Sunday, March 29, 2015


Californian Peregrine falcon by Kevin Cole
We are blessed in Lewes by having had peregrines, Falco peregrinus, nesting on the chalk cliffs just south of the Cuifail tunnel opposite the Railway Land. They share the cliff, after a fashion, with hundreds of jackdaws and a long-suffering pair of ravens. The peregrines really don't like the ravens and spend a significant portion of their non-hunting time dive-bombing the unfortunate corvids. Sadly they sometimes take the raven chicks before they fledge. 
There are a lot of superlatives applied to this bird and if you get the chance to spend time getting to know them you will understand why. It's fastest recorded speed is 242 miles per hour, making it easily the fasted animal on the planet.
My first experience of them was in Melbourne. A pair nested on a skyscraper in the central business district. We were walking up the main drag when a dead pigeon fell from the sky, landing on the pavement about six feet from us. Today I saw a pristine male (tiercel) sitting on a ledge on a cliff in an old chalk pit. He had bright yellow legs and bill and looked, to use an over-used adjective perhaps appropriately, awesome.
They were nearly wiped out by poisoning from pesticides in the 1950s and 60s. DDT was the main culprit. Last year I picked up a fine first edition of J A Baker's classic The Peregrine which immediately made it into the top ten 'next books to be read' list.
They have a fairly distinctive cry in flight:


Corvus monedula - London by Maxwell Hamilton
Given there are about 700 - 800 jackdaws in and around Lewes, sharing the chalk cliffs with the peregrines and ravens, and their calls are part of the background noise of life in the town, I thought I'd do them next. 
The common name derives from 'jack' meaning small, and 'daw' which is the vernacular English name for the bird. The Latin specific name comes from moneta, meaning 'money'. 
They cause a bit of a nuisance when they attempt to nest in chimney pots. Lots of houses in town have wire mesh covering them to prevent this. One of it's dialect names is the chimney sweep bird.


Cleavers or Goosegrass

Many a country walk with children involves sticking cleavers or goose grass on people's backs, ideally without them realising. It's a common plant and one of the first out of the gates in spring. It's also difficult to get rid of once it gets a roothold in your garden, even though it's an annual.
It's actually edible and has been used for all sorts of things, from stuffing mattresses and making sieves, to dying cloth red (the root) and providing a coffee substitute (roasted seeds).
It's binomial is Galium aparine and it's in the fourth biggest family of flowering plants, Rubiaceae. Coffee and bedstraws are siblings. The family belongs to the order is Gentianales after the gentians, which themselves are named for the Illyrian king Gentius. I hope that's clear.


Sheep, Ovis aries, are the 'without-which-not' of the South Downs. They created the short turf which, after a couple of hundred years, can contain more flowering plant species in a square metre than any other habitat. If we were all vegetarian for the next three hundred years we would lose a significant portion of our flora! Once ploughed, however, the ecosystem is destroyed. The owner of Offham Down tried to plough his ancient grassland and got more than he bargained for. Amazingly after 'unploughing', it continued happily as before. So much of the Downs was ploughed during the Second World War that this unique habitat is now scarce, with most of it having some kind of protective designation. 
The pond is a 'dew pond'. These are a feature of chalk grassland and were so called because it was believed they were filled by dew: sadly the more prosaic explanation that it's simply rain actually holds true. They were created by hollowing out the chalk and lining it with clay and straw. Their purpose was to provide water for the sheep so it's somewhat ironic to see them now fenced out.
Sheep really took off, so to speak, in medieval times when monasteries made millions out of the wool trade. In the last 100 years the Australians and New Zealanders have done much the same, although wool production in Australia has more than halved since 1990. They are in the same family, Bovidae, as other cloven hooved ruminants such as cattle, antelopes and goats. They started being domesticated from wild mouflons about 10 000 years ago and there are now over 200 recognised breeds. These are Suffolks if I'm not very much mistaken, and not the famous Southdowns bred locally by John Ellman of Glynde.


Is this the first of the Umbelliferers to flower? Smyrnium olusatrum or Alexanders was introduced by the Romans and used as a celery substitute. It apparently prefers a maritime climate but it certainly thrives in Lewes. Grigson notes that it is often found near monastic sites and one wonders if it was cultivated at Lewes Priory and naturalised from there. In medieval times it was known as parsley of Alexandria. It was cultivated up to the 18th century then replaced by celery. Although not unpleasant tasting it apparently leaves a very bitter after taste and to reduce this, should be blanched by earthing up the lower stem. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Common Whitlowgrass

Another pavement specialist, this is common whitlowgrass or Erophila verna. The picture on the right is of one of the seed pods which I've opened down the middle of the flattened 'belly' to reveal the seeds. These are attached by tiny stalks in two rows. 
It is a member of the Brassicaceae/Cruciferae or cabbage family and gets its common name from it being used to treat whitlows back in the day. In common with (nearly) all its siblings it has four sepals and petals and six stamens. It is unusual amongst its siblings in having deeply notched petals. It lives fast and dies young, being impossible to find after April is out. 


