Friday, 26 May 2017

Unfolding Spring

Spring.  As the sun moves nearer the equator, the days get longer and warmer.  On the trees, new leaves and flowers burst out of the buds which have been dormant during the winter.  The countryside is transformed from a dull monotone to a celebration of vibrant greens. 

Young sycamore leave, shine yellow green backlit in the sunshine
Young Sycamore - 24 March 2017
Sycamore are amongst the first trees to get their leaves.
Here at the end of March the new leaves shine in the spring sunshine.

In the past two years, I have tried to capture the landscape of the park at the tipping point when the trees first begin to turn green, with results that have not been wholly convincing.  This year, I have photographed individual buds as they unfurl. 

Close up of field maple leaves unfolding
Field Maple - 26 March 2017
Field maple is one of the dominant shrubs in the park.
Their new yellow/green leaves give the park a springlike feel. 

In February, the trees are drab, brown and bare, hide nothing.  The opposite bank of Dickerson's Pit is clearly visible across the water from the path that runs alongside the eastern border of the park.  By June, the trees are completely covered with leaves, whose colours range from the willow's silvery green, through the red green of the sycamore, to the bright saturated colours of the hawthorn, and which form an almost impenetrable screen between the waters of the pit and the visitor.

Bramble shooting out of thick thorny stem
Bramble - 26 March 2017
There is plenty of new growth on the brambles,
but plenty of last year's leaves are still in evidence.

But the change is gradual, and like all gradual changes, it isn't noticed, particularly since it is punctuated by tidal waves of white spring blossom. How late would the leaves have to appear before anyone remarked on the delay? For instance, imagine if the winter was very cold and extended so that the trees were still bare in June, would anyone talk about the lack of leaves, or would they discuss how late the hawthorn flowers were?

Spray of young oak leaves against a blue sky
Oak - 23 April
Oak are one of the last trees to get their leaves.
This was one of the oak trees on remembrance meadow.

Neither is it a single monolithic process, but a whole series of changes as each tree species gets its leaves at different times.  It starts with the elder in February; this is followed by the sycamore, then the hawthorn; and, finally, in May, the beech and the poplar.  As far as I can find out, only the relative timing of the appearance of the leaves of the ash and the oak has made it into weather lore:

    Ash before Oak - we're in for a soak,
    Oak before Ash - we're in for a splash

Closeup of stickly bud as it is just starting to unfurl
Horse Chestnut - 26 March 2017
The unmistakeable sticky bud of the horse chestnut
on one of the newly planted chestnut trees at the south end of the park.

Perhaps the one bud everyone knows is the sticky bud, the large bud of the horse chestnut which is covered in a sticky resin.  The resin serves a dual purpose, it protects the bud from frost and water damage, and also against attack by small insects.  As the day temperatures rise, the resin melts and very quickly the large palmate leaves unfurl.  

Close up of hawthorn bud with unfolding leaves and growing flower buds
Unfolding Hawthorn Bud - 26 March 2017
Close up of bud shows emerging flower buds
amongst the unfolding leaves

Close scrutiny of a developing bud reveals it is far from a simple case of a single leaf emerging from a single bud. Take, for instance, this picture of a developing hawthorn bud.  There is clearly a rosette of leaves, inside of which are the flower buds.  All tightly packed together in the minimum possible space.  If this were the end product, we would admire it.  As it is only a short lived stage in the development of the anticipated flower, it is ignored.

But beyond a masterpiece of packaging engineering, consider what a photograph cannot show.  Each new cell that is created has the same DNA, and therefore the same potential, as every other cell in the whole tree.  What controls how any particular cell develops? What determines whether it becomes part of the fabric of the leaf, part of a vein, or part of a petal?

Further Reading
Aesculus hippocastaneum
Horse Chestnut 

Saturday, 13 May 2017


One of the pleasures of writing this blog has been learning about the plants that I have photographed.  It has not been the botannical science that has piqued my interest so much as the folk lore and herbal remedies associated with the trees and flowers.  For it is the plant lore, and the origins of some of the romantic sounding vernacular names, that give such a fascinating insight into way our predecessors viewed the world. 

