Saturday, 11 March 2017


Sprat-weather - fisherman's slang for those dark depressing days of late autumn and early winter when it never seems to get properly light. It seems such weather is good for catching sprats; perhaps the fish suffer from SAD and lose the will to live. On that basis, December should have been an exceptional month for sprat fishing. Almost every day was damp, and gloomy with a biting cold wind penetrating the thickest of coats.

Glimpse of sun through break in clouds reflected in dark muddy water
Dark Days - 13 December 2016
Sun reflecting in a muddy inlet off Dickerson's Pit

For me, this first image captures the mood of the whole depressing spell, a dark muddy patch of water reflecting a small rare glimpse of the sun. 

An oak leaf stuck in the grooves of a white frosty table top
Frosty Cheer - 8 November 2016
The frost provides little more than a white backdrop to the colourful leaf 

Enough of the gloom and a whole lot more cheerful picture! It has not all been grey murk. There have been spells of bright frosty weather, although there have been none of those gloriously pretty winter mornings when all the trees are covered in rime. At most, only the table tops, the grass and the low growing vegetation in the more open parts of the park have been covered in rime. This picture was taken on the first frosty day of the season at the beginning of November.  The brightness of such sunny mornings more than make up for the cold.

Moss on a Precipice - 8 November 2016
Again the frost brightens up the picture

I love the way a photograph can remove any sense of scale, and literally make a mountain out of a molehill (or vice versa). In this case, the moss growing on one of the planks of a table top is left teetering on the edge of a precipice.

Frost Candyfloss - 5 December 2016
The brown of the dead grass at the base of the plant, and
the colour of the trees in the background, underline how little
was affected by the frost.
A further brief frosty spell at the beginning of December, painted the grass and low growing vegetation with a veneer of ice, and left this plant looking like a stick of white candy floss.

Close up of sprays of winter jasmine
Winter Jasmine in the Sensory Garden - 2 January 2017
This winter jasmine climbs over the gate to the sensory garden
With most of the trees now bare, the only bright colours in the park were to be found in the garden. The bright yellow of the winter jasmine climbing over the gateway to the sensory garden bringing some much needed good cheer to the day.

Small dogwood bush, red and yellow surrounded by copper beech hedges
Dogwood - 2 January 2017
The bright yellow and reds of the dogwood,
eclipse the copper beech

In the garden opposite, the dogwood stood out brightly against the dull copper of the beech hedge and very muted greens and browns of the bushes and trees behind.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

A Foggy Day

February 5 was the first seriously foggy day we have had for many months.  Although the fog did not penetrate the woody areas of Milton Country Park, it was sufficiently thick to obscure the opposite banks of the major pits in the park.
View down jetty into the mist with trees on opposite bank only visible as a slightly darker shade of grey
Jetty - 5 February 2017
The trees on the opposite bank are barely visible

Fog is a thief of vision.  It drains the landscape of colour and detail, leaving only the vaguest of details looming in the grey light.  I notice that the dictionary definition of loom is to appear indistinct and in an enlarged form.  Is this because the eye has nothing else to fix on in the monotonous gloom, and fills the space with anything it can discern? 

Bridge between thick bushes loom darkly in the mist
View of a Bridge - 5 February 2017
One of the bridges between Deep Water and Dickerson's Pit

The photograph above and the one below were both taken from the end of the jetty looking towards Deep Water. 

Dead reeds in foreground with large trees in fog behind
Dickerson's Pit - 5 February 2017

In this second image, there is a hint of colour in the reeds in the foreground. 

Vaguely discernible in fog, a cormorant on a branch with gulls in the background
Birds in the Mist - 5 February 2017
Cormorant on island in middle of Dickerson's Pit

Loom has connotations of menace.  The featureless landscape becomes disorientating, and the silence, so often a feature of thick fog without any wind, can be disconcerting.   The smallest sound is magnified - a bird's warning cry becomes a siren, as the mind invents what it can't detect.   

What I hadn't appreciated before is how white objects appear so luminous in the gloom. In the middle of Dickerson's Pit, between the end of the jetty and the opposite shore, there are a couple of small islands.  Even with some image intensification, this cormorant on a branch on one of these islands, is only just discernible. In contrast, the white gulls behind seem to positively glow.