I thought I'd make the photo extra large as this is quite a small but incredibly common plant. It's one of the pavement plants, part of the footpath flora we walk past every day. Senecio vulgaris is one of the ragwort crowd and a member of the daisy family, Asteraceae. The key identification feature is the black tips of the short outer bracts and (less obvious) long inner bracts. It is an annual so must be declared something of a winner given its ubiquity, despite invariably attracting the epithet "weed".

Friday, March 27, 2015

Ivy-leaved Toadflax


This has just started flowering in sheltered, sunny locations. It is Cymbalaria muralis and my photos don't do justice to the flowers. If you follow the link to the Wikipedia page you'll see what I mean.
It is another unassuming little plant that now grows almost universally on old lime-mortared walls, yet is was only introduced from southern Europe in the early seventeenth century. One nineteenth century writer had it that it was introduced to Oxford from Italy when sculptures were imported and that it rapidly spread around the college walls. One of its names is Oxford weed.
However Mr Grigson has the first record accorded to one of the best known amateur gardeners of his time, Mr William Coys, who was growing it in his Essex garden in 1618.
It has evolved to thrive on walls/rock faces by growing towards light until after flowering when seed is setting; it then becomes negatively phototropic, turning back in towards the wall and any crevices where seed can best germinate.  

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Xanthoria polycarpa

x20 Xanthoria parietina
Here's a picture taken with my phone through one of the eyepieces of my 'new' secondhand Seben stereomicroscope (an absolute bargain at £64). I think this is going to increase my enjoyment of natural history by a considerable margin. Looking through both eyepieces gives an almost hyper-real image of what you're looking at. Even the kids ("God Dad, you're such a nerdy loser!") have been "wow"ing and "ooo"ing. 
The first thing I looked at was a hawthorn twig (like this one) with Xanthoria polycarpa on it. I'd picked it up on a walk several weeks earlier. Imagine, therefore, my surprise when a tiny insect appeared from beneath the foliose 'leaves' of the lichen and scurried off-field! I have no idea what it was, but when I later viewed an even older specimen of 'King Alfred's cake' fungus there were loads of them (I'm pretty sure they're the same species) crawling all over it. It came with x10 and x20 eyepieces and the object lenses are in a turret which can be rotated from x2 to x4. To be honest, x20 is all I've really bothered with so far.
It's widely found on twigs, especially elder (Sambucus nigra). In full sun it is incredibly bright yellow. In shadier areas it's more greeny-yellow. In the photo you can see the fruiting bodies (the cup-shaped things with darker yellow centres) which contain the spores.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


Another quick post limited to what I have photographed in the last few days on the phone: our apricot tree growing on a south-west facing wall. They're very early flowering so frost is always a worry. This is Prunus armeniaca 'Hargrand/Torinel', which we bought from Agroforestry research back in 2007. We've not had many apricots from it, but the ones we have had have been enormous and delicious. Although this one is self-fertilising it would be better if we had another tree nearby. It's certainly more successful than the almonds we bought at the same time.
The name derives from the fact that they are believed to have been introduced into western Europe from Armenia.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Holm Oak

 Another naughty non-native. Just a quickie as I'm late again and have other stuff to do before bed. 
Found this growing up on the Downs near the old racecourse. It's a Holm Oak or Evergreen Oak - Quercus ilex. It's a Mediterranean species widely introduced and self-seeding in the south of England. I suspect this will have self-seeded as it's younger than the end of racing when specimen trees may have been planted. It's not the only foreign Quercus on the downs either.
The oaks are actually in the Fagaceae or beech family. The name ilex comes, as you no doubt know (20th January), from the Latin for holly.

