After the snow and black ice over the weekend, it’s good to be out at Nostell again. The place seems to have sprung to life: blue skies, sunlit trees and the breeze picking up sparkling ripples on the lake which had been leaden grey with ice last time we were here.
Winter aconites and snowdrops are at their freshest.
It’s ten degrees warmer than it was yesterday and one of the cygnets on the lower lake has been stirred into action: she – I assume this is a female – is sitting at the water’s edge in a quiet backwater behind a small screen of reedmace, practicing her nest-making skills; plucking pieces of vegetation and throwing them back with a flick of her head. They’re tending to land on her tail, but she’s so enthusiastic, she’ll soon build on her skills.
There’s nesting activity here at home too: Barbara spots a blue tit leaving the nest box on the back wall of our house.
Perennial Dog’s Mercury, Mercurialis perennis, is already in flower in the hedgebanks, or at least the male flowers are now showing. Each plant is either male or female but I’ve yet to spot any female flowers; they are long-stalked and grow from the axils. An axil is the joint where a leaf stalk branches from the stem of a plant. Axilla is the Latin for armpit.
Like the petty spurge that I drew yesterday, dog’s mercury is a member of the Spurge Family, Euphorbiacaeae. It spreads by root-like rhizomes and is common throughout most of Britain in woods, hedges, scree and in the sheltered crevices (grykes) of limestone pavements. It is rare in Ireland.
The male flowers are just four or five millmetres across and grow in catkin-like tassels. Each has three bract-like tepals.
Petty spurge, Euphorbia peplus, is a common weed of gardens and waste ground but its tiny green flowers look quite exotic in close up. Those horned glands give it a hint of the extra-terrestial.
The winged capsules are the female parts of the flower. There are three here, the central one much larger than those at top and bottom of the picture. Each capsule has a tuft of stigmas (five on the lower one).
Appropriately, the male flowers are the ones that are sporting the stag’s horns (which are glands). Again, there are three in the photograph and I think that on the tips of the stamens of the top one there’s a hint of yellow pollen.
The the small beak-like fleshy ‘leaves’ that can be seen clasping the top and bottom flowers are a structure that is special to euphorbias called the cyathophyll. I think that must be a botanical term for ‘cup-like leaf’ because phyll means leaf and cyathos is derived from a Greek word meaning ‘A cup or ladle used for drawing wine from a bowl’.
The larger ‘leaves’ clasping each flower are bracts, which look very similar to the leaves in this species. Each umbel of flowers has three rays (primary branches).
The petty spurge is not thought to be a native to the British Isles but is believed to be long-established here, since before 1600.
A couple of stems of chicory escaped when I mowed the meadow area, but I might as well enjoy drawing them while they’re still here. They’re going to go as I need to keep it under control to give some of the other wild flowers, such as bird’s-foot trefoil, red campion and red clover, a chance to thrive.
Perhaps I should start eating it: buds and leaves are edible and the roots have been baked, ground and roasted as a substitute for coffee. I can’t see me giving up my Fairtrade, rain-forest friendly latte.
After a long, dull winter, Sainsbury’s know how to get you as you stroll into the supermarket: I couldn’t resist these bright packs of bee and butterfly meadow mixes. All I’ve got to do now is clear several square metres of ground, plant the bulbs and sow the seed mixes, and wait for the flowers to attract the local pollinators.
There are plants that I would never have selected for our garden, such as gladioli, dahlia and delphinium, so it will be fun to see what works. As the labels suggest, they’ll all be attractive to bees, butterflies, hoverflies and other insects.
We’re pleased with the way the flower bed by the rowan in the front garden has come on since we planted it out in spring last year.
The spiky ornamental grasses, the shrubby purple hebe and the tete-a-tete daffodils have all bulked up but the stars of the show are the primulas. They’ve been no more than a bedraggled rosette of leaves all winter but over the past couple of weeks we’ve seen more and more flowers appearing.
‘Purple Stem’ Sweet Box, Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna*, is now tasseled with sweetly fragrant blossom on the woodland bank behind the bench by the Druid Bridge below the Cascade at Nostell Priory. Each blossom has just two styles and one central stigma; with a scent like that, who needs petals?
The generic name, Sarcococca, is from the Greek, ‘sarc’ meaning flesh and ‘kokkos’, berry.
