Peony Seedpods

With our peonies, I much prefer drawing the seedpods to the frilly magenta pink flowers. Peonies are related to buttercups and the other place where I’ve seen pods shaped like a court jester’s cockscomb hat is on the kingcups by the pond.

Unlike the kingcups, the pods on the peony have a furry covering. As they ripen they turn from light green to a light ginger brown. They’ve yet to open but some of the pods on the kingcups have already split to disperse the seeds.

Wild Garlic

In yesterday’s post, I’d got as far as the pen and ink for the ransoms or wild garlic for my woodland flowers spread. Adding the watercolour makes such a difference. As I painted it, I started thinking about the wood in spring with a waft of garlic drifting through the shadier, damper valley bottom by the beck.

Despite the recent snows, it’s young leaves are already beginning to appear, so I couldn’t resist tearing off a small piece yesterday morning, to crush it between my fingers to release that gentle scent of garlic.

In a month or two, when it’s at its lushest amongst the crack willows and alders alongside Coxley Beck, it looks rather tropical. When we moved here, thirty or so years ago, that area was open and meadow-like. Alder saplings started to colonise the open ground; now it’s alder woodland with ransoms spreading like weeds. Except ransoms isn’t a weed – in the sense of ‘a plant growing in the wrong place’ – because in Coxley Wood, it’s growing exactly where it should be growing. It’s good to see a wild flower doing well and spreading for a change.

Another drawing that’s been transformed by a wash of watercolour is the yellow archangel, which is one of my favourite woodland plants, as it’s supposed to be one of the indicators of ancient woodland. My original drawing, in my Sketchbook of the Natural History of the Country Round Wakefield, was just an inch and a quarter across, line only, so it resembled a Victorian engraving. Adding colour  reminds me how this plant brightens up the odd corner alongside woodland paths.

Wood sorrel isn’t nearly as widespread as lesser celandine, wood anemone and bluebell in the wood. I like those clover-shaped leaves, which are usually, if not always, folded back.

Next stage is to drop these scanned images onto a sketchbook background for my May nature diary spread in The Dalesman magazine. I realised that I’d need landscape format this time, not a double-page portrait sketchbook with the spiral binding in the centre, which is what I’ve used so far for my articles.

As luck would have it, the afternoon light was still suitable for me to go out to photograph an A5 sketchbook on a mossy rock on the raised bed behind the pond. I look forward to putting the whole design together and adding some lettering: not too much as I don’t want to crowd out the flowers.

Woodland Flowers

I’ve decided to feature woodland flowers in my Dalesman magazine nature diary for May, but it’s still early in the season so I’ve dug out a copy of a drawing I made over forty years ago, in the 1970s.

Unfortunately I no longer have the original artwork: they were pen and ink drawings which I cut out of my sketchbooks – something I hate doing! – and pasted onto large sheets of card in same-size page layouts for my first book, A Sketchbook of the Natural History of the Country Round Wakefield. A few years after the book was published, I made the difficult decision to throw out the paste-ups. I really regret that now!

Each page was A5 landscape, so the individual drawings, made on location in Coxley Woods, were each only inches across. My original drawing of the ransoms or wild garlic was just 6 cm across, less than 2½ inches; my new version (above) is 8cm, 3 inches, across.

Bluebell, soft-grass, wood anemone and dog’s mercury.

I scanned the page from the book and blew it up to A4 size, then put it on a light-box to trace the outlines onto cartridge paper before re-drawing the whole thing as near as I can line for line. It’s fascinating to follow so closely the marks that I made all that time ago, a way of getting back into the thought process I used at the time. I can see that I was at pains to follow as closely I was able the curves of stem, leaf and vein, so pretty much what I’d attempt to do today.

The original was dip pen and India ink, the new enlarged version is Lamy Safari, filled with Noodler’s waterproof ink. I’m pleased when, despite my shaky hands, I can follow a line more smoothly today than I could when in my mid-twenties. But then I would have been crouching uncomfortably on the woodland floor, not sitting at my desk in the comfort of my studio, overlooking those same woods. The Indian ink that I used then didn’t flow as smoothly as the Noodler’s I use now.

Even with a white flower like the wood anemone (above), adding a watercolour wash adds information and clarifies what is going on the drawing.

The yellow of the lesser celandine adds a little brighter colour and I’ve still got to add watercolour to the yellow archangel in the top right-hand corner of the page. It should make an suitably spring-green nature diary spread for the May issue of the Dalesman.

Winter Aconites at Nostell

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.

Nest-building

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.

Dogs Mercury

Tassels of male flowers have already appeared on dog’s mercury.

Perennial Dog’s MercuryMercurialis 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.

Male flower

The male flowers are just four or five millmetres across and grow in catkin-like tassels. Each has three bract-like tepals.

Petty Spurge

Petty spurgeEuphorbia 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.

Chicory

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.

Bright as a Seedsman’s Packet

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.

Spring Garden

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.

Sweet Box

‘Purple Stem’ Sweet BoxSarcococca 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.

Hookeriana

Benedict Cumberbatch as Joseph Hooker.

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.

Walled Garden

 

Winter aconite

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.