Saturday, 10 December 2016

Autumn Leaves 2016

Yellow and red poplar leaves covering the ground
Poplar Leaves - 2 November 2016
When on the tree, the yellow and red leaves would have been admired;
on the ground, the range of colours is actually increased.

We all admire the brilliantly coloured leaves of autumn while they are still on the tree. But when they fall off the tree, onto the ground, our attitude changes; their beauty is forgotten and we see them only as a nuisance. They make our streets and gardens untidy; they block the drains; and, they form a slippery layer on the railway lines, stopping the trains running to time. All that is left is to collect them up, and either burn them or put them in the rubbish; except for gardeners, who use the dead leaves for compost.

Light maple leaf lying on contrasting rich brown oak leaves
Contrasting Leaves - 8 November 2016
The maple leaf contrasts strongly with the surrounding oak leaves
in colour, shape and texture.

But there is still plenty of visual interest in the leaves as they rot away on the ground.  While the vibrant colours remain for a few days at least after the leaves have fallen, the range of colours is increased, not only by browns, dark purples, and blacks of the decomposing leaves, but also by different coloured leaves from adjacent trees.  Similarly, there are strong contrasts in shape and texture when a leaf from one tree falls on the leaves from a different type of tree.

Why Leaves Turn Red and Yellow


Dead leaves, mostly oak, coloured from orange to dark brown amongst grass and low growing plants
Fallen Leaves - 8 November 2016
Most of the colour of dead leaves derives from the breakdown of chlorophyll
unmasking yellow and orange pigments already present.

The process by which a living green leaf, producing sugar and oxygen from sunlight and air, turns bright red or yellow, and eventually falls to earth and rots away, starts when the length of the night exceeds a certain value. The tree then builds a barrier between the leaf and the rest of the tree, cutting the leaf off from nutrients absorbed through the roots, and tree from the sugar created in the leaf. As a result the green chlorophyll pigment decays, and exposes the yellow and orange colours of the xanthophylls and carotenoids normally present in the leaf. 
 

Red maple leaf with yellow and brown leaves
Maple Leaves - 8 November 2016
Red pigmentation develops after the leaf is already dying.
What is the advantage to the tree?

Interestingly, the red colours come from a third group of pigments, the anthocyanins, which are only synthesised when the leaf is dying. It is not entirely clear what the advantage to the tree is to have red leaves in autumn. Theories include: to warn off aphids which might want to use the tree as an overwinter host; to undermine the camouflage of herbivores; or, to attract birds to the tree to eat berries which may otherwise be overlooked. The anthocyanins in maple leaves have been shown to stunt the growth of any nearby saplings.

The Weather For It


The best display of autumn colour is produced when a moist growing season is followed by a dry autumn with sunny days and cool, but not frosty nights. Heavy rain, gales and frost are all likely to bring a premature end to the display.



Folklore, Legend and Medicine



Blanket of oak leaves in various shades of brown
Oak Leaves - 8 November 2016
With a mass of leaves like this, it is easy to see why the Lakota believed
they had been dropped as a protective blanket.

Fallen leaves, though such a prominent feature of the countryside in their season, do not feature greatly in folklore. They have been associated with fairies, with a swirl of leaves believed to be evidence of fairies dancing. Catching a falling leaf, particularly at the beginning of autumn, is said to protect the catcher from illness, or, more specifically, colds, throughout the winter.

But, perhaps, the most charming legend is that of the Lakota American Indians. The god who looks after living creatures saw the suffering of the plants and flowers as they shivered in the increasing cold of Autumn. Feeling sorry for them, the deity ordained that the trees should shed their leaves over the earth as a blanket to keep the plants warm. In return, the trees were allowed one great last blaze of glory.

I could find no reference to any medicinal use of fallen leaves.  However,  a Finnish company is developing the technology to extract natural pigments from the leaves for use in the clothing and cosmetic industries. The residual biomass is high in nutrients with possible uses as a fertiliser.





Saturday, 26 November 2016

Autumn 2016

Oak and maple trees turning yellow
The Golden Season - 8 November 2016
Autumn in golden in Milton Country Park
Here the trees in Remembrance Meadow are all turning yellow

Autumn is nature's siren, using its beauty to lure us into the misery of winter.  It is living proof that you can say anything with a smile on your face: this attractive season of reds and yellows presages nothing but wind, rain, snow, ice and darkness.  Yet we love it!  It is a beautiful woman with a dagger behind her back.