Twig of blackthorn laden with flowers
Blackthorn Blossom - 26 March 2017
Superficially very similar to the plum blossom, but without any leaves
and the individual blossom are slightly smaller.

Previously, in this blog, I have discussed how the name we use for a plant or flower alters our perception of it ( see my post 'Using New Eyes Part 3' ). I believe that the same is true of anything that we have learnt or have been told about something.  So after reading about the old superstitions surrounding some particular species, we can never look at it in quite the same way again; we see it in a  new light.

One bush that I will now look at somewhat differently is the blackthorn, a shrub that is easily overlooked in Milton Country Park as its white flowers appear just as the very similar cherry plum blossom is dying off.  It is very easy to confuse the two species, as I did in 2015 when I misidentified all the early white cherry plum blossom as blackthorn. In fact, there are only half a dozen or so blackthorn bushes in the park. 

The name 'blackthorn' is not a great revelation: it is simply a straightforward description of the bush, and suggests the means of distinguishing it from the cherry plum, which does not have thorns.

Blossom only visible a sparse white sheen over the hedge
Blackthorn Blossom in the Hedge - 17 April 2016
I took this photograph last year, but have not bettered it  since.
The blackthorn is quite lost among the surrounding the bushes.
Interestingly, by mid April this year, the blackthorn had finished flowering.

 What has changed the way that I look at blackthorn is learning that it is the preferred wood for making shillelaghs.  Apparently, wood from the blackthorn root is particularly suitable as it does not crack during use.  Shillelaghs were originally clubs used for fighting and self defence, and are still used in a form of martial art.  Now, whenever I see a blackthorn bush, I will inevitably think of it as the source of that most potent symbol of Ireland.

Beyond its Irish connection, and its use in making sloe gin, blackthorn has gained a sinister reputation over the thousands of years it has been known to man. It has been very heavily associated with witches and the dark side of their craft. Its wood was used to make a wand with thorns at its end used to cast spells to bring harm to others. The tree is also linked to warfare and death.

Other Flowers

This is my third post in a series on the subject of March flowers in the park. The first two in the series dealt with plum blossom and with daffodils.  Besides these and the blackthorn, there were a few isolated bushes in flower, a couple of which caught my eye.

Looking up into the canopy of berberis bush lots of yellow flowers among green leaves
Berberis - 23 March 2017
A single bush besides the jetty on Dickerson's Pit

The first was a large berberis bush on the banks of Dickerson's Pit.  It had clearly been established for a number of years, yet I had completely missed seeing it up until now. Though I am disappointed in my failure to spot the bush, in many ways, it is a very good illustration of the underlying philosophy of this whole project: there is a lot to gained by close careful observation of our environment, however familiar it may be.

A close up of a single branch of flowering current with racemes of flowers
Flowering Current - 21 March 2017

Then there are a number of flowering current bushes scattered around the park.  Their pink flowers providing a contrast to the prevailing whites and yellows of the other blossom in the park.

In the Garden 


Single blue hyacinth surrouned by red leaves
Blue Hyacinth - 12 March 2017
A colourful corner in the Sensory Garden
with a blue hyacinth surrounded by the red leaves of a bush I cannot identify

There was more colour in the sensory garden, which is at its prettiest in early spring.  But without any large blocks of colour, the interest was in the detail, like the contrast between this blue hyacinth and the red leaves surrounding it.

Low view of white polyanthus with pale green hellebores and daffodils in the background
White Polyanthus - 12 March 2017
In the background to these white polyanthus, growing in the raised bed in the sensory garden,
 are hellebores and daffodils.

I particularly enjoy photographing the raised bed, as it is very easy to get a worm's eye view and a just a few square inches of garden becomes a landscape filled with towering plants.

Close up of picture of purple and yellow polyanthus
Polyanthus - 15 March 2017

In the same bed are a number of other polyanthus plants.  I liked the way the flowers of this plant seemed to be being held in a protective cocoon of green leaves.

Further Reading

I found the following websites helpful:

Blackthorn Tree Lore: Blackthorn
The Magic of the Ogham Trees

Next: Unfolding Spring

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Flowers From Hell

Daffodils are forever associated with Wordsworth and the Lake District, and his host of golden flowers dancing in the breeze. The impact of their large colourful trumpet flowers is heightened by the fact that they flower at a time when the rest of the landscape has lost very little of its winter drabness; even a single flower is easily spotted. So relatively few daffodils have a major effect on the landscape of the park, particularly in the area around the Visitor Centre and the childrens' playgrounds.

