Wednesday, August 28, 2013

An unusual conglomeration of wildflowers

I've been staying in Bridgnorth this week. Looking north-east from High Town you can see a bare cliff, called, unimaginatively, High Rock. A walk up clearly beckoned. Sadly the weather was somewhat unkind and quite dull the day I went up, so I've sourced a picture of the view online. I followed an easy route from town (here but without the extra loop as it started raining).

High Rock, Bridgnorth, from High Town looking north east. 
By Pam Brophy on Wikipedia and used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Wildflowers are excellent geologists. Some are so fussy & sophisticated in their habitat requirements that their presence is a pretty good guide to what lies beneath; soil type and geology. Of course, soil type is not the only factor determining where plants can grow and thrive; other factors, physical (climate, topography), biological (competition, shading, herbivory) and historical (agriculture, quarrying) all have a role to play. Wildflowers with similar ecological needs are found growing together in recognisable assemblages. 

On the walk up to High Rock a first clue to underlying geology was this feeble scrambler Ceratocapnos claviculata, climbing corydalis. It's a delicate, pale flowered climber with tendrils. It prefers acid soils and I've seen it on sandstone. The weather was dank and grey, so it looks paler than usual in my picture.

It even grows happily under bracken, clambering up the stems using its tendrils. There are few plants that relish living under the domination of shady bracken (the photo below take in Sandy, Bedfordshire a few years ago). I admire this tenacious little plant.

Perhaps one day archaeologists will marvel at the skills of the creators of this modern rock art near the top of the rock. Mysterious petroglyphs for our descendants to decipher. The friable Bridgnorth sandstone presents few challenges to those determined to leave their mark. Hmmm.

Personally I prefer to see polypody fern (Polypodium spp) on the rocks and it was indeed frequently encountered growing in deep shade, on exposed rocks, under the dense woodland canopy.

After a rather dull and sometimes steep, walk through the woods, it was a relief to reach the top of High Rock and pause to admire the view. My photos are awful so here is the view.

It was a surprise to see a dainty blue flower growing between the rocks. Sheep's bitJasione montana, is a flower I've previously only seen at Dungeness; a plant of impoverished, dry sandy and cliffs.

It's a lovely pale blue and looks like a small devil's bit scabious (a member of the daisy family Asteraceae). It was also called sheep's scabious. But for all that superficial similarity it's actually a bellflower (Campanulaceae).

Growing adjacent, in shade, with tall stems & dull yellow flowers, was ploughman's spikenard, Inula conzya. This is a robust member of the daisy family. I've only ever seen it on well drained soils on calcareous substrates. In fact, I thought it was a calcareous indicator species, so was perplexed to find it on acidic sandstone. Ploughman's spikenard once had some repute as a efficacious wound herb. An old name for the plant was cinnamon root, and the name Spikenard implies an aromatic quality. It was also called great fleabane; its specific epithet, conyza, being derived from the Greek for 'flea'. The powdered root was used as a flea deterrent.

Further exploration revealed yet another tall daisy nearby, also in shade. Goldenrod, Solidago virgaurea (virg-aurea literally meaning 'rod, 'golden') was yet another pleasing find. I've formerly only found goldenrod (our native goldenrod) on Northern rocky mountain streams and crags. It's a plant of free-draining acidic substrates. A sandstone cliff ledge sounds pretty good then. Goldenrod was another ancient wound herb. Solidago derives from Latin soldare, to make whole.

Common calamint (Clinopodium ascendens) is uncommon in the north and I didn't expect it. It's a plant I see on chalk or limestone grassland. It's listed and recorded as being present on High Rock in 1992, in Lockton & Whild's 2005 Rare Plants of Shropshire (pdf here - see page 43). They describe it as 'a plant of dry, calcareous soils in the south of Britain'.

A few steps further on, another unexpected find; wild liquorice or milk vetch, Astragalus glycyphyllos. This is a fairly uncommon plant that I see infrequently; the last time being down my old road in Sandy. It prefers sandy soils. Wild liquorice is also listed in the Rare Plants of Shropshire (p24) and was last recorded on High Rock in 1991. The seed pods are quite funky, liked clawed hands.

And the naked stems even weirder once the pods have dropped off.

On a sandstone crag it was no surprise, and quite a relief, to see heather, Calluna vulgaris growing nearby.

I thought the plants found up on High Rock were an unusual assemblage and not all typical of acidic grassland on sandstone. It's worth a quick gander at the local geology.

