Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Dose of Poppy Pie

Back to soggy Sandwich Bay. This is a follow-on from yesterday's Comfits of sea holly.

Yellow-horned poppy (YHP) (Glaucium flavum) was growing in the shingle. It's one of my favourite plants on the coast; so unexpectedly extravagant. Nothing on the shoreline beats it for sheer aplomb and panash. At one place I found a few YHPs with red flowers, which I assume was an aberration and not a different species. I'll check that.

UPDATE: Kingsdowner has been to the site and confirmed the plants are indeed unusually dark red variants of YHP, Glaucium flavum, and not red-horned poppy (Glaucium corniculatum), which is a rare alien. The key features that clinched it are that these plants, like YHP, have glabrous (smooth, hairless) stems and warty seedpods. I am very grateful to him. 

(Red) yellow-horned poppy (Glaucium flavum) at Sandwich Bay
Close up of a very damp (red) yellow-horned poppy 
(Glaucium flavum) at Sandwich Bay

Here are some 'normal' luscious YHPs on the beach at Kingsdown.
 Yellow-horned poppy (Glaucium flavum) with horned seed-pods in evidence.
Yellow-horned poppy (Glaucium flavum) thick, wavy, hairy leaf
Yellow-horned poppies (Glaucium flavum) on the shingle at Kingsdown 
with red valerian (Centranthus ruber) behind (looking to Walmer/Deal in distance). 

Robert Bridges (handsome chap!) wrote a short poem about YHP. The poet was born in Roselands (the house is no longer there) in Walmer in 1844. His birthplace is a short walk from where these photos were taken. Poet's Walk in Walmer is named in his honour.

The poem was set to music by Philip Napier Miles (but I can't find a recording of it online). 

YHP contains an alkaloid called glaucine (recall the name of YHP is Glaucium flavum) which is used as an anti-tussive (cough medicine). It's also anti-inflammatory and a bronchodilator. The side effects of glaucine include fatigue, sedation and hallucinations, and it is reported to be abused as a recreational drug. Not a herbal medicine to take at home.

Unbelievably YHP was once mistaken for sea holly (Eryngium maritimum). Grigson (1973) mentions the curious tale of one, Charles Worth, who lived near Penzance in the 1690s.

The story runs thus. On the advice of a physician, our Mr Worth baked a pie, with what he supposed to be sea holly roots. One wonders how anyone could confuse the two. But he, or one of his household, did. Having consumed this pie piping hot from the oven he suffered a most violent catharsis and weird hallucinations. The Poppy Pie was also scoffed by his servants who had similarly unpleasant experiences.

Turn away now if you are sqeamish. Mr Worth filled his chamber pot (the catharsis sounded pretty urgent), smashed it and then asked his neighbours to help him pick up the pieces because he was convinced that they were made of gold. Hmmm.

Mrs Worth (who was down the market when all this kerfuffle was going on) arrived home in the midst of the crisis, 'saying 'How now, what is here a do? The Maid turn'd her brich again her and purging stoutly said 'There, Mistress, is gold for you.' We do not know what Mrs Worth's repost to the Maid was or if the young lady remained in their service after this unfortunate incident.

The story was originally published in a letter to the Royal Society in 1698 by a Mr James Newton, who'd got it from an apothecary in Penzance. Newton considered the possibility that since the flowers are yellow 'whether the yellow colour running in their minds [...] might not beget that idea in them, to fancy most things to be Gold, they also being yellow'. Not an entirely ridiculous suggestion. Some men taking Viagra developed a temporary cyanopsia (they saw the world in blue). Although the effect from Viagra is not from the blueness of the pills (that is incidental) it is thought to be due to decreased enzyme activity in retinal rod cells.
According to Newton (1698), YHP was 'vulgarly called in Hampshire and Dorsetshire, Squatmore or brusewort [...] where they use it against bruises external and internal'. A 'squat' is an obsolete word for a bruise according to Grigson (1973). Although I rather fancy that 'squatmore' refers literally to its cathartic properties.

