Friday, July 22, 2016

Salty tales of Strand-line Plants

These are three different species that we saw recently in Northumberland which belong to a select group plants that colonise the strandline on the seashore. They live in that narrow zone just above the extreme high water mark, usually marked by a line of dry seaweed. It is hard to imagine a more demanding environment; it's dry, salty, and often hot and windy, so the plants are often blasted by wind-blown sand.

This is sea rocket Cakile maritima, the most attractive of the three strandline specialists that we found.  It's a member of the cabbage family and is an annual species, germinating in spring and quickly putting down deep roots into damp sand below the surface.

Sea rocket seed pods are corky and water resistant, acting like lifeboats that can carry seeds long distances in safety on ocean currents. A species of sea rocket was the first higher plant to appear on the volcanic island of Surtsey in 1965, just two years after the island appeared above the waves.

Sea rocket's mauve flowers are attractive to bees and cabbage white butterflies. 

Dealing with salt in the moisture around it's roots is a challenge and it manages this by sequestering the salt in vacuoles in its succulent leaves.

Frosted orache Atriplex laciniata, another annual, has a different way of dealing with the salt, by pumping it into glands on the leaf surface.

It forms extensive stands along the strandline and ......

... the leaves develop this grey appearance.

This is due to a coating of swollen hairs, seen here under the microscope, where salty water accumulates and then crystalises.

The dense covering of salt-laden hairs is highly reflective and as they die that either fall off or are washed away by rain, ridding the plant of toxic salt.

In this vertical section through an Atriplex leaf, magnified under the microscope, you can see the swollen hairs on both sides of the leaf surface, separated by the green photosynthetic tissue of the leaf itself.

Finally this is prickly saltwort Salsola kali, a tough annual that could ruin your picnic if you happen to sit on it because the leaf tips carry short but sharp spines. The minute white flowers are carried in the axils of the upper leaves.

Here the plant is growing just above the strand line below Alnmouth dunes.

These plants show another hazard that these strandline plants face - constant burial by trapped particles of wind-blown sand. Maybe that's why the flowers are produced at the shoot tips.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Small skipper

I find large and small skipper butterflies hard to tell apart but I'm pretty sure this is a small skipper Thymelicus sylvestris, feeding on marjoram at Stanhope in Weardale.

Skipper butterflies have a very distinctive way of holding their wings, half-open, that separates them from all other British butterflies and from moths.

When I first came to live in the North Pennines in the 1970s small skippers were unknown here but since then they have gradually colonised the area and their range now extends well into Northumberland; a butterfly good news story.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Gold-ringed dragonfly

We found this magnificent male gold-ringed dragonfly Cordulegaster boltonii beside the river Derwent near Blanchland in Northumberland last week.

This was an unusually cooperative insect, allowing me to get very close. I suspect that it had only recently emerged from its nymphal stage. It flew briefly, then settled down again to sunbathe.

The female gold-ringed dragonfly has the longest body of any British dragonfly species; males are a little shorter and have a slightly clubbed tail, but are nevertheless spectacular insects.