Monday, March 23, 2015


I saw this lovely specimen growing on the bank of the river Ouse on Sunday when out looking at the ravens building their nest on the chalk cliffs on the other side. It's also pertinent as I was treated to some of Bill and Gail's sloe gin (mixed with a sparkling white wine) on Saturday evening.
Prunus spinosa is a big plant in terms of its utility and folklore. Not quite as much as Whitethorn (Hawthorn), but still considered a powerful tree. The blossoms are unlucky in the house or worn but the shoots are good, especially for walking sticks. Grigson (see Inspiring books) gives the vernacular names which include some real corkers: snag-bush; egg-peg-bush; scrogg; pig-in-the-hedge.
Every year I tell myself I must collect some to have another go at making sloe gin. Our first attempt (many years ago) was considered a failure; too sour. This time we'll take advice.
The other interesting point about it is that it is thought to be one of the 'parents' of domestic plums: Prunus domestica. The latter is hexaploid. Blackthorn is tetraploid and the other parent is thought to be the diploid Cherry-plum, Prunus cerasifera, mentioned only the other day: it's all connected folks!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Ground Ivy

Another flower today. Although named ground ivy, I found this Glechoma hederacea growing on top of a fallen tree trunk down on the Railway Land. It's a member of the Lamiaceae family - the mints and deadnettles - and in keeping with this has zygomorphic flowers. It's apparently very sensitive to boron, so if you see it growing you can deduce a low level of boron in the soil and impress your friends!
Native to Europe and south-west Asia but has been spread around most of the world. It is poisonous to cattle and horses but we humans have used it in salads and in brewing before the use of hops. This explains its other common names: alehoof and tunhoof. Medicinally it has been used, like so many herbs, for virtually everything. In particular it was recommended for colds and coughs and other respiratory disorders. 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Grape hyacinth

Now these really are associated with spring in my book. Grape hyacinths in the garden are almost always Muscari armeniacum as opposed to M. neglectum which is the wild species found only in a few places in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire in dry grassland and hedgebanks. The latter has slightly larger and darker flowers. The specimen in the photo is a rather diminuitive one and unusual in that it's growing almost on its own. It was the first in flower this year and I've only seen one or two others out.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Lenten Rose

These are three different winter roses or Helleborus x hybridus. They are the same genus as H. foetidus and therefore members of the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae. The colourful flower parts are not petals but sepals. The former have evolved into nectar-holding structures. Sepals tend to persist after petals are lost, consequently these remain colourful for a long time. They are also evergreen, hardy, winter-flowering and shade tolerant, hence their popularity amongst gardening folk.
It's probably time to grasp the differences between hybrids and infra-specific classification in more detail. I've already mentioned sub-species (denoted ssp.) but there can also be hybrids, varieties and forms.
Hybrids can be biological or taxonomic. Usually I think of them in the latter way: Hybrids are crosses between two different subspecies in the same species (intraspecific); two different species in the same genus (interspecific); two species from different genera (intergeneric) and, very rarely, two species from different families (interfamilial). In this case H. orientalis and its subsepecies or closely related species such as H. purpurascens or H. niger.
Varieties tend to be geographically separate 'versions' of the same botanical species. If different varieties of the same species are brought together they can breed. 
Form is below variety and some consider it a pointless division as it merely reflects genetic variation: e.g. a plant with commonly purple flowers might occasionally produce white forms, usually denoted as Genus species f. alba. In zoology it has no taxonomic validity.
A cultivar (cultivated variety) is a plant with particular characteristics which can be perpetuated by propagation and are selected, usually, by human intervention. All food plants grown commercially are cultivars. e.g. Solanum tuberosum 'King Edward'. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Greater Ramshorn Snail

Planorbarius corneus corneus or greater ramshorn snail is the other gastropod in our pond. I pinched a couple from a lovely pond in a local house we were visiting and put them in mine soon after I made it a couple of years ago. I thought they'd perished as I hadn't seen any until the other week. 
The pond, as all nature garden writers tell you, has been absolutely amazing for wildlife: loads of damsel and dragonflies. Toads, frogs and newts. Hoverflies.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Giant Pond Snail

This is Lymnaea stagnalis or the giant pond snail. It's pretty common but has been important in allowing us to develop an understanding of how neural networks work. They have a very simple nervous system of around 20 000 neurons which are all quite large. Consequently they have been the subjects of many experiments. This may explain why this one defaecated on me when I picked it up.
They are molluscs and belong to the gastropod class. They are hermaphrodite and demonstrate the Coolidge effect, something the chaps out there might know something about (nudge, nudge, wink, wink).