Oops. Off subject again. Back to the Bay.

I was delighted to see lizard orchids
 (Himantoglossum hircinum) aplenty in the sand (to the seaward side of the road). People were driving past seemingly oblivious to the incredible plants growing a few feet from their tyres.

Or even under their tyres.....
Car access on to the beach at Sandwich Bay.

I was more than a little saddened to see that this amazing foreshore doubles as a carpark for beach users. Tyre tracks over lizard orchids and rare broomrapes! Sheesh. But, disturbance is what these plants live with. The seashore is an incredibly hostile environment to put down one's roots. Still, I'd be mortified if I drove my car over a lizard orchid.

The weather was still grim so we turned inland and headed back to the car by way of the PRoW over the Royal St George's Golf Club. More lizards were blowing about in the wind and rain in the rough grass.

Sea bindweed (Calystegia soldanella) was sodden but brightened up the turf.
Sea bindweed (Calystegia soldanella)
There was considerable activity getting the golf course ready for The Open in July. The PRoW ran straight in front of the stands (it would be fun to use it when someone is about to tee off).
Getting ready for The Open

I must go to the bay and walk further along the shore when the weather is more clement.

Bridges, Robert (1890) Shorter Poems. They are available online here.
Grigson, Geoffrey (1975) The Englishman’s Flora. Paladin
Newton, JA (1698) An Account of Some Effects of Papaver Corniculatum Luteum. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Volume 20 pps 263-264 (Boo hiss to the RS that these old journals aren't openly available online).

Comfits of sea holly

During my recent sororal sojourn in the deep south (aka East Kent) in early June, I went, for the first time, to Sandwich Bay. There is so much to do in the area, without opening one's wallet, that I've never got past the toll on the private road to Sandwich Bay.

The weather on 5th June was none too promising (driving rain, mist, wind....), but as I'd planned to go to Sandwich Bay, I ignored the weather forecast and to Sandwich Bay I went, and hoped the weather might improve. It didn't. I must go back when it is sunny. Or at least dry.

I was a bit confused by the toll sign which I thought said, that if I parked at the Bird Observatory then I would not have access to the sea and bay. As it happens I misunderstood it. Doh! One can park at the Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory Trust (SBBOT) Field Centre (bit of a mouthful) for a peppercorn fee of £1 for non-members, and walk to the sea. We parked back up the road and walked in. We popped into the SBBOT (well worth a visit), paid a fee anyway 'cos it's a good cause, and got some gen on what plants were about.

Photography was barely possible and my map (a photocopied map of the bay is available at the field centre) got moist and started to fall apart. We looked around some of the reserve areas but the weather harried us into walking a shorter circuit than we'd planned; down the road, up the coast a bit and then back to the car on the PRoW through the golf course.

Asparagus officinalis was in flower in the woods. I've not seen the flowers before.

Once we reached the coast I noticed that there were what looked like batteries in front of some of the houses. I checked a friend's facsimile of Captain William Mudge's 1819 Ordnance Survey map of Kent and there are old batteries on the coast at Sandwich. Napoleonic I guess?

I see that I can buy the Cassini Old Series OS map for Canterbury and East Kent online. If I buy one for my sister I can use it when I'm down there. 

On the shingle there were the usual hardy halophytes including mounds of succulent sea sandwort (Honckenya peploides) and prickly grey-green sea holly (Eryngium maritimum).

Sea sandwort (Honckenya peploides)

Sea holly (Eryngium maritimum)

Sea holly looks like holly. It's not related. It looks like teasel. It's not related. Oddly enough it's an 'atypical' umbellifer; in the same family as carrots, hemlock, parsley and fennel. The old English names are sea holm or sea hulver. 

Eryngium is possibly from the Greek word for spiny thistle (Johnson and Smith 1931), although Bostock and Riley (1856) and Mrs Grieve (1931) claim the plant name is derived from the Greek word eruggarein, which means to, err, eructate (in common parlance to thee and me, to burp). The plant's roots were praised by Dioscorides for their ability to ease eructation. And as an aphrodisiac. And candied root was sold as a kissing comfit, to sweeten the breath. Kind of like Viagra, Rennies & spearmint all rolled into one. 

