22 December 2009

Winter wonders

A short gallery of some of the things that are going on in the woods this winter showing there is still much to see

First, three plants that have appeared among the wood chip where a dense stand of Christmas trees, Norway spruce, was cleared in the autumn.

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Young rosettes of heath groundsel (Senecio sylvaticus).

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A broad bean or field bean (Vicia faba) seedling.

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Fat hen (Chenopodium album) seedling.

The lying snow over the last few days has altered the landscape. Particularly telling in the Saturday sunshine were the silver birches in another area from which conifers have been recently removed.

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Rather more visceral is the fungus jelly drops or purple jelly disc (Ascocoryne sarcoides) found growing on a long-dead fallen tree trunk. The orange bracket in the background is hairy stereum (Stereum hirsutum)

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3 November 2009

November surprises

On a very wet afternoon a friend and I walked around the recently cleared parts of Sedlescombe Heath south of the Wood Yard Entrance.

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There is now a rich assortment of fungi along the rides and a particularly attractive find was a few dotted-stemmed bolete (Boletus erythropus) along the ride through Great Brook Wood.  Kew's checklist of British basidiomycota says it is usually associated with oaks, but known with other deciduous trees such as birch, sweet chestnut and beech and occasionally with conifers such as Scot's pine.  This very much fits the bill for the place where they were found.

We walked back by the plot south of the orchard cleared in August/September of a dense stand of Norway spruce.  It was very gratifying to see many seedlings of heath groundsel (Senecio sylvestris) and sheep's sorrel (Rumex acetosella) making a good showing on the bare ground.  We wondered if the seed had been there for years, or if it had blown in since the clearance.  The former I suspect.

26 September 2009

Symphony in yellow

The Indian summer is pervading the high woods with a shimmering golden glow.  Many trees are now starting to change colour as the prickly chestnut husks swell with shiny brown fruit inside.  Heather and dwarf gorse are still in bloom, though rapidly going over, and the June green of the male ferns has turned to soft yellow.

Today we walked the woods with a group from the Sussex Ornithological Society, here admiring a small group of crossbills.

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Crossbills feed on pine seeds and, although the Woodland Trust's policy for this and other woodlands in the area is to move away from conifer plantations towards more natural broad-leaved trees, sufficient numbers of conifers will be left in the interests of those species that depend on them.

As well as birds, some late butterflies were enjoying the autumn sunshine.  We saw several whites, a speckled wood, a red admiral, a peacock and a small copper.  Best of all was a fine, fresh male (probably home-bred) clouded yellow (Colias croceus) in Holman Wood Field.

20090926 BHW Clouded Yellow

10 August 2009

Summer treats

On sunny days there is much to be seen along the rides and glades within the woodland.

Where the grass is very short and the ground sandy there are often small colonies of lesser centaury (Centaurium pulchellum) with deep pink flowers in contrast to its larger sister, common centaury (also widespread in the woods). 

20090810 BHW Centaurium pulchellum

The word 'centaury' (often wrongly pronounced 'century') relates to its having been used, in Classical Greece, by Chiron, a centaur, to heal one of his wounds.

All the centauries are powerful plants.  One source says "this herbe hath a marvellous virtue, for if it be joined with the blood of a female lapwing, or black plover, and put with oile in a lamp, all that compass it about shall believe themselves to be witches, so that one shall believe of another that his head is in heaven and his feete on earth; and if the aforesaid thynge be put in the fire when the starres shine it shall appeare that the starres runne one agaynste another and fyghte."

Good job lapwings are protected birds!

Along some of the damper rides and acid grasslands the large common bog hoverfly (Sericomyia silentis) can often be seen on flowers or resting on leaves.

20090810 BHW Sericomyia silentis

Opening up the rides is already delivering some excellent results.  The patches of fleabane are alive with butterflies, particularly gatekeepers but there are also plenty of meadow browns and common blues (Polyommatus icarus) like the bluish form of the female (below).

20090810 BHW Common blue & fleabane

In a few places there are colonies of bell heather (Erica cinerea) out slightly in advance of ordinary heather (Calluna vulgaris).  This has been rather scarce in the woods but now seems to be increasing, again as a result of more favourable conditions and better light levels.

