Saturday, 22 October 2016

Clematis and Hawthorn

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



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.



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.

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?



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.



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



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 

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


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