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Showing posts from February, 2017

Wild Parsnip: good news bad news

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It, like me, you struggle to tell one umbel flower from another then you will be relieved to find one that is quite unmistakable; The good news is that whilst the bulk of the umbels (or carrot) family are white the wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) is yellow. The bad news is that there are a couple of other yellow carrot family members too. That, though, should not be a major issue and a cause for confusion. Wild parsnip is a bit like a yellow hogweed with a dense cluster of flowers. Whilst the cluster is formed of flowers from several small stems spreading out they form a relatively consistent or .condensed' flower head. There is space between the clusters but not a lot when compared to the two possible other yellow species, fennel and pepper-saxifrage. In these two other species each stem is some what dispersed from its neighbour giving a very different look to the flower than that of wild parsnip. There are other difference too, of course, but unless you are really keen there is n…

Laminaria digitata: oarweed

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Oarweed (Laminaria digitata) probably gets its common name from its shape but given it can form large masses of entangled weed it may have got its name from oarsmen having problems rowing through it with it catching their oars in the water! My reference material is not clear on the subject. Oarweed certainly resembles a large paddle. It has a long, broad 'blade' up to 4 feet long and a shorter 'handle' about a foot long. The blades are large leathery structures that collapse under their own weight at low tide in to a slimy, slippery blanket on rocks making them perilous to walk across. They form large colonies and provide shelter for many other underwater creatures and plants. Common around rocky coasts and not uncommon in Dorset. Laminaria digitata: oarweed

Wild Clary: salad days

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As with many of the wild varieties of the garden cultivated culinary herbs, wild clary (Salvia verbenaca) is a member of the labiate family; a family that includes mint, marjoram, thyme, basil and others. Otherwise known as the deadnettle family, it has a number of species of wild herb or flower with common characteristics including tubular flowers, hairy and square stems and pointed, serrated edged leaves. Wild clary is the most common of the clary species you may find in the wild,  my field guide lists six of them but four are clearly escaped cultivars. Wild clary and the rare meadow clary are the only natives ones. Meadow clary is unlikely to be found in Dorset so wild clary is the only one we need to consider. It grows to about two feet tall, produces several stems and each four or five has whorls of  purple/blue tubular flowers. The flowers can be seen from June until September and later in this season some seed heads will be seen as well as active flowers. It can be found in bare…

Ostrea edulis: the native oyster

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Once abundant around our shores human harvesting of the native oyster (Ostrea edulis) means it no longer is so. Nevertheless, if you do a spot of beach combing for shells om beaches where where the sea floor is flat and soft, sandy or muddy, you can find them. The native oyster is much smaller than the Pacific oyster which was introduced and cultivated for human consumption back in the 1920's. The native oyster rarely grows above four inches across and is also rounder and flatter than its distant cousin. It has a slate grey colouring with blue or brown highlights.  The native oyster has a different flavour to the Pacific oyster and is considered excellent eating by those who know about these things but their decline and their rather small size means that the Pacific oyster now accounts for over three quarters of our consumption. Ostrea edulis: the native oyster

Ladys Bedstraw: lie back and relax

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The lady's bedsrtaw (Galium verum) is the only member of the bedstraw family which is yellow and, therefore, should be easily recognised. Most bedstraws are white, some are pink or purple and crosswort is green but none are bright golden yellow like this one. A plant that is common on grassland, especially on lime soils, it is a sprawling, medium sized plant. My book suggests it can grow to a metre tall but I have never seen it that size, usually a foot or so at the most. It flowers from June until September and the yellow spikes are a mass of smaller four petalled flowers. The leaves occur in whorls around the stem at the point the stem branch to form flower heads. The leaves smell of new mown hay and once a upon a time the plant was used to stuff mattresses and the smell of the leaves was supposed to enhance sleep and repel fleas! Naturally, this is how it came by its name.  This is another interesting fact from Wikipedia; lady's bedstraw was used as a sedative and considered…

