Sunday, August 9, 2009

Spurge Surprise

At the weekend I visited Waresley Wood.

Before I made it into the safe sanctuary of the trees, I got waylaid oggling the edge of an arable field abutting the wood. One's eye is drawn to unfamiliar things and mine caught site of this little insignificant plant - a new plant to me - dwarf spurge, Euphorbia exigua.

Euphorbias were apparently named in honour of one, Euphorbus, who was a Greek physician to Numidian King (who lived in about 50BC). This Dr Euphorbus is reputed to have used a spurge plant to cure the king of a nasty swollen belly.

It's a little hazy how old Euphorbus used the spurge as a cure, as the whole genus is well known for its irritant sap (latex) produced when the plants are cut or damaged. Some Euphorbias are powerful purgatives. Hmmm. Perhaps the king had a long visit to the loo?

Hence the name 'spurge', which is from the old French 'espurge', which means, not surprisingly, to purge.

All from one little arable weed.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Autumn's come in a bit sudden?

In between the thunder, lightening and torrential rain, which has come to characterise much of the latter part of July 2009, I managed to dodge the worst the weather could throw at me and had a quick scamper down the road armed with camera today.

Of course, the wind was blowing something rotten and nothing would sit still long enough to be photographed properly.

I indulged in some early blackberrying - which was very tasty.

Rubus fruticosus - the wonderful bramble
Much, much cheaper to pick your own than buy in the shops.

The Guelder rose (Viburnum opulus) bushes at Sandy station were looking fine with their bright red berries.

Viburnum opulus - Guelder rose
I am guessing 'Guelder' is derived from Gelderland in the Netherlands (just checked some etymological dictionaries and that seems to be correct). Guelder rose looks brilliant all year. I took a picture of a bush in flower when I was at Wicken Fen in May this year.
Guelder rose in flower at Wicken Fen May 12th 2009
The flowerheads are not only gorgeous, they are really interesting. The conspicuous, showy outer flowers are actually sterile and just serve to attract pollinators to the inner fertile flowers. The inflorescence itself is called a cymose corymb. Wikipedia explains all:

A diagrammatic cymose corymb from Wikipedia.
Guelder rose, also known as cramp bark, is much loved by herbalists. They call it Vib op. The dried bark is used for - you guessed it - cramps and spasms.
The berries are in turn much beloved of birds.
I am reliably informed that one can make a jelly from those scarlet berries; a kind of 'poor man's cranberry sauce'. If cooked and eaten in only small quantities they are apparently OK to eat. That is cooked not raw. Recipe is basically guelder rose berries and equal weight of crab apples + sugar. Phew - bet that's tart. Hmmmm. Not tried it myself. May do so if the birds don't get them all.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Wild liquorice

Amazing what you can walk past without noticing it isn't it? Even yards from your own front door. And I pride myself on my sharp eyes. Honestly, I get more myopic by the day.

Well, a case in point is this. T'other day I was nonchalantly strolling down the lane when my companion said, 'Hey Mel ,what's that plant down there?'

I looked down at the verge, perplexed. Clearly this plant had grown up over night. It was definitely not there when I walked to the station the previous day. Definitely.

Here is the magical plant. How it has escaped the predations of the over-enthusiastic verge mowing round here I cannot say. But it has. And thank goodness.

Not exactly invisible or microscopic is it?

Obviously in the pea family but not a plant I know well. It is Astragalus glycyphyllos otherwise known as wild liquorice (or licorice) or milk vetch.

The flowers are a kind of off yellow. Rather subtle. You must excuse photo - it was blowing a gale! But the seed pods are really whacky. They look like an upturned hand - with all the fingers gathered together. Weird!

I checked up in Dony immediately to see if it was recorded in this area and it wasn't. Maybe a new record for this km square? So I photographed it and emailed the county recorder in my excitement. Clearly it is not an exciting finding as I didn't hear back. Shame. I think it's rather nice anyway.

It's more famous cousin Astragalus membranaceous is a native of China and called huang qi (which means yellow leader). The root is highly prized as a tonic and used in Chinese herbal tradition to 'strengthen the immune system'.


John Dony (1976) Bedfordshire Plant Atlas. Borough of Luton Museum and Art Gallery

Friday, July 17, 2009

Visit to Wicken Fen

Tuesday was spent at Wicken Fen ( on a flora identification day. A whole day just looking at flowers! Wow!
Here's a selection:

Oenanthe lachenalii Parsley-leaved water dropwort

Oenanthe is apparently from two Greek words: oinos meaning wine and anthos meaning 'flower'. It may have flowers that smell of wine and leaves that resemble parsley but this beautiful umbellifer is not for use as an herbal garnish as it is highly toxic.

Succisa pratensis Devil's bit scabious

Devil's bit scabious is so called because its roots look as if they have been bitten off and in days of yore when superstition and fantasy reigned - the poor old devil got blamed for pretty much everything.

Lysimachia vulgaris Yellow loosestrife

Lysimachia is derived from the name of a Macedonian king: Lysimachusl he was around in about 300BC and his name means losing or ending strife. Neat eh?