The walk up to High Rock (a Locally Important Geological Site) is essentially walking on rocks formed in the Permian. During this time (250-290 MYA) our island was landlocked in supercontinent Pangaea and positioned roughly where the Sahara is today. So hot, dry, desert. Permian rocks are sandstones; Bridgnorth sandstones.

At the very top of High Rock there were exposures of what looked like a conglomerate, in dramatic contrast to the cross-bedded, finer grained sandstones. Googling revealed it to be Kidderminster Conglomerate laid down during the Lower Triassic (251-247 MYA). It sits uncomformably on top of the sandstones; pebbles and debris dumped, higgledy-piggledy, by a powerful flash flood, like a flood in a wadi. The conglomerate contains Carboniferous limestone, marl & quartzite pebbles, so must have an effect on the flora on High Rock and goes some way towards explaining the presence of plants with varied ecological requirements.

It doesn't look much today, just a rugged lump of rough rock, but the Late Permian/Lower Triassic was a time of catastrophic upheaval on Earth. A massive extinction event wiped out 96% of all plants & animals. The cause is still debated; volcanic, comet, climate change. Life on earth almost died out. It took about 10 million years to recover. A sobering thought during our uncertain times when we treat our environment so causally. Nature is a powerful force.

A quick aside from botany. On the scramble back down form the top of the rock, I stopped to photograph this distinctive little red beetle. It was in deep shade and next to a rotten log. 

It turned out to be a fortuitous snap. (Here is a better photo from Hampshire) This smart little chap is Platycis minutus, a net-winged beetle and Nationally Notable (Nb), more likely to be encountered south of The Wash. My tentative identification was confirmed by Caroline Uff, County Recorder for beetles. It was last recorded over 100 years ago and that record is for Tuckhill (on the way to Stourbridge). Well, I am chuffed. But, do I snap photos of dull looking brown beetles, which could be rarer? No I don't. I admit recording bias towards colourful cuteness.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The marvellous richness of nature

Being in the vicinity, I couldn't resist a short early evening stroll near magical Stokesay Castle.

Unfortunately the castle was just closing, so I only got glimpses from the churchyard...

..and the lane.

It really is a remarkable survivor from medieval times.

To add to my delight the sky was full of chattering house martins. I rarely see hundreds of martins in the air these days. These wee birds were congregated on the castle roof, in the early evening sunshine.

Everynow and then they took off in a noisy flurry - a 'richness' of house martins - into the air. They circled then settled back on the old roof tiles, only to fly off and round again a few minutes later. It was wonderful.

My video is handheld on a tiny Panasonic but I think it captures some of the energy and exuberance of these beautiful little birds.

Soon they'll be leaving us and heading south. They are declining in numbers and amazingly we still don't know exactly where they go or how they get there. BTO's latest tracking survey will helpfully reveal scientific data we can use to answer those questions and help us all protect them. Although based on recent disregard for scientific data & protection of wildlife by our elected representatives perhaps that is a forlorn hope.

Good luck little Stokesay martins!

Monday, August 26, 2013

Knockers and knobs

A walk around the narrow streets of High Town in Bridgnorth, Shropshire, allowed a little indulgence in door furniture admiration. 

These elegant Georgian designs feature a classical-style face wreathed with leaves. Are those grapes tucked behind the ears and vine leaves in the wreath? Maybe this is Dionysus the Greek god of wine, merry-making and ritual madness? If so, why the sad face?

Perhaps the morning after the night before?

Quite a few webpages suggest this is Medusa. But, I don't see any snakes or serpents. Roullier-White state that it's Hestia, the Greek goddess of home, hearth & architecture. I don't think so, so I'll stick with Dionysus. I have no idea what the rather prim, square shouldered knave on the left is up to.

Continuing the classical theme, some cheeky cherubs adorned a few doors. The one on the right is actually a satyr, in a Kenrick and Sons design. Kenrick is a long established (since 1791) foundry in West Bromwich. This is design No. 425. Satyrs were the companions of Pan and the above mentioned Dionysus. I can't find out anything about the cherub design on the left.

Below are traditional designs, on the left a Victorian scroll, another Kenrick design and on the right a Doctor's door knocker, so called because it was used on a doctor's door. This didn't sound a very satisfactory explanation to me, but Roullier-White go further "Prior to the advent of the public postal system, in the 17th Century, and in rural areas houses were not numbered. Name plaques were common but so was illiteracy, Doctor’s houses were identified by a particular type of knocker. The lower lever like hook was designed so that a child could reach the knocker"

I like this Victorian loop design (and very well polished too); another Archibald Kenrick design.

