I got so much from working in black and white last weekend but with some winter sun at last as we walked around the woodland and the lagoons at Walton Colliery nature park I couldn’t resist the autumn colour against that clear blue sky.
THE LAST of the Wakefield Naturalists’ summer field meetings; this morning we take a leisurely stroll around Walton Colliery Country Park, an area which is as botanically rich as any that I know in the area. There’s waterside, remnants of waste-ground and heathy slopes which will become woodland before too long unless they’re managed to keep their open aspect.
I’m not going to have the time to draw so I take the camera and the copy of the Collins Gem Guide to Wild Flowers which we keep in the glove box of the car. I found myself influenced by my 1972 diary illustrations in this dip pen and watercolour sketch.
When the group comes across a tricky flower half a dozen of us compare descriptions in our different field guides.
Melilot and Memory
For example we have to decide between two tall yellow members of the Peaflower Family; Ribbed Melilot and Tall Melilot. The Gem Guide points out that Ribbed has ‘hairless brown seed-pods’ while Tall has ‘downy black seed-pods’. I take a small piece home – it’s a common plant here – and photograph it under the microscope.
There are a few sparse microscopic hairs on the seed-pods but I’d hardly call these downy, so I’m plumping for Ribbed Melilot, Melilotus officinalis.
‘Officinalis’ means that this species was reputed to have a medicinal use; Culpeper tells us that ‘A plaster made of this herb boiled in mutton-suet, wax and rosin, is drawing, and good for green wounds’. He also recommends it for inflammation, tumours and as an eye drop ‘to take away the film that dims the sight’. Washing the head in distilled water of the herb will ‘strengthen the memory’.
Members of the Peaflower Family have nodules on their roots containing nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Accessing extra nutrients seems to be a theme of the plants on the grassy trackside; Red Bartsia, Odontites verna, a member of the Figwort Family, goes for a more direct approach in grabbing nutrients; it is semi-parasitic, tapping into the roots of other plants.
You can probably guess the use that Culpeper suggests for Common Fleabane, Pulicaria dysenterica, a plant of damp, grassy places: ‘The smell of this . . . is supposed delightful to insects, and the juice destructive to them, for they never leave it till the season of their deaths.’
I last recorded Broad-leaved Helleborine, Epipactis helleborine, in my diary for 10 August 2000 on the nature trail at Collier Wood, the now defunct and much-missed picnic site in County Durham. None of our group remembers having seen it here at Walton Colliery Country Park before but it seems to be establishing itself as we see a second small colony of it later on our walk on a semi-shady woodland edge.
Helleborines are members of the Orchid Family.
It’s useful to go on a wild flower walk with a group because other people will point out details that you might miss. I don’t recall having noticed that some of the white umbels of Wild Carrot, Daucus carota, have a few red flowers at the centre.
Branched Bur-reed, Sparganium erectum, has flower-heads that resemble a spiked medieval weapon. It’s an aquatic plant, growing in a water-filled ditch at the park amongst reedmace, Purple Loosestrife and Yellow-flag Iris (see top picture).
HUNDREDS OF small Cowslips are in flower on the grassy plateau in the centre of Walton Colliery Nature Park, just 2 miles south-east of the centre of Wakefield. I’m impressed by the transformation that has taken place during the past 20 years or so from grey spoil heap to copse, heathy meadow and pond. Now a Local Nature Reserve, it’s probably the best place to see Grass Snake and Adder, although I’ve yet to see either, and for insects, such as the rare Short-winged Conehead bush-cricket which astonished conservation volunteers when they came across it last summer; this species had previously not been recorded in Yorkshire for 80 years. It shows how creating the right habitat (with perhaps a bit of help from global warming!) can benefit wildlife.
This particular Cowslip, Primula veris, growing at the foot of the slope, was bigger those in on the plateau. The lusher growth might be the result deeper soils, resulting from rainwash on the slope and it may be that, down here in the dappled shade of a copse of sapling broadleaf trees, there’s more shelter from wind and sun.
Cowslips are typically found on limy soils. I always imagine that former colliery spoil heaps would give rise to acid soils but there’s more to the coal measures than sulphur-rich coal; sometimes shale can be lime-rich. Mussel bands from the coal measures, as the name suggests, can be stuffed with lime-rich fossil shells. However, growing amongst the Cowslips was Sorrel, typical of acid soils and with leaves that have an acid taste.
As I was drawing the Cowslip, a Brimstone Butterfly, Gonepteryx rhamni, flew past and rested in the sun on a nearby Dandelion. Speckled Woods were amongst the other butterflies to be found in the patchwork of grassland and copses at Walton Colliery Nature Park.
These three fungi are – I guess – earthballs that have burst open to distribute their ochre-coloured spores. They’re growing on the plateau in a sunny, grassy corner sheltered by a copse amongst the leaves of Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, and fine glossy leaves of grass (Wavy-hair?).