View down Dickerson's Pit, with reed beds in the foreground, bushes and islands in the backgrouond.
Looking South Down Dickerson's Pit - 5 February 2017

Moving around, this photograph is a long view down Dickerson's Pit. Like the previous image, the swan and the white gulls stand out in the gloom.

One large brown reed and two small ones in water with nothing else visible.
Reeds - 5 February 2017

To an extent, fog is the photographer's friend: in blanketting out anything except the foreground, it can leave the subject of the picture isolated against a background of studio simplicity.  

Next: Sprat-Weather 


Saturday, 11 February 2017


Ivy is the elephant in the living room of the countryside: it is always there but almost completely ignored.  It is not beautiful or photogenic; it is not exotic; it does not have brilliant flowers, and, its black berries are all but invisible.  Yet, it is a major factor in the appearence and atmosphere of Milton Country Park.

Close up of ivy leaves
Ivy Leaves - 22 March 2016

In parts of the park, ivy not only festoons the the trunk of every tree with a thick, shaggy green coat, it also carpets the ground beneath. Together with long tendrils hanging down from the branches, these areas take on the atmosphere of a lush forest.  

A clump of trees every one with heavy ivy load.
Ivied Trees - 29 January 2017
The thick ivy tresses on the trunks, fill the space between the trees
making a wall of green.

Ivy and Wildlife

But is ivy a friend or a foe?  Contrary to what some may think, ivy does not kill trees.  It is not a parasite, and uses the trees purely for support; it derives all its nutrients from its roots.  It is easy to believe that ivy is the culprit, when you see a dying tree, its crown completely infested with the plant.  However, the host had to be moribund before the ivy could grow that much, as a healthy tree canopy can provide more than enough shade to deny the ivy the light it needs for photosynthesis and growth.  

Ivy tendrils hanging down from overhead branches
Ivy Tendrils - 18 September 2016
Tendrils hanging down give a tropical forest feel to the woods

Ivy is undoubtedly of great value for wildlife.  Its dense foliage provides a place where birds can nest, bats can hide, and insects hibernate. Its leaves are eaten by a number of insects, including the angle shades moth.  Ivy flowers are an important source of nectar at a time of year when there are few other sources.  Its berries provide food for a number of birds including blackbirds, thrushes and black caps. This winter, the berries have been disappearing as soon as they are ripe.

Ivy leaves all small many red growing on the ground
Ivy Covered Bank - 6 February 2017
Ivy provides a thick ground cover, with leaves turning a rich red during autumn


Ivy is rich in folk lore and mythology. Its main claim to fame is its eponymous reference in the carol 'The Holly and the Ivy'; although ivy is not mentioned at all after the first line.  The holly in this carol represents Christ, the reference to ivy is probably a hangover from earlier traditions which linked the two plants.  In fact, during the fifthteenth and sixteenth century there were a number of holly and ivy carols.

Tree trunk completely covered with thick ivy tendrils
Ivy Tendrils - 24 February 2015
It is difficult to believe that ivy is harmless, when the whole trunk of a tree is smothered in its tendrils

In these early traditions, holly represents the male and ivy the female.  Ivy would be brought into the house at Christmas as a symbol of fertility.  It was thought to be bring good luck to women; and if grown on the walls of the house protect its inhabitants against witch craft.  Drinking ivy vinegar was said to protect against the plague.

Ivy flowers wreathed around tree trunk
Ivy Flowers - 15 October 2016
Note the lanceolate shaped leaves on the flowering branches

Ivy was sacred to Bacchus, the god of wine and orgies, who wore a crown of ivy, which gave him immortality.  To the Romans, ivy was also a symbol of intellect, and winners of poetry competitions were awarded a wreath of ivy.  

A bunch of ripe ivy berries
Ivy Berries - 3 February 2017
Rich food source for birds
 the berries start disappearing from the bushes as soon as they are ripe


Further Reading

Ivy - Friend or Foe? 
The Importance of Ivy to Insects  

English Ivy Symbolism, Traditions and Mythology
Folklore in My Garden - Ivy
Ivy - Hedera helix

Next: A Foggy Day

Saturday, 28 January 2017


Over the last couple of months, I have been hunting for fungi in Milton Country Park, with more success than I had expected. Fungi are neither numerous nor prominent in the park and I have only ever seen the odd one or two in the years I have been visiting there. But a fairly determined search during December and January revealed quite a few specimens, mostly small and mostly growing on trees or rotting wood. The restricted habitat in which I found the fungi may simply reflect the time of year, and there may well be more mushrooms and toadstools in the park at other times of year, which I have simply overlooked.

