Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Fog on the Tyne

Thursday's Guardian Country Diary is about a sudden change in the weather in Tynemouth.

We were visiting for a walk along the north bank of the river Tyne to North Shields, destination the Waterfront for their outstanding fish and chips, with the added incentive of a bit of botanising on the way. The headland at Tynemouth is a popular place for birders - and it also has some interesting plants, including this....

........... black horehound Ballota nigra

....... some very attractive field bindweed Convolvulus arvensis

...... and restharrow Ononis repens

This kestrel, looking a little worse-for-wear with missing wing and tail feathers, was hovering above us on the slopes of the headland below Tynemouth Priory. As we watched it there was an incredibly sudden change in the weather, as the wind direction shifted and a sea fret blew inshore, blanketing the mouth of the Tyne, the headland and the kestrel in fog that reduced visibility to just a few metres, where just a minute or two before we had been in bright sunshine. Even kestrels can't hunt in such conditions.

I grew up on the coast and spent much of my youth messing about in boats, so I was well aware of how fast conditions can change on the coast but this sudden fog was astonishing.

We'd watched the Tyne Pilot head out of the river in bright sunshine to meet an incoming vessel, the ferry City of Barcelona, but she had disappeared into the fog. We could hear her engines and foghorn as she ghosted past us and then, about fifteen minutes after the fog closed in ....

...... the wind direction changed and visibility improved, so the  ferry loomed up out of the fog just as she approached North Shields fish quay. Within another five minutes the sea fret had blown away, dazzling sunshine returned and the kestrel was hunting again.

Monday, July 28, 2014

White poppy

I found this white corn poppy Papaver rhoeas on the edge of a barley field near Egglestone in Teesdale last week. It's undoubtedly a genetic mutation that has prevented scarlet pigment formation in the petals but, oddly, not in the stamen filaments.

It was a similar mutation, that produced pale petal edges, found by Reverend William Wilks near his rectory garden at Shirley near Croydon in 1880, that led to his breeding of the famous Shirley poppies - a strain that's still on sale in garden centres.

Scarlet corn poppies have become a symbol of remembrance of the sacrifice and senseless slaughter in wars since the end of World War 1. White poppies were adopted  by the pacifist movement, in remembrance of the dead and as part of the No More Wars movement, in the 1920s, as a symbol of peace

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Fern spore prints

If you've ever made a spore print of a toadstool, then you might like to try making a similar one for a fern. This is one I made last night, from a piece of a Dryopteris fern growing in our garden.

All you need to do is to find a fern frond with sporangia ripening on its undersurface, like the one below.

This one is a little too young - you need to find one where the little grey, kidney-shaped cover (called indusium) over the sporangia has begun to shrivel and split and you can seen the dark sporangia around the edge. A magnifying glass is helpful for this.

Then all you need to do is to leave the frond, sporangia-side downwards, on a sheet of white paper overnight, preferably in a room with no draughts. Overnight the sporangia will catapult their spores out, leaving an impression of the frond as they settle.

The best thing to do with the spore print is to photograph it - it smudges of you try to make it permanent with an aerosol fixative.

Or you could sow the spores, which will germinate to produce hundreds of new ferns - click here to see how this happens. I find the best substrate to sow them on is a piece of rotten wood that has been boiled in water to sterilise it. When it's cool sprinkle the spores on the surface of the wet wood and keep it permanently moist - a green film of germinating spores will appear over the surface and eventually produce ferns.

Take care not to breath in the spores, which are as fine as dust and can be an irritant.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014


Some members of the dead-nettle family (Lamiaceae):

White dead-nettle Lamium album, a favourite plant of bumblebees

Red dead-nettle Lamium purpureum, flowers all year-round

Ground ivy Glechoma hederaceae, in damp grassy places, often on the edge of woodlands

Bugle Ajuga reptans grows in woodland and damp meadows

Self-heal Prunella vulgaris, in short grass and waste places

Henbit deadnettle Lamium amplexicaule, grows in disturbed ground e.g. edges of arable fields


Marsh woundwort Stachys palustris, in ditches and wet soils, hybridises with hedge woundwort (below)


Hedge woundwort Stachys sylvatica, common in shady hedgerows and woodland edges. Unpleasant pungent smell when crushed.

