Naked ladies, Devil’s Paintbrush, Brimstone, Mosquito Hawks, Hordes of toads, Erupting craneflies, Dandelion diversity… The list of interesting observations here in the last 10 days has certainly kept my eyes wide open, and my shutter finger twitchy.
But I’ll begin with a range of simple images from the hut. Climbing longevity hill has been a key element of simple activity to get me through the immediate frustrations of post surgery restrictions. I even spent a couple of hours from 6.00 am yesterday morning, pen and paper in hand, cup of tea at my side, looking up regularly as the sun painted colours on the clouds drifting South. The first draft result of these jottings is at the end of this post.
Within the garden too, colours seems to have returned, though strangely the Asters are way behind their normal time line and many may even not flower this year, if early frosts strike. For once our few autumn Colchicums have flowered and opened, with no slug or rain damage. At least for 24 hours, before flopping over. Known as Naked Ladies, or autumn Crocuses, in fact they’re of a different plant family, the Colchicaceae, not the Iridaceae, under which umbrella the true Crocus sit. We were given these as a free supplement to a previous big bulb order, and I’ve always thought them a bit of a plant dud, so fleeting is their appeal. However in reading up for this piece, I discover that they have an additional sinister appeal.
Beware Naked Ladies! Their glossy green broad foliage which doesn’t appear until spring, long after the flowers have been and gone, and looks vaguely like wild garlic, feeds a developing bulb rich in colchicine which has found therapeutic uses, but is highly toxic, with signs of poisoning not dissimilar to arsenic.
Principally used in the treatment of gout, in a formulation of an extract from the plant, it seems that recognition of its potential in medical therapy was known about as far back as 1500 BC, since it’s referenced in the Egyptian Ebers papyyrus dated to this period, as a treatment for swelling and rheumatism. Just make sure you get the dosage right, though, to avoid multiple organ failure. Click here and here for more.
This year, much to my amazement as the drought took hold, and after the prolonged cold just before apple blossom time, the apple crop has been stunning. Twice as prolific as ever before, nearly all the 50 plus varieties have produced some usable fruit, and in spite of not getting round to thinning, many decent sized apples as well. And thanks to the lack of both rain and humidity for most of the summer, almost no disease to spoil the fruit appearance.
Many of the varieties are keepers, but the surfeit has meant much early processing for both juice, and future crumbles, mixed with the abundant hedgerow blackberries this year.
The last day of August and first of September saw another extraordinary burst of insect activity in the garden and meadows in fabulous warm sunshine. For only the second time ever at Gelli Uchaf, I saw and was eventually able to photograph a male Brimstone butterfly, Gonepteryx rhamni. The larval food plant for this species is the Buckthorn, or Alder Buckthorn, and some think that the word butterfly originates from the stunning yellow colour of this large butterfly in flight. But try to capture this! The image below shows it in flight, a clear yellow at the centre of the photo, and was the best I achieved after spending half an hour chasing it round the garden losing sight of it half a dozen times!Giving up and trekking to the bottom compost heaps for a pee, I turned round and glanced it resting on a Foxglove leaf.
In the upper hay meadow, Pilosella aurantiaca, the Fox and Cubs, or Grim the Collier, or Devil’s Paintbrush has flowered beautifully in September and has proved to be a magnet for many bumbles, honeybees, wasps, hoverflies and even butterflies.
Forgetting to always carry my camera nearly meant I missed 2 other sightings on these sunny days – a Small Heath butterfly resting on dewy grass, in the same meadow……and even more exciting seeing a Common Blue butterfly work its way down the bank slope, flitting over the yellow cinquefoil and tormentil flowers and alighting only on the Birdsfoot trefoil.
Not to be outdone in the insect friendly flower category of meadow plants recovering from an early hay cut to bloom in early autumn, the humble dandelion is at last weedling its way into my consciousness. I remember that when Richard and Kath Pryce did their botanical survey here in 2016, they mentioned dandelion diversity. As I’ve slowly worked my way over the hay meadow this last week, planting Fritillary bulbs, I’ve started to notice just how variable dandelion flowers are. And their leaves. And probably their seed heads too. Although lacking the diverse insect appeal, at least at this time of the year, that the fox and cubs has, nevertheless they are loved by hoverflies, and some smaller bumbles, particularly B. pascuorum. I like to think that the increasing numbers of these flowers have helped the B. pascuorum to build up in numbers through the years, and now they form a significant pollinator of the autumn flowering Cyclamen hederifolium in the garden. My last bumblebee survey walk saw me counting 5 different bumbles on the Cyclamen flowers, so seed set should once again be brilliant this year, without me having to stop to wield the pollinating brush.
But back to the dandelions… There are thought to be nearly 300 different forms, where leaf and flower variations provide the key to specific identification. Part of the reason for this diversity is that individual flowers are capable of both asexual (apomixis) and sexual seed formation. The ones producing asexually generated seed, without pollination, therefore manage to produce clonal seedlings identical to the parent.
