Saturday, 24 September 2016

More Summer Flowers

As summer draws on, there is less and less colour in Milton Country Park; the flowers that are out tend to be reasonably inconspicuous and occurring in small isolated clumps.

Clump of tansy growing besides a path
Tansy - 7 August 2016
This is the single clump in the whole park



One such flower is tansy. There is a single, and very prominent, clump of its bright yellow flowers next to one of the paths in the north of the park. It is not only decorative, but useful in companion planting for biological pest control: for instance, growing tansy next to potatoes protects them from potato beetle. In the domestic environment, planted around your dustbins it will repel mosquito, ants and flies. It dried flowers will also serve the same purpose.

Historically, has been used both to induce abortions and, paradoxically, to help conceive and prevent miscarriages. Other uses included treatment for worms, fevers, and flatulence. But it is basically toxic, and its medical use is now largely discredited.

Common Fleabane

Flowers of common fleabane in among the reeds
  • Common Fleabane - 15 August 2016
  • A lot of this flower goes unnoticed amongst the reeds

Another insect repellent to be found amongst the reeds at the edge of the lakes in the park is common fleabane. It is so named because its scent repels insects, and was kept in the house specifically to repel fleas.

Great Hairy Willowherb

Single plant of willowherb catching the light
Great Hairy Willowherb - 3 August 2016
Its bruised leaves are said to smell of codlins and cream

Another plant to be found in isolated clumps around the lakes is the great hairy willowherb, not to be confused with the rosebay willowherb and purple loosestrife which occupy the same habitat. The plant shown here was by the jetty on Dickerson's pit, and catching the last rays of the evening sun.

Apparently, and I haven't tried it, when lightly bruised the leaves, and particularly the top shoots have the smell of scolded codlings. This has given rise to a number of alternative names including: codlings and cream, apple pie, cherry pie, gooseberry pie, and sod apple and plum pudding.

Water Figwort

Single spike of water figwort in bud with single flower
Water Figwort - 10 July 2016
A plant for tooth ache and nightmares

Yet another plant of the water margins, but a very inconspicuous one. I only found a couple of plants by the small inlet at the north-west corner of Dickerson's Pit, while looking at the reeds.

The origin of the name of figwort is interesting. One source states it is derived from its use according the doctrine of signatures to treat the disease ficus, which is apparently a synonym for haemorrhoids. A second source suggests its name comes from the shape of its root!

It has previously been used as a herbal remedy for ailments as diverse as toothache and nightmares; and is still used in the treatment of wounds.


Close up of head of hogweed
Hogweed - 14 August 2016
Early in the morning and the flies that are usually to be found on it are not yet awake

There are few plants of hogweed in the park, but those that are there are very obvious. This picture was taken in the early morning before the hoards of flies and hoverflies come looking for its nectar are awake.

Opinion seems divided as to the derivation of the name: it is alternatively given as either the flower smelling of pigs, or the love of pigs for its roots.


Close up of flower head of burdock
Burdock - 31 July 2016
Its stiff hooks, the inspiration for velcro, are clearly visible

In contrast to the other flowers here, burdock is abundant right across the park. It has two claims to fame. Firstly, its roots are use to make dandelion and burdock cordial. Secondly, the stiff hooks and its flowers and seed heads, which gave rise to its alternative names of beggar's buttons and clingers, were the inspiration for velcro.


Water Figwort
Great Willowherb
Common Fleabane  

For information on names, I also consulted the book 'On the Popular Names of British Plants' by R.C.A. Prior

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Summer Flowers 2016

After the elder has finished flowering, the country park becomes overwhelmingly green and will remain so until the leaves change colour in autumn. However, there are a number of more or less conspicuous plants flowering during the summer months.

Close up of single spear thistle blossom
Spear Thistle - 7 August 2016
The national flower of Scotland in Milton Country Park


The main display of thistles is the small meadow on the left hand side of the path leading to the Fen Road exit.  These are creeping thistles, elsewhere there are small isolated clumps of spear thistles, like the one shown above.

