Friday, February 19, 2016

Professor Small's Book of Tiny Wonders

When I went to university to read for a degree in botany, almost 46 years ago, there were only three pieces of equipment that I had to take with me:

  • A white lab coat (bequeathed from my grandfather who was a dairyman and wore one for his daily work)
  • A dissecting kit with a cut-throat razor for cutting sections of plants
  • A hand lens, because a botany degree in those days involved a lot of field work

What reminded me of all this was this little book - Pocket-Lens Plant Lore by James Small, published in 1931, that I bought a few years ago for 50p. in a second-hand book shop. 

The author, appropriately named for someone who was writing about tiny objects, was Professor of Botany at Queen's University Belfast and seems to have written the book for his children, because the dedication reads:

To Sheila and Donn,
two small children who wanted to 

It's a charming little book that, month-by-month, uses a hand lens to explore the features of 192 different plant species, including their buds, leaves, flowers and seeds.

There are pages of small illustrations for plants that are in season, showing details of their external features and internal structure that's visible in sections of stems.

This is a page for February, showing groundsel, white willow, oak, privet, elm, birch and laurel. For every species there is a page of description for the features you can expect to see with a hand lens.

Methods were simple, needing just a hand lens, a pair of self-closing forceps and a razor blade ....

... all of which I had lying around, so I took the book for a test-drive using lungwort Pulmonaria officinalis, which was flowering in the garden today.

Here's Small's drawing of the features to look out for and....

... here is the accompanying page of description

Sure enough, the two kinds of hairs on the flower stalk that he mentioned were there: stiff pointed ones on a pediment, that make the plant feel bristly, and shorter ones tipped with a gland that produces a slightly sticky secretion.

And here are the hairs in the corolla tube that he talks about. It may be that they help to deter small nectar thieves like ants, because ....

... here is the flower with the corolla removed, as he advises. That square of yellowish tissue is made up of the nectaries. 

Inside, at the base of the stigma and style, the four 'eggs' are the ovaries containing the ovules that will eventually become four black seeds, in an arrangement that is typical of the Boraginaceae, the family to which lungwort belongs.

What I really like about this book is that it's aimed at satisfying the natural curiosity that all children are born with.

I'm planning to produce an updated photographic version for my own grandchildren. 

Sunday, February 7, 2016

More tree silhouettes in winter

Graceful silver birches Betula pendula

Sweet chestnut Castanea sativa

Hawthorn Crataegus monogyna. A tough, impenetrable tangle of branches, often with a twisted, fluted trunk when it is given time and space to grow into a tree.

Common lime Tilia europaea. Often has burrs at the roots with a mass of twigs, which have been trimmed in this specimen.

The mass of twigs growing from the burrs at the base of an untrimmed common lime

Beech Fagus sylvatica. Slender twigs with pointed buds.

Elder Sambucus nigra usually grows as a large hedgerow shrub that'sseverely cut back annually and only has a short life span but if it's left alone and given space it will grow into a small, densely-branched tree like this. Old elders have deeply fissured corky bark and twigs covered in yellow Xanthoria parietina lichen.

For more on winter tree silhouettes click here

Friday, February 5, 2016

Bishop Auckland's magnificent Spanish chestnuts

Some more pictures of the wonderful Spanish chestnuts Castanea sativa in Auckland Park, Bishop Auckland, County Durham that were described in the Guardian Country Diary yesterday.

Not dead yet! Still has living branches that will sprout leaves in spring.

There's a small bird-sown holly tree growing amongst the branches of this one.

The largest bole of a venerable but healthy tree. Spanish chestnuts can live for 400 years.

Winter buds

Flowers and foliage.

Shiny, edible seeds with spiny husks.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Tree silhouettes in winter

Every autumn, as the last leaf falls, I've had good intentions of recording a set of images of the characteristic silhouettes of different tree species in winter. They are all distinctive and beautiful in their various ways.

This winter I finally made a start but I hadn't bargained on how difficult it would be to find good isolated examples of trees silhouetted again a clear sky background, so progress has been slow. Anyway, here are a few, that I hope to add to before bud burst begins in a few weeks' time.  

Sycamore Acer pseudoplatanus. Only the tree on the left has had enough space to develop symmetrical growth; the two on the right have got in each other's way.

Horse chestnut Aesculus hippocastanum. Those almost horizontal heavy lower limbs are characteristic; in the rare absence of grazing animals they'll sweep almost down to the ground and are usually the first to be shed from old trees in gales.

Ash Fraxinus excelsior. The upward sweep of the rather thick twigs is characteristic.

Durmast oak Quercus petraea