Close up of a clump of Jelly Ear Fungus
Jelly Ear Fungus - 18 December 2016
This fungus is said to be the tormented spirit of Judas Iscariot trying to escape

I feel I should attempt to identify my findings. However, I am no mycologist, and a quick trawl through the relevant sites on the net quickly persuaded me that any names I put to the fungi were unlikely to be accurate. So, instead, I have used vernacular and generic terms, which may still be wrong, but, because of their imprecision, are unlikely to seriously mislead anyone.

Bracket Fungus - 13 January 2017

Fungi occupy a shadowy in between position in the natural world, neither plant nor animal. Many, including myself, may see them more as plants without chlorophyll; but, there are larger differences which dictate they are classified in a separate kingdom.

Moss growing on the top of a clump of bracket fungus
Bracket Fungus - 13 January 2017
Old bracket fungus now providing a suitable surface for moss to grow on

In some ways, they occupy a similar position in mythology and folklore: of this world, but part of the unseen world of fairies, gnomes and goblins. There are plenty of general, unspecific, references to the importance of fungi in folklore, without any details being given. The one exception, are fairy rings, which I have not seen in Milton Country Park.

Large plates of bracket fungus attached to log floating on water
Bracket Fungus on Floating Log - 22 January 2017
The largest fungus I found in the Country Park
Like trees, fungi add growth rings each growing season
On that basis, I reckon these specimens are over ten years old.

I did find one fungus in the park that has folklore attached: the Jelly Ear fungus. The Bible relates that Judas Iscariot hanged himself from an elder tree in shame after betraying Jesus. This ear-like fungus, which is found on elder, was thought to be the tormented spirit of Judas trying to escape. It was originally name Judas's Ear, which was later shortened to Jew's Ear - a name that has now fallen of favour because of its anti-semitic overtones.

Clumps of stags horn fungus growing on a moss covered tree stump.
Stag's Horn Fungus - 22 January 2017
Also known as the Candlesnuff Fungus because it glows in the dark
However, its bioluminescence is so feeble, in these days of light pollution, an image intensifier is needed to see it

Most of the fungi that I found were bracket fungi, a group of fungi of many different genera that grow on trees and are of a similar shape. There are both saprophytic and parasitic members in the group, the latter of which will prove fatal for the host tree. Bracket fungi are long lived and specimens at least twenty years old and weighing up to three hundred pounds have been reported.

Mass of toadstools pushing way up out of ground.
Toadstools - 10 April 2016

I have found three types of fungus which are not bracket fungus: one - the stag's horn fungus  which was growing on a rotten tree stump; while the other two appeared to be free living.

In April last year, I had come across a clump of toadstools breaking through the soil.  Two derivations are suggested for the name 'toadstool': one from the German 'tod' - death, and 'stuhl' - stool; the other based on a belief in the Middle Ages that, as they were poisonous, they were associated with toads.

Small delicate translucent white toadstool growing in leaf litter.
Among the Leaf Mould - 22 December 2016

Finally, I found this tiny toadstool growing among the rotting leaves. My first reaction was that it was immature, but clearly its fruiting body is fully developed, and this must be its final size.

Mites Eggs


Small spherical eggs attached to leaf by a stalk.
Mites Eggs - 22 January 2017

While photographing some fungi on a fallen twig, I noticed small white dots on a nearby fallen leaf. I assumed that this was some form of fungi. The photograph reveals that each white dot, about the size of a pinhead, is attached to the leaf by a very slender stalk. After further research, I have concluded that these are in fact mites' eggs. I went back two days later to try to get a better photograph, but by then wind, rain, and passing animals had disturbed the leaves, and the affected leaf was lost.

Further Reading

Fungi Families/Types Identity Parade
The Fungus Amongst Us  
Polypore - Wikipedia
Why This Weird Looking Mushroom is Called “Jew’s Ear” 
Tree Bracket Fungus 
Xylaria hypoxylon (L.) Grev. - Candlesnuff Fungus  

Next: Ivy 



Saturday, 14 January 2017

Last Fruit, First Shoots

Entirely appropriately for a post published in January, this article looks back at the last seeds and fruit of the old year, and the first green shoots of the plants which will eventually flower in the spring of the new year.