Utricularia neglecta Bladderwort

Bladderwort is only really visible when it flowers in a blaze of glory in summer. Most of the time it is surreptitiously munching its way through billions of water fleas. A truly voracious carnivore!

A peacock butterfly incognito!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Strawberries in clover

With Wimbledon a distant memory, strawberries were the last thing on my mind on a walk along Devil's Dyke, near Newmarket. Actually I hadn't got to the Dyke bit (where I was heading to gorge on chalk grassland flora) - I was just walking on a footpath alongside the A14. That's where I came across this terrific Trifolium....

Strawberry clover Trifolium fragiferum
At first glance I thought it was a misshapen red clover but closer inspection (and a rapid flick through Rose) showed that it was infact a cute little clover: strawberry clover (Trifolium fragiferum). What a delightful find! Natural England reliably inform me that long-tongued bees can reach the nectar deep inside the tiny flowers. Cool?
Oh! And there were a couple of lizard orchids (Himantoglossum hircinum) along the way too. Didn't I mention them? Too weird?

Lizard orchid Himantoglossum hircinum
Himantoglossum is derived from the Greek himas meaning strap and glossa meaning tongue. The hircinum bit is less pleasant and apparently means (don't quote me on this) 'smelling like a goat'. Lovely! I didn't sniff the plant to check. Next time maybe.....

An impressive plant indeed but for me, the 'plant of the day' was the unexpected and new species for me: the hairy, pale pink, strawberry clover.

Useful links:
Francis Rose's Wildflower Key:
Natural England:
More info on Trifolium fragiferum: Much better picture of Trif frag than mine:

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Since returning from a stint of cat-sitting for my sister I have been contemplating the many advantages that pet ownership can bestow: company, decreased stress levels, saving the NHS dosh, etc.. For me though, it is about having someone to talk to whose eyes do not glaze over when I open my mouth or worse, fall asleep.

So I took stock of the situation and examined my life to see what kind of pet I would be willing to accommodate. These key attributes leapt to mind: easy to look after, no need for walks, can cope 'home alone' for long periods (i.e. self-reliance), no litter tray, cheap (preferably free) to feed, allergy free, no fleas and no vet bills. This is, admittedly, a tall order for any pet but one finds answers to life's little conundrums in the most unexpected places and the very next day I found 'Phil' by the patio door. His little sticky legs and thin body looked in desperate need of sustenance. My heart melted. I adopted him on the spot.

Phil having 'his' dinner

He (actually 'his' sex is yet to be determined) is everything I could have wished for. He hits all the buttons for the perfect pet: in addition to actually removing pests from my house rather than bringing them in. He listens for hours to my remonstrations regarding the irrationality of the world. He never falls asleep and his eyes (none of them) ever glaze over. I know exactly where to find him when I need a rant and have a chair next to his 'web' (an untidy collection of silk) for when the need arises.

His official kennel (or 'web?) name is Philip Pholcus phalangioides. He's a daddy long legs spider (at least I am pretty sure he is - but am no arachnologist). There are many, many daddy long legs spiders in my house and it takes me some time to do the hoovering and dusting as I take great pains to avoid sucking them up into oblivion - although accidents do happen. I like Phil and his mates. They do that fabulous whirling Dervish thing when you inadvertently disturb their webs - I guess to confusticate would be predators.

And they eat flies! Wow! What more could one ask of a pet?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Whacky plants

Bird's-nest orchid Neottia nidus-avis

In a woodland, not so far from home, is the weird and wonderful bird's nest orchid (Neottia nidus-avis) - a honey-coloured, honey-smelling saprophytic plant (i.e. grows on or derives nutrition from dead/decaying organic matter).

Ooops! I used the word 'saprophyte' above, lifted from my old edition of Rose (The Widlflower Key, 1981) - but actually I'm incorrect. Mycologist's appear to be a little miffed at botanists for repeatedly getting this wrong. So let's put the record straight. Bird's nest orchid is an achlorophyllous (has no chlorophyll) myco-heterophyte (parasitic on fungi as its main carbon source) (see links below).

Another whacky plant, which I am glad to say grows in the verge down my road (despite the best efforts of the council/utilities companies to eradicate it), is the common broomrape (Orobanche minor). Broomrapes look a bit like orchids but they are not. They lack chlorophyll and are parasites on other plants.

Common broomrape Orobanche minor

Useful links:

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Roger's Weeds

Cornflower Centaurea cyanus

Ahh Beeston! Yet another lazy Sunday morning at Cos Lodge with the Beeston Wildlife Group.

Did I say lazy? I meant indulgent.

Mothing, birding, ambling amidst the wildflowers and of course, chatting. There is always such an alarming amount to do!

Despite an heady overdose of anti-hayfever meds I ventured a close encounter with Roger's arable weed patch. It was in full bloom with cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) and corncockle (Agrostemma githago) putting on a summertime show.

Corncockle Agrostemma githago

Its a shame that this is such a rare sight these days. Our native arable plants have declined alarmingly in the UK in the last 60 years or so. Roger's small patch is a glimpse of how cornfields used to look.

Useful links: