Early Arrivals and Departure Times; Starry Days; Not Weeds and Insects.

This week the valley roared, the birch bowed.The daisies danced.And the lashed larch littered mossy paths, with twiggy lichened debris. Storm Ophelia’s much heralded arrival lived up to expectations.

Potentially movable detritus was tidied, travel plans for Monday were cancelled, and we woke expectantly to a slightly odd, dim, tinged grey light, and a morning ridiculously balmy for late October.In the end we escaped any significant damage – a fleeting power outage and two big bags’ worth of tree litter in the copse the worst that she inflicted here, with strangely little in the way of rain for us.

As I began writing this, Brian was lashing us with rain and similarly strong gusts.

The power had already been off once. Even by mid-October, most of the oak leaves had fallen and been twice chopped with the lawnmower, hoarded in big bags as snowdrop mulch material for autumn 2018, after a heat up in the greenhouse compost reactor. No chance of me commenting on how many leaves are still left on trees for bonfire night this year.

Yet in spite of this early onset autumn, or maybe because of it, other seasonal changes seem out of kilter. Earlier in the month, on the 5th, we’d seized a rare sunny day to head down to both the National Botanic Garden of Wales (NBGW) and Aberglasney to look at autumnal colours. Both were lovely, with the added bonus of getting up close to the Red kite, Milvus milvus, at the National Birds of Prey Centre, which is now an added feature for garden visitors to the NBGW. Usually glimpses of these majestic birds are as single, or pairs of birds, high above our vantage point, though earlier in the year crossing back over Mynydd Llanllwni mountain we eyeballed one at our level, gliding down over heather covered slopes leading into the Teifi valley far below.This week, courtesy of a neighbouring fallen ewe no doubt, we had four kites in the valley simultaneously.

Soaring socially.

Aberglasney garden is always a treat to visit, the more so for me spotting another Hummingbird hawk-moth, Macroglossum stellatarum, lingering a while in the sunken garden.And in a fearsome gusting wind, expertly extracting nectar from magenta Salvia flowers.

The Cornus were a kaleidoscope of colour, and inside the mansion we caught the last few hours of an exhibition featuring the wonderful “Thought Fox” by Elaine Franks, a superb collage/painting demanding the observer pause.And look.

And think.

Click here for more on this talented local(ish) artist. And see how she’s dealt with Red kites and Painted ladies in an equally evocative way.

I discovered after photographing a Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui, along with more Red Admirals, Vanessa atalanta, nectaring on our asters on the 6th, that like Hummingbird hawk-moths these migrant Lepidoptera travel huge distances early in the summer to reach the British Isles. Using successions of generations on the way up from Africa, they also seek to return in the opposite direction, come the autumn. Biding their time, to catch the appropriate direction of high altitude winds, to speed them on their way.

In case you didn’t know, there’s an easy to use reporting service run by the butterfly conservation charity (BC) which enables anyone to report sightings of these insects to help BC to build up a better idea of how they are faring. I must get round to reporting my sighting this year, asap, since so far there seem to be very few records from this part of Wales. Click here for more. Or here for more on how the return trips of the Painted Lady were first confirmed using specialised radar in 2012.

Ten days later, and as some colours here were being lost with early leaf drop, we had one of our occasional, but always delightful trips to the gardens at Hergest Croft. In autumn, you never quite know what you’ll see. Last year the large Acer micranthum you see on arrival was sensationally scarlet. This year many of its leaves had fallen, but there are always wonderful macro, and micro images. If you’ve never been but can get there, do plan a visit for next year. Click here for more. The Gardens hold the UK national collections of maples, birches and zelkovas, and has over 5,000 rare trees and shrubs, so spring and autumn are always wonderful. Vibrant colours are assured.___

Although we saw the golden harvest moon, briefly, early in the month, starry skies have been in short supply of late. But fortunately, the shortening October days are now always filled here with the starry flowers of Saxifraga fortunei. It makes late October a time to anticipate, expectantly, and these flowers surprise whatever the weather throws at us, though dappled morning or afternoon sunshine is always better.This year has seen me planting out many of the seedlings which I’ve grown over the last three years from seed saved from the bulk of our plants which are the very reliable Saxifraga fortunei ‘rubrifolium’. It’s no surprise that this plant has an Award of Garden Merit from the RHS, indicating that it’s a very garden worthy plant. In addition, it seems to love our soil conditions and high rainfall. We’ve never been to another garden where it’s been planted in such profusion as we now have it, but it does seem the perfect foil to autumnal leaf colours.