Halidrys siliquosa: the sea oak

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Sea oak (Halidrys siliquosa) is common around the coast of the British Isles, usually covered by sea water and only seen at very low spring tides. However, remnants do wash up on the beach and can be from along the strand line from time to time, just like this piece. Sea oak grows in big bushy structures up to a metre in length and is made up of constantly alternately branch strands. It is not as 'fleshy' as many seaweeds but it does have lance shaped bladders at the tips of each frond to aid buoyancy in the water. The speed of growth and the size it grows to is generally governed by the amount of sunlight it gets. Extracts of this sea weed are used in skin conditioners and it is semi-cultivated for this purpose Halidrys siliquosa: the sea oak

Common Valerian: let us sleep on it

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There is something slightly odd about this rather lovely plant, the common valerian (Valeriana officinalis). According to my field guide it can be found on dry grassland and in damp woods. Maybe I am reading that wrongly but it seems the two habitats are as different as you can find; dry opposed to damp and grassland as opposed to woodland. Looking at the places it occurs it does seem to be that I have found it in both situations so there must be some basis to it but it still seems odd! Common valerian is a tall, erect plant growing to as high as six feet in favourable conditions. The flower head is a loose cluster of individual five petalled flowers that start in bud as dark pink but become a much paler shade when open. The sweet scented flowers are at their best in July but can be found in June and August too. Whilst not common it is far from scarce but it is one of those flower that is always a joy to find; a little bit special perhaps. Apart from its uses in perfumery the roots are r…

Cerastoderma edule: the common cockle

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I suppose, thanks to Molly Malone wandering through the street of Dublin selling them, that cockles and mussels are are best known shell fish. They are also the most common. A walk along Studland beach will reveal the familiar empty shells that have washed up from the sandy bay; they are the only ones with growth rings running along the shell rather than in concentric circles. The common cockle (Cerastoderma edule) was once very common in sandy bays and estuary mud flats but are less so now due to over predation  by human beings who, strangely in my view, seem to like to eat them I tried them once and thought they were made of rubber soaked in salt and vinegar. That said I have memories of childhood holidays with my uncle, who lived in Scotland, where we would go cockle digging, shell them and hen use them as fishing bait - we seemed to have fsh for dinner every night. Cockles can bury themselves in the sand at low tide but only down about six inches. When the tide is in and they are on…

Round-leaved Cranesbill: to round it all off

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Members of the geranium family, cranesbills get their name from the long pointed seed box that recalls the bill of the long-legged and long-billed bird, the crane. My field guide lists sixteen species of cranesbill and a further four of the similar storksbills and that presents quite a choice to the new botanist. As always in these situations the task is never quite as daunting as it might seem as not all occur in Dorset and some are quite rare and unlikely to be encountered without a specific search for them The round-leaved cranesbill (Geranium rotundifolium) does not occur across all of the United Kingdom but it does occur frequently in Dorset. It is quite common on hedge banks and in other grassy places where the grass is not too dominant and allows flowers to come through. The clue to identification does lie in the common name; it is round leaved. The leaf is not actually truly round, it is lobed having five separate lobes joined for about half way along the edge of each so the le…

Chorda filum: bootlace seaweed

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The bootlace (Chorda filum) is very distinctive because, yes, it looks like bootlaces! The long thin strands. slimy to the touch, are unlike any other seaweed species. Seen washed up on the strand line on sandy beaches is fine but sadly most of us will never see bootlace at its best. For that you need to go snorkelling, something I have never done and will never do now. Bootlace grows in clusters along the lower shore and down to about five metres and when afloat in water the strands, which can grow up to an amazing twenty five feet long, stretch out in masses along the flow of the tide. It is, apparently, quite a sight and bootlace has earned the name of mermaid's tresses although it is also known as dead men's ropes! It grows well during the summer months and then in autumn it starts to break down and this is the best time to see it on the shore. By winter it has totally gone and will start the cycle again the following spring. Chorda filum: bootlace seaweed

Mugwort: the natural insect repelent

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It seems to me that mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) is one of those plants never seems to flower because when it does flower its flower does not really look like we think a flower should look! I do not know whether that makes sense but I know what I mean ... Mugwort is a member of the daisy family but daisy is not what you think of when you see it. The plant is a bit untidy and grows to between four and five feet tall wither several stems coming from the same root and each stem has several flower spikes coming from it at the top. Before the flowers open they are creamy white buds; when open the are a yellowish drown and then when they have gone over they are a darker brown. There is little or no colour at all which is unusual for daisies., Each flower within a flower spike is quite small, a bit like groundsel when seen close up, and is hardly a striking flower that you want to pick ans put in a vase! The flower spikes appear from July though until September and are faintly aromatic. The l…