Wood sage Teucrium scorodonia, woodland edges, especially on acid soils

Black horehound Ballota nigra, hedgerows, stiff hairs make it rough to the touch, very pungent when crushed

Common hemp nettle Galeopsis tetrahit, often on arable land and usually with flowers tinged pink; this white-flowered form is a weed in my garden

Betony Betonica officinalis, often in grassland beside roads and footpaths

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Leaf-cutter bee contortions

The leaf-cutter bees in our garden find the bell-shaped flowers of Symphyandra pendula irresistible.

 As you can see from this image these very active little bees collect pollen on the underside of their abdomen and it's interesting to watch how they harvest it.

When they arrive they enter right way up and walk up into the bell along the central column of the flower but at some point, when they are out of view, they flip upside down.

This means that as they back out of the flower they pick up pollen on their abdomen as its brushed off from the central column of stamens in the flower. 

Interesting to watch how the bees adapt to different flower architectures. The same bees are currently visiting the open bowl-shaped flowers of meadow cranesbill. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Purple hairstreak

When I was out walking near Durham city with Allan Watson and Steve Ansdell this lunchtime Allan spotted a butterfly in the grass under an oak tree on the edge of some woodland, which turned out to be this exquisite male purple hairstreak.

You rarely see purple hairstreaks on the ground because they spend most of their lives in or around the crowns of oaks, so you need binoculars to watch them. This was an exceptionally lucky encounter. I suspect that it had just hatched from a pupa - it certainly looks in mint condition. Purple hairstreak caterpillars feed on oak foliage but they pupate underground in ants' nests, which is where this one would have emerged from.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Grass of Parnassus

Thursday's Guardian Country Diary is an account of a walk along the river Nent, between Alston and Blagill in Cumbria, taking in some lovely hay meadows and also a rather special wild flower.

This attractive little bridge is at the Alston end of the walk, where the river ......

... drops over this low waterfall. Downstream it flows into the South Tyne.

The first part of the walk leads over these high pastures towards Blagill. This is curlew and oystercatcher country in summer and their calls followed us all the way.

The return leg of the walk drops down from Blagill to a footpath that follows the southern bank of the river, through some wonderful hay meadows that had many more spotted orchids in flower than we could possibly count. The patch of purple you can see in the picture above, just below the centre, is ....

........ melancholy thistle, once thought to be a herbal cure for said affliction. Finding it thriving in damp hollows in the meadow certainly lifted our spirits because this characteristic hay meadow species is declining in many of its North Pennine strongholds, although there's still plenty of it along the uncultivated road verges that are themselves remnants of meadows. It's a thistle that has no prickles and the undersides of the leaves are almost pure white, thanks to a dense covering of fine hairs. The flower heads are as big as shaving brishes (for those who can remember using these implements).

The wet gulleys that run down the escarpment in the haymeadow were full of ragged robin ....

.... looking suitably ragged in the blustery wind. 

Downstream from the meadows there were .....

.... mountain pansies still  in flower .....

.... in several colour forms, but the plant we'd really come to see was .....

...... grass of Parnassus, which isn't related to grasses at all but usually grows amongst them. It looked like we were too early - the flower buds, like little pearls, were still clasped in their sepals ...... 

...... but eventually we found just one in bloom ......

...... allowing us to examine its most unusual feature. It produces nectar to reward visiting pollinators but it first catches their attention with false nectaries - they're the yellowy-green finger like projections with droplet-like spheres at their tips that you can see between the stamens and the petals.

The other notable feature of grass of Parnassus is that it is the county flower of Cumbria, featuring on the county's coat-of-arms.