Two teasel seed heads silhouetted against the rising sun
Cabaret de Oiseaux - 2 January 2017
The dawning sun on a new day in a new year provides
a suitably dramatic backdrop to the seed heads of teasels from last year.


Cabaret des Oiseaux (or more prosaically teasel)

What a wonderful name for a plant – a spectacle of birds – if my schoolboy French is correct. With a name like that doesn't the plant look even more majestic, and can't you just see a cloud of goldfinches feasting on the seed heads? It presumably gets this name from the birds feasting on its seed heads.

Besides that name, the English 'teasel', or 'gypsy comb', or 'brush and comb', sound functional and unimaginative, all derived from the use of the seed head to tease or raise the nap of woollen cloth. Somehow, such names drain the plant of its stature and becomes just another brown plant with an industrial use. Yet, in this most drab time of year, the teasels are impressive, standing very upright, seeming to challenge the weather to do its worst and blow them down.

Teasel plants with seed heads and no leaves stand out against the sky
Tall and majestic - 11 December 2016
A group of teasel plants stand proud against the skyline.

Teasels are not widespread in Milton Country Park, but a couple of clumps in the Orchard are particularly noticeable as they are growing on top of a small bank, where these photographs were taken.



Burdock fruit, velcro like hooks clearly visible
Burdock Fruit - 5 January 2017
Non-descript brown fruit easily overlooked, not so easily picked off clothing.

Burdock is another plant whose fruit are conspicuous at this time of the year, although not necessarily for the right reasons. They attach themselves with their natural Velcro to anything and everything that passes.

Unlike teasel, burdoch has attracted a host of imaginative English names besides burdock (bur a knot of wool, and dock a plant).  Along with Herrif, Airup or Aireve, derived from Anglo Saxon and mean hedge robber, other names include: personata, happy major, clot bur, fox's clote, beggars buttons, cockle bur, Robin Hood's rhubarb, and love's leaves. These last two referring to the shape of its leaves.

Burdoch first featured in this blog in September and at that time, I mentioned that it was the inspiration for Velcro, and its use for dandelion burdock cordial. But there is more to burdock in folklore than a zip and a drink.

Firstly, there is burryman: a man completely covered in burdock burrs who parades the streets of South Queensferry, Lothian, on the second Friday in August every year. The origin and reasons for this ritual, which is credited with being at least seven hundred years old and may be well be thousands of years old, have been forgotten, and we are left with theories ranging from warding off evil spirits to bringing luck for the forthcoming herring fishing season.

Secondly, burdock has been used medicinally for a wide range of conditions including skin problems, rheumatism, and cancer. It is also a liver tonic and a diuretic.

Finally, and a little whimsically, knights in the middle ages rode into battle wearing a sprig of burdock for protection!

Gelder Rose and a Hint of Autumn

Clusters of gelder rose berries amongst tangled twigs and branches
Gelder Rose Berries - 20 December 2016
The bright red berries are almost lost among the surrounding branches

At this time of year, the trees are bare, and most of the berries have fallen or been eaten by the birds, the remaining berries give the bushes a hint of autumn, an ephemeral blush of red, a barely discernible shimmy of colour. In strong sunlight, at a distance, the bush looks quite red, but close up the fruit are few and far between and overwhelmed by the bare brown branches.

So it was with these gelder rose berries, visible at a distance as a faint reddening of the hedge, closer up there were just enough, and were bright enough, to catch the eye. 

Last Apples


Apples still attached to bare branches high up in tree
Last Apples - 11 December 2016
A few apples still hanging on high in the branches of this tree

I was really surprised to find any apples at all still on the tree, but, as this image shows, high up in one tree there was still quite a crop. A fact that speaks volumes for the mild and benign autumn that we have had.

First Shoots

Semi circle of young comfrey plants around base of tree
Comfrey - 28 December 2016
Comfrey plants have already grown enough to be clearly visible
above the leaf litter.

On a grey December day, walking on a carpet of fallen leaves, among trees with bare branches, and no colour anywhere, it is easy to believe that nature has shut down, gone to bed, for the winter. Yet, already, there are plenty of signs of spring in the park. Plants like this patch of comfrey are easily visible above the layers of dead leaves. Also much in evidence are young cow parsley seedlings, each a couple of inches high. They will remain almost dormant, growing only very slowly throughout the winter, until April or May, when they seem to grow four feet in a matter of days, and cover the countryside with white frothy flowers.