20090810 BHW Erica cinerea

30 July 2009

Summer butterflies

The woods are perhaps at their best now for summer butterflies.  On a walk yesterday we saw many different species. 

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Perhaps the commonest was the hedge brown or gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus) easily recognisable by its bright orange-brown patches and double-pupilled eye spots.  The picture above is of a male with the dark brown scent mark streaking the centre of the forewings.

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There are still many painted ladies (Vanessa cardui) on the wing in the woods, but they are not so abundant as they were a week or two ago.  These butterflies are home bred examples resulting from eggs laid by the wave of immigrants earlier in the year.  Many may now have headed south again into continental Europe as none of their stages can survive a British winter.

The butterfly in the background above is a meadow brown and the powerful and aggressive painted ladies have been able, perhaps, to get the best of the nectar to the disadvantage of many of our resident species.

20090729 BHW silver-washed fritillary

A highlight of our walk was the company of a silver-washed fritillary (Argynnis paphia) which sailed alongside us down a ride, settling from time to time on sunny spots of foliage.  The picture is of a rather worn female.  She will lay her eggs on the trunks of oak trees where violets grow.  The young caterpillars will hibernate over winter and start to feed up next spring so that we can look forward to a new generation of these wonderful butterflies in 2010.

1 July 2009

Bent time

The bent grasses (Agrostis species) are coming into flower in the woods now as a fitting accompaniment to the current heatwave.

There are several species and they can be difficult to determine to species level but the one below is creeping bent, Agrostis stolonifera.

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As the scientific name suggests, it spreads by stolons that root as they go whereas the common bent, Agrostis capillaris has underground rhizomes.

The ligule, the small papery flap in the fork between the leaf blades and the main stem, is quite long in creeping bent and short in common bent.

16 June 2009

Birch sawfly (Cimbex femoratus)

While leading a group round Brede High Woods the other day a nice surprise was the discovery, by one member of the party of a birch sawfly in the grass along one of the rides.

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This impressive insect is the size of a bumblebee and has bright yellow antennae and tarsi as well as an area that looks much like the filling in a mint chocolate immediately behind the thorax.

Though sometimes said to be common and widespread, the species does not seem to be well-represented in Sussex with records only from Hargate Forest in East Sussex (1995) and Rewell Wood (before 1982) in West Sussex.

The literature on this species seems curiously silent, maybe because sawflies are not a popular collecting group.

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11 June 2009

Another speedwell - brooklime (Veronica beccabunga)

Brooklime is not uncommon in wet places in Brede High Woods, often growing in marshy ruts along the rides.

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Once quite popular in country medicine for supposedly curing a variety of ailments, brooklime was also eaten like watercress, with which it was sometimes mixed.  It is quite a healthy addition to the diet but not, according to the literature, very palatable.

A famous 18th century Irish herbalist, Elizabeth Pearson, apparently made a fortune with a cure for scrofula (a tuberculosis of the lymph glands in the neck area) based on brooklime.

The suffix -lime is said to derive from Anglo-Saxon hleomoce and there may well be a relationship with this word.  Lime and its cognates, however, have ancient watery roots.   W. H. F Nicolaisen (1976) in Scottish Place Names. Their study and significance (Batsford, London) proposed, for example,  a pre-Celtic British word limona from limo meaning ‘flood'. He cites the river Lyon in Perthshire as deriving from this root as well as the rivers Lyme in Devon and Dorset. To this one might add the Limene, the Roman term for the East Sussex Rother (still preserved in its tributary the river Limden at Etchingham and, perhaps, Lympne on Romney Marsh) and the river Line, the name of the upper section of the East Sussex river Brede.

Perhaps brooklime simply means 'brook brook' as the river Avon means 'river river'.

3 June 2009

Heath speedwell (Veronica officinalis)

There are several different species of speedwell in Brede High Woods and this one, heath speedwell, is common in dry, open places on acid soil.

The specific name officinalis means that the plant was used  medicinally and, in the case of this speedwell as with many other plants, an infusion made from the leaves was used as cough mixture and as a lotion for rubbing on wounds and itchy places.  It was, according to the herbal of Mrs Grieve, popular as a medicine among the Welsh.