This striking cat door knocker is probably a symbol of good luck. The only picture I could find online of a similar design was from Malaysia

This decidedly severe knocker looks like a Chinese guardian or Fu lion; a symbol of protection. 

And lions certainly have a lion's share of the door knockers in Bridgnorth. 

The classic lion door knocker is based on the door knocker of No. 10 Downing Street. Pretty imposing. The original lion knocker was fitted to No.10 in the 1770s or 1780s but made in the West Midlands. How appropriate! I've been unable to ascertain which foundry made the original but suspect it was Kenricks.

And this little lion looks even more forlorn than the morose big cats above.

A few doors had a nautical theme. It's a long way from the sea here, but Bridgnorth used to be a bustling river port, with wharves and barges, till the end of the 19th century. (Here's a link to a 19th century painting in Northgate Museum, Bridgnorth.) The fish design is a stylised big-lipped scaly fish with trident tail. It looks Chinese to me, perhaps a carp, a symbol of good luck and abundance.

And some less than polished but full of character.

A couple of rather neat door handles, a rope twist and a star backplate.

Finally, a hand door knocker, the only one I found on my walk. The Hand of Fatima is common in the Medina of Marrakech. Musician Elaine Fine has blogged about hand door knockers here and suggests the hand was there to ward off evil spirits, but perhaps it was also a symbol of protection and blessing on the household.

Arkeolog, a photographer from Turkey has some wonderful photos of hand door knockers from his homeland and from Syria (you'll need to scan down his photo page).

I'd never before realised there were so many designs, from the ornate to the very ordinary, and behind many a story or deeper meaning. Might go and buy one tomorrow!

Did buy a door knocker today! This lovely owl from the Door Knocker Company just outside Church Stretton.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

For what porpoise?

I've set up a blog called 'From the Coast' so as not to fill this blog up with too many non-floral posts. However, some followers may find this post interesting.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Still shady after all these years

The winter sunshine this week tempted me out for a lunchtime walk in the East Kent Downs, a few miles north of Folkestone.

Lyminge nestles in the lovely Elham valley. Queen Ethelburga built a church here sometime after 633AD. The daughter of King Ethelbert & Queen Bertha of Kent, she married King Edwin of Northumbria. When her husband was killed in battle she fled home to Kent with her children, founding an abbey in Lyminge. She died in 647AD.

Lyminge Church
Church Porch
View through Lyminge churchyard
Site of Ethelburga's grave

A few miles from Lyminge, an old sunken lane runs past a scrap of ancient woodland called Postling Wood (Grid Reference TR 14590 40178). The side of the lane is a Roadside Nature Reserve. I'm not sure what management or monitoring takes place here.

The wood itself is coppice and sadly, in my opinion, lacks any conservation designation. There's little greenery on the ground at this time of year; bluebells are starting to push through the leaf litter and wild arum leaves are still rolled up against the winter cold. It's a surprise therefore to find lush green clumps of plants already in flower. But at the base of some ash coppice stools the all-green green hellebore (Helleborus viridis) is quietly doing its thing.

I wrote about these green hellebores last year, when I photographed flowers in early March. 

Green hellebore plants
Green hellebore looking a bit like celery or ground elder.

The flowers are simply beautiful. "No wildflower, save the daisy and the chickweed, blooms so early in the year' (Anne Pratt, 1855)

Anne Pratt quotes a poem by Bishop Mant (about the closely related stinking hellebore). The first few lines are equally applicable to green hellebore...

'Within the moist & shady glade
What plant, in suit of green array'd 
All heedless of the winter cold

It's a wonderful flower for a shady garden; the purest green. And with the added advantage of being very early flowering.

Hellebores don't have petals, the showy green 'petals' are actually sepals. My crudely annotated picture below, shows the position of tubular nectaries, located at the base of the large green sepals. Some consider these to be the vastly reduced, modified petals. The green sepals are photosynthetic, hugely advantageous at this time of year and in shade. They contribute significantly to the plants photosynthetic activity (Salopek-Sond, 2011).

Although it was a sunny day, and it was very early in the year, I didn't see any insects visiting the flowers. 

How delightful to find that green hellebore is recorded as growing in this very spot in 1829 (Gerard Edwards Smith)...
Here's 'the lane leading from the road to Lyminge towards Postling Wood'.