A stand of poplar trees shine yellow backlit by the morning sun
Poplar Trees Catch the Morning Sun - 2 November 2016
Poplars are one of the first trees to change colour
Here a group shine gold in the morning sun.

And why are we so keen to see the back of green leaves?  Admittedly, by October the green has become rather dull and tired, the flowers, except for a few stragglers, have gone, and the countryside is generally untidy.  But the green is the green of chlorophyll, and without chlorophyll there would be no oxygen, and with no oxygen, we could not live.  

Oak tree with a canopy of copper leaves
  • 'Copper' Oak - 18 November 2016
  • This oak catches the eye with its copper coloured leaves
  • In mid-November, the oaks are perhaps the most colourful trees in the park

Autumn is famously the season of 'mists and mellow fruitfulness'.  It may be climate change, but mists have been very few and far between in the eighteen of so months I have been writing this blog. Similarly, by mid-autumn most of the apples, plums and pears have disappeared from the trees and bushes.  Though, in a mild autumn like this one, there are still a lot of hawthorn berries on the bushes.  Presumably, the birds have been able to find plenty of food elsewhere.  


Branches of hawthorn bush covered in red berries
A Winter Larder - 18 November 2016
With a mild autumn, there are still plenty of berries of the bushes for the birds when they need them


The photographs for this post have all been taken in the first half of November.  At this time, while the poplars and the sycamores have turned yellow, there are still some trees and bushes that have barely changed colour at all: the willows and brambles are still quite green.  In contrast, one oak tree in Remembrance Meadow has lost all but a couple of its leaves; an early reminder of what is to come.


Oak tree with only one clump of leaves left on the branches
Goodbye to Summer - 8 November 2016
Last few leaves left hanging on this oak tree, yet still only early November 



In contrast, these willow trees on the banks of Todd's Pit were taken just two days earlier:

Willows along the bank of Todd's Pit with green leaves and red branches
  • Willow Bank - 6 November 2016
  • Still plenty of green leaves on these willow trees on the bank of Todd's Pit
Next: Autumn Leaves 2016


 

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Reeds

Single reed plant framed by bushes
Deep Pool - 3 July 2016
Single reeds have a simple elegance.

This project to document Milton Country Park through the year is based on three assumptions. 

Firstly, I believe that any natural, or semi natural environment, not matter how ordinary, banal, or familiar it may seem, is worthy of attention.  

Secondly, any semi natural environment (there are very few truly natural environments left in England) is to be valued for what it offers, and not dismissed because of its lack of dramatic scenery, or noteworthy and endangered plants and animals.  For most people, more exotic and dramatic locations bring excitement for perhaps a fortnight a year; it is in the local neighbourhood that one can enjoy nature for the other 300 odd days a year.

Thirdly, that a photographer with sufficient skill and imagination, and given the right conditions, should be able to produce interesting, if not beautiful images of such places.  Edward Weston's pictures of Port Lobos and Eliot Porter's intimate landscapes of New England have been particularly inspirational to me.

A small group of flower heads of the common reed backlit by the morning sun
Wetlands - 11 September 2016
Flower heads of the common reed shine in the early morning sun


This brings me to the subject of this week's post: reeds (I use the word loosely for any plant that that has lanceolate leaves and grows by the water).  I admit that I find these plants neither interesting nor visually  appealing.  A search on the net did not unearth any particularly interesting facts: no witches, fairies, goblins, spells or miracle cures; just practical uses in thatching, water cleansing and floor covering for churches.  So, in many ways, to write a post on the subject of reeds illustrated with interesting photographs is a good test of the ideas I outlined above.


Dickerson's Pit at sunset with reeds in the foreground
Dickerson's Pit - 3 August 2016
Reeds are important to the appearance of the park


But reeds are important both to the ecology and to the appearance of the park. With over 2000 metres of water's edge to colonise, plus the majority of the wetland area, there are a lot of reeds in Milton Country Park. 


Close up of flower head of soft rush
Soft Rush - 26 June 2016

Visually, isolated plants have a certain elegance as shown in the image at the top of this post.  With back lighting, the flower heads of the common reed are a dramatic sight.  And in the fading evening light, I found the semi-circle of circle of rushes in shallow water just away from the bank made an attractive scene.  