The word 'speedwell' means 'speed to good health' or 'get well soon'.

Looking through the various web sites, it appears that some herbalists are none too clear on what V. officinalis actually looks like and some seem to believe that any speedwell, or maybe any blue flower, will do.

In Brede High Woods V. officinalis is the food plant of the very rare flea beetle Longitarsus longiseta, an insect no doubt that does not suffer from coughs.

Longitarsus longiseta a

30 May 2009

Sheep sorrel swards

In an area cleared of conifers a few years back, one of the most distinctive swards is created by extensive colonies of sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella) among the tree stumps and clumps of rushes.

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Clearly this plant, perfectly edible to our species, is not much liked by deer or rabbits.  It is, however, one of the main food plants of the small copper butterfly, so these should flourish here.

27 May 2009

Alder wood-wasp joins barbecue

There was a very jolly barbecue at the site of Brede High Farm on  Bank Holiday Monday.

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Among the various creatures that joined us were one or two examples of the rare and local alder wood-wasp (Xiphydria camelus) a species which appears not to have been recorded previously from East Sussex and with only one record from West Sussex.

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Alder wood-wasps (about the size of ordinary wasps) belong to the Xiphydriidae a very small hymenopterous family (bees, wasps, ants, sawflies etc.) and are rather remarkable creatures.  The females have organs called 'mycangia' in which they carry fungal spores.  They lay their eggs through the bark of recently dead branches of alder or birch and the spores create an area of decay so that the larvae have either softer timber to chew on, or fungal material.

After the eggs are laid a parasitic wasp called Aulacus striatus lays her eggs in the eggs of the alder wood-wasp using the tunnels already made by the host.  The wood-wasp eggs hatch with the parasitoid, which feeds inside it on the xiphydriid larva's blood, and they grow together in a process known as  'koinobiosis'.  The Aulacus grub eventually kills its host.

This is by no means the only hazard for the wood-wasps.  When the larvae are almost fully developed within the branch the female of an ichneumon fly called Rhyssella approximator (aka Rhyssella curvipes) can sense where they are and can pierce the wood with her ovipositor to lay an egg which will hatch to feed inside the hapless host.  But this is not the end of the story:  a second species of ichneumon, Pseudorhyssa alpestris, watches the activities of R. approximator and, as she cannot drill a hole herself, forces her ovipositor down the hole left by the original parasitoid and substitutes her own egg.

There is a fourth parasitoid Xiphydriophaga meyerinckii, a small chalcid wasp that crawls down the tunnels made by the wood-wasp larvae and lays her eggs on the body of the living grub which she has paralysed by stinging it.

How did these complexities of plant and animal life evolve I wonder.

In the 1960s a pioneering nature film was made by Gerald Thompson on the activities of the alder wood-wasp and its parasites and this was an important factor in setting the BBC Natural History Unit on its present course.  There are details of Thompson's life and work here: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/gerald-thompson-642015.html

There are also details of his film online here: http://www.worldeducationalfilms.com/films/alderwoodwasp/synopsis.htm

19 May 2009

Lousewort makes a comeback

At attractive pink-flowered plant of acid heaths and meadows has been rediscovered at two sites in Brede High Wood.

Lousewort, Pedicularis sylvatica, is a hemiparasite.  Although it has chlorophyll and can therefore photosynthesise some of its own food, it also takes nourishment from surrounding plants, mainly Agrostis grasses.  This helps it to compete, despite its lowly stature, on the low-nutrient soils it prefers. 

It is related to yellow rattle, Rhinanthus minor, another hemiparasite found usually in better, drier grasslands and lousewort also has seed pods that rattle when ripe.  By reducing the vigour of grasses, both plants help to provide opportunities for other plants and are therefore often regarded as being of particular conservation value.

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The name 'lousewort' is said to derive from a reputation in the past that if it was grazed by sheep they suffered from lice.  Sheep and cattle grazing on the kind of poor land where it grows would have been likely to be in poor condition and therefore more susceptible to lice.

I am not entirely convinced by this explanation as 'wort' plants so often seem to have been used in medicine and lousewort was once recommended to stop bleeding.