Close up of a group of daffodils with deep yellow trumpets
A Fanfare for Spring - 12 March 2017
Outside the Visitor Centre, a group of daffodils at their best
welcome the visitor.

From Hell to Life Preserver

These first flowers of spring are seen as a symbol of rebirth, but that has not always been the case – in ancient Greek mythology, Wordsworth's gleeful blooms were seen as flowers from hell. Pliny claims that daffodils grew on the banks of the underworld river Acheron to cheer the passing souls. In another myth, daffodils were white until Pluto dragged Persephone, the worman he loved, down into his underworld kingdom and turned the bunch of the flowers she was carrying yellow. Egyptians also included daffodils in funeral wreaths.

A cluster of daffodils around a tree trunk
Group of Daffodils - 12 March 2017
There are no great masses of daffodils in Milton Country Park
just groups of flowers in the grass or around the trees.
Almost all the daffodils are found within a couple of hundred yards of the visitor centre.

The daffodil fared little better under the Romans who introduced the flowers to England in the mistaken belief that their sap could help to heal wounds; in truth daffodil sap has entirely the opposite effect and acts as an irritant. More macabrely, Roman soldiers carried a bunch of daffodil bulbs around with them to be eaten if they were mortally wounded in battle. The bulbs are both narcotic and highly poisonous, so presumably the men thought that they would die peacefully and painlessly.

Over the ensuing centuries, daffodils have gathered a lot of folk lore, some good and some bad. I find it interesting to speculate on how these various beliefs started, and how they became established and spread. We are used to daily headlines telling us what to eat and what not to eat for a long and healthy life. And we know where these stories come from: scientists have studied the diets of thousands, if not millions of people, over many years; then analysed the results on powerful computers to come to their conclusions. Even then, the more sceptical of us wonder how they could isolate the effects of one food from a mass of diets, different life styles, different genetic susceptibilities, etc. Our predecessors had access to none of this.

Clumps of daffodils growing beneath silver birch trees
Naturalised Flowers - 12 March 2017
Clumps of daffodils naturalised below the birches beside the car park
Their bright yellow flowers dominate the otherwise drab scenery

Take for instance, the belief that to deliberately avoid trampling on daffodils is to bring good luck. Is this no more than a lord of the manor trying to preserve his view from his dining room window; a sort of 'keep off the grass' notice for an illiterate and superstitious population?

Or what about the stricture never to give a single daffodil, always give a bunch, because to bring a single daffodil into the house will bring bad luck? Is this just a way of saying don't be mean? 

A small clump of flowereing daffodils shine bright yellow among the trunks and leaf litter
Beneath the Trees - 6 March 2017
There are a number of small clumps of daffodils scattered throughout the park,
many beneath the trees, where their bright blossoms shine brightly
 among the brown leaf litter.

But good luck and bad luck are very general and fuzzy ideas, whose interpretation depends on how someone looks at life. Yet, some beliefs are quite specific: to bring daffodils into a house with poultry in it would stop the eggs hatching or the hens laying any more eggs. How did this come about? Did farmer Giles walk into his local pub one night, and tell everyone that his hens had stopped laying eggs ever since his wife brought those daffodils into the house? Did someone else vaguely recall that something similar had happened to old Martha in the next village? Then as the tale spread, did others remember similar incidents – naturally forgetting all the countless bunches of daffodils that had had no effect whatsoever on laying chickens? So a legend was born.

Close up of two daffodil flowers with more daffodils in the background
Sensory Garden - 12 March 2017
The golden trumpets of daffodils dominate the central bed in the Sensory Garden

Wordsworth, of course, reversed these bleak views of the daffodil with his famous celebration of the plant. Now, in the twenty first century, this flower once associated with death is now being used to improve life: since the late 1990's daffodils have been grown commercially for their galanthamine content, a substance which has been shown to slow down the progress of Alzheimer's disease.