Small seedling pushing through dead leaves
Spring in Autumn - 28 December 2016

Look more closely at the leaf litter and it is not hard to spot much smaller seedlings, with just two or four leaves, pushing their way up. It is difficult to believe that these plants, so small and tender, will survive the frost and snow of winter and blossom next spring.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

More Autumn

The water reflects golden brown reeds and trees with bare branches
The End of Autumn - 14 December 2016
The colours are autumnal, the bare trees wintry.

There are at least three common definitions of autumn. The first, and the one I grew up with, is the astronomical definition of autumn as lasting from the autumn equinox (September 21) to the winter solstice (December 21). The second, meteorological definition, defines autumn as lasting from September 1 to November 30. The third simply asserts that autumn is the period between summer and winter.

I like this third definition, because it is fuzzy, and natural systems have fuzzy boundaries. I think of autumn as the time when trees lose their leaves; plants die back; and fruit and seeds ripen and are harvested. It is the period between the lush greens of summer decorated with colourful flowers and the drab browns of bare earth and branches of winter. A period of transition without any limiting dates.

Single green leaf on top of carpet of dark brown / black rotting leaves
Late Fall - 22 December 2016
A single green leaf recently fallen from a hazel bush
contrasts the the dark browns and blacks of the rotting leaves around.

December, when most of the photographs in this post were taken, is clearly at the end of autumn, if not actually in winter, by any of these definitions. It also contains one of the turning points of the year: the winter solstice, after which, the days will grow longer, and eventually start to warm up. 

In the countryside, while there is still much evidence of autumn, the scenery is increasingly taking on the drab and bare appearance of winter; not withstanding the occasional glimpse of spring.

Yellow hazel catkins yellow in the sun, with alder trees with catkins behind.
A Touch of Spring - 11 December 2016
Bright hazel catkins, with alder catkins behind, bring a feeling of spring to the park.

Certainly, in December 2016, there still much of the feel of autumn in Milton Country Park, but at the same time winter is beginning to appear. The reeds around the pits in are an autumnal golden brown, and there are still a few leaves left on the trees, whose mainly bare branches speak of winter. The thick carpet of dead leaves on the ground have turned from yellow to a deep rich brown darkening into black as decomposition gathers pace. In contrast, emerging hazel catkins bring a real spring-like feel to the park, especially when they sparkle in the early morning sun.

Goose Summer

Fallen leaves floating on still water which is blue from reflecting the sky
Goose Summer - 1 December 2016
Fallen leaves floating on still blue water on a clear bright 'Goose Summer' day 

'Goose summer ' is an old term for spells of fine weather during autumn; the name referencing the custom of eating geese during the autumn after they had been fattened in the previous months. It was during one such spell, that I came across this mass of leaves floating on calm water. A scene that, for me, sums up such weather and that 'Goose Summer' seems the perfect title. 

'Goose summer' later was contracted to 'gossamer', and eventually lost its connection to the weather, and, instead, used to refer to dew covered spider's webs which are visible on clear, cold, autumn days.  But, the loss of goose summer, like its opposite 'sprat weather' (dark, damp, miserable, late autumn days when it barely gets light), leaves the English language the poorer.

Fallen leaves, mostly yellow and light brown, between roots and rubble on the floor of the lake
Drowned Leaves - 22 December 2016
Fallen leaves decorate the roots and concrete rubble at the bottom of the lake

As the season progresses, the floating leaves become saturated and fall to the bottom of the water where they can still be seen decorating the rubble and roots.


Colourful Brambles - 18 November 2016
Not necessarily noted for their contribution to autumn colours
this bank of brambles presents a colourful sight

One plant that does not immediately spring to mind when autumn colours are mentioned is the humble bramble. Yet, although, not all bushes change colour, those that do can be quite spectacular, with individual leaves turning a brilliant red that is as bright as anything that more renowned trees, such as maple, can offer.

Close up of a few bramble leaves which are bright red
Bramble Leaves - 11 December 2016
Some bramble leaves turn a vibrant and intense red in autumn

Happy Christmas

This is my last post of 2016, so thank you for taking the time to read this blog, and hope you will continue to do so in 2017.  Merry Christmas and a happy New Year. 

Next: Last Fruit, First Shoots  

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.

Next: More Autumn