I last saw lousewort in Brede High Woods in 1997, but then only one plant, so it is particularly surprising that it has suddenly turned up in some quantity in two separate sites, both often visited.

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13 May 2009

Garlic mustard moths

Garlic mustard or jack-by-the-hedge (Alliaria petiolata) grows by several of the rides in Brede High Woods, often near the entrances from the roads and lanes.  Although unrelated to garlic and onions it does have the distinctive smell and taste associated with these vegetables.

I always have a look at the flowers to see if I can see eggs of the orange-tip butterfly or find the little longhorn moth Adela rufimitrella (a scientific name that translates as the 'red-turbaned unseen', referring to the area behind the head of the adult and the fact that the caterpillar makes itself almost invisible by first burrowing in a seed pod then feeding from a case covered in bits of leaf and soil low down on the stems of the food plant )

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For those unfamiliar with garlic mustard there is a picture below.  The moth also feeds, like the orange-tip butterfly, on cuckoo flower or lady's smock (Cardamine pratensis)

Jack by the Hedge 20030508

10 May 2009

Homage to Equivalent VIII

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The bridge of railway sleepers over a small stream under the transmission lines in Pond Wood became unsafe, so the Highway Authority has started to repair it. The sleepers have been carefully stacked by the path and they immediately reminded me of Carl Andre’s sculpture Equivalent VIII, usually known as the ‘pile of bricks’. This was exhibited at the Tate Gallery several times and in 1976 became the subject of an “is this art?” controversy.

Andre also did much work in wood as these sleeper-like chunks show:


And he worked for a while as a brakeman and conductor on the Pennsylvania Railroad, so a photo of railway sleepers seem even more appropriate as an homage to him.

I suspect if I had not been exposed to Equivalent VIII from time to time I would not have seen any great significance in a pile of sleepers. It seems to me that this is one of the most important aspects of art: to enable one to see things from a different perspective, or to appreciate things that would otherwise have seemed unremarkable. (What an incredibly unoriginal thought!)

It would be nice if the sleepers could remain where they are to inspire other passers-by, but I expect they will be taken for firewood or to make a raised bed in someone’s garden.

There is a link to a map showing where the sleepers are here.

8 May 2009

Beech leaves

The beech tree has, arguably, the finest leaves of any native British tree: rich brown in autumn and a wonderful fresh almost lime green in spring.

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The above is a seedling showing above some of last year's leaves.  It looks full of potential but I doubt if it will survive the attentions of the fallow deer.

These larger examples (below) may have had the protection of a fence in their early years or, more probably, the deer were not such a problem then.

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The beech is a shallow rooted tree and I assume that the lack of ground flora beneath them in Brede High Woods reflects the fact that their uptake of nutrients and water leaves little for other vascular plants, though mosses do well.

7 May 2009

Mystery bavin

Towards the north of Brede High Wood proper I spotted this bundle of sticks on the ground.

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Since it is done up with only one string it is technically a bavin rather than a fagot (which has two strings)

The bundle had clearly been lying at the ride side for some time: maybe over a year and I wondered how this circumstance came about.  Had the original collector forgotten where s/he put it?  Or maybe they had been taken ill, or spirited away by a flying saucer.  Are they firewood or peasticks?  If the latter maybe the collector suddenly realised the vast amount of labour and stress that would have to go into producing a couple of quid's worth of peas, and left the stick bundle for Brede High's saproxylics.

We shall never know unless the mystery stick-gatherer happens to read this weblog and provides an explanation.

17 April 2009

Bee flies (Bombylius spp.)

Insect numbers are increasing as the weather gets warmer.

The bee fly (Bombylius major) is a frequent sight nectaring on primroses and other flowers along the rides.

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Although they appear to be hovering they normally have their front and second pair of legs resting on the flower while they probe for nectar with their proboscis.  The larvae are parasitic on mining bees.

There is another, slightly larger, species in Sussex: the dotted bee fly (Bombylius discolor).  This has declined seriously in the last 50 years and was, until recently, only found on the coast, but it now appears to be spreading inland again.  As the name indicates it has dark spots on its wings in addition to a somewhat smaller dark bar on the leading edge.