Branched bur reed in bed of other reeds
Branched Bur Weed - 7 July 2016


As mentioned above, I have used the term 'reed' very loosely.  I now recognise there are at least five different plants involved. The commonest of which are the common reed, Phragmites australis; the soft rush, Juncus effusus; and yellow irises, Iris pseudocaris.  The latter is definitely not a reed, but included here because of the shape of its leaves.


Close up of flower of greater spearwort
Greater Spearwort - 7 Jully 2016




In one small inlet off Dickerson's Pit, I found two other plants.  One was branched bur-reed, Spharganium erectum, which looks like a model of a chemical formula found in a schools science laboratory.  In the same short stretch, I was surprised by some large yellow flowers among the reeds, which on investigation proved to be greater spearwort, Ranunculus lingua.

I certainly have not unearthed any earth shattering facts or created world beating photographs, but what I have found and the images I have made do nothing to dissuade me that even the most unpromising material is worth close attention. 

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Clematis and Hawthorn

This is the second post about fruits and berries in Milton Country Park.

Clematis 

 

Bank of fruiting clematis
Clematis vitalba - 21 September 2016
Its similarity to an old man's beard is striking

Clematis vitalba has colonised a number of the trees and bushes in the north of the park.  In many cases, the climber has completely swamped its host, and, as in this picture, very little of the supporting tree or bush is visible, behind a bank of the invader.  The appropriateness of its common name, old man's beard, is very obvious when a mass of its seed heads like this are seen.


Tree covered in flowering clematis
Flowering clematis - 31 July 2016
Tree completely covered in clematis flowers.

This plant is also commonly known as traveller's joy. This name, that has been in use since at least the 16th Century, refers to the bright and cheerful display its seeds make during the sombre autumn months.  Although small greeny white flowers are quite showy, they do not have the impact of later fruit.  



Close up of clematis flowers
Clematis flowers - 24 July 2016
The flowers are unusual in that they have no petals.

The most unusual feature of the flowers is that they have no petals; the petal like structure that can be seen in this picture are sepals.  Maybe not that surprising in the wild plants, but, far more so in the cultivated plants with their huge multicoloured sepals.


Fruiting clematis and brambles
Clematis and brambles - 12 September 2016
Like scavengers fighting over a corpse, brambles and clematis vie for dominance

One of the things I have become increasingly interested in is plant communities and how plants compete for space and light.  In this picture, it is hard to know what is buried below the smothering mass of brambles and clematis.


Hawthorn

 

Clematis with fruit climbing around hawthorn full of red berries
Clematis and hawthorn - 11 September 2016
Contrasting seeds of hawthorn and clematis

Given the number of hawthorn bushes in the park, it is not surprising that some have been invaded by clematis.  I found the contrast of the small dense berries of the hawthorn and the fluffy white seeds of the clematis quite striking.


Hawthorn bush with masses of red berries
Hawthorn - 12 September 2016
Hawthorn bush with a good crop of berries


What a difference a year makes!  Last year, I worked hard to find any hawthorn bush with more than a few berries.  This year, every bush, like the one in this picture, was laden with them.

Rose Hips

 

Arching briar with rose hips
Rose Hips - 12 September 2016
Easily missed amongst the mass of hawthorn berries

Almost totally lost amongst all the millions of hawthorn berries in the park are few dog roses with their bright orange red hips. I spotted these on a bush at the north of the park.



I was surprised how little folk lore and herbal medicine is attached to this plant. Its medicinal use seems to be confined to use as a source of vitamins, particularly vitamin C, when a syrup is made from the hips.



Perhaps, the most intriguing bit of folk lore I came across is the Indian belief that if fairies ate rose hips and turned three times counter clockwise, they became invisible. Eat the rose hips again, and turn three times clockwise, and, hey presto, the fairies become visible again.



The rose has also been a symbol of silence since the early Egyptians. Any matters discussed under a rose were in strict confidence. This led to the custom of carving roses on the ceiling of banquetting halls to remind guests that any conversations were not to be repeated outside of the hall.

Next: Reeds











Saturday, 8 October 2016

Apples and Plums

Photographing Milton Country Park for the second year running has given me the opportunity to either picture things I missed the first time around, or, hopefully, improve on my images from last year. As anyone who has photographed in the same place for any length of time will know, seasons vary tremendously from year to year.