Further Reading

Saturday, 22 April 2017

March 2017

It is March, and the beginning of spring.  It is a good year for plum blossom,  and the trees are covered in masses of white flowers, making the park feel bright and cheerful. This is all helped by a spell of dry settled weather with more sunny days than the pessimists at the Meteorology Office would have us have.

Large bank of cherry plum blossom along one side of path
Bank of Cherry Plum Blossom - 15 March 2017
This bank of blossom bordered the path along the southern boundary of the park

I realise that in writing the second sentence 'It is a good year for plum blossom...' , I risk sounding like a gardener (which I am not) taking proprietorial pride in his crop.  Nevertheless, it is an indicator of how much more aware I am becoming of the changing seasons and the differences from one year to the next.

Large bush laden with blossom, other such bushes visible in the distance
By Dickerson's Pit - 13 March 2017
 At the north end of the park, large bushes like this one laden with blossom
could be seen, which ever way I looked.

I have spent a lot of my life outdoors in the countryside, albeit the compromised landscape of intensive arable farming: as a schoolboy, I chased butterflies and moths; later, I cycled to work; walked at the weekends and on holiday; and, most recently, took the dog for a daily walk.  But in all these activities, the changes in the countryside was a backdrop to the main activity; I was aware of the passing seasons, but took little notice of the detail.  Changes in the weather was always a more immediate concern.

Arch of white blossom over path with more blossom laden trees beyond.
Blossom Arch - 12 March 2017
So abundant is the plum blossom that it forms an arch over the path
and frames another blossom filled bush beyond.

I wrote at the start of this blog, that the challenge was to see the park, that was so familiar to me, with new eyes.  Comparing this year's tree blossom with that of last year suggests a degree success in that direction.

Close up of plum tree with branches thick with flowers
Plum Blossom - 12 March 2017
A close up shot shows just how profuse the blossom is

There seems to be virtually no folklore or legends attached to plum blossom, probably because the plum is not native to the British isles.  The cherry plum was originally introduced for its fruit and grafting stock for domestic plums.  However, the blossom of the cherry plum is used in one of Dr Edward Bach's Flower Remedies as a remedy for people who are in fear of losing control. 

In contrast, where the plum is part of the native flora, in Japan, the blossom is seen as a symbol of spring, and a sign that the worst rigours of winter are past and that better weather is on its way. In China, plum blossom is used for decoration during the spring festival.

Plum blossom is scatted among the stems of hazel bushes
Blossom Among the Hazel Bushes - 13 March 2017
It may simply be because the sun was shining,
but this blossom among the bare hazel stems appeared far more obvious than in previous years.

Originally, I planned to write just a single post about Milton Country Park in March.  But there has been such an explosion of blossom, I now have enough material for three posts.  I decided to restrict this post to the plum blossom alone because of its importance to the appearance of the park at this time of the year.  My next post will be of other blossom in the park during March, followed by a closer look at some of leaf and flower buds developing on the trees and bushes. 

Next: Flowers from Hell 

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Tree Down

On February 23rd, storm Doris swept across England.  Although the centre of the storm passed across northern England and Scotland, the winds in the south of the country were still strong enough to cause considerable damage. In Milton Country Park, a number of trees, mostly the older ivy encrusted willow trees on the eastern edge of Dickerson's Pit, were either uprooted or broken in two.

Root ball of fallen tree
The root ball of fallen trees always seem improbably small.

The park was closed on the day of the storm, and by the time it reopened the following day, all the paths had been cleared of fallen trees.  All the photographs in this post were taken on either February 24 or 26.

Willow tree with trunk snapped in two just above ground level
Willow tree snapped in two.

The root ball of a felled tree always seems impossibly small for the size of the tree above the ground.  The diameter of the roots is far less than I would expect, and there is no long tap root burying deep into the ground.  Yet the leverage exerted by the trunk and crown swaying in even a moderate wind must be quite immense, and, one could well imagine, far too much for such a small anchor.  All those thousands of little roots must effectively stitch the tree into the ground.

Trunk split as if by an axe
Close of fracture gives some idea of the forces involved.

But, even more impressive, are the forces that must be involved to break the trunk of a tree in two, splitting what appears to be quite solid wood in two as cleanly as if cleaved by an axe.  