The species name honours botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker(1817-1911) who collected this winter-flowering shrub on a plant-hunting expedition in southern China. Hooker was a friend and confidant of Charles Darwin; Benedict Cumberbatch appears as Hooker in Creation, the biographical movie about Darwin. This weekend he appears in the final episode of Sherlock, so perhaps he’ll now be able to get back to playing Victorian botanists, which he does so well.
The newly planted Sweet Box by the bench should spread by suckers to form a thicket a metre in height.
* I guess that it’s possible that this is a garden hybrid, closely related to S. hookeriana.
After a week of wintry and sometimes very windy weather, it’s good to be walking through the parkland under blue skies with low winter sun picking out the textures on the trunks of the old beeches and oaks. It’s also picking out the bark-like layers in the sandstone of the old quarry in the Menagerie garden.
In the walled garden the first snowdrops have appeared and the winter aconites that we first saw opening midweek are continuing to come into flower.
In the shady shelter of the far northeast-facing wall of the garden, Timperley Early(right) is one of the few rhubarb varieties to have started sprouting leaves but Victoria is just ahead of it, with some of the leaves already opening out.
Shepherd’s purse, like other members of the cress family, has four-petalled flowers but it’s easier to identify its heart-shaped seed pods which are the shape of the sporran-like purse worn by medieval shepherds.
This plant has so far survived our autumn weeding of the veg beds, hanging on in there in the last square metre of the L-shaped bed next to our little meadow area, growing alongside spurge, bush vetch, forget-me-not and creeping buttercup and a few rosettes of sow-thistle and foxglove.
2.30 p.m., overcast, 58°F, 14°C: Warps are methodically working the pale yellowish green flowers of the ivy. These must rank as the dowdiest of flowers but the sweetish heady scent has also attracted a few bluebottles which have a more skittish approach to imbibing this autumnal supply of nectar. One sunny morning last week, hoverflies and drone flies were also joining in this end of season feast.
10.25 a.m., cumulo stratus 80%, 59°F, 15°C, back garden.
The perennial cornflower was originally a plant I introduced from my mum’s large, leafy and well-stocked garden. It has settled in well, scattering its seeds along our border. I’m sure that we never planted it at this end, by the corner of the patio next to the bird bath. There’s often a blackbird or sometimes a sparrow sitting on the edge of the patio here and I guess that’s how it found it’s way here, in a bird dropping. It also spreads via creeping rhizome.
As its scientific name, Centaurea montana, suggests, it’s a plant of subalpine meadows and open woodland in Europe, ranging from the Ardennes the Pyrenees and in the east as far as the Balkans.
We’ve had more colour in the border this autumn than we had in the summer. The pot marigold, Calendula, which we planted a year or two ago at this end of the border has spread across the back garden, popping up in the veg beds and in the greenhouse.
As it flies – ‘as the crow flies’, in a straight line – this carrion crow makes a call that I describe as ‘Tchuik! Tuikk! Twik!’ in my sketch: not the harsh, croaking ‘Caw! Caw! Caw! Caw!’ that I associate with crows. The Handbook of British Birds describes this call as ‘a higher-pitched, complaining “keerk, keerk, keerk”.
I hear the regular ‘caw’ half an hour later after a commotion with the local magpies at the edge of the wood, which have been making their chattering rattling calls in the tall ash trees.
The sparrows chirping in the hedge are a more homely soundtrack for my drawing. It’s feels like a treat to be out of doors drawing from nature again.
The Ashfields, between Heath village and the River Calder (OS ref. SE 353 206), were settlement lagoons for the pulverised fuel ash from Wakefield power station which was decommissioned in 1991. In the past thirty or forty years the process of natural succession has transformed them from silty open ground to orchid meadow and then from scrub to woodland.
Two longhorn beetles, Stranglia maculata, rest on umbels of hogweed and in a sheltered clearings there are a few speckled wood butterflies but the most common and persistent insect is the mosquito.
The Half Moon (SE 358 208) between Heath and Kirkthorpe is a cut-off meander of the Calder. A hundred or more whirligig beetles gyrate in a group on the surface close to the bank. Branched bur-reed grows amongst sweet-flag.
Amber snails graze on the sweet-flag. These snails are unable to fully retract into their shells. Their lower tentacles are much reduced.