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 2019 Nature Notes 

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2019 Nature Notes

 

Sowing Seeds     October 2019

 

Earlier this year, we scattered a packet of seeds in the middle of the pollinator patch. The contents of the packet weren’t listed and all we knew was that they were bee friendly. We had to walk over the bed many times during the course of planting and weeding and I wasn’t confident that any of the seeds would manange to grow before they got trampled underfoot! 

 

Well, how wrong can you be!

First came the love-in –the-mist (Nigella damascena) followed by a beautiful yellow marigold (Calendula Officinalis) and then Fiddleneck  (Phacelia Tanacetifolia).  When it comes to attracting bees, plants don’t come much better than Phacelia.  It’s highly rated by Dave Goulson, founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust (BBCT).

 

Phacelia is an annual herb that is in the same family as borage and viper’s bugloss, which are also excellent for pollinators. It grows to about 100cms and each stem gradually unfurls (like ferns) to expose the small, blue, bell-shaped flowers. The uncoiled branches look like the scroll on a violin, hence the common name of Fiddleneck. Other common names include lacy phacelia and blue or purple tansy. The German name for it is Bienenfreund, which translated means the bees’ friend.

 

Phacelia is native to the south western states of the USA and northern Mexico and is is commonly found growing in the deserts of California. It is used commercially as a bee plant to help pollinate crops and as a green manure.

 

I’d never heard of this plant until a couple of years ago when I sent for a pollinator friendly packet of seeds from Friends of the Earth and now of course I see it everywhere. They’ve had a large patch of it at Hillier’s Gardens, growing in a couple of beds just alongside Jermyn’s House……you may have spotted it?

 

Unfortunately it does look a bit scruffy when it’s dying back, but more than makes up for that when it’s in flower. So let’s celebrate the funny, fuzzy, bee-friendly phacelia and hope it seeds for another season in the pollinator patch!

 

Hedgehogs         October 2019

 

A couple of weeks ago, whilst she was walking home through the Rec, Emily spotted 2 hedgehogs, busying themselves on their nightly search for food. They will be doing their best to put on as much weight as possible in preparation for winter hibernation and can travel 2km or more on each of their foraging trips.

 

Possibly the best chance of seeing, or more likely hearing hedgehogs, is during the peak breeding season around May and June. Should you happen to be out late on a warm evening, you may hear the unmistakable huffing and snorting of the hedgehogs prolonged mating ritual, which if unfamiliar, sounds quite loud and unsettling in the still night air. It is the female hedgehog who does most of the vocalising, but the male may get the odd ‘word’ in now and then! I recall standing in my garden watching 2 hedgehogs circling round and around, nose to nose, in typical mating style. This carried on for at least half an hour, all the while accompanied by the continuous snorting. Unfortunately, I was getting rather chilled so didn’t hang around to witness the outcome; these romantic liaisons are clearly not something to be rushed!

 

In 2016 a poll to determine Britain’s favourite mammal came out strongly in favour of our prickly pals. Their common name, hedgehog, dates back at least as far as the 15th century, but there have been some dialect names such as Hodmedod in Norfolk or Hotchewitchi in the Romany tongue. Gypsies have traditionally eaten hedgehogs, which they cooked by packing them in clay and baking them over an open fire. Now, hedgehogs do have a degree of legal protection, but unfortunately their own technique to deal with perceived threats, that of curling up into a tight ball, doesn’t serve them well on our busy roads! It does however, deter most predators except for the badger, which can use its powerful claws and limbs to prise open a defensively curled hedgehog.

 

Our hedgehogs are known to be declining in number, especially in the countryside, mainly due to loss of suitable habitat and use of pesticides. Like a lot of wildlife, they’ve taken refuge in our towns and cities and there’s plenty we can do as individuals, to help them. We can put out a supply of supplementary feed and fresh water during the summer months, leave areas of our gardens relatively undisturbed, be mindful of hazards such as steep sided ponds, garden netting etc, check carefully before using gardening equipment such as mowers and strimmers and preferably avoid using chemicals and slug pellets altogether.

 

We also need to check out bonfires before lighting them in the autumn…to a hedgehog, they will look like the perfect place to make a cosy nest! And we can help hedgehogs to move around our neighbourhoods safely by creating hedgehog highways. Leaving, or creating a 13cm x 13cm hole in our garden walls and fences will allow hedgehogs to move freely between gardens on their nightly peregrinations.

