might well have used these plants for that purpose.

Mullein produces vast numbers of seeds but as Sir Edward Salisbury, former Director of Kew Gardens and author of the classic Weeds and Aliens discovered, most fall within about 12 feet of the plant and so it tends to occur in locally dense, self-seeded patches - as it has at this location.

According to C. Pierpoint Johnson in his treatise on The Useful Plants of Great Britain, published in 1863, the tiny seeds "are said to intoxicate fish when thrown into the water, and are used by the poachers for this purpose".

This musk mallow Malva moschata, growing in amongst the mulleins, is also a mucilaginous plant whose extracts were used as an emollient to treat pulmonary complaints.

It's tempting to speculate that this local concentration of plants with medicinal properties is not here by chance, but might have been used by the local miners when they were the amongst the few treatments for their ailments that were available to them. Maybe they are survivors from gardens of houses that have long since vanished .....

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Drinks,sunbathing,drinks,sunbathing - nice work if you can get it ...

One of the wonders of blogging is that every now and then someone publishes a post that's totally inspirational - and that's the only way to describe this item on bee behaviour, posted by Africa Gomez on her Bugblog.

I've spent a lot of time recently just sitting in the sun (at last) and watching the insects in the garden, and Africa's description of leafcutter bee behaviour - bouts of foraging, interspersed with settling in sunny exposed places for a bit of grooming - perfectly describes this individual, that seems to have taken ownership of a large meadow crane'sbill plant that's growing in our garden.

It has a distinctive technique for reaching the nectaries at the base of the petals, by clasping the central column of stamens with its legs. Meadow crane'sbill flowers go through a well-defined developmental sequence when they open. First the stamens mature and release pollen, as they are in the flower above ....

... then they bend outwards and the tip of the stigma, on its long style, splits into this five-lobbed 'grappling hook' conformation, reading to receive pollen from incoming bees. This visitor must have been doing a very efficient pollination job with its constant visits.

In between its bouts of activity it took time out for some grooming and sunbathing on an old black dustbin that we use as a temporary water butt, that also probably acts as a fine absorber and radiator of heat, and for most of the day is probably the warmest object in the garden.

Incidentally, check out Africa's wonderful photos of leaf cutter bees cutting out leaf sections and carrying them away. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Money Tree

A few years ago, when we were following the Ingleton Waterfalls footpath, we came across the famous money tree, where passers-by have hammered coins into the trunk. Earlier this month, when we were following the footpath from Clapham towards Ingleborough we saw this one, where coins had been hammered into a tree stump and into the branches of an old living yew tree.

The coins in the stump (above) all radiate out from the centre, which says something about the anatomy of tree trunks. Radiating bands of living cells called medullary rays run outwards from the centre towards the bark, at right angles the vertical rows of thick woody cells that form the annual rings in the trunk, and when the tree dies the thin-walled living cells become lines of weakness and often form radiating splits. It's much easier to force coins into these than to hammer them into the tough woody woody tissue of the annual rings in between, so the coin hammers have unwittingly revealed the pattern of living cells that existed inside the trunk when it was alive.

These are coins forced into the think bark of the branch of the living yew. 

I've seen suggestions that hammering coins into trees like this is supposed to bring good luck (not for the tree, though!). I wonder when this started, and how many more trees like this there are around the country? Does anybody have any information?

Thursday, July 19, 2012


According to the meteorologists summer will be here soon - two months overdue but better late than never - and it will arrive just in time for harebells to look their best.

These are very variable plants. Some, growing in poor soil or even in crevices in walls, can be short and wiry. Others, growing in longer grass on more fertile soils, can be two feet tall and much more robust and it's the latter that look so exquisite growing amongst grass inflorescences in summer, bending and swaying in the waves that the wind creates as it blows across a sea of grasses. 