Meadow full of creeping thistles
Meadow by Fen Road Exit - 10 July 2016

The main claim to fame for the thistle is, of course, it is the national flower of Scotland. Legend has it that in 1263, king Haakon of Norway tried to invade and conquer Scotland. At some point, the invading army tried to mount a surprise attack on their Scot enemies under the cover of darkness. In order to be as quiet as possible, the attackers took off their shoes and advanced in bare feet. One unfortunate soldier trod on a thistle, yelled with pain, and woke the sleeping Scots, who went on to defeat the Norwegians at the Battle of Largs.

Hedge Bindweed

Single convolvulus bloom with holes eaten into it
Hedge Bindweed - 31 July 2016
I have been unable to find out what eats the buds
Probably one single bite and the culprit did not come back for more.
Many of the bushes at the north end of the park, particularly along the north edge of Deep Pool, are covered with the white trumpet flowers of bindweed for many weeks during summer. Close inspection shows that individual blooms are quite short lived, but, at any one time, only a small fraction of the buds are out - hence, the appearance of continuous blossom.

Part of a vine with everything from buds to dead heads visible
North of Deep Pool - 31 July 2016
Everything from buds to dead heads on the plant

It seems a little strange, that a plant as common and conspicuous as hedge bindweed seems to have attracted very little, if any, folklore. Its only medicinal use seems to have been as a purgative. It does have a couple of more imaginative alternative common names, including: old man's night cap, wedlock, and granny-pop-out-of-bed. This last from the fact that when the base of the flower is squeezed, the whole corolla pops out.

Yellow Loosestrife

Yellow loosestrife among reeds
Dickerson's Pit - 10 July 2016
I have only found a couple of clumps of yellow loosestrife in the park, both of which are in the small inlet off the north west corner of Dickerson's Pit.

The derivations of the both the English and Latin names for yellow loosestrife are interesting.

The name 'loosestrife' probably comes from a belief that putting some of the plant under the yolk of oxen would calm them down. Like much folklore this seems to have more than a little basis in fact: loosestrife is repellent to flies, and hence is likely to calm animals tormented by insects. 
In latin, Lysimachia vulgaris is named after King Lysimachus of Sicily who first discovered its medicinal properties which included treatment of bleeding wounds. 


Honeysuckle twined amongst willow trees
Todd's Pit - 10 July 2016
Victorians believed its heady scent gave young girls inappropriate dreams

I had smelt a sweet aroma at the north-west corner of Todd's Pit before I spotted its source: this vine of honeysuckle growing among the willows.

And, perhaps, because of its sweet smell, the ancients could find no evil with it; it was a force wholly for the good. Plant it in your garden and around your doorways and it will ward off witches and evil. Take honeysuckle indoors and your marriage will prosper.

The leaves of honeysuckle which have been used for treating coughs, colds and asthma, contain antibacterial and anti-inflammatory compounds. These are little used today because of the overall toxicity of the plant.

But, spoil sports that they were, the Victorians could not let such unbridled good cheer go completely unchecked. They banned young girls having the flowers in the house in case their heady scent gave them inappropriate dreams!

Next: More Summer Flowers 


Saturday, 27 August 2016


This post, like the last one, is all about a single plant that makes a major impact on the appearance of Milton Country Park.  Last time, it was hawthorn, this time is the elder.

Large 'plate' of elderflowers seen from underneath
12 June 2016
Huge plates of white blossom like this are seen throughout the park in early June.

Plates of white elderflower blossom are seen in all the hedgerows in the park during the first weeks of June.  Last year, I felt I had failed to fully capture the impact that the elderflowers have on the park.  

One reason is that the blossom faces upwards, and as much of it is above head height, particularly in the hedges in the centre of the park, only the undersides of the umbels are visible.

Elderflowers visible amongst confluent bushes and climbers
North of Park - 8 June 2016
A lot of the elder bushes are mixed in with other bushes and climbers

Another issue is that the elder bushes are often growing amongst some of the thickest vegetation in the park.   Here the elderflowers struggle to be seen amongst hawthorn bushes, ash trees and brambles.  The eye easily sees such blossom, which tends to 'disappear' when photographed.

What's in a Name?


Masses of elderflowers on bush
12 June 2016
Elderflowers can be used to make cordials, white wines and teas.