In addition Gerard (1597) claims that sea holly roots are wizard for colic, cramps, convulsions, gravel (kidney stones), and 'provoketh urine, greatly opening the passages being drunk 15 dais togither'. Gerard's language is so delightful I can't resist more. 'The roots are condited and preserved with sugar.......good to be given unto old and aged people who are consumed and withered with is also good for other sorts of people that have no delight or appetite.......amending the defects of nature in the younger'. Comfits of sea holly could save us millions in health care. 

Young sea holly shoots were also stewed and eaten like asparagus. Pliny the Elder (79AD) lists more herbal uses for this miracle plant; taken in wine, it was efficacious for venomous serpent bite or in goose-broth (or boiled in water with a frog; true) for poisons like aconite (don't try it at home). Pliny also recommends using it as a liniment for wounds inflicted by frogs. Do Italian frogs bite? Perhaps they bit their persecutors when they were being tossed into boiling water?

I got totally distracted by sea holly comfits. More from Sandwich Bay tomorrow.

John Gerard (1597) Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes. Online here. The pages referred to above are here, and here and here and include 'The maner to condite Eryngos'
Mrs Grieve (1931) A Modern Herbal. Online version here
Johnson AT and Smith HA (1931) Plant Names Simplified. Collingridge: London.
Pliny the Elder (c AD77-79) The Natural History. Book 4. Translated by J Bostock and HT Riley (1856). Full text on Google Books (the chapter on Eryngium is on pps 396-7).

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Pagodas in the grass

There are 3 species of cow-wheat in southern England. They are in the genus Melampyrum, from the Greek melas, black and pyros, wheat (Stearn, 1973). The name Melampyrum (μελαμπυρων) was first used by Theophrastus (Gledhill, 2008). Lyte’s herbal (1619) calls cow-wheat black-wheat, a literal translation of Melampyrum. Why black? This is probably due to its alleged ability to turn bread black when its seeds are a flour contaminant (Grigson, 1975, Grieve, 1931).

Gerard (1633 p90-1) calls cow-wheat horse-floure and Triticum vaccinium. Triticum is the genus for wheat. Vaccinium (sic vaccinum) is from the Latin meaning 'pertaining to cows'. Triticum vaccinum therefore means ‘wheat of the cow’, aka cow-wheat. None other than Linnaeus himself attributed some excellent butter he had in Sweden (near Lycksele) to abundant cow-wheat in cattle pastures (Linnaeus, 1724, p110). According to the redoubtable Mrs Grieve (1931) cows and sheep do munch cow-wheat if given half the chance. Given the conservation status of 2 of the species of cow-wheat in England this is unlikely to happen.

Cow-wheat doesn’t seem to be too popular as an herbal remedy. John Gerard’s opinion is that "The seed of Cow-Wheat raiseth up fumes, and is hot and dry of nature, which being taken in meats and drinks in the manner of Darnell, troubleth the braine, causeth drunkennesse and headaches". Sounds like the effects of chicken vindaloo and lager to me…..

All cow-wheats are hemiparasites; they obtain some of their nutritional requirements by half-inching nutrients from other plants (via their roots). They also have mutualistic relationships with ants. They are myrmecochorous; their seeds are dispersed by ants. Of course ants don’t do this out of a sense of altruism. They are paid. Cow-wheat seeds are coated at one end with tempting ant-food (known as an elaiosome). This tasty seed-coating is fed to ant larvae and the intact seed discarded. The plant achieves seed dispersal and avoids predation. The ants get food. Win win.

Common cow-wheat Melampyrum pratense
Conservation Status in UK: An ancient woodland indicator species (Rose, 1999), not under threat.
M.pratense is subtly beautiful with pale butter-yellow flowers. I came across these in a clearing in Yocklett’s Bank in Kent. They brightened up an otherwise miserably rainy day.