Fallen tree seen from root end with trunk sawn off at the path
There's a certain sadness about a fallen tree.

The woodland trust are quite clear that ivy does not kill or harm its host.  However, I wonder if the presence of a heavy growth of ivy on a tree in anyway increases its chances of being blown over in a high wind.  The ivy must increase the wind resistance of the tree, which together with the weight of the ivy, must put an extra strain on the root system.  On the other hand, the thick ivy tendrils surrounding the trunk, grounded in their own independent root system, could be acting as guy ropes and actually help to stabilise the system.

Large heap of branches and ivy beside path covered in sawdust
Ivied crown heaped up beside the path

I found the sight of the remains of a once mighty tree lying on the ground quite sad.  On one side of the path was a heap of what appeared to be ivy, but the sawn ends of branches showed it was the canopy of the fallen tree.  On the other side of the path, was a line of  neatly sawn sections of its trunk, which seemed to me to be like chapters of a biography - a life parcelled out into manageable sections and lifeless.  

Four sections of the trunk in a row
The trunk of the tree sawn into neat sections.
However, in time, the wood will become an active biosystem, and provide a home and food for insect larvae and fungi; and, a surface for moss and other small plants to grow on.

Next: March 2017

Saturday, 25 March 2017


January, February 2017.  Winter 2017.  Still no snow.  For two years now, I have been photographing Milton Country Park, and in that time we have had no snow at all.  Unless, that is, you count a flurry of snowflakes in the wind that did not settle and quickly turned to sleet.  But at least this year, we had a spell of bright frosty weather, enough to freeze the water in the pits.

Block of ice sitting on top of frozen water of the pit
Ice on Dickerson's Pit - 24 January 2017
The ice near the shore is richly textured
A texture that is subtely altered around the white lump of ice.

Why do people feel compelled to throw things on the ice?  No sooner had the ice appeared, then stones, logs, branches, balls, and general rubbish littered the frozen surface.  It is as if the sight of its smooth white surface was too much for mortal eyes and had to be covered up.  But as my first photograph shows, the surface of the ice close to the shore is richly textured, even without the debris.

Bare branches of trees in orchard covered in rime
Frosty Orchard - 22 January 2017
Almost the only time I have successfully photographed the orchard.

The same cold spell produced a couple of mornings when conditions were right to cover not only the low growing vegetation, but also the branches of at least some of the trees with rime.

View over Dickerson's Pit, with bare trees and golden reeds
Dickerson's Pit - 14 February 2017
A scene that could easily have been taken three months earlier
but not three months later when leaves on the bushes in the foreground
will completely obscure the view.

Apart from the frost, little has changed over the last couple of months.  The changes that have happened are the gradual growth of plants such as cow parsley, comfrey and nettles.  But this new growth is only a couple of inches high, and make almost no impact on the appearance of the park.

White fluffy clematis fruit catching sun amongst bare branches
Clematis Fruit - 24 January 2017
Fluffy white balls catching the light

Far more apparent are the fluffy white clematis fruit which are still in abundance on the climber, and very noticeable when they catch the low sun.

Small group of snowdrops growing amongst trees
Snowdrops - 19 February 2017
A typical scene in the woods in the park
with an isolated clump of snowdrops growing amongst the trees.

During February, the snowdrops finally blossomed, probably at least a month later than last year.  The name 'snowdrop' refers to the large pendants or drops that were worn by ladies in the sixteenth century either as earrings or on brooches.  I was surprised to find that alternative names for these flowers include death's tear; and that the only folk lore surrounding them is that it is unlucky to take them indoors.

Conversely, snowdrops are seen as a symbol of hope.  One legend has it, that after Adam and Eve were evicted from the garden of Eden, Eve became depressed with the apparently endless  cold wintry weather.  To cheer her up, an angel appeared and changed some of the snowflakes into flowers, as a sign that the dreary weather would eventually cease.

Wooden jetty backed by gold and orange willow trees
Jetty - 26 February 2017
The willows are probably even more colourful in February
than they were in the autumn - their yellowing leaves drab
compared to their branches at the end of winter.

A far more earthly sign of the imminence of spring is the gold and orange colours of the willow branches at this time of year.

Next: Tree Down 

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. 

Next: Winter