16 April 2009

Loveliest of trees

The wild cherry trees (Prunus avium) in Brede High Woods are in full bloom now, but it is a very fleeting event.

20080503 Brede High Woods Austford Farm cherry

Such a brief burst of beauty is always, somehow, tinged with sadness, with the idea of the fleetingness of things nowhere better expressed than in A. E. Housman's untitled poem:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my three score years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

20090411 BHW 5b wild cherry flowers  051

15 April 2009

Brede High Chimaki

Inspired by discovery that leaves of the broad-leaved bamboo can be used to make chimaki (Japanese rice dumplings), I had a go myself using leaves from the Austford plant in Streetfield Wood and binding them with garden raffia (which my grandfather always used to call 'bast').

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The parcels were filled with cooked rice mixed with an equal part of ham, prawns and mushrooms and seasoned with Chinese five spice and soy sauce.  They were steamed for several hours and we ate some hot and some cold.

Everyone said they were delicious, though I have tasted better things.

12 April 2009

Easter eggs

Yesterday, Easter Saturday, I was in Brede High Woods with Ellie, our 5-year-old granddaughter and she spotted a gleaming white object in a small tree trunk cavity where a branch formerly grew.

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It was the egg sac of a fairy-lamp spider, Agroeca, probably Agroeca brunnea which always has this characteristic shape.

I reflected how, to me (if not quite to Ellie), this Easter egg manifestation was so much more meaningful than the gold and silver paper glitz of the commercial chocolate eggs that fill the shops at this time of year.

I was struck too by the Eastertide appropriateness of the chalice-like shape of the structure reflecting the cup of the Last Supper and the gleaming white 'disc' of the lower part of the sac being not dissimilar to the white roundness of a communion wafer.

In Germany these egg sacs are called fairy lamps (Feenlämpchen) and I have therefore coined the English name for the spider myself. The only other vernacular name I can find is 'running foliage spider', which seems rather less satisfactory.

In his Gleanings from the Fields of Nature (1908), Edward Connold, who lived in St. Leonards, wrote of these fairy lamps "They first came under the notice of the writer in May 1893, when he found a large number in a wood near Hastings." I wonder if he was walking in Brede High Woods.

9 April 2009

Chimaki zasa, the broad-leaved bamboo

Just south of the Austford site in Streetfield Wood is a large clump of the introduced broad-leaved bamboo (Sasa palmata) growing happily among the Scot's pines.

20090321 BHW 2g Sasa palmata chimaki zasa

This arrived in Britain in 1889 and was one of the earliest bamboo introductions so it is not surprising to see it flourishing in what must once have been part of the Austford garden.

It is native to Japan where it is a widespread species called 'chimaki zasa' and various other names.

'Chimaki' are savoury rice dumplings wrapped in leaves of this bamboo then steamed or boiled (something I think I might have a go at now I know where to get the leaves).

In parts of North America and some other places this bamboo has become an aggressive alien, but it seems to be reasonably well-behaved in Britain simply forming a larger and larger clump from the original planting.

1 April 2009

Wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella)

One of the most delicate spring flowers is the wood sorrel, an ancient woodland indicator species that usually occurs in small clumps on streamsides and in damp places.  Often it grows on fallen logs or old coppice stools where some soil has accumulated.

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The plant contains oxalic acid giving the leaves and flowers a sharp, acidic taste and the species has been widely used in both cooking and medicine.

Among the many country names for the plant one of the least predictable is 'Alleluia' (also given this name in France and Italy), a term derived from the fact that it flowers around Eastertime.

27 March 2009

Early dog-violet

Now is the best time to see the early dog-violet (Viola reichenbachiana) as it flowers a little before the common dog-violet (Viola riviniana) which occurs in the same areas.  The flowers of the early are slightly paler and have more red in the violet than the common.  They are also narrower and have a purple, as opposed to a pale, spur behind the flower.

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The early dog-violet is an ancient woodland indicator species and occurs mostly on the clay areas of Brede High Woods.  A good place to see it is on the bank of Reservoir Lane on the eastern side of the woods as it drops down the hill from the transmission lines towards the dam to the west. 