Common cow-wheat is a hemiparasite on woody plants and a larval food plant for the heath fritillary butterfly.

Redwood (1848, p404) has this to say about it;

I've not tried the can't comment.

Crested cow-wheat Melampyrum cristatum
Conservation Status in UK: Vulnerable (Red Data List, 2006).

A tremendously attractive plant. Dreadfully rare. John Ray (1724, p286) says of it “In sylvis Cantabrigiensibus and Bedfordiensibus copiose”. Copious? Oh, I wish. I wish.
I am fortunate to live not too far from a verge where the crested pagoda thrives. There is more info on crested cow-wheat here from the Essex Botany Group.

Field cow-wheat Melampyrum arvense
Conservation Status in UK: Endangered (Red Data List, 2006).
Absolutely stunning but wretchedly rare wild flower. ‘No wild flower of the British Isles is more improbably flamboyant’ (Grigson, 1975). It looks like a miniature purple pagoda. It's a hemiparasite of grasses (including agricultural crops). This is the species that probably caused most consternation amongst farmers, who ’acted furiously against it’ (Grigson, 1975). It was known colloquially as poverty weed.

Gerard (1633, p90-1) declares (and I believe he's referring to field cow-wheat) that it ‘greweth among corne and in pasture grounds that be fruitfull; it groweth plentifully in the pasture grounds around London. The rest are strangers in England'. Lyte (1619) refers to this species (most likely from his description of the flowers), as being an ‘unprofitable plant growing amongst wheat’ (p117-118).

There are only 4 populations of this plant in the UK. Yikes. It’s a Bedfordshire BAP species.

A lovely collection of plants seen in the last few weeks.

There seems to be some confusion in older books (pre-Linnaeus) which species of cow-wheat is being discussed. I trust I have attributed quotes to species correctly.


Gerard, John (revised 1633 edition) Herball,or Generall Historie of Plantes. Available online at Botanicus. It is interesting that Gerard puts cow-wheat in Book 1 of his herbal, with grasses & rushes, not in Book 2.

Gledhill, D (2008) The Names of Plants. 4th Edition CUP.

Grieve, M (1931) A Modern Herbal. Page about common cow-wheat is here.

Grigson, Geoffrey (1975) The Englishman’s Flora. Paladin

JNCC (2006) Vascular Plant Red Data List for Great Britain. Available online here.

Linnaeus (translation by Sir James Edward Smith, 1811) (1724) Lachesis Lapponica or A tour in Lapland. Full text on Google Books.

Lyte, Henry (1619) A New Herbal, or Historie of Plants. Available online here.

Ray, John (1724) Synopsis Methodica Stirpium Britannicarum. Full text available on Google Books.

Redwood, Theophilus (1848) Gray's Supplement to the Pharmacopoeia. 2nd Edition. Longman & Co. Full text on Google books.

Rose, Francis (1999) Indicators of ancient woodland: The use of vascular plants in evaluating ancient woods for nature conservation. British Wildlife, Volume 10, pps 241-251. Full text here.

Stearn, WT (1973) Botanical Latin. 2nd Edition. David & Charles.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Sandpits, Sand Lane, Sandy

One thing we have a lot of in Sandy is, oddly enough, sand. 
The old name for Sandy, Sandeia apparently means, sand island.  

Sandy is on the River Ivel, which wends its way through the Oxford clays of the valley and joins the Great Ouse at Tempsford a few miles north. The town sits at the edge of the Greensand Ridge, which passes for an 'upland' in this part of the world (and when I am on my bike I can certainly vouch for that).

The Romans knew a good place to set up camp when they saw one, and bronze artefacts and coins pop up in the cemetery down the road and my neighbours have fragments of Samian Ware which they've dug up in their gardens (sadly not in our backyard to date....). 