The name elder is thought to be derived from the Saxon word 'Aeld' or fire. This, and the alternative name 'Ellhorn', refer either to the use of its pithy core as tinder, or its hollowed out branches as bellows. This is quite strange in a way, when you consider that it was believed that burning elder brought death and disaster. One suggested alternative derivation for 'Elder' is from 'Hylde-Moer' the Scandinavian tree spirit who was said to inhabit elder bushes.

Food and Drink

Elder roots, stems and leaves are all toxic. Uncooked, its flowers and berries have an unpleasant bitter taste and contain low concentrations of some poisons, which are destroyed by heat. With that caveat, the flowers are used to make cordials, white wine, and tea; the berries for jellies, jams, wines and liqueurs. 

Medicine Chest 

Large bunch of elderberries hanging down
14 August 2016
Elderberries are a rich source of vitamins A and C

For centuries the elder tree has been known as the medicine chest, because almost every part of the bush has been used by herbalists.  Some uses, for instance using the bark as a purgative, have now disappeared, and only the flowers and the berries are routinely used.

Preparations of the flowers are effective against various respiratory complaints such as coughs, colds and sinusitis.  Drinking elderflower tea for two months before the pollen count rises is said to alleviate the symptoms of hay fever.

The berries are a great source of vitamins A and C.  In addition, they contain chemical compounds which reduce the duration of flu, boost the immune system, and are beneficial to diabetics as they stimulate glucose metabolism and the excretion of insulin.


Elder bush in full bloom
8 June 2016
The wood from elders is excellent for making magic wands

Through the ages, the elder has been hero and villain and all things between. At first, elder was regarded as sacred to the goddess of vegetation Hylde-Moer, and was to be honoured and treated accordingly. So, if given suitable offerings and prayers, the elder would protect the people who treasured it, and hence was planted around the house to keep out evil spirits. A collateral benefit was that the elder was never struck by lightning (or so myth had it), and hence would protect the dwelling from that as well. This protection was for life and beyond: green twigs were placed in coffins to protect the body and soul on its way to the otherworld.

The heavy smell of elderflowers was believed to be narcotic, which may well explain why sleeping beneath the tree at midsummer was such a good time to see fairies.

Then along came the Christians keen to appropriate everything pagan for themselves. So they cursed elder. It was the tree that Judas hanged himself from. It was also, highly improbably given the lightness and weakness of its wood, the tree from which the cross was made. Witches could turn themselves into elder trees, and its wood was used for making magic wands.


These snippets were gleaned from the following websites:

Elder | Trees for Life 
Elder in Profile   
Sambucus nigra (elder)  
The Elder Tree   

Next: Summer Flowers 2016

Saturday, 13 August 2016


It is almost impossible to overestimate the impact that the coming of the hawthorn blossom in May has on Milton Country Park, and the surrounding countryside.  Almost every hedge and innumerable bushes are thickly covered with creamy white flowers.

Hawthorn bush covered in blossom seen through an arch of trees.
Hawthorn Blossom Framed by Arch of Trees.  By Deep Pool - 27 May 2016

Hawthorn has been an important part of the landscape for well over a thousand years: it name is derived from the anglo-saxon 'haegthorn' meaning hedgethorn.  In those times, it was not only used for hedges, but individual bushes were often important boundary markers.  It is not surprising then, that over the centuries, hawthorn has gained many names, including: hedgethorn, quickthorn, whitethorn, may, beltane, and quickset.  It has also attracted a great deal of folk lore.

Path by wetlands with hedges covered in may
Hedgerow Covered in Blossom.  Path by Wetlands - 29 May 2016

Hawthorn is perhaps most strongly associated with the month of May, and May Day celebrations in particular. Either in the evening of April 30th or early in the morning of the day itself, villagers would go out and gather armfuls of may to decorate their houses. This symbolised the start of the growing season and brought new life into the village.

Huge hawthorn bushes completely covered in may blossom
'Knots of May' on bushes in centre of park - 22 May 2016

This is the basis of the expression 'to go a'maying', and also the origin of the rhyme 'Here we go gathering nuts in May'. Like most nursery rhymes, I had recited it endlessly, but never thought about the problem at its very heart – there are no nuts in May. Here 'nuts' refers to the 'knots' of hawthorn flowers on the branches.