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Once you have familiarised yourself with its shape and colour you will pick it up quite easily within the woods themselves,

26 March 2009

Double daffodils, green daffodils

Just off Powdermill Lane in an area of Pond Wood that would have been part of the garden of one of the pre-reservoir houses in Brede High Woods is a fine group of double daffodils.

This is a very old variety, thought to be a form of the wild daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) dating from at least the early 17th century and variously known as Narcissus telamonius plenus and Narcissus Van Sion.

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Within this group, which must have been here since at least the late 1920s, there was one remarkable green variant.

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This phenomenon, which I am not sure is consistent in the plant year on year, is not unknown with this particular daffodil cultivar.     A. M. Kirby in his 1907 book Daffodils, Narcissi and How to Grow Them wrote "Another vagary of the Double Van Sion is its tendency to produce flowers tinged with green and sometimes almost all green."

25 March 2009

Celandine time

When the sun is shining, the lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) flowers are shining too at this season of the year.


Celandines are fairly widespread in Brede High Woods, often preferring old banks and waysides or some of the damper areas.

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The plant was much used medicinally in the past, particularly as a cure for piles (hence another of its names: pilewort). 

The herbalist Gerard said "the juice of the roots mixed with honie and drawn up into the nostrils purgeth the head of foul and filthy humours."  I should think the power of the inhalation required to draw honey 'up into the nostrils' would be more than sufficient on its own to clear the breathing passages.

21 March 2009

Cherry plum winter

A short distance south west of Austford, to the west of the public footpath are two small trees that are covered in a mass of white flowers.

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They are cherry plums, Prunus cerasifera, a non-native plant that was often used as a stock for other cultivated plums and greengages.  It has also been much used for hedging, especially in its pink flowered and purple leaved forms.  It suckers quite vigorously and often persists after its scions have disappeared.

Apart from its very early flowering, it can be distinguished by its bright green last year's twigs which contrast with the grey older ones..

20090317 Prunus cerasifera South View 035

Growing where it does it is, presumably, a remnant of the Austford orchard.

17 March 2009

Brimstones and primroses

With the continuing warm weather several butterfly species are on the wing in the woods including peacocks, comma and brimstones.

On the right hand side of the picture below a fine male is nectaring on some primroses at the Old Woodyard. 


The butterflies seem so fresh and bright it is difficult to believe that they have been hibernating since last autumn and are now destined to breed and die before spring is over.

It is only the males that are this bright, citron yellow: the females are paler and can easily be confused with some of the whites when seen in the distance.

16 March 2009

An old summer snowflake

Yesterday I found a large clump of summer snowflake or Loddon lily (Leucojum aestivum) in what used to be the garden area of Austford, the former property by Streetfield Wood at TQ789204.

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The house was demolished in 1934, so this plant is likely to be at least 85 years old and still going strong.  It is not uncommon in this part of the world on roadside verges and similar sites but never far, in my experience, from human habitation.

There are two subspecies L. aestivum ssp. aestivum and L. aestivum ssp. pulchellum and ours appears to be the former, though the differences are slight.

A curious thing about this plant is that no one seems to know, since it flowers in late winter and early spring, why it is called the summer snowflake.

15 March 2009

Goat willow Sunday

The goat willows (Salix caprea) in Brede High Wood and elsewhere in our part of East Sussex have come into flower quickly with the sudden advent of warm weather.  The picture below is of a male, pollen bearing tree.

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This species is also know as great sallow, palm and sally.  It was the tree that poet John Clare was referring to when he wrote: "Ye leaning palms, that seem to look/Pleased o'er your image in the brook" and 'sally' features in Yeats's poem Down by the Sally Gardens, this, I think, referring to a place where sallows, willows and osiers were grown for basket making.

The term 'palm' came about because the sprays of flowers were used in the British Isles on Palm Sunday ceremonies as a substitute for real palms.  This year Palm Sunday is on 6th April, by which time most of the goat willow will have finished, but there will surely be other willow species that will fit the bill.

Sallows are very important for insects that fly in late winter and early spring and the trees can often be heard 'humming' as the insects fly from catkin to catkin.  At night they are often crowded with moths.

Today it was encouraging to see large numbers of honey bees in attendance.  Many of these were taking nectar and pollen from catkins that had fallen to the ground: the last of the winter wine.

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