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Showing posts from October, 2016

Philaenus spumarius: the common froghopper

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I have no doubt that if you have a garden and if there are some shrubs in that garden then you will have seen these frothy, foaming clusters of bubbles on them in the mornings in late spring and early summer. We commonly know them as cuckoo-spit as they start to appear not long after the cuckoo returns to our shores and starts to sing. This phenomenon has nothing to do with the cuckoo of course, they are the work of the females of a tiny spittle bug we know as the common froghopper (Philaenus spumarius). Each drop of foaming fluid contains the eggs of the bug which will remain within it until it has dried out which takes about ten days. Whilst in the foam it is protected from predators and can live safely in an environment where the temperature and humidity are perfectly controlled.  The insect itself is tiny, mainly nocturnal and is rarely seen. It can run and fly but its most effective form of self defence against predation is an amazing ability to suddenly jump (or hop) a considerabl…

English Stonecrop: star walls

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The name English stonecrop (Sedum anglicum) says it all really, this is a species native to our shores that grows by clinging to rock surfaces by the sea. Its ability to grow on stone means that quite often you will see it on garden and house walls in seaside locations. It is our commonest stonecrop and it not only grows naturally in the wild but is a popular plant for garden rockeries and so it can 'crop' up almost anywhere. Often forming quite large blankets of reddish stems topped with small white or pinkish star-shaped flowers they create a petty sight. They do not have leaves in the accepted sense, instead they look a little like a series of pale green buds linked together. I am not sure that is a good description but it is the best I can do. In recent times sedum have become a popular insulation for roof tops where it is encouraged to grow across the roof surface thus forming a blanket to keep the heat inside the building. English stonecrop is at the forefront of this new …

Plusia festucae: the gold spot moth

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I feel that, in general, my photographs do not really do justice to the exquisite beauty of my subject, I am just not a photographer! With that in mind I should apologise to this little moth, the gold spot moth (Plusia festucae), for not exhibiting it at its best. I hope the picture does give you the idea and would help in identifying one if you found it and wanted to know what it was. The wings of this moth are a mosaic of shades of brown interlaced with patches of golden coloured scales that shine in the sunlight. What a shame it is a night flying insect that is rarely seen by day and is hidden from many of us. Here in Dorset it will come occasionally to light traps when on the wing from late May until July and then during the second brood in late August and September. It favours damp habitats and as I live close to Wareham Common which is, indeed, a damp habitat I infrequently get them in my trap. The larvae feed on sedges, bur-reeds, yellow iris and other wet meadow plants and over…

River Water-dropwort :the water carrot

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This may look like just another hogweed like flower but actually, from what I can gather, it is something of a rarity in Britain and the chalk rivers of Dorset are one of the few places you can find river Water-dropwort (Oenanthe fluviatilis). It may be uncommon but where it occurs it can be prolific and can start to block up a water course and on the Frome and Piddle near Wareham the Environment Agency have to cut it every year to control it! River Water-dropwort is a member of the carrot family, or umbellifereae, and grows in the open water of fast moving rivers and it is especially adapted for this purpose. The stems are smooth and the leaves wedge shaped to reduce resistance to the flowing water and the flowers lack bracts that many of the carrot family have for the same reason. Much of the plant is submerged with the flowers being visible above the water level from July to September. As a species that likes chalky water courses that have a clay bottom it is not very tolerant to pol…

Great Sundew: loched away

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The name of great sundew (Drosera anglica) may lead you to think that it is a large plant but its not. It is however, greater than our other two sundews, the round leaved and the oblong leaved. It is the stem that gives it the height as the leaves form a rosette around the base of the stem. On the great sundew the flower stem can grow to around 6 inches tall against its cousins who grow to around 4 inches at the most. The great sundew has larger but narrower leaves than the other two and the leaves taper towards the plant to give the appearance that they are on stalks. The small white flowers appear in July and August. An insectivorous plant of course that is more common in the west of Scotland than in Dorset where it is quite rare on our wet heaths. In Scotland it favours both wet moorland and the gravelly edges of lochs where, of course, it has plenty of midges to feed on! The scientific name anglica, however,means English which is a little strange given that Scotland seems to be its …