Should seed be produced as a result of sexual cross pollination, then variants can arise.
I can quite see that since dandelions can flower in pretty much every month of the year, this will be a subject I’ll revisit. But for now, and to appreciate some o the points I’ve skimmed over here, do visit this site for some brilliant close up images of the flower’s structure, by Brian Johnston.
Finally as if this wasn’t enough, the milky dandelion sap is a potential source of latex, and apparently some are toying with the idea of making tyres from extracts of the sap…
The final surprise from the meadow came as a result of doing a torchlight walk of the mown path counting slugs. Amazingly when I did this earlier this week, I found just 2 slugs, but 6 toadlets/froglets, over the 330 yards. It seems that this year as well as a complete collapse in slug numbers here, the frogs and toads have been hugely successful. How long this status quo will be maintained, I have no idea, but it’s likely to be a great year for establishing seedlings both in the garden and the meadow without the usual catastrophic slug predation.
Whilst completing the walk, I stopped abruptly after seeing a very odd 3 inch tall vertical structure to one side of the mown path. There were obvious black and white bands up the stem, and then I noticed what seemed to be a couple of flattened wings stuck to the apex.
Minutes, and many photos later it became clear that I was witnessing the emergence of a Daddy Long Legs, or Mosquito Hawk, or Crane fly from its pupal stage. The “Leatherjacket” larvae feed on roots beneath the soil, and can cause significant damage to lawns and pasture apparently. but like dandelions, I had no idea how diverse an insect group they are. Evidently 15,000 species worldwide, and perhaps 300 in the UK. Click here and here for more, from the excellent sites of Leicestershire and Rutland Nature Spot, and the Entomological Society of America.
The adult craneflies are very short lived, and have no feeding mouthparts, so don’t bite like mosquitoes. The females emerge with mature eggs already formed internally, and often mate immediately before laying their eggs in damp grass. Indeed, if you look at the video clip below, taken quite late on its emergence, you’ll see another crane fly appears to check out the emerging adult.
I’ve never seen this emergence before, and it was worth considerable discomfort gingerly lying down on my front, so soon after surgery to get some of these images (well, I think so, anyway….) But I wasn’t able to stay for long enough to see the fly take off!
After mentioning ant swarms last week, I was intrigued by a couple of winged ants and the behaviour of one of them around the perimeter of our terrace wooden table. It constantly wandered around the margin, and seemed to be repeatedly scooting its abdominal tip onto the table. Was it scent marking in some way? Or did it have a blockage of some sort? It reminded me of a dog scooting with impacted anal sacs. How long it had been doing this before I noticed it just after lunch I have no idea. But it was still doing it 3 hours later!
Polyester tourists from East and West,
Drive long, dreaming of the city of spires.
The too grand one night, short vac.
Well after sensible PPE’ers
Went down for long vac fun.
A cheap bed and curtains. No breakfast,
Or papers at Pickwicks. But oddly both
Chilled and warm. Waking early,
Before the novelty of green tea, I lie still. And calm.
No anxiousness dawns this quiet and sunny morning.
Confidence is built with many tiny bricks.
The deep blue sky. The crisp, cool air walk.
The old City ground now smartly theatred, not terraced.
Two smiling cyclists and their friendly smart supporting team,
All coloured uniforms and neat name badges.
Strip. And locker discard smart clothes and shoes.
Flimsy disposables fit awkwardly, but now suffice.
Four times I’m asked which side?
Four times the answer’s left. The site already penned,
The pressed butterfly feeds me amnesial milk emulsion.
Calmness lingers long. A warm, flushed internal peace.
Would that life were always thus?
I miss the later local pricks, and rest.
Clamped cuff and fingered clip.
Flash digital reassurance at my side.
Wheeled through, and prone, bathed in purple stigma’d light,
The site is swabbed, the drapes stretched.
The hidden blade is drawn.
Between the Absolute music and benign banter,
The patch is placed.
And then? Recovery? Curtained off,
The calm persists. The red light beeps cannot dispel
Trust won, maintained. A hot drink.
A BLT. A questionnaire. And then by ten,
We’re heading home.
Building traffic, we’re back by three. Recuperation begins with tea.
Daily progress. What strange elected break
Begins with trust, then trauma, yet
passes next through doubt, uncertainty.
Was this the right choice?
Familiar territory and time’s tincture, sees steps taken. The hill climbed.
Pale Fritillaries are studded into jewelled meadow turf.
The Hut heals. The swirling morphing mists
Distract from poppy purple colours.
The gilded breakfast crows from sausage swelling.
Slowly, hidden from gaze, the meshed designer gauze tricks.
Velcroed hooks snare eager fibroplasts.
Internal haute couture is shaped.
A permanently bedded memento.
Of holiday. Travel and tears and trust.