Ensis ensis: the razor clam

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If you go beach combing surely one of the most obvious and easily identified shells you may come across is the razor clam (Ensis ensis).  Looking a bit like a 'cut throat' razor it is not hard to see how it got its common name! There are two similar, but less common, species. Able to bury itself deep into the sand or silt for protection it is more likely to be found on sandy beaches than rock shorelines and it is quite common right around the British Isles but in Dorset Studland beach is the best place to find it. When disturbed at low tide, even by the vibration of approaching feet, it is a very effective burrower and so is rarely seen alive unless one goes digging for it, you are most likely to encounter the empty shell on the sand of the beach at low tide. As it burrows it ejects a spout of water and leaves a distinctive keyhole shape in the sand which is a it of a give away to its presence! If it is seeking to hide from danger leaving a trademark indicator is not really suc…

Water Avens: cure all

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Water avens (Geum rivale) is another one of those flowers that are members of the rose family but when you first see it you probably not make the connection. As you look closer so the characteristics of the rose group of plants become more apparent. First of all, we associate roses as being woody, shrubby plants whereas water avens is far from that. It is a small vascular plant growing to about a foot tall, occasionally  in favourable conditions a bit higher.  It has a soft, flexible stem, this is reddish in colour and downy but, unlike rose shrubs it has no thorns. Each plant has multiple stems and each divides with each then producing a flower which is a characteristic of roses. The flowers bend the stem over and they appear to be bells; when you look at the bell closely you will find the five petals that roses feature. Further down the stem the leaves are trefoil, come to a pint and have a serrated edge, again recalling roses.  Water avens can be found in damp, shady places, often in…

Ulva lactuca: the sea lettuce

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The sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca) can be found all around the British Isles and can be seen on all kinds of shore lines from sandy beaches to rock cliffs, from shallows to deep water. Most frequently it will be seen as fragments washed up on the tide strand line. It grows in large in large drifting forests. The sea lettuce has broad but very thin 'leaves' which are bright green, the stipe which attached it to its footing is very short. If thoroughly cleaned sea lettuce can be eaten raw just like lettuce you might grow in your garden or buy in the supermarket but, of course, it is not related. It was just named sea lettuce because it is green and edible. It can be cooked and used to make soup, or can be served boiled with fish or meat. In some areas of the world it is harvested and used as a crop fertiliser. A versatile plant to have around even if you rarely see it! Ulva lactuca: the sea lettuce

Birdsfoot Clover: a parking find

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This is a flower I never new existed until I bought a book of wildlife walks in Dorset which describes several walks and provides a species list for each. Looking at the walk at Abbotsbury I saw, along with four other species I had never seen, the birdsfoot clover (Trifolium ornithopodiodes). Not surprisingly, perhaps, at the first opportunity I was there looking for it! Birdsfoot clover is a low, prostrate plant sprawling across the ground; It likes dry, bare, sandy places that are wet in winter yet parched in summer. Usually found near the sea, mainly along the southern coasts of England and in to Wales, it has a particular fondness for car parking areas (obviously not tar-maced ones!). I do not think it is common anywhere. There are two forms, white and pink, and my specimen was going over when I found it but I think it was probably the white variant. It flowers in June and July and then goes to seed with the seed heads vaguely resembling bird's feet so hence the name. It is als…

Mytilus edulis: the common mussel

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Whilst some people love a bowl of moules mariniere I have to say I am not keen! I prefer to see the common mussel (Mytilus edulis) in its natural environment on our coasts and sea shores. We plunder our seas enough for things to eat and it is taking its toll on the natural underwater world. The common mussel is indeed common, in fact, it can be abundant in places. They grow mainly on rocks where they can attach themselves firmly but also grow on larger stone in more sandy and muddy situations. They can be seen on the inter tidal zone being able to close up and await the returning water when the tide turns. They also grow under the low water mark as well. Whilst we are probably all familiar with the mussel shell we may not have noticed that colour can vary from grey to dark blue to even purple; sometimes all on one shell.  I was interested to read in my RSPB Handbook of the Seashore that mussels spawn in both spring and in the autumn producing free swimming larvae which then settle after…