Marvellous! Nearly 200 years later we can revisit! But who is the Rev. Price? Well a brief Google came up with 3 possible culprits.  A Reverend Ralph Price was Rector of Lyminge, Queen Ethelburga's church. He lived 1715-1779. A bit early. Rev. Price had a son called Ralph Price, who also became the Reverend Price Rector of Lyminge. He lived 1745-1811. Still too early. There was yet another Reverend Ralph Price. Born in 1778 according to the Parish Register. Son of Ralph, and I believe, grandson of Ralph. There was certainly a Ralph Price in the Rectory in the 1851 census. Ralph the Third also became Rector of Lyminge and I believe he is our botanist. 

Rector Price was influential in encouraging a local young botanist Gerard Edwards Smith of Sandgate (Folkestone) in his studies (see Peter Gay, 2005). So much so that in 1829 GE Smith wrote a booklet on local Rare or Remarkable Phaenogamous Plants, which he dedicated to his mentor and friend ...

Smith noted (p.7) that 'Helleborus viridus flowered at Postling as early as the 22nd of February'. And it still does; all these photos were taken on February 19th. 

The Reverend Price's record of Postling Wood (Matthew Henry Cowell, 1839) includes some other 'unusual' species: viz. Epipactis latifolia (now Epipactis helleborine) (Broad-leaved helleborine), Convallaria multiflora (now Polygonatum multiflorum) (Common Solomon's seal), Lathraea squamaria (toothwort), Allium ursinum (Ramsons, wild garlic). Toothwort & wild garlic are definitely still there.

Ralph Price was not only Rector and learned botanist. He was also the local magistrate and a landowning farmer. He played a small part in the infamous Swing Riots*, an agricultural uprising, the largest since the 14th century Peasant's Revolt. And it began right on his doorstep. On 24th August 1830, a threshing machine was destroyed by a gang of farm workers in Barham. A few days later labourers from Elham, Stelling & Lyminge smashed a machine in Palmstead. These machines were hated because they replaced manual labour. This affected labourers, especially in the winter, when work was already scarce. Over 100 machines were destroyed in East Kent in a few months. *The riots were called Swing, because threats sent to farmers were signed by a fictitious character, Captain Swing.

A contemporary poster offers a reward for 
information on Captain Swing (BBC Family History)

The riots were not just because of the introduction of threshing machines, they were the just last straw, especially after the poor harvest of 1829. Early 19th century farm labourers and their families were in a desperate plight. Underlying social inequalities in land ownership, compounded by the recent Enclosure Acts, the Poor Laws, tithe system, etc., left many agricultural workers dispossessed and impoverished. Riots, notably aimed at machines, not people, spread from Kent into other southern counties, the Home Counties, the Midlands and parts of East Anglia.

A horse-powered thresher from 1881 (Wikipedia)

Price, the friend of the labourers who were his parishioners, was, as stated above, the local magistrate and a farmer, so found himself on the side of the authorities, and he himself became a target. His own barn was fired on 5th October. Fortunately, early sentencing of offenders by Sir Edward Knatchbull in Kent was less punitive than it could have been. Sir Robert Peel however, took steps to ensure the full force of the law was applied to later rioters and eventually (in England) 19 were executed, 644 jailed and 505 transported. A number of the Lyminge rioters lived through these turbulent times and were eventually buried in Lyminge churchyard.

Gravestones in Lyminge churchyard

So we come full circle. My walk started at Lyminge Church, the parish church of the Reverend Price. A fascinating story unfolded, unknown to me when I began and quite unexpected. And a lovely woodland plant, which Ralph Price recorded on his parish rambles is still there, exactly where he described it.

Matthew Henry Cowell (1839) A Floral Guide for East Kent: Being a record of the habitats of indigenous plants found in the Eastern Division of the County of Kent. See page 70.

Peter Gay (2005) Treasures of the 'finely moulded downs'; Cinque Ports Training Area. Sanctuary 34 MOD Conservation Magazine. Page 12-13. Pdf here

Carl J. Griffin (2004) Policy on the Hoof: Sir Robert Peel, Sir Edward Knatchbull and the trial of the Elham Machine Breakers. Rural History, Volume 15 (2) Pages 127-148. Pdf here (it will try to download) 

Branka Salopek-Sond (2011) Reproductive Developmentof the Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) The Role of Plant Hormones. Croatica Chemica Acta. Volume 84 (2) pages 277-285.

Anne Pratt (1855) The Flowering Plants of Great Britain. Volume 1. Hellebores page 17.

Gerard Edwards Smith (1829) A Catalogue of Rare or Remarkable Phaenogamous Plants collected in South Kent

My notes on the Swing Riots have been plundered from Wikipedia, Griffin's paper referenced above and the informative Elham Village Database.