Sunday, May 1, 2016

Johannes Hedwig, moss sexual reproduction and King Penguins

The King Penguin series of books began publication in 1939 and continued through 76 titles until 1959. These slim volumes covered a remarkably wide range of subjects, ranging from ballet to ballooning and from cricket to the crown jewels. You can read more about them here.

Number 57, published in 1950, was A Book of Mosses by Paul Richards.

King Penguins were noted for their beautifully designed covers and this title carried a pattern of stylised moss plants.

In addition to the well written text, this volume contained exquisite illustrations taken from Johannes Hedwig's Descriptio et adumbriato microscopico-analytica muscorum frondosorum, published between 1787 and 1797.

Hedwig's book contained ground-breaking researches on the structure of mosses, using the best microscopes that were available in the late 18th. century. In his day the details of the reproduction and life cycle of mosses was unknown, but his observations led him to speculate, accurately, that mosses carried male antheridia and female archegonia that were analogous to the pollen and ovules of higher plants.

Hedwig was a very acute observer and skilled artist. The plate above shows his observations on the peristome arrangements of moss capsules, Atrichum undulatum (top left); Grimmia apocarpa (bottom right); Tortula rigida (top right); Camptothecium sericeum (centre left); Fontinalis squamosa (bottom left)

Here is Rhacomitrium lanuginosum and ........

.... here's Camptothecium sericeum.

King Penguins cost one shilling each when they were first published and were very popular, so most titles aren't hard to find in second hand bookshops. Many of them cover natural history themes.

You can read an on-line version of Hedwig's original book by clicking here The text is in Latin. The illustrations are astonishingly good, especially when you zoom in on the detail.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Frog-bit Hydrocharis morsus-ranae

When I was a kid in the 1950s nuclear power was the wonder of the age and the exploits of the nuclear submarine USS Nautilus, which was the first of its kind to traverse the North Pole underwater, was big news in the school playground.

To celebrate the event Kellogs cornflakes produced little plastic models of the submarine, that you could acquire by sending off a small fee and a tab from the packet to the manufacturers. You needed to fill the hollow submarine with baking powder, then it would sink and surface again when the baking powder became wet and released carbon dioxide bubbles. 

Kids were enjoyed simple pleasures in the pre-digital toy age.

The little plant in this photo emulates the actions of a submarine. It's frog-bit Hydrocharis morsus-ranae and it produces resting buds called turions that sink to the pond bottom in autumn then rise again in spring, like a surfacing submarine. 

The plant gets its name from the shape of those leaves which resemble that of a frog's mouth.

I've never seen frog-bit growing in the wild (it's very rare here in Durham) but several years ago I went into a shop in Leeds and found that they were selling the plant for indoor aquaria. I introduced it into my pond and it thrived alongside the frogs for a short while. A few turions rose to the surface again in the second year but after that it died out. I suspect that it was overwhelmed by dead leaves on the pond bottom or duckweed on the surface. 

Finding these old photos reminded me of the episode, and of the cornflake submarines. I notice that a few nurseries advertise the plant for sale so I might get hold of some and try growing it in a small aquarium. I wouldn't mind finding one of those toy submarines to play with too, for nostalgia's sake!

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Eric Ennion

Eric Ennion (1900-1981) is primarily remembered as a brilliant bird illustrator, whose combination of observational, drawing and water-colour skills produced pictures of birds that are full of energy and are uniquely graceful. But he also illustrated a few books on other forms of wildlife and one such was this .....

Life in Pond and Stream by Richard Morse, first published by Oxford University Press in 1945 and revised in 1950. 

Ennion set out on a medical career but his love of wildlife and artistic skills drew him towards natural history illustration. At the time that he illustrated this book he had just left his medical practice to become Warden of Flatford Mill Field Studies Centre and was enjoying the first public exhibition of his paintings at Ackermann Galleries in London.

You can read more about the man and his paintings at

His illustrations for Life in Pond and Stream show all the hallmarks of an artist whose work was informed by first-hand observation. The book has fifteen plates - here is a small selection. 

Natterjack toad;kingcup;edible frog;common frog;butterbur;common frog;common toad

Great crested newts; smooth newt; palmate newt

Perch; pike;roach; dace; bream; eel; freshwater mussel

Raft spider; bladderwort; water spider; water boatman

Freshwater shrimp; freshwater louse; Cyclops; water flea; crayfish

It's well worth hunting down this delightful little book in second-hand bookshops.