Gymnadenia conopsea: making sense of it

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It seems strange that, in general, our orchids do not have a scent, they are such splendid plants that you might expect perfume as well as looks. One orchid that defies this trend is the aptly named fragrant orchid (Gymnadenia conopsea) which does indeed produce a strong, sweet smell. This is helpful because being a purple spiked flower head like many other orchids in Britain it is an easy way to identify it from the other look-a-likes. There are other differences between the fragrant orchids and its cousins. The flowers are a very pale pink not deep purple or mauve. It is quite a short, slim flower spike with the individual flowers in the spike less densely packed than in many other orchids. Add to this very narrow, pale green leaves that lack spots an then put them all together with the scent and you have it - a fragrant orchid. This is very much a plant of chalk grassland and although there is a lot of chalk in Dorset I understand that this particular orchid is only found in three or…

Thuidium tamariscinum: the tamarisk moss

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It is a shame that the 'leaves' of Thuidium tamariscinum are so small as individually they are so delicate and finely made and are rarely appreciated.  Not only is each individual leaf intricate in structure but together they make a wonderful bright green carpet. You need to be familiar with the garden shrub tamarisk to understand how this moss gets its name but it does, indeed, have leaves similar to tamarisk. Each leaf is like a pyramidal fan, a central dark stiff stem with 'branches' coming out on opposite sides getting gradually smaller as you go up the stem. Very common on earth banks and ditches it is quite an easy moss to identify and to get another one 'under your belt' as you get to grips with a difficult group of plants. It has a preference for shady places and it likes heavy soil with no chalk influences so it is common in woodlands and hedgerows around the Poole Basin. It is far less common on the downs and the cliffs. As ir usually grows in such prof…

Squinancywort: fighting tonsillitis

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Squinancywort (Asperula cynanchica) is surely an odd name for a flower? It is certainly a unique label and one that helps ensure the name is not forgotten when the flower is found in the wild. Squinancywort is one a group of flowers that you can almost predict you will find on chalk soils where the grass is thin. It does not grow under any other circumstances or in any other situations but is likely to be frequent in the conditions it favours. It is a small plant and cannot compete with vigorous grass growth so it takes its chances in its own niche. A member of the bedstraw family it has the bedstraw's distinctive small cluster of four petalled flowers, the petals forming a cross. Often cream in colour but sometimes tinged with pink the flowers can be found from May through until September.   So, what of the strange name? In medieval times it was used as a cure for quinsy and was once known as squinsywort but somewhere along the line it became a little corrupted. Quinsy was a rather…

Hypnum cupressiforme: the cypress-leaved moss

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Hypnum cupressiforme is one of the most widespread and common of our mosses and. if you want to get to know mosses (even a little bit!) it pays to get to know this one well so that you can then recognise whether what you are looking at is something different. The cupressiforme part of the name gives us a clue to identification; formed like a cypress tree leaf. That is all well and good if you know what a cypress tree leaf looks like I suppose! It is difficult to describe with words and so you do need a good illustrated guide to help. Each 'leaf' is a pointed structure which appears to be formed of overlapping segments, a bit like an unopened fir cone perhaps. A hand lens is useful here if you want to take moss identification seriously. You can find Hypnum cupressiforme in almost all terrestrial habitats. It forms blankets over tree stumps and fallen trunks. It grows on bare soil and grows in amongst grass, especially on lawns. It can grow on rocks and on walls. It can thrive on …

Common Sorrel: the vinegar plant

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One of the more common plants on grassland where the ground is undisturbed is the common sorrel (Rumex acetosa). When one looks at the flower heads which are loose spikes of individual reddish brown flowers it is immediately obvious that this is a member of the dock family - most docks bear the name rumex.  Flowering from May until July the flower heads are visible long after this when bearing the seeds. Common sorrel can grow to almost three feet tall but this is rarely the case and a foot to eighteen inches is, perhaps, the norm. The leaves are absent from the upper reaches of the flower spikes and can be found further down the stem. At school we used to bite the leaves to release a taste akin to vinegar, indeed we called them the vinegar plant and that is, of course, where the acetosa part of the name comes from, acetic acid or vinegar. In the middle ages it was grown as a food crop but this is no longer the case; the leaves were once used in salads but the presence of oxalic acid ca…