Bedfordshire is littered with old sand & gravel pits, which make very interesting areas to explore.
Disused pit, Sand Lane, Cox Hill, Sandy
Today I walked to the disused pit north of Sand Lane (GR TL 177 494), just outside the town. It's used by local people for recreation. The most interesting part of the site is where the clay has been exposed by the workings.
Clay exposed at the north side of the site.
Cudweeds were everywhere, both common (Filago vulgaris) and small (Filago minima). Much overlooked but very beautiful woolly, little plants.
Common cudweed Filago vulgaris (and small interloper of unknown id)
Small cudweed Filago minima 
There were a few yellow-wort in flower and common centaury, was, well, common.
Yellow-wort Blackstonia perfoliata 
Common centaury Centaurium erythraea (with curly anthers)
The delicate flowers of blue fleabane were dotted about here and there.
Blue fleabane Erigeron acer
There used to be a couple of blue fleabane plants down our road but they have succumbed to local council 'verge management' (I use the word 'management' cautiously).
To fully appreciate the more diminutive plants on display, the botanical prayer position was obligatory, but worth the effort.
Birdsfoot Ornithopus perpusillus
Buckshorn plantain Plantago coronopus
Other plants included thyme-leaved sandwort, sheep's sorrel, mouse-ear hawkweed and self-heal. Gorse seed pods were popping in the heat. 
The most unusual and striking plant on this site is, I think, Carline thistle (Carlina vulgaris). It isn't in flower just yet but its spiny rosettes were in evidence.
 Carline rosettes in a lichen bed (Cladonia app.)
Carline thistle (Carlina vulgaris) in bud.
I am impatient for them to flower. Here are some shots I took in August a couple of years back. 

Carline thistle in flower, Sandy, August 2009
At the moment, I can't leave the house without finding bee orchids, and today was no exception. 6 flowering spikes were blooming just north of the pits in woodland by a pond. 

Friday, June 24, 2011

A short epistle on thistles

It is a truth universally acknowledged that whenever I kneel down to take a photograph my knee finds a thistle.

True thistles in the UK fall into 2 families: Cirsium and Carduus (Carduus is Latin for 'thistle'). The Carduus genus has 3 representatives in the UK; Carduus tenuiflorus, Carduus nutans & Carduus crispus. I saw all 3 (I trust I have my id correct!) growing within metres of each other at Folkestone Downs in early June. Jolly convenient as they were right near to where I parked the car.

Carduus tenuiflorus Slender thistle

Slender thistle at Dungeness
Slender thistle on Folkestone Downs

This is a slimline thistle, with pale, grey-green stems and leaves. It's flower heads are small, clustered and a lovely pale pinky-purple. Quite distinctive. It tends to prefer growing near the sea.

Carduus nutans Musk or nodding thistle

Musk (nodding) thistle on road, Folkestone Downs

Musk thistle is very distinctive with its large, nodding heads. It's a tall, robust looking thistle with spiny, winged stems. Blamey, Fitter & Fitter (When are A&C Black going to do a long overdue reprint???) describe the bracts as 'conspicuously swept back'. Smells good too.

Carduus crispus Welted thistle
Welted thistle on road, Folkestone Downs

Welted thistle is, I think, less distinctive. It has large flowers with woolly bracts and spiny stems. The stems are described as 'naked' just below the flowers, which you can see, just, in the photo.

Bedfordshire is nowhere near the sea. I don't think there are many records for slender thistle (Carduus tenuiflorus) in Bedfordshire. Priory Country Park was not the place I expected to find it on Tuesday. And to be honest, I would have walked past it had I not seen it so frequently in East Kent.
Slender thistle, Priory Country Park

There were a few plants growing right next to the park visitor centre on some rough ground. Perhaps they were imported on the wood chippings?

UPDATE 28/6/2011: Apparently the bark chippings at Priory CP were not imported from off-site. Some trees were cleared from the site so thistle seeds were probably in the seedbank. The site is a former gravel pit so topsoil would have been brought in for landscaping. John Dony (in his Flora of Bedfordshire, 1953) says slender thistle is a rare wool adventive.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

County flower on show in Bedfordshire

Bad news.