Needless to say, the seedlings are all slightly different in leaf colour, shape and indeed flower size, shape and flowering time. The vast majority are white, but some have pink or red stems, some have red bract like structures on the flower stems, and one form even has deep red stems with pale pink, but small flowers.

Shortly after photographing many of these starry flowers I heard unusual goose sounds in the valley, and eventually spotted a formation of 23 flying slowly, North West. This is a rare sighting here, and I’m guess they’re departing for winter feeding grounds. At least they’ll have the winds of Brian to speed their progress, if they continue North.


The first snowdrop flowers, Galanthus reginae-olgae ‘Cambridge’, emerged nearly 3 weeks earlier than ever before, just 10 yards from the Red admiral butterflies on the aster flowers. They seem taller than in previous years and have now been joined by a recent addition of another (usually early November flowering, but again early this year) form of G. elwesii which we picked up from the excellent Bob Brown. Bob visited Cothigardeners this week to deliver a lecture titled “Too many plants, too little space“. He has been involved with selecting hardy perennial plants both for his own nursery, and for trials to award plants the coveted AGM, and has nearly 30 years’ experience behind him. Click here for his encyclopaedic website.

To coincide with our first snowdrops, I’ve just managed to upload the first tranche of snowdrop photos and descriptions which we now have growing here at Gelli Uchaf. Look for the separate web page underneath the home page header, or click here. I’ll attempt to get the mid-season listing, of those cultivars flowering from mid-January to mid-February up and running before they start to emerge. I hope that a wider appreciation will show how, with a range of cultivars, one can have waves of snowdrops to encourage you outside into the garden throughout the long, but short, days of winter. And temper the perception that galanthophiles are just obsessive nerds.

Though maybe not!


Mention knotweeds and most people’s first thoughts would be of the invasive Japanese knotweed, Reynoutria japonica, scourge of many gardens and landscapes, and a difficult to eliminate plant thug, if ever there was one. A truly noxious weed.

But we have another group of attractive flowering knotweeds (all members of the Polygonaceae family – from the Greek for many -“Poly”- knees, or joints -“Gonu”- describing the multi-jointed stems, characteristic of the whole family).  I increasingly value these for their continuous flowering from early August right through to the end of October. Whereas butterflies, and many bumblebees seem to prefer the many Asteraceae we now grow – particularly in the retyred matrix garden – honeybees and some of the fly species still around at this time of the year, will visit the flowers of Persicaria vaccinifolia and forms of P. amplexicaulis (above).They do have thug like tendencies, and the jury is out here as to how well snowdrops will survive amongst the very dense root systems that develop, particularly with P. amplexicaulis clumps, as they bulk up. But they’re well constrained by the tyre walls, whereas in open ground and good soil conditions I suspect they could be a little too vigorous.

P. vaccinifolia by contrast (above) is a delightfully useful low, creeping thug with us. Over years it has spread and thrived in the poorest of conditions growing in the granite chippings of our yard, and is now climbing up the low slate capped ha-ha wall which limits the terrace to the East. It flowers at its best, and slightly earlier, where it crosses the slate slabs and must get really hot here in any sunshine. A year ago, Fiona had laid out some colourful pebbles picked up from our coastal walks on a section of this slate capping, and this year, looking at how the Persicaria is over-topping the wall and tumbling down the far side like a breaking wave, gave me the idea of making more of a feature of the combination of pebbles and plant. So we aim to collect more pebbles and use curving collections placed between the lapping knotweed’s tiny leaves and pink flowers to strengthen this shore like effect.

The other thug like plant which is equal in mass insect appeal and extended flowering time, from early August to the end of October is Geranium procurrens. A Himalayan native, it thrives in the poor soil of our shale bank behind the house, and is the favoured nectar source for myriad small bumblebees and flies for much of late summer. It’s transformed a barren site into a real delight for these 3 months. Perhaps it would be too dominant to release in richer conditions, but having just picked up on a really disturbing piece of research from Germany on the decline in biomass of flying insects, maybe it should be encouraged in municipal planting schemes? (Many thanks to Amelia and Khourosh at a French Garden, for alerting me to this study).

Click here for the very recently published, multi-authored 27 year study. In summary this work demonstrates a massive 76 to 82 % decline in the biomass of all flying insects caught in a particular type of trap, suspended about a metre above ground. So not just bees, moths or butterflies, but flies, wasps and beetles as well. Needless to say such insects form an integral part of the complex ecosystems in this part of the world. And the areas where the trapping took place were protected nature reserve type environments, though surrounded by more conventional urban or agricultural landscapes.