Buathra laborator: the red-legged wasp

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Sometimes reference books are of no help at all and you need an expert! So it was with this ichneumon I found on hogweed at Durlston. Despite searching my reference books and pondering the possibilities I could not find an identification I was happy with so I uploaded the photograph and a description to the excellent Ispot website (an Open University project) and sure enough, within the hour I had a positive identification, Buathra laborator. Armed with a name I went back to my books and it is not in any of them! Google to rescue? There are some entries but in general, other than it is known as the red-legged wasp and the red-legged ichneumon there is very little else. It is a large insect and the female has a very long ovipositor. It is parasitic on caterpillars and that is about all I can find out. There is some thought that it is quite rare and others that it is just under recorded. Buathra laborator: the red-legged wasp

Wild Mignonette: the yellow mignonette

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I associate wild mignonette (Reseda lutea) with chalk grassland. In Hampshire where I lived before crossing the border into Dorset it seemed common on the chalk everywhere but despite a good deal of chalk and limestone in Dorset I have seen this distinctive flower only occasionally. To be fair, on the sites where it does occur it is often quite common. It likes grassland but where the grasses are somewhat sparse. The flower head of the wild mignonette is a distinctive spike of pale yellowish-green flowers which are usually, in my experience, rarely more than a foot tall although my field guides indicates that it does grow a fair bit taller. Each plant produces multiple flower spikes which are visible from May until September. The leaves are pale green and are formed of clusters of three pointed lobes.  This flower is mildly scented making it popular with small insects and there are a couple of cultivated forms that are grown in gardens. The roots of wild mignonette used to be used to ma…

Pimpla turionellae: an ichneumon fly

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I found this little creature in the window of our kitchen but despite being temporarily captive it proved a bit difficult to photograph! Once on camera I was able to identify is as an ichneumon fly, Pimpla turionellae. There are two very similar species the other being Pimpla rufipes but the black lower part of the rear legs is, apparently diagnostic of Pimpla turionellae!  As an ichneumon it is destined to lay its eggs in the pupae of a butterfly, it is not over fussy which species. Despite my love of butterflies I felt obliged to let it go by opening the window and then let nature take its course. It seems cruel but it is a hard world out there and the ichneumon has a right to life as well as the butterfly so in the end it will be the battle of the strongest. Pimpla turionellae: an ichneumon fly

Downy Birch: the bronze medal

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For years I roamed the Dorset heaths thinking that the trees with silvery bark were silver birch until, one day, a friend pointed out they were frequently downy birch (Betula pubescens); it came as quite a surprise! Obviously I wanted to know how to tell the difference. There are small differences between them but they still remain a challenge to me. Firstly downy birch has a much smoother bark that silver birch. On silver birch the silvery bark tends to split as the tree ages and areas of dark under bark start to show. Not only is the bark smooth on a downy birch it also can be, especially when young, a bronze colour rather than silver. If you look at the outgrowing branches the downy birch has branches and twigs that tend to point upwards whereas on silver birch they tend to droop downwards. Twigs on a downy birch are hairy (hence the 'downy') and plain coloured whereas on silver birch they are smooth but with silver diamond shaped patches. There, you see it is quite easy! Ev…

Selfheal: the chemistry set

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Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris) is quite a variable plant, it seems to change with the conditions it is growing in. It can grow in short turf, especially lawns, where it is very small and sprawling which may be a response to cutting or grazing. On bare ground it is a taller, bolder plant although still generally no more than a few inches tall. It is quite common and can be found in many situations although it prefers neutral or acid soils. The flowers are a purple/blue colour but quickly die off to become brown and they can stay in this state for some time. Withe the flowers being quite small it is not immediately obvious that it is a member of the deadnettle family. Under close inspection it is possible to see the cluster of trumpet=like flowers that are distinctive to deadnettles. Also known as heal-all it is a traditional remedy for cuts and bruises when mashed and applied as a poultice and it was considered both a cleansing and healing agent. It has a complex chemistry with Wikipedia l…

