Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Roses, noses and bathtime

It's wild rose time and the most fragrant British species by far is burnet rose Rosa pimpinellifolia. It has a strange distribution here in Country Durham - mostly coastal but with a few inland populations - perhaps because people planted it in their gardens in the past. This one was photographed at Durham Wildlife Trust's Low Barns Nature Reserve.

We live in an age dominated by visual images, especially on the internet, but wild flowers can engage all the senses, and especially the sense of smell. A few years ago I found this book -The Scented Wild Flowers of Britain by Roy Genders - in a second-hand bookshop and it opened up a new dimension in botanising. It's not just flowers that are scented - leaves and roots of many species also have their own distinctive aroma.

The problem is that having reached three score years and five my sense of smell isn't as acute as it once was - and the fragrance of  many species is quite subtle. Just sniffing the flower when its scent is diluted by the passing breeze isn't enough. So that's why I always carry ......

... a small, screw-top plastic tube. If you just put the flower (in this case red clover which has a delicious peppery sweetness) in this enclosed space for a few minutes the volatile fragrance is concentrated in a small volume of air and is very easy to detect. For leaves, crushing them before you put them in the tube releases the scent much more efficiently.

Fragrances famously stimulate the memory and recollection of past experiences. For me the scent of this plant, meadow rue Thalictrum flavum, brings back memories of bathing our children when they were babies, nearly forty years ago. Its flowers have a comforting, slightly antiseptic smell that mimics the fragrance of the brand of baby talcum powder that we used on them. These days I find it quite difficult to detect the smell of the flower in the open air but when I enclose it in the plastic tube for a minute or two it immediately becomes apparent.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Ghost moth

We found this ghost moth Hepialus humuli on the cliff-top path at Dawdon on the Durham coast this morning.

Ghost moths are unusual in engaging in communal courtship displays at dusk, drawn together in "leks" of a dozen or more by emitting come-hither scents that are said to be reminiscent of the aroma of goats. They hover just above the vegetation, swaying from side to side "as if dangling on the end of a string", according to a 50-year-old account by the eminent entomologist E.B. Ford.

Their ghostly appearance is enhanced by the fact that the undersides of their chalk-white wings are dark brown, so with every upstroke they seem to disappear in the moonlight, then reappear on the downstroke. According to Ford's account their pheromones incite receptive females to fly straight into the swarm of suitors and collide with a chosen male; then both fall to the ground to mate. It's a performance many have described and few have witnessed but one who has is Stephen Cumming, who has posted a video on YouTube that you can watch by clicking here.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Boot-mud seedlings

I first read Weeds and Aliens, a volume in the New Naturalist series written by Sir Edward Salisbury, a former Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, almost fifty years ago. One particular section, where he discussed seeds distributed on footwear, has always stuck in my mind.

Salisbury went to some lengths to demonstrate the effectiveness of seeds dispersal by our feet as we walk around. He even swept up the soil on the floor between the pews of churches after services and germinated seeds of plantains, daisies, irongrass, pearlwort, chickweed and several grasses that had been carried in on the feet of the congregation.

He had a particular bee-in-his-bonnet about Roman soldiers carrying seeds across Britain in mud on their hobnailed sandals.

Early this year after a visit to Hayley Wood in Cambridgeshire  I followed Salisbury's example and scraped the mud from my walking boots into a seed tray to see what would germinate. The picture above shows some of the seedlings. So far I've been able to identify:

Broad-leaved dock
Broad-leaved plantain
A willow herb species
Mouse-ear chickweed
Wood avens
Herb robert
Hairy bittercress
Toad rush
4 unidentified seedlings

plus four species of grass that I haven't identified yet.

No real surprises but quite a mixture. The wood is famous for its oxlips but I don't seem to have had any luck picking up their seeds on my boots!