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Water Measurer

Can  you spot it? It's the insect standing on the surface next to the green grass blade protruding through the water in the centre of the picture.
The water measurer, or Hydrometra stagnorum is a 9- 12mm long beastie found throughout Great Britain on still water. It spears mosquito larvae, fleas and other small prey through the surface with its beak.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Wood Pigeon

Something of the annoyed retired Colnel about this bird.
I had thought wood pigeon was spelled woodpigeon but it appears I was wrong. It's Latin name is Columba palumbus, palumbus being the Latin for wood pigeon.
It is one of the most numerous wild birds in the UK with an estimated 3 million breeding pairs and up to 10 million at the end of the breeding season (which is one of the longest of British birds). One is building a nest in the laurel as I type. 
They are the UK's worst agricultural pest. In the past they were widely culled but it was discovered that the culling (which occurred in the Autumn) did little to diminish the numbers as many succumb to insufficient food resources over winter and culling reduced the pressure on said resources.
In a way it's a shame that they're not more widely eaten: a bit like wild deer, they seem a free and 'low carbon' source of protein. A friend of mine who's gone to live in Australia was a regular wood pigeon killer, taking the breasts to pan-fry in various delicious ways. I acquired his air rifle but confess to not yet getting round to exploiting nature's bounty.
Their call is similar to that of the collared dove, but consists of five, not three, syllables. Mr Sample renders it as "a-proud-wood-pig-eon".

They were known as 'culvers' in England, from the Old English name for the bird. This is of interest to me because there is a mysterious man-made structure on build into the cliffs of south Gower just west of Port Eynon called 'Culver Hole'. There are lots of local legends as to what its purpose was, from smuggling warehouse to pigeon-loft. The latter now seems most plausible.

Collared Dove

The sharper-eyed of you may have realised that I skipped a post on 13th, so to make up here are two closely related species for the 16th.
If you had been a keen birder in the UK fifty years ago you may have travelled hundreds of miles to see these as they didn't breed here. Then in 1956 the first pair bred and since then they have spread as far as the Shetland Isles. In fact their spread through Europe is the fastest of any species on record! They are in the top ten commonest garden birds. The latin name is Streptopelia decaocto.
They have a distinctive call which can easily be told apart from the woodpigeon. It is tri-syllabic and often rendered as "u - ni - ted". The woodpigeon has a five-syllable call.

They are also the only pigeon/dove in the UK to have a flight call (which I think sounds like it comes from a member of the crow family).  

Sunday, March 15, 2015


Today's offering holds a special place in my heart and the hearts of the members of the The Glorious All-England 249ers: the Chaffinch or Fringilla coelebs
The main reason for this is due to the many times over-excitement resulted in the claiming of a bird of great interest and rarity which turned out to be a humble chaffinch. To commemorate our affection we compete for the Chaffinch Hat, a beautifully hand-tooled peaked cap sporting a larger-than-life model of the male of the species (as seen in the photos) on the crown. A gentle squeeze produces a wonderful rendition of the male's song.
This song was one of the first I learned to recognise. The great Lawrence Holloway described it as a bowler running up to bowl with the final flourish being its delivery. 
The finches, Fringillidae, are divided into two subfamilies: Fringillinae and the Carduelinae. There is only one genus in the former and many in the latter. The former feed their young on insects and the latter on regurgitated seeds. 
The binomial comes from the latin for finch, Fringilla, and the latin for unmarried, coelebs. The common name is from the Old English, ceaffinc

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Blue Anenome

This little beauty returns every year in the lawn not far from the Iris reticulata. It's a mystery how it got there as it wasn't around for the first few years we lived here. There's something a little sad about the fact that it's the only one. It hasn't managed to have any babies. Ahhh.
It's a Blue anenome or Anenome apennina. It looks a bit purple in the photo but in reality it's more blue.
I wrote most of this last night but then couldn't find it in my Wildflower Key (see useful books) so hesitated (and so was lost) and went out until very late.
Today I've tracked it down and am sure of the identity (from internet and Stace).

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Myrobalan Plum- 'Pissard's Plum'

Always the first tree to flower in our garden, usually closely followed by the apricot. 
This is not the most attractive tree. It's a cherry plum or Myrobalan plum, Prunus cerasifera var. Pissard's plum. Cracking name. The flowers are delightful, especially when the tree is festooned. (I'll try to remember to add a picture of it in full glory.) You can just about make out the Iris reticulata growing around the base. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Stinking Hellebore

Scraping the barrel a bit today. Wednesday is always a bit tricky as I get home from work late. But this is a native plant: Stinking Hellebore or Helleborus foetidus. It grows well in our garden and provides impressive greenery and architectural interest to the beds in winter. It's a member of the Buttercup or Ranunculus family