There is considerable discussion in the paper as to why this collapse might be taking place, though interestingly I didn’t find any references to particulate pollution.as a possible cause. This week in the UK a report claimed up to 50,000 early human deaths might be linked to pollution (mainly air). In the very early days of this blog in 2011, I wrote about the shocking lack of insects in Kew gardens, and the possible effects on insect respiratory systems of particulate pollution. Click here and here.

I’d been storing up an image from our kitchen this year to write in similar vein, and now seems a good time to show it. Every year we have fly papers in the kitchen which we put up during the summer, when flies become a bit of a nuisance. Last year I wrote that we only needed one all summer, and included this photo.

This year, we’ve again only needed one paper all year, and it barely has any captives.

Entirely anecdotal, and it might just reflect the fact that our doors haven’t been open as much given the poorer weather this year, but around the garden flies have been lacking for much of the year, and for the second year in a row we had no significant swallow chatter during the summer. What will the future hold?Frankly the media in the UK may be obsessed with Brexit and how it will pan out, but if this decline in insect biomass continues its current downward trend of about 6 % per year (and is replicated worldwide), what happens to UK – European relations will pale into insignificance beside the ecosystem collapse that this study hints at.




9 thoughts on “Early Arrivals and Departure Times; Starry Days; Not Weeds and Insects.

  1. Good morning, bore da, thank you so much for another very interesting read. The Persicaria vaccinifolia and the Saxifrage fortunei Rubrifolium are in full glorious flower here in Kidwelly, both purchased at Gelli Uchaf, but sadly the Rosa de Rescht you so kindly grew for me has given up after receiving a severe mauling by Jen’s puppy before it reached me at Trewern! I will eventually manage to grow this rose someday! Best wishes to you both.

    • Hello Jan,
      Great to hear that the Persicaria and Saxifrage are thriving with you and hope your garden escaped too much of a battering… I do have a few more R de r cuttings, which I’ve got to pot up sometime, so maybe you could have another one to try!
      Best wishes to you,
      Julian and Fiona

  2. It is good to see that the autumn has been good to you. We have not had storms but beautiful evening skies. I had no idea of the migration of Painted Lady butterflies and the Hawk moths. Yet another reason to watch and wonder at them. Your portrait of the kite is outstanding. I would love Persicaria and did try P. affinis “Darjeeling Red” but it only survived (poorly) for one season in our dry, hot environment. Yours looks beautiful growing over the stone wall. Snowdrops in October! I appreciate more and more the capability of variety in plants. May your Saxifraga seedlings be strong and varied! Amelia

    • Hello Amelia…
      Isn’t it interesting how different plants thrive in different, even temperate climates….I wonder whether you would get away with P. vaccinifolia, since it seems to thrive in full sun and next to no soil…and pots which never get watered!
      I increasingly view snowdrops and the Saxigrages as one of the gardening benefits to living in a damp climate! And we definitely could do with a few more sunsets or sunrises here! Still we Brits never seem happy with our weather do we…
      BTW many thanks for alerting me to the insect biomass decline, which I haven’t (yet) picked up on anywhere else in the media over here… Truly disturbing stuff,
      best wishes

  3. The insect situation is very worrying. I have noticed as a cyclist that I have been eating far fewer flying things by accident as i have pedalled about this autumn. Usually you have to keep your mouth firmly shut at this time of year…..and we haven’t been troubled at all by midges for the last two years. I had put that down to weather conditions in spring but it might obviously be part of a larger picture.

    • Thanks TP. Your observation is another very interesting one, though like mine, the sceptics will say entirely unscientific and anecdotal. But I think the time scale, severity and scope of the German study really made me sit up and think. I just hope that the fact that its come from the land of Vorsprung durch technik data fiddling doesn’t cloud its value. We tend to think living where we do that our environment is fairly unspoiled, but obviously one can’t escape global scale changes. The most worrying aspect is whether enough of the world’s movers and shakers ever notice or react to this sort of finding….
      Also your midge comment is an interesting one. – although we’ve had the usual waves of biting bother this year – even into mid October, on reflection they have very very rarely stopped activity outside this year, so I guess that overall numbers are indeed dramatically down,
      many thanks and best wishes

  4. I so love your photography, all the details and colors! The Hawk moth is something I have only seen in the books. What a lucky shot.

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