Cherry Plums 



Tree laden with cluster of ripe cherry plums
Cherry Plums - 31 July 2016
A bumper crop this year

 

                                                                                
The mild spring and the warm and wet summer has meant a bumper crop of cherry plums. Last year, I took some pictures at an early stage when just a few plums were ripe. When I went back later, they had all disappeared. This year, to avoid the same mistake, I assiduously photographed the plums twice a week for three weeks. But I needn't have worried, as the trees were laden with fruit as the image above shows. This is far more than last year. Interestingly, the plum trees in the orchard had far fewer plums than in 2015.

Lords and Ladies

 

Spikes of ripe but uneaten lords and ladies among bramble and ivy
Lords and Ladies - 7 August 2016
A clump of ripe but uneaten fruit among the brambles and the ivy

Another fruit I struggled to capture last year, was the bright red berries of cuckoo pint (for some reason I think of the plant as cuckoo pint, and its fruit as lords and ladies). In 2015, all the spikes seem to be eaten as soon as they appeared. This time around, I had no problem in finding entire spikes, like the group shown here. Is this a reflection of an increase in number of berries, or that the birds, squirrels, and rabbits had plenty of other things to eat?

Apples

 

Bunches of ripening apples in closeup
Ripening Apples - 28 August 2016
They may not be the forbidden fruit but their temptation is obvious

It appears that it has been a bumper year for apples as well. This cluster of large, juicy fruit was typical of all the apple trees I saw in the park. Fruit such as this make it easy to understand why the apple has become associated with the forbidden fruit in the tale of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from Eden. But the Bible does not the name the forbidden fruit, and its identity with the apple is more a product of the imagination of Renaissance painters. In fact, some would argue that the forbidden fruit could not have been an apple as it would not have been found in the Middle East at the time. However, this argument seems specious as the ecology of the surrounding countryside is generally irrelevant to the contents of a garden, particularly a paradise like Eden – just think of all the non-native plants found in modern day Eden Project in Cornwall.

Apple tree with apples shining in the early morning sunshine
In the Orchard - 28 August 2016
Apples gleam in the early morning sunshine

There is the old saying that you can't see the wood for the trees; but when it comes to photographing apples in the orchard, it seemed more a case that the camera couldn't see the fruit for the trees. I finally settled on this picture where the apples reflect the low sunlight more strongly than the surrounding leaves and stand out just that little bit.



Branches of apples laden with apples against the sky
Overhanging the path - 25 August 2016
Why is it that the best fruit is always out of reach?

In both these cases, the apples were green. On the higher boughs, where they got more sunlight, they were already turning a mouth watering red.

Apples are of course healthy. We have all heard the saying 'an apple a day keeps the doctor away', but the list of diseases the apple has been thought to cure is truly impressive, including: constipation, gout, fatigue, rheumatism, problems with the kidney or liver, anaemia and urine retention. It is said to lower cholesterol; and rubbing two halves of a sliced apple on a wart, then burying the remainder, eliminates the wart. No wonder the apple is associated with immortality.

Horse Chestnut


Small horse chestnut tree with conkers
Young Horse Chestnut - 28 August 2016
Conkers clearly visible on this tree which so far has escaped the ravages of the leaf miner

One of the newly planted horse chestnut trees in the south of the park produced a nice crop of 'conkers', which inevitably led to my wondering why they are called conkers. The most likely explanation is they are named after the game of conquerors, which was originally played with snail shells or hazel nuts. Wikipedia lists the wonderful obblyonkers as a regional alternative name.

Fruitless

 

Racemes of greeny white hop flowers
Male Hops - 21 August 2016
I have so far been unable to find any female plants with hops

I end this post with the fruit I didn't find. At the north end of the park by the Fen Road exit, I noticed a couple of trees covered with a large leafed climber with whitish-green flowers in panicles. As far as I can tell these climbers of male hop plants, and so far I have been unable to locate any female plants bearing the familiar hops anywhere in the park.

Next: Clematis and Hawthorn

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

 

Tansy




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.

Hogweed





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.



Burdock




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.

Links

Water Figwort
Tansy  
Great Willowherb
Common Fleabane  
Hogweed
Burdock  

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

Next: Apples and Plums  




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
 

Thistles


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



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