Wild Basil: just what the doctor ordered

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When you look at the packets of herbs on a supermarket shelf and see mint, parsley, thyme, marjoram, basil and others it is easy to forget that these herbs grow in our own countryside. Not always the cultivated varieties of course but none the less related and often the source of the cultivated strain. So it is with wild basil (Clinopodium vulgare). As with many of these herbs basil is a member of the labiate family, otherwise known as deadnettles; it is part of a sub-family of calamints. They generally have trumpet shaped flowers, in the case of wild basil this is purple-pink, square stems and downy, veined, oval, opposite pairs of leaves with a serrated edge. Wild basil grows to about a foot tall although in favourable conditions it can grow taller and flowers from July to September in dry grassy places; usually on lime or chalk.  As with many of its relatives, in addition to its culinary value it is considered a herbal remedy for a number of conditions stimulating the heart to healin…

Callophyllis laciniata: fan weed

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We can all look at the surface of the sea and be amazed by the blue, silver, white and other colours as the waves pulse through it and the sun and sky reflects on it but not many of ever get to see the beauty that exists below the surface. The best most of us can hope for is a glimpse of what lies below from what has been washed ashore and left on the tide strand line. Walk along the sandy beach at Studland and you will find an array of sea shells and sea weeds that give you a glimpse of what like is like in the water. Amongst the sea weeds you will find this delicately coloured sea weed, fan weed (Callophyllis laciniata). In the water it varies in colour from bright pink to dark red and even brown. In the air those dominant colour fade into more subtle shades. On the beach it displays an iridescent colouring that is not seen under water. Fan weed grows attached to other sea weeds, such as kelp, and often you will find it with its host on the beach. It is not parasitic, it just seems t…

Yellow Vetchling: the yellow flowered pea

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Whilst immediately identifiable as a member of the pea family there is some thing very different about the yellow vetchling (Lathyrus aphaca) compared to other peas. The visual difference is, technically quite complicated! I have to depend on my book here for an explanation. Whilst the yellow flower retains the characteristic appearance of a pea the leaves have become tendrils for supporting the plant and the stipules (the branches that lead to the leaves) have become broad, triangular pseudo-leaves. What appear to be leaves do not resemble those of a pea flower leaf at all; they are harder and seem waxy and the triangular shape is not in keeping with its cousins. Whist unusual features this does make the plant easily recognisable. Yellow vetchling flowers from June until August and is found in dry grassy places on limestone or chalk; in my experience this seems to usually be by the sea. Although a pea the peas from the pod are best left alone. Although safe to eat in small quantities w…

Angulus tenuis: thin tellin

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I had seen these shells on Studland beach for years and thought they were just cockle shells until one day I was browsing the books in the National Trust shop and found a copy of the RSPB Handbook of the Seashore. Next time I went walking along the beach I took more notice, or more to the point I took some photographs, and soon discovered that these small, smooth shells are all that remains of a bi-valve creature, thin tellin (Angulus tenuis). Thin tellin shells are about an inch across and can be quite colourful in delicate shades of pink and orange but sadly this one had obviously been on the beach for sometime and lost its colouring. It is a smooth shell that has concentric rings and it the colouring comes in bands in line with the rings. At sea the animal lives just under the surface of the sand where it partly emerges to siphon sea water for microscopic food when the tide is in and then it hides away when he tide goes out and uncovers it. It can live for up to en years if not preda…

White Water-lily: padded up

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I think I am right in saying that there are no native British species of white water-lilies (Nymphaea agg). Imported for water gardens in past times they have established themselves in ponds and lakes pretty much everywhere; indeed we have them in our garden pond. There are various species you may encounter, mainly of the family Nymphaea and rather then attempt to write abut all of them I have grouped themselves together which is where the agg. in the scientific name comes from - aggregated. Although introduced there do seem to good for native wildlife. Hoverflies, dragonflies and damselflies like to bask on the leaves which are also popular with pond skaters who want to haul themselves off of the water surface for some personal grooming. Water snails are frequent on the undersides of the pads and frogs often hide by them whilst cooling off in the heat of the day. I am not sure the flowers are quite so beneficial as the leaves but they do add a touch of glamour! I believe the species in…