But May Day is also a fertility celebration, and many who collected flowers on 30th April would stay out all night love-making, causing a minor baby boom at this time of year. When the Christians came to claim this festival as their own, they wanted nothing to do with such ribaldry, and, instead, turned May into a month of celibacy and restraint. This has led one author to put rather a different interpretation on 'ne'er cast a clout till May is out'. He suggests that it is an instruction not to change one's clothes at all during the month. Why? Because any sign of sexual activity will be impossible to detect on such dirty and dishevelled clothes.

Branches of hawthorn covered in flowers
The Smell of Plague Comes to Milton Country Park.  Centre of Park - 22 May 2016
Hawthorn has more sinister associations as well.  May flowers were said to smell of plague.  This is well based as one of the components of the scent is trimethylamine, which is one of the first chemicals released by rotting corpses.

More equivocally, is its association with witches.  While some believed that witches rode on broomsticks made of hawthorn, others put sprigs of hawthorn over their doorways to keep the ladies out!

Isolated bush covered in hawthorn blossom
Drug Store or Fairy House? By Fen Road Exit - 22 May 2016

It widely believed that fairies lived in hawthorn bushes.  In the ballad of 'Thomas the Rimmer', the eponymous hero is abducted by a fairy queen in a hawthorn bush and taken to a fairy kingdom, where he was kept for seven days.  So the bush pictured here could be a Harry Potter-like portal to a magic place!

Hawthorn is held to be a veritable super drug store.  A bath in the dew of the flowers collected on May Day brings not only a better complexion, but a healthy and lucky future too.  Its leaves can be eaten, hence, 'bread and cheese' is one of its many names.  Its flowers used to make white wine, and its berries used to make jelly, tea, and a liqueur when soaked in brandy.  Its berries can be used effectively against artherosclerosis,  hypertension and cardiac arrest!

Hawthorn bush deep in the woods
A Bush Fit for a Crown  By Dickerson's Pit - 29 May 2016

Finally, spare a thought for Richard III who had a very bad day at the office on 22nd August 1485 at the battle of Bosworth.  Not only did he lose his kingdom and his life, but, also, rather carelessly left his circlet hanging around in a hawthorn bush for his enemies to find. 

All this is a fairly superficial romp through the folk lore of hawthorn, of which there is a great deal more.  Perhaps, you will be like me, that after reading such tales, you can never look at a hawthorn bush the same again.

I have culled these thoughts from the following sources:

Trees for Life 

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Tree Blossom

This is one post in a short series in which I look again at spring in Milton Country Park.  So much happens in spring, in such a short space of time, that I found it impossible to keep up with the changing landscape, and, as a result, did not do justice to everything that was going on, the first time around.

White blossom on trees in orchard
Orchard - 19 April 2016

The Orchard

One area that I completely neglected was the orchard.  Orchards are, undoubtedly, at their most attractive in spring when the trees are covered in white blossom, like those shown in the image above.

Apple tree in blossom
Orchard - 19 May 2016

I found photographing the apple blossom posed the same problems as I had found with other tree blossom such as the blackthorn. What appears to the naked eye as a substantial and obvious mass of bloom, seems quite insubstantial on the photograph: there seems to be far less flowers than I remembered, and those that are there are individually smaller.  It is then a case of balancing the need to show the overall effect, but still have the blossom large enough to make an impact.  I hope by focussing on a single tree in the image above, I have conveyed a sense of what I saw, while still retaining something of the overall environment.

Apple blossom in close up
Apple Blossom - 8 May 2016

 A close-up highlights the delicate pinks of the buds and developing flowers which is an important feature of apple blossom.

Elsewhere in the Park


Tree laden with white blossom
By Visitor Centre - 8 May 2016
This tree, besides the main path leading past the visitor centre, is, perhaps, the most conspicuous and most noticed, in the park. 

Willow tree covered with catkins
Centre of Park - 12 May 2015

Not all blossom is as conspicuous as the white flowers of the fruit trees.  This willow trees shines bright yellow in the sunshine, not from its leaves, but from its catkins.