Tenthredo mesomela: a sawfly

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Sawflies are members of the same order as bees and wasps, the hymenoptera. Generally weak flying insects they do not travel far from the area in which they hatched and are often found on vegetation. Although they perhaps look as if they could be harmful they are not; they have no sting, do not bite and feed on pollen and very small insects. This particular species, Tenthredo mesomela, has a wonderful metallic green and black colouring which makes it quite distinctive amongst sawflies. It is very much a woodland species where it lays eggs in rotting wood. Indeed, that is where the name sawfly comes from. The females of several species in the family have a saw-like ovipositor to enable them to 'saw' into wood to lay their eggs. The larvae feed at night, mainly on buttercups. Widespread in Dorset woodlands but not common it can be seen from May through until july. Tenthredo mesomela: a sawfly

Hop Trefoil: the yellow clover

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There are half a dozen yellow clovers one might encounter when out and about but the species with the biggest flower and most like a clover is the hop trefoil (Trifolium campestre). It is quite a common flower on dry ground, especially on calcareous soils. If you are familiar with hop plants you will know that they have large domed flowers with overlapping plates and that the lower plates (or petals) die off as new ones further up open; so it is with hop trefoil. On most well established hop trefoil flowers whilst the tops are yellow the lower fringes are turning brown. That is where the similarity ends of course, the two species are totally unrelated. Being a clover the hop trefoil has a three lobed leaf - a trefoil and hence the name, hop trefoil. Hop trefoil is not planted as a fodder crop but it is known to be a good food crop for cattle. It also replenishes soil so it is popular with agriculturalists. Surprisingly, perhaps, I can find no mention of its uses as a herbal remedy of hu…

Wild Teasel: spinning a yarn

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Wild teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) is very distinctive and should be readily identifiable. The smaller but similar small teasel would be the only outside chance of mistaking it for. It is sometimes hard to know when a teasel is in flower and when it is in seed, the flowers are very small and give just hint of blue/purple in the head as they appear from what look like tiny compartments. The seeds then develop in those same compartments. The wild teasel is a tall, prickly plant that can grow to six feet or even more. When I say prickly I mean very prickly, the stems, the leaves and the flower heads are all very prickly! The plants stand firm well after flowering and can still be in place the following spring and re a popular food source for finches, especially goldfinches in winter. Teasels readily grow anywhere where the is dry, bare soil and can overrun and colonise waste places and even rough grassland.  There is a cultivated form called Fuller's Teasel and the dried flower heads of t…

Palomena prasina: the common green shieldbug

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Although a common insect the common green shieldbug (Palomena prasina) is not often seen. This is a species hidden deep in garden shrubs, hedgerows and woodland where, in summer, its colouring and relatively small size gives it protection from its many predators.  At first glance you can see immediately why this and its related species are called shieldbugs. Their general shape, formed by its wing cases, is the form of a classic heraldic shield. They are part of the order hemiptera which is the scientific name for bugs and so shieldbug seems the obvious name for them. The common green shield bug is a bright green with a darker triangular patch to the rear. On close inspection you can see that the wing cases have tiny holes in them. Later in the summer the insect turns a darker colour becoming almost brown before it hibernates for the winter. This change of colour helps it adapt to its surroundings during the winter whilst asleep and so helps to disguise its presence. Palomena prasina: th…

Trifid bur-marigold: the day of the trifid

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I remember quite well the 'scary' sci-fi film of the 1960's based on the book "The day of the trifids". It was with some trepidation, then, that I had my first encounter with the trifid bur-marigold (Bidens tripartita) but it proved to be quite harmless and I emerged unscathed! Trifid bur-marigold is a member of the daisy family; it is one of those daisies that has the yellow centre to the flower but not a ring of white petals around it. Instead the central flower is backed by a ring of seven pointed green 'bracts'. These give the flower head a rather unique appearance. The central stem is reddish in colour and forms into branches, each branch having a flower on it. It is a fairly typical bushy daisy, about two feet tall, that flowers from July right through until October and is usually found around the dry margins of ponds, lakes and reservoirs. When the seed heads form they have burs on them that attach to animal fur or human clothing as a means of seed …