Common Hempnettle: also available in white

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Hempnettles are stout, untidy plants with large trumpet, shaped flowers. My reference book shows four species of British hempnettles with the red hempnettle and the large flowered hempnettle not found in Dorset so if you find a hempnettle here you have a choice of two, the bifid hempnettle and the common hempnettle (Galeopsis tetrahit).  The latter two are very similar but the common hempnettle is much more common and found in a wider range of situations. Common hempnettle can be quite variable. The flowers can be purple, sometimes a paler pink and they even come in white. e white ones are not uncommon and the first time I encountered them in Wareham Forest I was convinced it was a new species for me but after failing to find a white one in my book I then discovered that variations occur in the common! The plantsgrow to about a metre tall and tend to flop over despite their thick stems. The leaves are not dissimilar to the leaves of the stinging nettle but in the case of hempnettle do …

Habrosyne pyritoides: the buff arches moth

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Most moths tend to be fury or covered in find scales so it is unusual to find one with a smooth, polished finish! The china doll surface of this attractive moth is quite unique to the buff arches (Habrosyne pyritoides).  A nocturnal species that flies from the Middle of June until the end of August, possibly in to September down here in Dorset where it is thought it can have two broods a year. The food plant of the larvae is bramble and as bramble is widespread and common so too is this moth. It favour open woody and scrub habitats and gardens near these habitats will often also be home to them. The larvae overwinter as a pupae, safe from cold weather. Some people think moths are dull, boring creatures. If that is you then think again and take a look at this stunning little insect. Habrosyne pyritoides: the buff arches moth

Vervain: the holy herb

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Vervain (Verbena officinalis) seems to be something of a paradoxical plant. It can grow to well over two feet tall, it has a sturdy branched stem and whilst not big leaves they are certainly in keeping with the overall stature of the plant and yet on the flowers are really small. The plant has flower spikes on several stems, often two or three inches long, and yet each one will have just two or three small flowers open at any time. A plant this size should several big bold flowers and that is not what you get. The tiny flowers are a pale mauve, possibly lilac is good description, and each flower has five small petals. Surprisingly, although few in number and insignificant in size they stand quite clearly against the drab, dark green of he stems and leaves. In my experience vervain is not common in Dorset. It likes dry, bare patches amongst otherwise grassy places and has a preference for lime-based soils. It is more common across south eastern England than it is here further west. Verva…

Tortula muralis: the wall screw moss

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With a name of the wall screw moss (Tortula muralis) it is not hard to work out where you are likely to find this moss; 'screwed' to the top of walls!  Once a scarce species of limestone and sandstone rocks this species is now far more common in towns and cities than it is in its natural environment. The use of limestone and sandstone as building materials has meant spores have been transmitted with mined rock and quickly take hold in their new environment. Unaffected by pollution and without competition it is very, very common now on brick and stone walls everywhere. It is not the only species of moss you will find on walls but it grows in small cushions with stalks coming out of it and that, as well as its abundance, makes it easily identified. The other species that form cushions is quite rare and the other common wall mosses do not form cushions so you can be fairly sure that you are right. Tortula muralis: the wall screw moss

Hoary Plantain: enough to turn you grey

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If you look at the distribution map for hoary plantain (Plantago media) on my main page for it (see link below) you should notice something straight away if you are thinking as a naturalist should! The marker pins for sites where I have seen run along the Dorset coast and then up towards Salisbury; the limestone and chalk ridges of Dorset. Hoary plantain only occurs on calcareous soils and is a sure indicator of alkaline conditions under your feet. That in turn should set you thinking about what other plants you might see. Plantains are not the most exciting of plants lacking lovely. colourful flowers and foliage. Instead they have a crusty looking flower on a single stem with the leaves forming a rosette at the bottom of the stem almost unnoticed. The hoary plantain does fair better than its cousins in the 'looks' stakes having a largish flower with lots of light grey hairs which makes it look very distinguished! The term hoary means greyish white and so it is quite appropriat…