These pictures were taken at Ryton Willows local nature reserve near Newburn, on the western edge of Newcastle, on a blustery day

Harebell flowers have quite a complicated pollination mechanism that ensures cross pollination. You can find pictures and explanations here.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Bee Magnet

Monk'shood Aconitum napellus is an uncommon British native wild flower whose natural distribution is confined to south-east England, but it makes an excellent plant for the herbaceous border anywhere - provided you bear in mind that it is very poisonous. You can read about the horrific symptoms of monk'shood poisoning, as described by by herbalist John Gerard in 1597, by clicking here

The plant is an absolute magnet for bumblebees and depends on them for pollination, and the strange hooded flowers have evolved to give them exclusive access to the nectar supply.

The nectaries are located up inside that hood petal in the flower, so when the bee arrives ...

...... it has to crawl into the narrow entrance and then climb high up inside the flower to reach the nectaries, becoming dusted with pollen from the stamens clustered near the entrance. When the bees are visiting the flower they disappear entirely inside, then have to back out  when they leave - there's no room inside to turn around.

When they leave the flower their tongues are still extended from straining to reach the nectar deep in the flower .....

.... and it's only long-tongued bees that can exploit it. You can see the bee's tongue here, still extended and curved under the insect's thorax.

Bumblebees don't seem to be able to tell whether the flowers have already been visited and drained of their nectar, because when I was watching this afternoon I saw the same flowers visited on numerous occasions in quick succession......... something that's obviously very beneficial to the plant but involves the bees in a lot of effort and wear and tear during fruitless visits.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Ryton Willows Pond

Ryton Willows is a small local nature reserve on the edge of the river Tyne, on the western edge of Newcastle, with some woodland, extensive areas of grassland, gorse and very fine ponds that are SSSIs. They're also good feeding and breeding habitat for water fowl.

Like many urban fringe reserves it has its share of vandalism problems and three years ago the family of swans and cygnets that nested there were slaughtered in a barbaric air gun attack.  This year's swans seem to be doing well and have raised two cygnets ...........

....... that are currently being taught life skills by the parent birds.

While we watched the female swam  swam over to the bank, pulled out beak-fulls of vegetation and dropped it into the water in front of the cygnets, presumably introducing them to the concept of grazing.

Across the pond this demanding moorhen fledgling was giving the parent bird no rest and ...........

..... neither were two dabchick chicks, who converged on their mother every time she surfaced from a dive with food.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Toad Spotting

A couple of weeks ago we watched this toad swimming across the Leeds-Liverpool canal near Gargrave. Strange how much spottier its body looks below the water surface......

More toad pictures here.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Wildlife on Walls: 9. Biting Stonecrop

Succulent leaves are common in drought-tolerant plants from arid environments but they are not a feature of many plants that are native to Britain's cool, wet summers. This plant, biting stonecrop Sedum acre is an exception. Its small but fleshy, water-retentive leaves allow it to survive long periods of drought on wall tops, roofs, gravel and sand. It also regenerates very easily from small pieces of stem or even from single leaves, so can spread quite quickly once it has established itself. 

It probably gets some of its water from nocturnal dew formation during long, dry periods (remember those?) and as long ago as 1776 the botanist and doctor William Withering speculated that this is how it obtained water. "This plant continues to grow when hung up by the root," he wrote, "which is proof that it receives its nourishment principally from the air, as is the case with most of the succulent plants".

Withering recommended its use in medicine, with some reservations, noting that " It is very acrid. Applied externally it blisters. Taken inwardly it excites vomiting. In scorbutic cases and quartan Agues it is an excellent medicine under proper management."

The acrid, peppery taste is where the 'biting' part of the common name comes from and in Withering's day it was known as pepper stonecrop. 

Biting stonecrop produces a very fine display of starry yellow flowers that are popular with bees and you can cultivate the plant on almost any hard surface where a little dusty humus accumulates. The plant below was growing on bare, rusty metal in the angle of a bridge support and the bottom image shows the plant on a harbour wall in Sunderland.