Hemlock: the poison chalice

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One of our most famous, or perhaps that should be infamous, plants is hemlock (Conium maculatum) which is well known to be deadly poisonous, it is the plant that killed Socrates! Whilst everyone has probably heard of it how many people would actually recognise it if they saw it in the countryside? Hemlock is a member of the carrot family and has the white umbel flower that carrot family members often have. It can look much like hogweed or cow parsley or any one of a number of plants but it does have one distinguishing feature, it has dark blotches on the stem which is unique. It also has a very unpleasant smell if the stem is squashed or bruised but if you decide to put this to the test make sure you wash your hands well afterwards. Flowering from June through until August it can be found on roadsides and waste ground, usually on chalk soils. The plant contains a number of dangerous chemicals which are the cause of its toxicity and even small does are sufficient to kill both humans and …

Phleum pratense: Timothy grass

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There are a number of grass species with tightly packed flower spikes and they are commonly known as either foxtails and catstails for fairly obvious reasons! Timothy grass (Phleum pratense) is a catstail and is one of the most common of this group. Timothy is also the tallest of these grasses and can grow to 1.5 metres (nearly five feet!) tall but normally, in my experience, about 1 metre is the usual height but this is still taller than similar species. The long cylindrical flower head can be about six inches long and this too sets it apart from its relatives. The flower heads are usually a greyish green in colour and are often at their best in June and July. The plant does have leaves, long thin pointed ones but it is the flower head that catches the eye. Common in grassy places on all sorts of soils, and sometimes sown in pasture, it is widespread and may be encountered almost anywhere in Dorset I was intrigued to know why it is called Timothy grass and the ever reliable Wikipedia co…

Red Bartsia: the grass is greener.

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At first sight there seems little of note about the red bartsia (Odontites vernus), it is a rather plain almost featureless flower. It is certainly reddish in colour all over rather than green although there may be a hint of green in the leaves. This lack of green colouring, usually brought about by the presence of chlorophyll provides, a key as to the background of this plant. Red bartsia is a member of the Orobanche or broomrape family and, as a result, is parasitic on other plants, in this case on grasses. It is actually partially parasitic and that is why there is that hint of green about the leaves.  This plant shares some other features with its cousins in this family; the lobed flower form on one side of the stem which is common in this group. It is a fairly small plant not usually much more than six inches tall and it nearly always occurs in large colonies in grassy places, usually where the grass is quite thinly distributed, so that its seeds can set easily. It is an annual an…

Eulithis testata: the chevron moth

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Although the prominent markings on the wings of this moth are always consistent across the species the background colour can vary from a pale yellow through to a darker reddish colour. It seems the darker colour variations are more common in the north so here in Dorset the paler versions are more likely to be seen. The markings are also quite distinctive and make the chevron moth (Eulithis testata) readily identifiable. This species flies in August and September and can be seen by day. The larvae feed on birch and willow trees and so, as these trees are quite widespread you may encounter the chevron almost anywhere these trees are present. Heath is certainly a good place because of the predominance of silver and downy birch in heathland habitats.
Eulithis testata: the chevron moth

Marsh Willowherb:red faced

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Some members of the willowherb family have large, bold, pink flowers whilst others are much more modest. Rosebay and great willowherb are in the former category whilst the less common marsh willowherb (Epilobium palustre) is undoubtedly in the second. Marsh willowherb is one of several similar species with a few small, pale pink flowers appearing on stalks near the top of a single reddish coloured stem. It has opposite pairs of pointed, or lanceolate, leaves and this is helpful in identification because other similar species have alternate leaves that are often less narrow and pointed. The other distinguishing factor is that marsh willowherb grows in wet places on acid soils and that means it is the only willowherb likely to be found in ditches and marshy areas on the Dorset heaths. Whilst not seemingly poisonous it seems that consuming this plant, especially the root, can have pretty nasty side effects including turning your face red and causing choking so it is best left alone! Marsh W…