 

FOR MORE INFORMATION PLEASE VISIT THE WEBSITE OF THE BRITISH HEDGEHOG PRESERVATION SOCIETY (BHPS) 

www.britishhedgehogs.org.uk/

 

                        Bramble                November 2019

 

 

Rubus fruticosus, wild blackberry or bramble is a shrub of the Rose family and there are believed to be well over 200 species in the UK. This ubiquitous plant is the bane of many a gardener’s life, not least the gardening group at the Rec.!! Volunteers have battled with brambles over several sessions this autumn and the border alongside the tennis court is finally emerging from cover!

 

Bramble is predominantly a shrub of the temperate Northern Hemisphere and grows in a wide variety of habitats. The 16th century herbalist, John Gerard wrote “The bramble groweth for the most part in every hedge and bush”………and don’t we know it! As well as being unfussy when it comes to habitat, it can grow up to 3” in a day, roots easily when the tips of the arched branches touch the soil and can regenerate from small fragments of root and stem; the gardener does indeed faces a tough adversary!

 

But despite its thuggish reputation, it is a valuable shrub for wildlife and human foragers alike. It provides cover for nesting birds and small mammals and its flowers are a valuable source of nectar for pollinators such as the Brimstone and Speckled Wood butterflies as well as bees and other insects. And who hasn’t enjoyed an afternoon spent blackberrying. Despite purple stained hands and possibly a few scratches, there’s the inviting prospect of a delicious apple and blackberry tart. Of course the berries are also a good source of nutrition for many types of wildlife, although strictly speaking, the blackberry isn’t a true berry but an aggregate fruit made up of many small drupelets.

 

Historically, blackberries, along with malt and hops, were used to make a strong ale popular in the 18th and 19th centuries and bramble charcoal was used in making gunpowder.

 

Folklore dictates that blackberries shouldn’t be harvested after Old Michaelmas Day (11th October). It was believed that when the Archangel Michael banished the devil from heaven, presumably on his name day, Satan fell on a blackberry bush. The devil then placed a curse on the bramble and spat on it making the fruit unpalatable. There could be a certain scientific basis for this belief because the bramble does often succumb to mould such as Botrytis later in the season.

 

Finally, as a sad sign of the times, the blackberry no longer features in the Oxford Junior Dictionary, although there is reference to the android BlackBerry…..is it any wonder that there is an increasing disconnect with nature?!

 

Bramble’s certainly not everybody’s favourite plant, but in the right place, it makes an invaluable contribution to our landscape and ecology.

 

If you visit the Rec at this time of year, you can clearly see that the bare branches of a couple of the sycamore trees are festooned with large globes of greenery. It is mistletoe (Viscum Album), a plant very much associated with this festive time of year. Unlike the plants romantic associations, its common name has a very earthy derivation. Mistletoe comes from two Anglo Saxon words; ‘mistel’ which means dung and ‘tan’ which means twig, so its name roughly translates as ‘poo on a twig’. This originates from the observation that it’s birds that are responsible for spreading the seeds from tree to tree, although current thought is that it’s unlikely to be in their poo. Instead it seems to be as a result of the birds feasting on the fleshy white berries and afterwards cleaning their beaks on the bark of the tree, depositing the sticky seed in the process. One bird, the mistle thrush even gets its latin name Turdus Viscivorus from its association with the plant; the latter part meaning devourer of mistletoe. But it’s the increase in the number of overwintering Blackcaps, Sylvia Atricapilla, and their fondness for mistletoe berries that seem to be the main reason behind the recent spread in distribution of the plant.

 

Mistletoe is hemiparisitic. It sends out roots that penetrate into the host tree to draw out water and nutrients, but it is also able to photosynthesize to provide for some of it’s own requirements. It’s rarely solely responsible for killing a tree, but can be a contributory factor and if it occurs in significant quantities, it will weaken the tree and cause branches to break off.

 

                   Mistletoe            December 2019

 

Mistletoe features heavily in the folklore of many pre Christian societies such as in Norse tradition and that of the Romans and Celts. It was variously supposed to symbolise fertility, to ward off evil spirits and cure many ailments. For centuries mistletoe was known in folk medicine by the name of all-heal. As a consequence of mistletoe’s association with pagan beliefs and Winter Solstice rituals there is a suggestion that it was originally banned in churches. However, as with so many other pagan traditions, it has been absorbed into the Christian celebration of Christmas.

 

Every year in late November, the Worcestershire town of Tenbury Wells holds a mistletoe and holly auction, followed by a Mistletoe Festival in December. It has styled itself as the ‘Mistletoe Capital of England’. However back in 2002 when the conservation charity Plantlife asked the British public to choose a wild flower for their county, it was the adjoining county of Herefordshire that adopted the mistletoe.

 

As to where the tradition of kissing underneath the mistletoe originated, there are a number of theories, but whichever is true, the chance to steal a kiss under ‘the poo on a twig’ is now firmly embedded in our festive folklore.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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