Close up of Field Maple Flowers
Field Maple Flowers - 8 April 2016

Similarly, the flowers of the field maple are easily missed as they are only very slightly different in colour from the surrounding leaves.

Next: Hawthorn


Saturday, 9 July 2016

Green Leaves

When we think of spring, we naturally think of colourful flowers: yellow daffodils and dandelions; white blackthorn and hawthorn; and the pink of freshly opened apple blossom.  These are the eye catching highlights of the season.  

Elder leaves
Young Elder Leaves

At the same time, there is a more lasting change taking place - from bare branches to green leaves.  It is a transition that goes by almost unnoticed; one day the trees are bare, the next, or so it seems, they are covered in leaves.  And, of course, the trees stay green until the following autumn.

For the second year, I have tried to photograph this transition, the mid point between bare wood and leaves, in Milton Country Park.  The main difficulty is capturing that moment when the buds have developed enough to show up green in the photograph, but not so far that only a confluent green mass can be seen.

It was only when I tried to do this last year, that I fully realised that not all trees go green at the same time. The first leaves to appear are those on the elder.  This year this was at the end of February.  The image at the top of this post was actually taken last year in April, which is probably a good indication of the difference in climate of the two years.

Field maple highlight among bare trees
South of Park - 27 March 2016

Another bush that gets its foliage early is the field maple.  This one was in a favoured position on the edge of the woods at the south end of the park.  Its bright green leaves stand out against the surrounding bare trunks and branches.

Veil of hawthorn leaves
By Play Area - 27 March 2016

The field maple in the previous picture was well separated from its background. More usually, the developing leaves are little more than a thin veil over the surrounding wood, clearly visible to the eye but often 'disappear' in a photograph.  This hawthorn is catching the early morning light which helps to accentuate the leaves.

Sticky buds gleam in the sunshine
South of Park - 3 April 2016

Not all buds are so indistinct.  The swelling sticky buds on this young horse chestnut were visible from some yards away.

Large oak tree bright yellow green dominates the path
Centre of Park - 19 April 2016

We tend to think of trees in terms of their colour only when they are in blossom, or, during the autumn.  The rest of the time we appreciate for their stature, form or age.  However, I think they can be impressive when the leaves are just fully formed and are a rich vibrant green.  I have particularly noticed it with oak trees this year.  The foliage of this one really stands out in the sunshine.

Path between bright green hawthorn bushes
By Wetlands - 1 May 2016

The same can also be said of the hawthorn.  Here the hawthorn is in bright contrast to the darker greens of the ivy and the tree trunks.

One for the Future

Young sycamore plant
By Wetlands - 8 April 2016

It does not take much searching to find young sycamore plants like this anywhere in the park.   

Next: Tree Blossom

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Dead Wood

Dead  trees, whether upright, broken down, or rotting on the ground make a significant contribution to both the appearance and the ecology of Milton Country Park.

Two dead tree stumps surrounded by brambles.
By Dickerson's Pit - 13 April 2016

These tall tree stumps, complete with woodpecker holes, are part of a trio of such stumps by the path on the eastern side of Dickerson's pit.  Later in the summer they will be covered in cascades of convolvulus.

Tree stump broken just above ground level with trunk in water
Wetlands - 22 February 2016

More often, the dead stumps do not remain intact and upright, but, like the tree in this image, are broken off by one of the gales which batter the park from time to time.  

Willow tree snapped in two
By Hall's Pond - 13 March 2016

While willow trees like this, snapped in two, are a dramatic testimony to the power of the wind.

Complex of bleached tree roots
Centre of Park - 14 March 2016

At other times, the trees are simply uprooted.  With time, the soil is washed away, leaving a skeleton of roots to bleach in the sun.

Small dead tree on ground bleached white.
Woods at Southern Edge of Park - 3 April 2016

This small tree reminds me very strongly of an animal skeleton.

Moss covered fallen branches
By Todd's Pit - 13 March 2016

Eventually, all the fallen branches will be covered by moss and overgrown by nettles and brambles.  Herb robert is another frequent coloniser of the dead wood in the park.  The logs themselves will provide food and shelter for a host of invertebrates including beetle larvae.

Next: Spring Leaves