Hornet: stiring up a hornets nest

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There can be hardly be a more feared insect in the British fauna than the hornet (Vespa crabro). Renowned for their powerful sting the old saying about not "stiring up a hornets nest" is, I am sure, a familiar one to all of us. Of course, they do not sting just for the pleasure of inflicting pain on someone but if you do, even unwittingly, stir up their nest they will defend it with ferocity! Treated with respect they will ignore humans and carry on with the business of raising their family. Hornets are not as common as they once were mainly due to loss of their preferred habitat. They are primarily a woodland insect and are most often encountered in ancient woodland. They like a supply of soft, rotting timber to collect fragments of to make their wonderfully intricate nest made with layers of paper thin wood. They may be seen away from woodland in the autumn when their family work is done and they have time to roam. They hunt small insect prey on flower heads in summer A memb…

Dovesfoot Cranesbill: dovesfoot underfoot

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Dovesfoot cranesbill (Geranium molle) is quite a common plant but is probably often overlooked because it is a low, sprawling plant that grows in short turf and is rather trodden under foot. It has attractive pale pink flowers which are less than quarter of an inch or so across. Each of the five petals is deeply lobed which can make it appear that it has ten petals. It is a member of the geranium family so the flowers produce long, pointed seed heads once the flowers are over. The leaves are round but have deep cuts in them that make them lobed. The leaves are pale green and smooth, molle means smooth. Most often found on lime soils, but not exclusively, it favours grassy places where the grass is not too long or dense and quite often will colonise bare patches within the grass sward. It can be a common weed of garden lawns. Being a small plant there seems to be only a small amount of information about it available apart from a description of it. That said Culpepper apparently considere…

White Bryony: in need of support

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I love hedgerows! As you walk alongside one you see different leaf shapes, flowers and fruits constantly changing as the variety of hedgerow shrubs intermingle with each other. Occasionally you encounter other plants using the shrubs for support and one of the most common are the long strands of the white bryony (Bryonia dioica). The white bryony is a member of the marrow family and climbs in hedgerows by the use of tendrils which wind themselves around the host shrub's branches but, in so doing, they do the host no harm. The stems are very long, thin strands and could certainly not grow upwards without support. Along the strands a series of cream or pale green flowers erupt, interestingly the male flowers are on different plants to the female flowers. The female flowers turn into bright red berries later in the year. The berries are poisonous and they should not be eaten; indeed, if they are squeezed they can cause ulcers or rashes on the skin. White bryony is quite common in hedge…

Pimpla instigator: an ichneumon fly

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My identification of insects is hampered by many things. One is a refusal to take specimens home for examination and another is difficulty in finding suitable reference material with the information needed to make an good attempt at identification. In this case I am hampered even further by the rather poor quality of my photograph which is all I have to work on. After deliberation I am going to say that this is a species called Pimpla instigator  but I am in no doubt that someone with a greater knowledge of these things will be quick to correct me. I should, then, attempt to justify my identification by giving reasons. Firstly this has all the features of an ichneumon; a long, slender body, long legs and long antennae. So, from the possible ichneumon species Pimpla instigator is one of the more common ones. It is found most of the spring and summer often frequenting umbel flowers. It preys on various moth caterpillars and has no real preferred host species which might restrict its loca…

Ribwort Plantain: take your medicine

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I think ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata) is probably the most common flowering plant to be found in Dorset. There are species very common in certain habitats, daisies in my lawn for example, but ribwort can be found just about anywhere and everywhere and in good numbers too.  In my days of leading walks I found some people were surprised that ribwort plantain was truly a flower, it being far from the typical flowering plant. It has a tall stem with a single brown, clustered flowering body at the top surrounded by a dispersed ring of white stamens. The leaves are also tall and thin (lanceolate) with ribs running the length of them; it is not hard to see how its name comes about. As with many common herbs of the countryside ribwort plantain has been used as a herbal remedy for many ailments but it is thought that a tea made from the leaves is an effective cough medicine.  Ribwort Plantain: take your medicine