Camera is playing up. It's done well for 6 years but now it's time for it to go to Silicon Heaven. I wish it well.

Good news.

I have a birthday (a big one, so not such good news) in a week or so, so a new camera may be on the way. Yay!

Back to today. I decided, despite monsoon-like rain showers this morning, to brave the dratted weather and get out for a walk.

I ventured to one of my usual haunts, which I've not visited for over 3 weeks, and wandered about the farm tracks rather aimlessly. Perhaps it was the weather (it's midsummer for goodness sake so where is the sun?), but I felt a tad, well bored really and saddened, by the homogeneity of the verges and agricultural weeds around about. Sometimes I feel the whole country is just turning into one huge homogeneous green splurge. Verges look the same whether you are in Yorkshire or Hertfordshire, with ox-eye daisy seemingly in some kind of bid for world domination (on long stretches of the A1M anyhow). Perhaps I am just coming down off a botanical high after the buzz of seeing the unique flora in Upper Teesdale.

The skies certainly looked threatening and I was just about to head home, when something caught my eye in the grass in a small copse by the footpath.

Bee orchids! I looked about and found more.....

....and more.....

...and more. Not 1, not 2, not 3.........but 60 bee orchids (Ophrys apifera). 60! Most were past their best, but a lovely and unexpected sight.

I wondered if the farmer knew about them and how I could contact him to let him know. I rarely meet anyone in this area, so started to walk back to the car, when a 4-wheel drive came into view. I flagged it down, and as luck would have it, t'was the farmer and the agronomist. Perfect timing.

They told me the trees had been planted 15 years since. They didn't know about the orchids, were delighted to see them and said they'd strim the area over winter. They also suggested I contact the landowner and gave me her number, which I did.

I had no idea, but apparently the bee orchid is Bedfordshire's county flower.

How apposite.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Kentish miscellany

In early June I spent a delightful week meandering around East Kent. I am trying to catch up in the blog as I saw so many interesting things and my head is full up to bursting.

I couldn't resist the lure of orchids, so mooched off to Park Gate Down to see what was about. Whilst bemoaning the rather small orchids on display I noticed this dapper horse fly (thank you to Jason Green on ISpot for id) hanging about on the encroaching blackthorn scrub at the lower end of the field.

I was just walking back to the car for lunch, when a female hummingbird hawkmoth (HBHM) zipped past me, clearly frenetically searching for something in the grass. She landed briefly on a lady's bedstraw plant. Then she zipped off, flying to and fro. She landed briefly, then off again. After a few minutes (having sent a query down to long-term memory retrieval) I sussed that she was ovipositing. I gave up trying to get a photo of the moth as she was darting about like a lunatic. I looked at one of the bedstraws (with my hand lens) to see if I could find an egg. Sure enough, there was a tiny egg near the top of one plant.

The county recorder told me that this was the 2nd record for HBHM for this site.

I'd parked a little way down the road, as there was no room next to the reserve. I'd noticed a path leading into the plantation woodland nearby so headed in to find somewhere to picnic with my cheese sarnies & apple.

The wood was lovely, and not a soul about, so I sat down in the middle of a wide ride to eat lunch. Wood ants (Formica spp.) trekking across the path voraciously attacked a piece of cheese I'd dropped.

I found a large ant nest of pine needles, a little way off.

On my way back to the car, I noticed some red beetles on a leaf. At first I thought they were ladybirds.

They are Clytra quadripunctata. Now, the deliciously interesting thing about seeing these beetles is that they are intimately associated with wood ants. They are inquiline viz. their larvae live in the nests of other species, in this case, wood ant nests. The female beetles lay their eggs near to wood ant nests, and the ants then hoist the beetle eggs off into their nest. The larvae live in the nest and it is thought they eat detritus. How utterly exquisite!

I also spotted this freaky long-necked bug, which turned out to be Apoderus coryli, a hazel leaf rolling beetle.


BTW my visit to Park Gate was 2nd June.